UFC’s Birchak hoping to cultivate MMA growth among southern Arizona youth

TUCSON — “Not twice.”

Those were the words shouted by professional MMA fighter and Tucson native Anthony Birchak as he pushed through a strength and conditioning session at the Performance Lab here in preparation for his next battle inside the UFC Octagon, a July 7 fight against Brazilian Dileno Lopes.

The “twice” Birchak wants no part of is a second consecutive loss to a Brazilian opponent. Birchak’s upcoming UFC Fight Night 90 fight in Las Vegas against Lopes follows a loss to Lopes’ countryman, Thomas Almeida, in November in Sao Paulo.

But on top of that pursuit, Birchak has an eye on his financial future outside of the Octagon, with plans to open his own gym, an outlet of the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu franchise, in the heart of his hometown.

“As a professional athlete, obviously I have to make a living and support my family,” Birchak said. “But I also have to give back and set the next generation up for success. Hopefully this gym is the start of me opening up like 30 businesses in town and really building Tucson up.”

10th Planet Jiu Jitsu gyms specialize in jiu jitsu training for the modern day MMA landscape, according to the company’s website. A no-gi style is at the core of 10th Planet’s offshoot style of jiu jitsu, a martial art developed in the mid-19th century with the intent of defeating an armed opponent while using no weapons.

The gi, a two-piece garment consisting of loose-fitting pants and a jacket, can quickly become a crutch to today’s mixed martial artist. Grabbing an opponent’s gi to improve a position is common throughout traditional jiu jitsu. However, different technique is necessary in MMA because gis are not worn in the sport.

Anthony Birchak works with the battle ropes prior to his July 7 fight in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)

Anthony Birchak works with the battle ropes prior to his July 7 fight in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)

The Performance Lab where Birchak was working out is not yet open to the public as its owner, Chris Gomez, who is also Birchak’s strength and conditioning coach, puts the finishing touches on the facility. Gomez is excited to be sharing the experience of building a business alongside his good friend.

“It’s a really cool time,” Gomez said. “Both of us are opening gyms at the same time and going through the process together, it makes things easier.”

The decision to open his own gym was initially difficult for Birchak.

“I was hesitant at first because I didn’t want to leave my coach at the time hanging,” Birchak said. “But then I started thinking about how I was putting money in everyone else’s pocket, but here I am driving a … Ford Escort and a beat-up truck. After that, I said, ’Let’s do it.’”

Birchak’s 10th Planet will the fourth Arizona outlet in the global gym enterprise’s 70-facility portfolio. The other 10th Planets in Arizona are in Mesa, Yuma and on the grounds of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

While Birchak plans to train for his UFC fights at his new gym, he said he also wants the facility to be an opportunity for young people in the Tucson area.

“Hopefully some of the defiant kids will come to the gym,” Birchak said. “If they want to be defiant, they can come be defiant in there.”

Birchak hopes his gym can tap into what he says is an underdeveloped talent pipeline in the Tucson area.

“There’s a lot of talented kids around here, but they don’t really have a place to go,” Birchak said. “Southern Arizona doesn’t really have built-up performance centers. There’s places out in California, Las Vegas, Phoenix, even Albuquerque. Hopefully I can be a part of building up Tucson.”

Casey Halstead, Birchak’s coach and owner of 10th Planet gyms in California and Nevada, presented Birchak with the opportunity to join him in opening 10th Planet Tucson following a jiu jitsu seminar in Las Vegas over Super Bowl weekend.

UFC bantamweight Anthony Birchak stretches prior to an intense strength and conditioning session. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)

UFC bantamweight Anthony Birchak stretches prior to an intense strength and conditioning session. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)

“I have a background in developing and identifying talent,” Halstead said. “I’m always looking for people who can manage and run things on their own. I saw something early on in Anthony and thought this would be a great opportunity.”

Halstead said balancing family life with the training required to be a champion fighter is often the biggest challenge facing prize fighters.

“I understand the struggles of being a family man and a fighter, those guys don’t make hardly any money at all,” Halstead said. “It makes sense to do this with Anthony because if you want to be a UFC fighter you need to be training all the time, not worrying about working other jobs.”

Birchak is targeting mid-July for the grand opening of 10th Planet Tucson.