Bleacher Report caught up with James “The Sandman” Irvin to talk about his upcoming fight with Alessio Sakara this Sunday on UFC Live on Versus, Anderson Silva, drug addiction, debuting at middleweight, and his battle with injuries that have kept him sidelined since the summer of 2008. Now that Irvin is completely healthy and ready to go, people are going to see a new Sandman ready to test his skills in a division with plenty of interesting fights to choose from.
JS: How did you get started in MMA?
Irvin: I played football up through college so I’ve always been an athletic guy. Eventually I started getting tired of team sports because some players weren't giving their all during training and games. Once I got back home, me and some friends went to a local MMA show one weekend. I was hooked. Seriously, I flipped through the phone book looking for a Jiu-Jitsu school the following Monday.
JS: Who are some of your heroes or people you admire in MMA?
Irvin: There’s been different guys at different stages of my career. In the beginning there was Randy Couture. I was fortunate enough to train with him in Oregon after a couple of fights. I don’t know if it was so much as looking up to those guys, but more of what I was learning from them. Just seeing the level they trained. Quinton Jackson was one of the first fighters I really related to. He was the first person that had a similar background as me: He played a lot of team sports and wasn’t really into martial arts growing up until he stumbled onto it. He was probably the first person I looked up to; he kind of laid a path for me.
JS: Who gave you the nickname the "Sandman", did you come up with that?
Irvin: No, I never really wanted a nickname and I can’t stand it when people give themselves nicknames. It was my freshman year playing football and I knocked a person out on the kickoff team, it wasn’t something I was trying to do. It stuck with me throughout my time playing football in college. It started to wear off when I moved back home until I had my first knockout in MMA. It was like it was there waiting for me, it was something I couldn’t shake off. But, now I appreciate it because people like it.
JS: If you had your choice of opponent, who would want to fight right now?
Irvin: It’s funny how things change in your career. When I first started I just wanted to prove I could fight, then I wanted to be in the UFC. For awhile it was about making money. Now it’s about being in the top ten and being mentioned with some of the top guys. I’m still a couple of fights away from fighting guys like Chuck Liddell or Wanderlei Silva. If I had to choose, I wouldn’t mind fighting Patrick Cote or Chris Leben.
JS: You and Cote would be an exciting fight.
Irvin: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to fight him. There’s a lot of good matches for me at 185, that’s the main reason why I decided to drop down. There’s a lot of guys I want to fight in the 185-pound division, Michael Bisping, it’s great. Alessio Sakara is probably the best matchup I’ve had in the UFC.
JS: Are you concerned with the weight-cut?
Irvin: No, I’ve been doing this for a pretty long time now. I’ve always wanted to fight at 185, but I just couldn’t get out of 205. My manager wanted me to fight at 205 and so did the UFC. I’m in great shape right now. I’ve had to concentrate a lot on cardio when I was rehabbing my knee so I took a lot of muscle off and I’m a lot faster because of it. I feel like more of a martial artist and less of a bodybuilder. I’ve been about 200lbs for the last month so it shouldn’t be a problem.
JS: You mentioned potential matchups as being your main reason for dropping down to middleweight, were there any other reasons?
Irvin: My first fight in the UFC was at heavyweight, it was my first loss too. I was actually knocked out. I do a lot better when I have length, I’m more of a “rangy” fighter. I’m one of the taller guys in the middleweight division. There’s still some great fighters that have advantages over me. I haven’t been doing Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai my whole life like some of these guys, but what I can do is make sure I’m one of the biggest and strongest guys in the division.
JS: Plus you want a rematch with Anderson Silva right?
Irvin: Um, no I don’t. I honestly don’t think I would deserve one. I’d have to win 10 fights in a row to ever get a chance at fighting Anderson again, he’s a legend. That guy is on a whole different level; I could train my whole life and probably never be able to compete with a guy like that.
JS: Can you touch on that fight a little bit? How did it come about, how did you see the fight going and what would you have done differently knowing what you know now?
Irvin: Well, I took it on five weeks notice after an injury; I was supposed to fight Rashad Evans on short notice. I had an injury in Thailand so I had to pull out of that fight. Everybody started turning down the fight with Anderson Silva, I was the fifth person they offered it to. I was ecstatic, I wanted to fight him for sure. To fight someone like that in my career was huge, it was a bonus and there was no way I was turing down that fight.
On the fight going differently, he just set me up for a trap. He’s a wise fighter; he knew I liked to kick. If you watch, he did the same thing to Forrest Griffin, he caught his kick and punched him in the face. You set that up when you come out in south-paw stance and I’m kicker so when you see someone in that stance you kick high or kick low at their lead leg. My Muay Thai came through and I kicked; he caught it and punched me in the face.
When I’ve been knocked out, it’s usually been by big shots but this one was right down the pipe. I was out before I fell. I don’t remember falling down or covering my face. I should of stuck with the game plan and just thrown hands.
JS: After the fight you tested positive for the painkillers, methadone and oxymorphone, when did you start taking pills?
Irvin: It was when I fought Thiago Silva and blew my knee out in 2007. I mean, I’ve never smoked weed, I had never done prescription drugs, and I never knew what withdrawal was before I entered the UFC. That was the first injury of my life. I didn’t know I had an addictive personality, but you get knee surgery and have to use those things to push through it. I kept on getting injured and having surgery, one thing led to another. I didn’t want to pull out of fights so I needed to used them. Before I knew it, those things had I hold on me and I was taking them everyday just so I could wake up and train.
It wasn’t like I was using those things to go out and party on the weekends. I got these prescriptions from my doctor just so I could train and work. That’s not an excuse at all. At the time of the Anderson Silva fight, I was using them every day but it was a blessing in disguise because since then I’ve had the best year of my life.
Especially this last six months being clean, it’s been the best time of my life in and outside of fighting with my family and my wife. I can’t thank the athletic commission and the UFC enough for suspending me. It was like I was asking to get suspended because I knew I was gonna fail that test, win or lose. It really was a blessing in disguise because I needed to step back and take control of this problem, it really was a problem.
JS: You’ve been out of commission lately with a bad string of injuries. You were supposed to fight Drew McFedries at UFC 98 and then Wilson Gouveia at UFC 102. Are your injuries completely healed, are you finally 100 percent?
Irvin: I torn my MCL before the McFedries fight, then I completely blew out all the ligaments in my knee again before the Gouveia fight because the first surgery wasn’t done correctly. I had to get that done all over again. I’m finally 100 percent. This will be the first UFC that I haven’t had any injuries going into a training camp. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t win this fight.
JS: How frustrating is it for a fighter to be sidelined for that long? How do you stay on track, stay hungry, stay in shape?
Irvin: It’s very frustrating. Luckily I’m a gym owner with Scott Smith so I was still able to dive into that and help train students while I had my knee brace on. It’s hard though to go through a training camp, get injured, sit on the couch for two or three weeks, and watch all your progress go down the drain. The last thing you want to do is to look at yourself in the mirror and physically see it, watch your abs disappear. It really makes you appreciate the times you are in shape and are completely healthy like I am now. I’m very excited to be in the shape I’m in right now and to have my knee at 100 percent.
JS: Are you worried at all about ring rust?
Irvin: No, I train as hard as I fight. Training is the hard part, fighting ends up being the easier part. I practice hard each day, so I’m not really worried about the ring rust.
JS: So you won’t pull a Tito on us?
Irvin: (laughs) Oh man, that was horrible. I felt bad for the guy, I think he lost so many fans. Everybody, including myself, buying pay-per-views because that it was supposedly the best camp ever, it was the new Tito Ortiz. To lose the fight and act that way, he should have never said anything. I heard there was more to it. He was wearing those sunglasses during interviews the week before his fight because he injured his neck pretty bad. I heard the UFC ask him to fight anyways, so good for him, but I think he lost some fans over that.
JS: How was your training camp for Sakara?
Irvin: This has been the most fun I’ve had training. I’ve learned the most for this one. At the age I’m finally at, I’m really taking advantage of learning instead of being a robot and just doing what I’m told. Now when my coaches tell me to do something, I want to know why first. I’m really confident, I had a great camp. I’m really excited for people to see what I look like at 185, drug-free, with my knee completely healed. I kind of feel bad for Sakara because there’s no film on how I will be on March 21st, I’m just a new person.
JS: It seems around your age, 30-32, things just seem to mix perfectly mentally and physically for fighters.
Irvin: Yeah absolutely, 30-35 are your best years. Just look at the Randy Coutures and Chuck Liddells, those guys are monsters. You hear about how Randy tells everyone that he’s still improving at his age and that’s one of the greatest things about this sport. You don’t have to be as explosive as you were at 21.
JS: So are we looking at the next Randy Couture? How long do you plan on fighting?
Irvin: Well, 40 is the cut-off for me even if my body is still healthy. It used to be 35 and that still might be a possibility. I’ve always wanted to be a police officer or a sheriff in LA County. Like half my family are cops: My uncles, my brothers, my grandparents were, and my other half swings hammers and builds houses. I’ve done that already and I don’t look forward to ever swinging a hammer again. I love what I do right now, I love the paydays. You’d be crazy to walk away from it now. Like I said, I really love what I do and I’ll keep doing it until my body says no or until I quit having fun.
JS: Let’s get back to your opponent, Alessio Sakara, you’re both very skilled strikers. Do you plan on standing with him or do you want to showcase some of your ground game?
Irvin: I have no plans on making this a ground fight. I mean the UFC put this fight together for a reason. There’s nothing worse than watching Kimbo and Houston Alexander dance around each other and not ever really let loose. Sakara is coming from American Top Team so you never know what’s up their sleeves. Also, Sakara is really becoming a good fighter. If he wants to put me on my back, I’m comfortable from that position but I’m a powerful guy to keep down so we’ll see what happens.
JS: So do you plan on regaining your fastest knockout record from Todd Duffee?
Irvin: (laughs) Can you believe that? I thought having the fastest knockout at eight seconds and the fastest second round knockout at nine second against Terry Martin would keep me in the record books for the rest of my life.
JS: What should your fans expect from a healthy James Irvin and what are some of your goals for 2010?
Irvin: A completely new James Irvin: stronger, faster, just a more in control James Irvin. My goal is to go undefeated in 2010 and be in the top of my division, to win three fights in a row.