It was the definitive James Irvin moment.After spending most of the prevous five minutes getting banged and cuffed around by Hector Ramirez during the opening round of their bout at UFC 65, Irvin had survived a lengthy rear-naked choke attempt, been mauled against the cage, and looked on the edge of defeat as Ramirez, a skilled wrestler, kept giving him the business.

But as the seconds wound down in that opening round, he worked himself off the ground, torso grinding against the cage, inch-by-inch, pummeling, pinching, pushing and pulling himself back to his feet, taking shots from behind the whole time, and finally, he unloaded a massive spinning back fist.

It missed.

The round ended.

But “Sandman” walked back to his corner, seemingly invigorated by the fact that he was still in it, and had a chance to keep swinging.

In the second, the two continued to wage what would later be awarded the “Fight of the Night” on the November card, tossing wild haymakers with back and forth tie-ups and grappling. Irvin finally ended the bout with a powerful right jab that floored Ramirez and ended the bout, scuttling the implications of the bad fortune that seemed imminent just moments earlier in that near-disaster of an opening round.

As long as he can still bang, Irvin feels he’s got a chance against anybody. And with his powerful strikes and willingness to take risks – such as the savage, highlight-reel flying knee that stopped Terry Martin after another similar slow opening-round start -- he’s going to keep throwing, always looking for the opening that can win the fight.

Facing Chute Boxe’s Thiago Silva next Saturday at UFC 71, Irvin, 12-3 overall, and 2-2 in the UFC, knows exactly what he’s got in front of him in the unbeaten Brazilian, who carries a reputation as the prototypical banger with nine victories under his belt.

“He’s a Chute Boxe guy who comes out real hot and heavy,” Irvin said. “(UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva put me in with this guy for a reason – it’s gonna be a bloodbath. I think he has the attitude. I’ve watched his fights on YouTube. He’s not real technical, but everything (he throws) has bad intentions in there.”

Mike Roberts manages the Capital City Fighting Alliance, whose biggest names include Irvin, UFC vet Scott Smith, and Urijah Faber, World Extreme Cagefighting 145-lb. champ. He believes Silva-Irvin should be exciting given the style matchup. This is not going to be a poor man’s version of the Abu Dhabi tournament, where grappling matches can go up to twenty minutes as competitors vie for the slightest advantages that can earn a win on points.

“I think it's gonna be a great fight,” Roberts said. “Both guys bring it. People can say whatever they want to about James, but they can’t say he's ever been in a boring fight.”

Indeed, an online scouting report on Silva jibes with that. He is aggressive, no-nonsense, and throws a lot of leather, often times ditching a cautionary approach and tossing out two-fisted combinations. Unbeaten and with a top-notch camp behind him in Chute Boxe, it might be a bad style matchup for some guys, until you look at Irvin’s career and realize that most of his off-nights have stemmed from people forcing a ground fight instead of trading with him.

In the past, Irvin has trained with a who’s-who of fighters, including Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Brandon Vera, and Quinton Jackson, among others. Based out of Sacramento, Irvin, Smith and Faber recently opened a mixed marital arts gym which allows them to teach classes and offer private lessons, something Irvin believes could be a career for him when his fighting days are done.

But for all that increased stability compared to a few years ago when he was just getting by, he’s still always on the lookout for places to train.

If you’re a name fighter with an upside, the paydays are better than just a few years ago, Irvin says, who left a well-paying construction job early in his career to train full-time, with a decidedly uncertain outcome that only recently has become financially viable. Now, if you’re training full-time with a couple wins in the big show, you can afford to drive a new car, eat where you want. But the bottom line is you still have to hustle to get training time in that will keep you afloat in a sport where the talent level is constantly rising.

For this fight, he’s ventured to Big Bear to train with Jackson (who challenges Chuck Liddell for the light heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 71), and spent sixteen days in Thailand working at the Fairtex Academy. Now back in Sacramento for the final days of training, he spends a couple days a week sparring with middleweight boxer Eric Regan – a former kickboxing champ as well.

And while the altitude of Big Bear has been an attraction for many fighters looking to improve their cardio, Irvin said that Thailand is even tougher to the unacclimated.

“This training camp has gone so perfect, it’s scary. I’ve got no injuries, and I started 13 weeks out. In Thailand it’s 100 percent humidity. I’ve trained at Big Bear and it didn’t compare to the humidity. It was ten times harder to breathe there,” he said.

No doubt, the diminutive-but-durable Thais enjoyed running the big American through their paces, in that brutal local fashion that explains all the dented tree trunks surrounding local gyms.

“Even after two weeks I couldn’t do rounds the way they wanted me to. They train at a different level. They would start out rounds with ten kicks with each leg, then at the minute rest you gotta do pushups. Then at the second round it’s twenty kicks and twenty pushups,” he recalled. “You know how Thai guys are. It’s 100 miles per hour. Thai guys kick everything. Cars. Desks. My kicks have gone through the roof.”

A recent addition to the Capital City Fighting Alliance has been Mark Munoz, who was a two-time All-American wrestler at collegiate powerhouse Oklahoma State, winning the NCAA 197-lb. title in 2001. Munoz makes his MMA debut in July, and he and Irvin are complimenting each other nicely working out in Sacramento.

Irvin’s striking is a great introduction for Munoz to prepare for MMA, while Munoz’ numbing ground skills keep Irvin constantly working on his grappling – the weak point in his game he knows he has to shore up. And during his week in Big Bear training with Jackson, he focused on working off the cage, which is where opponents of late feel they can neutralize him before taking him down. Stephan Bonnar used that tactic before taking Irvin down and submitting him in their January 2006 bout, and Irvin still admits it’s frustrating to lose that way without a single meaningful exchange on the feet.

“That's almost all I did, keeping them from getting me on the fence,” Irvin said. “I’ve worked extensively on that for this fight. Munoz showed me some tricks. Before it was more survival not to get taken down.”

So what’s it like wrestling with a former NCAA champion in Munoz?

“In terms of just wrestling, he's technically the most frustrating guy I’ve rolled with. It's like your dad whipping your ass when you're 8 or 9 years old,” Irvin said. “He'll grab you and rag doll you. It's kinda discouraging, someone your same size and same age, and he just makes you feel helpless. As soon as we have more MMA tools it’s a different fight, but he’s so smothering and strong. (When competing) he has attitude, and he’s grumpy, and I love the guy. It’s
the perfect trade. We’ll do 30-45 minutes of wrestling and then kickbox.”

Having worked out with Couture, Ortiz and Jackson, that’s high praise. And that’s indicative of Irvin, who’s never let his shortcomings prevent him from seeking out those who could help him improve. He offered some assessments of the top fighters and what’s he’s taken from training with them, as well as where he thinks he stacks up in the 205-pound mix.

“Quinton is by far the strongest. He is a freak. He will bend down, all back and no leg muscles, and he can high-crotch you from anywhere. Tito's size, I dunno how he makes 205. He's big and powerful, with stick legs, Randy's kinda all of these. He’s so well-rounded,” Irvin said. “Brandon Vera is probably the only person I’ve ever really see go after Randy (wrestling) in training.

There were going at it once, each one of them was getting airborne. They were just crashing into each other.”

Size has been another battle for Irvin, who used to be a solid 230-pound heavyweight before dropping to 205 in August 2005, where he knocked out Martin with the flying knee. Like every fighter that cuts weight, he’s found himself caught having the find the balance between getting as big as possible before taking off pounds, and not having to take off too much.

A week before the Ramirez match, he stepped on the scale and was 233. It was too much.
Over the course of the three days before the weigh-in, he took off the pounds, and it wasn’t pretty -- so painful, in fact, that he’s coming in lighter this time, before cutting maybe ten pounds to make the 205 limit.

“The last three days I cut ten, ten and almost ten pounds. This is something I hear a lot of, but guys are not cutting 20 pounds in a day, or they aren't cutting weight the way they say they are. It wasn't good. I still haven't got it down,” he recalled. “Since I came down to 205, I haven't had fight where I felt I hit as a heavyweight and my muscles weren't a little burnt out. I 'm walking now at 215, I plan on being 210 when I get to Vegas. I feel really strong right now, and this is how I wanna feel on fight night. I don't want to (be overweight) and risk cutting 20 pounds.”

But despite the pain and hazy visions of endless time on the stationary bike, wearing a rubber suit, or trying to escape the withering hell of a sauna door only to have your teammate keep it closed, every fighter wants that extra advantage of a little more size in the scrap.

“In the Ramirez fight it paid off big. Hector told me he couldn’t believe how strong I was. I fought at 226, and I gained ten pounds in the first hour after weigh-ins,” Irvin said. “I was 223 when I went to bed that night. It gets to the point where it just sucks you dry. I could barely think of my damn last name. I put so much weight on I almost gassed myself. I remember thinking as soon as we hit the ground I was tired.”

While his fighting career has meant a better living thanks to improved purses and sponsorships, he’s also found a new love teaching MMA. In fact, he enjoys it so much that he’s pretty sure it’ll play a significant role in his life after his fighting days are behind him.

“I really do enjoy it. Classes are packed. We have 30-35 people in my classes and are gonna have to start turning people away,” he said of his time at Ultimate Fitness, which opened a few months ago in downtown Sacramento. “I think it's the way I teach my classes. I take all the things I like, and I’ve had some of best coaches on the West Coast, and put it all together in my own way. I don't hold back. Lots of coaches teach watered down stuff. They save it for privates where they make their money. I teach stuff I might've learned that morning. People are pouring into our classes, and then they see us going to fight, and we’re teaching what we’re preaching. People are eating it up. That's something I'm looking forward to falling back on. I have to turn down privates right now. It's something I'm so passionate about. In this sport, if you lose two fights in a row, you’re on a part-time job.”

Irvin and Smith hope to open similar gyms in the Sacramento area later this year to meet the demand for MMA training that’s grown as the sport explodes on the national scene.

In a 205-lb. division stacked with talent, Irvin is the first to assess his own place in the rankings as a work in progress. But that’s fine with him. He’d like a couple more big knockout wins before talking about fighting the bigger names like Tito Ortiz, or for the title, whoever’s holding it. There’s also rising star Rashad Evans, who faces Ortiz July 7. In short, there are plenty of targets right now.

“That should be a good fight,” Irvin said of Ortiz-Evans. “I would think Tito would win because he's a gigantic version of Rashad, but I heard through the grapevine that Rashad is growing leaps and bounds in his MMA training. He’s doing this and that. He’s not sitting back and doing the same thing. But we’ll see.”

What he wants is someone to stand and bang with him. Somebody that will be on the feet long enough to be on the receiving end of the bombs he tossed at Ramirez. The bombs that led Jackson to tell this writer a couple years ago that, after sparring with him, led “Rampage” to assert that Irvin hit as hard as anybody in the 205-lb. division.

“I think it has to do with the way I win,” Irvin said of his future prospects. “The flying knee knockout, those highlight-reel KO’s get a lot of attention, instead of holding people down. To tell the truth, I know I’m not quite there yet. Chuck Liddell has ten years of experience I can’t make up. I need at least a few more years. I’m humble enough to say I can't beat those guys. Sure, I could catch ‘em with a hot one. But there's plenty of guys I want to fight right now. I'd love to fight Forrest (Griffin). I'd love to rematch Bonnar. There’s a few guys around to smash.”

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