UFC lightweight Danny Castillo, who fights Charlie Brenneman this weekend on the FOX Sports 1 (FS1) portion of the UFC 172: "Jones vs. Teixeira" fight card in Baltimore, Maryland, completely avoided a life of bad decisions as a youngster by turning to wrestling.
He was able to find inspiration through a career in wrestling, which sure beat hanging out in the bad part of town.
What led Castillo to make the life-altering decision?
It was his high school vice principle who brought him into the wrestling room and straightened him out, something "Last Call" cannot thank him enough for.
"I've been meaning to find that out (his name), because I owe that guy so much," Castillo told MMAmania.com. "I can't begin to think of it. I can't even tell you how much I owe that man. In fact, I think I'm going to make it a point to contact him after this fight and get in touch with him, because I would say that he saved my life."
Raised by a single parent in a bad part of town, Castillo described himself as a "jerk kid," who does not stay in contact with any of the friends he grew up with. The day he was sent to the wrestling room to avoid further punishment saved his life and the physical pain he endured while on the mats completely changed everything around.
"That one day when he told me to come in the wrestling room, I got the shit kicked out of me and it turned me into another person," Castillo admitted. "It opened a lot of doors for me and gave me an incredible work ethic and put wrestling in my life."
How did this life of wrestling transition into mixed martial arts (MMA)?
It was former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) featherweight champion and UFC bantamweight title challenger, Urijah Faber, who told Castillo to join him in Sacramento, Calif., saving the lightweight from a desk job.
"Urijah's an amazing person," declared Castillo. "He's a great friend... been friends with him for probably 20 years now. He's the guy that got me fighting. We wrestled on the same all-star team. We remained friends for a long time. We were camp counselors in college and after that, I got a desk job and we kind of lost contact. Of all things, he hit me up on MySpace and we were kind of talking trash back and forth. There was a picture of him and I think Scott Smith and some other guys, and they were all taller than him. I think I left a comment like, ‘why don't you grow a little?' Just trying to be funny because he was so short. He hit me up and I'm from Sacramento, and at the time I had a desk job in San Francisco and he said ‘ you got to come, stop by the gym. When I went down I saw his gym, saw a couple of houses and he was like, ‘Yeah, dude. I'm pretty much just living the dream. I'm still training everyday and living the great times like they were in college.' He told me it takes a certain type of person to be successful in this sport and he thought I had what it took. I was really starting to think about it. I was 27 at the time, almost 28 and I talked to my mom, friends and family and they all thought I'd be great at it. Gave my two weeks notice, packed my bags, drove back home and the rest is history. Never looked back since."
A veteran of 22 pro fights, the Team Alpha Male member has been focusing on a life outside of fighting, too. The pay scale in MMA can be a tricky one to understand, with fighters from the older generation struggling to make ends meet, even if they were the biggest stars in the world at some point or another.
The Sacramento-based fighter has just opened up his new Pilates studio, ensuring that he can be financially well off once he decides to hang up the gloves for good.
"I started the business for financial reasons, of course," Castillo admitted. "Can't fight forever. I was looking for supplemental income and a way to not have to work in the future. What I got from it was inspiration and motivation from some of these women who train so hard ... they're just doing it because they want to feel better. And that right there, I can't put a price on it."
With a clientele of over 90-percent women, "Last Call" finds inspiration by watching the students of his studio excel in fitness and participate because they want to, instead of having to do so. Castillo feels more productive than ever, helping his peers change their lives for the better.
"These last two years have been two of the most productive years of my life," Castillo said. "I just opened a hot Pilates studio, so I'm a business owner. I'm creating something that is so positive in people's lives. There's women in my studio that bust their butt everyday and they fall in love with fitness, doing something positive and we promote positivity. For me to be able to be responsible for something that's motivating so many people. I'm seeing tremendous changing in them physically and mentally. It's pretty heartwarming."
Castillo credits being sober for two years, which has helped him grow in the sport and become a much better person, as well.
"It's changed a bit over time because I've grown a lot in the sport and because of the sport. I'm a much better person. This June, I'll be sober two years, which is huge for me, because after all, my fight name is ‘Last Call.'"
The lightweight has drawn Brenneman for this weekend's fight card and in his second UFC stint, "The Spaniard" has dropped down to lightweight from welterweight, still trying to find his first victory after being cut in 2012.
"What I can expect from Charlie Brenneman is probably the same thing that everyone knows about him," Castillo said. "He's a real tough wrestler, he's a grinder, he's a gamer, he's pretty durable, so yeah, I have my hands full with Charlie. He's fought some of the biggest names in the sport: Johny Hendricks, Rick Story, Erick Silva, 'Rumble' Johnson. I'm not looking past him. I definitely have my hands cut out. This camp, I was really focusing on stopping the takedown, working on spacing and footwork. I think that's his strong point."
It will be Castillo's first fight since his controversial decision loss against Edson Barboza at UFC on FOX 9. He almost finished the Brazilian in the first round, with the opening five minutes resembling a 10-8 round. "Junior" edged Castillo by majority decision, in a result that baffled many observers.
But, the wrestler didn't waste too much time thinking about his defeat, crediting his inner strength and perseverance, as well as some time under the sun to focus on the brightness.
"I just got back in there. I'm a workhorse. I don't really take too much time off. Usually, I go on vacation for a week, I usually hit up Mexico, just try to reset and enjoy the finer things in life. It just puts it in perspective when I'm working so hard. I'm working so hard to have a great and brilliant fight future for myself. Not only that, I'm working so hard to be the number one guy in the world."
A hot topic in the Team Alpha Male headquarters is former UFC fighter-turned-coach Duane "Bang" Ludwig's departure from the team, to focus on opening up his own academy back home in Denver. Castillo said it does suck that his coach is leaving; however, he could not be happier for a person he calls a friend.
"I'm going to miss him as a friend. I think he's an amazing coach, an amazing person, an amazing friend and a great dad -- great husband, as well. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and we were real tough before he got here, and we'll be tough after he leaves."
"Bang's" last night of work takes place at UFC 173, where he will attempt to bring the team some gold in his swan song when T.J. Dillashaw meets Renan Barao for the UFC bantamweight title.
"It sucks that he's leaving but I'm not angry at all, because when I talked to him about it, his lifelong dream was to own an academy and coach fighters -- and do to everything that he's pursuing. So, it's hard for me to be upset with someone who's pursuing their goals and their dreams. He wants to move back home and do it, to be closer with his friends and family ... like, how could I be upset with that?"
With inspiration stemming from a life outside of fighting and a goal to be the best fighter in the world, Castillo will be coming full circle this weekend. He has not felt this comfortable ever, targeting a place in the record books, too.
"My attitude is great," said Castillo. "It's going to be my 10th fight in the UFC, my 18th fight with Zuffa. I wouldn't say it's getting easier, but I'm getting super comfortable. Some guys are really comfortable after their second fight. It's taken me 18 fights to be super comfortable. I guess one of the goals that I would like to have is be in the record books somewhere, to hold a stat. I'm not really too sure what that is, maybe takedown percentage, maybe that's something to have to do with ground-and-pound. Definitely, I'd like to go down in history as one of the greater fighters in the world of all-time. I want to go down as a fighter that trains super hard and was constantly improving. When it's all said and done, I want people to say he was a great champion. He was a great fighter, with an incredible work ethic."
It all starts on Saturday night.
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