clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bring me a dream: An exclusive interview with James "The Sandman" Irvin

james irvin
On July 19th, UFC middleweight champion Anderson "The Spider" Silva plans to waltz into the UFC light heavyweight division and leave its top competitors in his wake.

And that's something that James "The Sandman" Irvin is taking personally.

While Silva may be terrorizing the ranks of the UFC and beyond with a Fedoresque air of invincibility, Irvin knows a thing or two about turning out the lights.

In fact, "The Sandman" has no qualms about trading punches with the Brazilian when they face off at UFC Fight Night 14 live from the The Pearl at The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada later this month.

Of Irvin's 14 victories, ten have come by way of (T)KO, a staggering 71% - including a record-tying 8-second KO of Houston Alexander at UFC Fight Night 13.

I caught up with the California native during a brief moment of rest from his crash course in Silva 101. He spoke candidly about everything from his early days with Scott Smith and Urijah Faber, getting knocked out in his UFC debut and just how many people turned down the July 19 fight against Silva before they asked him to step up.

Check it out.

Jesse Holland ( James first and foremost thanks for taking the time to talk with us at MMAmania. Start by telling me about your days with Capitol City Fighting Alliance.

James Irvin: That was a time when a bunch of us all came together. It was me, Scott Smith, Urijah Faber and a bunch of up-and-coming fighters. We all had the same manager but we ran into problems when we tried to open a gym together. When it came time for the ownership aspect of things it kind of wrecked our friendship. We eventually all went our separate ways. Now Urijah has his own gym and Scott and I have ours under Fairtex. Scott and I are really close now. We corner each other for all our fights.

Jesse Holland ( You and Scott actually fought back in 2004 at Gladiator Challenge 22 - with you winning by knockout. Now that you're such good friends, do you make it a point to dangle that in front of him at every possible moment?

James Irvin: (Laughs) I never bring it up! That was before we ever met when we were coming up on the same circuit. He brings it up and gives me a hard time about it. He hates it because other people bring it up all the time, especially here in Sacramento. Back in the day people used to get us confused all the time so people would come up to him and say "Hey I was there when you knocked out Scott Smith!" (Laughs) He would be all bent out of shape.

Jesse Holland ( Did you make it out to the EliteXC event (Saturday Night Fights) to see Scott battle Robbie Lawler?

James Irvin: No, I didn't actually and that was so hard to watch from the sidelines. But at the time I was supposed to be fighting Rashad Evans. I went to Thailand to train and ended up breaking my foot. It was my third day in Thailand and I kicked an elbow during sparring. I trained through it but when I got back home and went to the doctor he told me it was fractured and I needed a cast. That was hard for me because I really wanted to fight Rashad.

Jesse Holland ( Well you don't get Rashad Evans but now you've got UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva.

James Irvin: Yeah that's a pretty big jump, huh? I can't think of an opponent outside of Rampage or Liddell - maybe even Fedor that would be more shocking. But hey, Dana White seems to repay the people who fight hard for him. We all know about the big bonuses he gives out. I've been lucky enough to get three of them. This is my seventh UFC fight and he knows I'm gonna go out and fight hard for him. I'm gonna stand there and trade and I'll take one to give one. In this case I might have to take two to give one.

Jesse Holland ( Can you take two from Anderson Silva? Can anyone?

James Irvin: Absolutely. He has one or two tools that are problematic but I know what they are. I think he's more of a right-handed guy but he stands in a southpaw stance. He likes to lead with that left leg and he's comfortable now. He's used to getting guys on the defensive. There's nothing he can do that I'm afraid of. I'm not afraid of him taking me down - that would be a shame, wouldn't it? He's a showman. He moved up to 205 to make a point. Maybe he feels like he ran through the 185 division and now he's gonna start picking off the 205 guys.

Jesse Holland ( And you're not taking that lightly I assume.

James Irvin: No way! If anything I kind of feel like a representative of the light heavyweights division. I want this guy to know there is a reason we have weight classes.

Jesse Holland ( Just so I have this clear - your intention is to keep this thing standing?

James Irvin: Absolutely. Even though I want to focus on Muay Thai and boxing I am training a ton of jiu-jitsu under Cassio Wernick. He actually knows Anderson and that's where we wanna use my weight to my advantage. Not to stall him out or anything but to be in a position where I can be safe and punish him from the ground. I just don't see the fight going there. He's not going to take me down, I'm not going to try and take him down, but if it gets there I have to be ready.

Jesse Holland ( In your career you have two spectacular highlight reel knockouts: One against Terry Martin at UFC 54 and one against Houston Alexander at UFC Fight Night 13. Is that something you're proud of or do you prefer a three round war where you demonstrate a broad range skills.

James Irvin: I just want put on a good fight. It's not like I go out there looking to violently end it but things are different now. There may have been a time where my performance was important, making sure I showed what I'm made of. But now I want to win, I want to be a contender. That's what matters now. You haven't seen the best James Irvin yet, but you will. I've only been doing this for a solid five years. The best is yet to come.

Jesse Holland ( So what was life like before mixed martial arts?

James Irvin: I played team sports all through high school and college. When my football scholarship ended in 2003 I spent the next year and a half doing construction. It was a family trade so I was swinging a hammer to make a living. I had my own truck, my own crew and the money was great. But there was something inside me, that bug that had bitten me so long ago that wouldn't allow me to stop being an athlete. I went to an local MMA show with some of my construction buddies and I knew right away that it was for me. I was still in good physical condition and I knew that I could compete based on my years of sports training and commitment. The next day I was thumbing through the yellow pages looking for a Gracie jiu-jitsu school.

Jesse Holland ( And the rest is history. Do you have a significant other?

James Irvin: Oh yeah, I'm married. She's wonderful. We're a team and we work together. She helps me with my career and handles all of my personal business. She takes good care of me and makes it so I only have to worry about training and competing. She's my rock when it comes to this and without her I'd be in a lot of trouble.

Jesse Holland ( Is she able to watch you fight?

James Irvin: Absolutely. She may have to take Valium or knock back a few drinks but she's there and she's watching, probably getting rowdy.

Jesse Holland ( What is your pre-fight ritual? Nervous? Stoic?

James Irvin: When I first started it was the most nerve-wracking experience. And once the adrenaline kicks in - forget about it. My first few fights I don't even remember. Not just the fights, I don't even remember getting there or leaving there! It's all a blur. Once you start fighting consistently and especially when you get quality opponents you find yourself. The nervousness is now a third of what it was. But that's how you find your confidence, in your training. Look at Urijah Faber. That guy walks around supremely confident. Why? Because he knows he put in the work. He knows that there is nothing he is gonna see from any opponent that he hasn't already trained his ass off for. That's the place fighters try to get to before a fight.

Jesse Holland ( Your UFC debut was a knockout loss to Mike Kyle at UFC 51. Was that hard to deal with? Was it like "Wow, I finally make it to the UFC, the big show and I get KTFO in the first round?"

James Irvin: Not only that but it was my first loss, period. That was my eighth fight and I don't think I had even been hurt in a fight prior to that. I wasn't controlled or taken down, hell I hadn't even been out of the first round. Then to get completely knocked out well, he might as well have hit me with a baseball bat because I don't even remember it. But you know I have to say I trained harder than I ever had for that fight and I can't make any excuses. It just wasn't my night. How can I complain? I had such good luck up until then. Everybody loses.

Jesse Holland ( What is you contract status with the UFC?

James Irvin: I have one more fight on my contract after this fight (with Silva) so usually we start negotiating after that. I'm sure it will weigh in my favor that they had four people turn down this fight with Anderson before I accepted.

Jesse Holland ( Wait a second, four people were offered this fight and said no?

James Irvin: I was very surprised myself and to be honest I was kind of let down by one or two of the names. I thought they would have done very well in this fight.

Jesse Holland ( Wow, who was the most surprising name?

James Irvin: Uh, well most of them are buddies of mine so I'm gonna leave that be. I'm sure it will come out over time. Not that it really matters, all that matters is who said yes. I didn't hesitate for a second. It's funny I had actually talked to (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva a week prior to all this and I told him I want to fight Wanderlei Silva and he told me Wanderlei wasn't fighting until December. I told him, in fact I begged him for a top ten opponent. A week later I'm fighting Anderson Silva.

Jesse Holland ( You know what they say, be careful what you wish for.

James Irvin: (Laughs) Right. You know what though I think the people he fought, I don't think we've seen the best from his opponents. Look at Rich Franklin. He was clearly sick in their first fight. I've heard some crazy things about how sick he really was. I don't think we saw the same Dan Henderson that knocked out Wanderlei Silva. I don't know, they didn't look like they had their best stuff against him.

Jesse Holland ( What is your opinion of the UFC's decision to run a last-minute card on July 19 with the intention of cutting into the Affliction: Banned pay-per-view audience. Does that hurt the fans or the fighters? Both? Neither?

James Irvin: It can only be good for the sport. Hardcore fans will watch them both anyway. As far as I'm concerned the more fighting you have on, the more people you have watching. Every time you have people watching you attract more and more fans. That's all I care about. Affliction put together a great card and Tom (Atencio) knows it. He's a friend of mine and he doesn't have any hard feelings about it. Why should he? He knows guys like me are getting a tremendous opportunity also. In the end Dana is my boss and as far as I'm concerned he's the best boss I ever had.

Jesse Holland ( You've had some strange outcomes in a few of your fights. Aside from tearing your MCL against Thiago Silva at UFC 71, your first fight back finds you winning via DQ against Luis Arthur Cane at UFC 79. What happened there?

James Irvin: That fight was going great. Especially after I found out that he punches like a bitch. Once I figured that out - I had no problems. He was talking so much trash about how he was going to be in my face and all he did was play the counter game. I was dominating him and the one time he tries to take me down to avoid striking with me he knees me in the face as I'm getting back to my feet. He was calling me a C-level actor after that and said he still hasn't fought in the UFC because I don't count.

Jesse Holland ( So no Christmas card for Luis this year?

James Irvin: Man that guy's a dirtbag. I don't have any grudges towards any fighters but one of these days I'm gonna catch up to him and beat the piss out of him. I kept trying to call Jason Lambert before their fight at UFC 85 to tell him he punches like a bitch but I couldn't get a hold of him.

Jesse Holland ( You also had that No Contest against Bobby Southworth in Strikeforce where the cage blew apart.

James Irvin: Yeah we got hurt on that one. But unfortunately I can't talk about it. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement that it was a malfunction with the cage and it restricts me from talking about it for a few years.

Jesse Holland ( And it happened so soon in the fight.

James Irvin: I know! I came running at him with a hook and he kind of held on to it, we pushed against the cage and it just flew open and dumped us on the floor - right down the metal stairs. You know there is a guy there and his one job is to make sure the cage door is shut. He better be in trouble with somebody after that!

Jesse Holland ( And why was Bobby celebrating?

James Irvin: He's another dirtbag. He jumps up and gets back into the ring, running around with his arms in the air all celebrating like he did something spectacular. Ever since then he's running his mouth. For what?

Jesse Holland ( On the positive side, who is a guy you kind of emulated or looked up to when you were coming up in your career?

James Irvin: Wow that's a tough one because I've been fortunate to have trained with so many good guys. Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Frank Trigg. I guess if I had to pick one guy who I kind of looked up to it would be Quinton Jackson. We spent a lot of time together in Los Angeles when he was coming up in PRIDE. He's so laid back but man that guy can fight.

Jesse Holland ( Should I assume the nickname "The Sandman" comes from your ability to put guys to sleep?

James Irvin: Actually that name followed me from high school football. I blew my ankle out early in the season and had to sit out. In one of the last games of the season I was finally able to play and on the first kickoff of the first game back I knocked someone out cold on the play. One of the coaches gave me that name and later on that same coach was at the same junior college I was so the name followed me there and it's kind of stuck with me ever since. I didn't even want it but Rampage was telling me "You gotta have a nickname!" My trainer was saying the same thing so I kept it.

Jesse Holland ( Is there any special significance to your tattoos?

James Irvin: Most of my stuff leans towards pirates. I've always had a thing for pirates. As a kid I kind of felt like one. Growing up was hard. We moved every three or four months. I've had 30-35 different homes growing up. Always on the go, never able to make any lasting relationships. My Mom was a single parent and she couldn't stay clean at the time. It was hard trying to live on social security and welfare. I had a very different outlook on things then. Moving around was a way of life.

Jesse Holland ( Well you've done alright for yourself in spite of it. Tell me, aside from winning a world title, what goals do you have in this sport?

James Irvin: Frank Trigg once told me that I should have two goals in this sport: Become a world class striker and have a black-belt in jiu-jitsu. I feel like I am a world class striker and in time I will become a black belt. I want to have it by the time I'm 35. That gives me enough time to do it and do it right. Outside of that Scott and I opened the Ultimate Training Center and we've had that for eight years now and we have about 370 members.

Jesse Holland ( Do you have any spare time nowadays? What do you do for fun?

James Irvin: Not much. I'm focused right now I don't get much free time. I do try to go bowling once and a while but I'm almost afraid to do anything these days. The last thing I want to do is have to call Dana White and tell him I blew my knee out bowling.

Jesse Holland ( Before we go, can you sum things up for us regarding your fight against Anderson Silva?

James Irvin: I'm not going to let Dana White down, I'm not going to let Anderson Silva down and most of all I'm not going to let the fans down. You're going to see the best James Irvin, the absolute best I can be.

Jesse Holland ( Well that's all any of us can ask for and we wish you the best of luck. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us and we'll see you on the 19!

James Irvin: Thank you!