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Danny Castillo coaches Maycee Barber in a flyweight fight during the UFC 276 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Special Feature

DANNY CASTILLO IS STILL WORKING AS HARD AS POSSIBLE

Former WEC And UFC Lightweight Is Now One Of The Best Emerging Coaches In The Sport

Hard work alone is never going to be enough to win you a UFC world title. It’s undeniably a piece of the mysterious, unknowable mix of variables and attributes an athlete needs in order to scale the divisional ladder and have lasting success at the highest levels, but as Danny Castillo knows all too well, straightforward hard work isn’t all it takes to land on top.

“If it were up to hard work, I’d be a six-time world champion,” he says in his husky baritone, seated across from me in the lobby of the Hilton Austin Downtown. “But unfortunately, it’s not.”

Work ethic may not have produced world championship success for the now 44-year-old Sacramento resident, but it did play a key role helping Castillo enjoy a nine-year career in the Octagon, with the majority of that time split between the WEC and the UFC as one of the first members and prominent names to represent Team Alpha Male on the biggest stage in the sport.

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Castillo made the walk to the cage 27 times in his career, with 22 of those coming under the Zuffa banner, where he earned wins over Ricardo Lamas, Dustin Poirier, Tim Means, and Charlie Brenneman. A classic grinder who got the absolute most out of his skills and maximized his time by working to out-hustle everyone in the gym, he made the decision to pull the plug on his own fighting career after a split decision loss to Nik Lentz in December 2015.

Danny Castillo squares off with Paul Sass in their lightweight fight during the UFC on Fuel TV event on February 16, 2013 at Wembley Arena in London, England. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Danny Castillo squares off with Paul Sass in their lightweight fight during the UFC on Fuel TV event on February 16, 2013 at Wembley Arena in London, England. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

“The preparation and training for the fight — honing something, seeing the final product at the end and the result — is what I really enjoyed about it,” he says, reflecting on the final fight camp of his career and how it signaled to him that his time as an active competitor might be up. “My last camp, getting to practice and eating well, running all the time — and I took pride in running every day — it all just stopped being fun.

“Going into that fight, I injured my shoulder and said, ‘I’m just gonna push through; it doesn’t seem that bad,’ but after the fight, I left the cage and was like, ‘If I can’t beat the Nik Lentz’ of the UFC’ — and no offense to Nik Lentz — ‘what the f*** am I doing? The goal that I originally set to be a world champion is probably not gonna happen.’

“I was negative about it, but looking back on it, it wasn’t that tough,” he adds, chuckling. “I had Justin Buchholz by my side, and he was like, ‘Don’t make that decision right now; just relax,’ and I was like, ‘Naw man, this is it for me. I lost another split decision, close fight, I didn’t push, didn’t fight like myself.’ I just knew.”

But Castillo was never going to be one of those guys that quit fighting and left the sport behind.

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Even when he was still competing, the natural leader was always assisting others in the gym, passing on knowledge to the next generation of fighters to come through the doors at Alpha Male, which was - and remains - one of the best fight camps in the sport.

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After a stretch where the coaching situation at the gym was in flux, Castillo, Buchholz, and former Ultimate Fighter winner Chris Holdsworth emerged as the new triumvirate to lead the squad, and they enjoyed a great deal of success right out of the chute, with coaching providing “Last Call” with nerves, anticipation, and competition that many athletes crave and miss when their own careers come to an end.

“I can’t remember the first person I cornered in the UFC, but I made that walk again for the first time since I had retired and I still got the feelings, the nerves,” he says, smiling. “I was there, but I didn’t walk into the cage. That, for me, kept me from being the fighter that tries to make a comeback. I believe it saved me in a lot of ways.

“I still had MMA as a community,” he adds. “The WEC was the UFC staff at the same time, so I came up with them for 10 years, and that helped with the transition.”

While he had a brief moment where he thought about stepping into the cage once again, he viewed the COVID pandemic as his sign that it wasn’t meant to be and really doubled down on coaching.

 Team Alpha Male coaches Danny Castillo, Joey Rodriguez & Urijah Faber stand in support of Viacheslav Borshchev during the UFC Fight Night event on 5/20/23 in Las Vegas, NV (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Team Alpha Male coaches Danny Castillo, Joey Rodriguez & Urijah Faber stand in support of Viacheslav Borshchev during the UFC Fight Night event on 5/20/23 in Las Vegas, NV (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Over the last few years, he’s quietly become one of the best emerging coaching names in the sport, working with a collection of athletes that include Team Alpha Male representatives like Andre Fili, Song Yadong and Viacheslav Borshchev, as well as Maycee Barber and Jamall Emmers, reaching that point by leaning on the thing that helped him collect 17 victories over the course of his career.

“I’m very hard on myself as a coach,” begins Castillo, who wrestled collegiately at Menlo College, the same alma mater of former UFC champ Carla Esparza and his long-time teammate, Josh Emmett. “I’ve had a long list of great coaches from when I was a kid wrestling until my fight career, but Duane Ludwig was one of the best coaches I ever had because he was always prepared.

“He was at practice before me. He had his computer out about what we’re doing, and that’s something I pride myself on.

“Look,” he says, pulling out his phone and opening his Notes app, scrolling through the dozens of coaching sessions, game plans, and scouting reports he has typed out over the years. “I like to be very prepared and sometimes I feel my s*** is getting stagnant, and that’s when I cut the family off, like ‘I gotta watch film, I gotta study, I gotta watch these instructionals, all the new Gordon Ryan s***.’ I gotta make sure I’m prepared.

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“My girl is really supportive because I’ll be gone for three straight weeks,” he adds. “I’ll be home for one day, and she’s always holding it down. It’s a great feeling and she knows that I want to be Coach of the Year.”

It’s a lofty goal and he’ll face fierce competition each and every year in his quest to reach it, but Castillo is confident he knows the way to get it done.

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“Work harder, don’t complain; nose to the grind and keep developing these fighters,” he says, offering up an approach that is emblematic of why he’s had the success he’s had thus far and will continue to do so going forward. “You always want a coach that works as hard as you, if not harder, and I try to show these guys all the time — sending them clips, breaking down film — and I believe that’s why I’ve had success is because it’s the same work ethic I had as a fighter.

Maycee Barber and team pose for a portrait after her victory during the UFC 276 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Maycee Barber and team pose for a portrait after her victory during the UFC 276 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

“The other thing I have on top of that is that I saw guys do it,” continues Castillo. “I’ve been in the room with Cody Garbrandt and coached him in the early days. I’ve been around TJ Dillashaw when he was going through it. I’ve been around Urijah. I’ve been around the guys that have done it.”

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Being in those rooms elevated his skills throughout his own fighting career, and helped shape the way he has approached the next phase of his mixed martial arts journey.

And just like in his fighting days, the answer for how to keep improving and getting closer to those individual accolades and personal goals remains the same.

“Just continue to work harder,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s my answer to everything.”