As Danny Castillo approaches his 19th fight between the UFC and WEC and having just celebrated his 35th birthday, he knows the time is ticking on his opportunity to make a run at the top of the lightweight division.
Castillo got a late start in the sport after competing in wrestling in college and didn’t have his first fight until he was 28 years old. He made it to the WEC after only five fights and has been with Zuffa ever since.
His nickname ‘Last Call’ was given to him in college when he used to be able to party all night and then rise the next morning for runs with the wrestling team and still finish in the top three every time. Drinking was a big piece of what made Castillo the life of the party and also cost him some of the dedication needed to become a champion as a fighter.
So two years ago, Castillo sipped his last drop of alcohol and hasn’t touched it since. Instead of frittering away his money on useless toys, he invested his win bonuses into a hot pilates studio that he runs in Sacramento. And his fight career has turned around as well.
Castillo is 4-2 in his last six fights and the two losses both come with a story attached to them. He fell to Michael Johnson after beating him from one side of the Octagon to the other in the first round, only to see the former Ultimate Fighter finalist come back with a huge Hail Mary to win in the second. Castillo was also the victim of a judging disaster when he fought Edson Barboza last December in a bout that most scored as a draw after three rounds.
Now as he approaches his first ever UFC co-main event at UFC 177, Castillo knows that if he’s ever going to make a run at the top 10, now is the time. Very few fighters are successful in the latter half of their 30’s and even though his body may feel younger than his most recent birthday, he knows the sand in the hourglass is going to eventually run out.
"I need to step my game up and I need to crack that top 10. I can’t be No. 30 and all my buddies are No. 1 or No. 2 in the world and I fight with them everyday! I know I don’t have too much time left in the sport. I want to get to fight week and smile and have fun because I know there’s not too many fights left in me," Castillo told FOX Sports.
"I’ll be 35 in August so I just want to put together a nice little run and be knocking at the door. You give me that win over Edson Barboza and I’ve won my last four or five fights. With MMA, anything can happen and now it’s time for me to really pull away and show how really good I am."
Since coming to the UFC, Castillo has only been shut down in one fight and on that occasion he was out wrestled for three rounds by Jacob Volkmann over the course of three rounds. Outside of that performance, Castillo has come close to winning every fight he’s been involved in, but almost doesn’t count when it comes to rankings or title shots.
Here’s your soundbite — with eight weeks preparation I could beat anyone in the world.
Deep down, Castillo knows that he has enough untapped potential to unleash to be a serious force at 155-pounds. Some may say he’s crazy, but Castillo has no doubt whatsoever in his mind that if he gets the chance, he could be a champion in the UFC.
"Here’s your soundbite — with eight weeks preparation I could beat anyone in the world," Castillo said without hesitation. "I, 100-percent believe that and it took Duane ‘Bang’ Ludwig to bring that out in me. Things have changed. I’m a completely different fighter."
In the past, partying and drinking probably cost Castillo a couple of fights. A couple of other losses were due to inexperience. And even in some of his wins, Castillo fought safe because he was more concerned with paying the bills when the fight was over than climbing the rankings or gaining favor with matchmakers and UFC president Dana White.
Now that he’s sober, 18 fights into his UFC/WEC career and no longer as concerned about money, Castillo is free to go out to the Octagon and do it all just for the love of the fight.
"It’s tough to be a fighter because your whole life revolves around you winning fights. There’s a few fighters who get a flat rate, but for me I get my show money and I get my win money. There was a lot of pressure. You lose a fight you have to change your lifestyle," Castillo said.
"I’m not really worried about money too much, I mean money’s always something but I have a business that’s growing and making money for me on the side. So the stress that I had to make sure I was making money fighting safe and winning those fights, that’s not really on me anymore. I can go out there and enjoy it and perform."
Being a co-main event on a UFC pay-per-view is something every fighter dreams of achieving when competing in the Octagon and Castillo has finally arrived. Now he just has to prove he belongs there.
"This is my time," Castillo said. "This is a great fight for me. I don’t feel I get the credit I deserve. I’ve fought some of the best fighters in the world. When I fought (Anthony) Pettis, I had been training 13 months maybe total. I fought Anthony Pettis and took him down two or three times in the first round and then got caught. That’s something that happens and that’s something that changed me. It motivated me to get better and be better."