By CagePotato.com contributor Elias Cepeda
For most fans outside of the Northwest, lightweight up-and-comer Evan Dunham (10-0) has seemingly come out of nowhere to win three in a row in the UFC, including his arm bar submission win over TUF 8 winner Efrain Escudero in January. Next, Dunham will take on one of the division’s top contenders Tyson Griffin at UFC 115 on June 12th. It’s an interesting matchup made much more so by the fact that the two had trained together at Xtreme Couture for the past year. Now living in Las Vegas and training full time, Dunham talks with CagePotato about dealing with fighting a training partner, what kept him in the sport when he thought he would leave forever, and what the biggest factor in his fight against Griffin will be.
CAGEPOTATO.COM: You just came back from the UFC Fan Expo last weekend. How was that for you?
EVAN DUNHAM: It was a good time all around. I went there and did some signing for Ecko Unlimited, a couple hours each day. I was more than happy to do that.
Did you happen to run into Tyson Griffin at all there? Is that something that you thought about beforehand, “I might run into him here”?
No, I didn’t see Tyson. I think he was at the fights or something. I have no idea, I haven’t seen him.
Heading into your last fight against Efrain Escudero, almost all of the attention was placed on him because he was so well known after winning The Ultimate Fighter. Did you feel like an underdog in that fight?
I’m always considered the underdog, even in this next fight coming up. But I never see myself as the underdog. I think it is kind of good luck for me for people to put me in that position because it just makes me work harder. It is supposedly an up-hill battle for me but I know what I’m capable of so it’s not really a problem. If they want to pay more attention to him, that’s great. Because that just means all that attention is going to go back to me when I win.
Has anything changed for you since that win?
The biggest change has been that after that last fight I moved down to Vegas from Oregon full-time. Now I don’t have to travel down here for camp like I have been for my last three or four fights and stay somewhere besides my own home. It’s a lot more relaxing. I’m training harder now than I’ve ever really done before but it doesn’t feel like it because my downtime is a lot more enjoyable now.
Was that a move you were looking to do for awhile, and if so, what made it possible for you to finally do it?
Yeah I’ve been wanting to do it for a while but financially I couldn’t do it. Luckily after that last win I was able to come up with the funds where me and my fiancé and my dog could make the move.
Are you now able to train full-time or do you still have to do other work?
No, now I just train full-time.
We know you didn’t consider yourself an underdog going into your last fight, but did anything surprise you in that fight with Efrain?
I thought he was going to come out and push the wrestling a lot more than he did. I thought his wrestling game was going to be at a little bit of a higher level. But he wanted to come out and throw hands and he caught me with that first one. I don’t think I had my head into it at that point. I was able to not get taken down in that first round. My wrestling matched up with his a lot better than I had thought it would. I thought he would have an advantage in the wrestling but in retrospect I really don’t think he did.
I’ve heard that there was a time some years ago when you were thinking of leaving the sport. People that talk to fighters know that that’s a reality. Very few guys have gotten real rich off the sport, everyone else has to try and find a way to support that passion. Is that true, was there a time when you were considering leaving MMA and what kept you in it?
The whole reasoning behind that was that I was broke as a joke. I was working a whole lot and I was at the point where I either needed to start making some money off of fighting or I needed to take the time that I was using to train and compete, and start working extra. I had a pretty decent job but I needed the appropriate time to put into that job. That’s why I was thinking of leaving, because financially, fighting wasn’t cutting it. But a few years ago a buddy of mine, John Gunderson, gave me an opportunity to go down to Reno and try out for a team and go to the Philippines and compete for this company called Platinum Fighting Productions, Ring of Fire. Ken Shamrock was putting together a team, Royce Gracie was putting together a team. I tried out for Shamrock’s team. If I won the tryouts I could make some pretty decent money with those fights. John is a great guy so he let me come down and stay with him and his family for the tryouts. I was fortunate enough to win the tryouts and pocket a little bit of money. That was a big step, and helped me keep the ball rolling, fighting wise, for a little while longer.
What type of work were you doing at the time to support yourself?
I used to install computers, set up networks and stuff like that.
What were the tryouts like?
The tryouts were pretty tough. Kind of like round-robin scenario. There were a lot of guys there. If you won your round, you moved on. They kept on putting the guys that won together and it got down to the last guy. They did that with wrestling, Jiu Jitsu and stand up. And then at the end they just broke it down to two guys and had them go at it and the winner of that got the spot.
When you were trying out were you thinking that this was going to decide whether or not you continued doing MMA? Did that put a lot of pressure on you, or did it help focus you?
At that point, I wasn’t thinking that this was make or break for sure. I was thinking that this would be an awesome opportunity to go to the Philippines and that there were a lot of talented guys from the Northwest trying out. More than anything I was thinking that it was a great opportunity to see how well I matched up with some of these guys I had been watching. I wanted to see where I was at, talent wise.
What was it like fighting in the Philippines? What was the fight culture like there, as far as you could tell?
It was a really cool experience. The fans were really into it. It was like something I had never done before, to get to travel all the way there and get treated so well. After that experience I knew that I really liked to fight and compete at a really high level. So at that point I really wanted to try and make it work and try to pursue [MMA] as far as I could.
What is it like for you now, being able to train and fight as a full-time job?
I love it. As long as you get what you need to get done, done that day you get to go on your own schedule. I’m harder on myself now when it comes to training. There are definitely days when you feel it’s a job, those days when you think a regular job might be easier. But those days are definitely way fewer than the days you are really happy and enjoy what you are doing. I consider myself blessed to be able to compete and do what I feel is my passion.
Tell me a little more about where you got your start, and who you consider your teachers, originally.
I wrestled all through high school and was going to wrestle at the University of Oregon, where I went to college, but decided not to because of some political stuff. I ended up doing Jiu Jitsu with Team Megaton in Oregon, which is an affiliate sister school of Wellington “Megaton” Dias, out of Phoenix. I found that Jiu Jitsu was a lot like wrestling, but more fun because you could choke people. I did that for fun, not thinking of competing in MMA or anything. I did that for about five years, competed in the Pan-Ams and stuff like that and really enjoyed it. There are a lot of really talented guys there in Oregon and “Megaton” came up whenever he could. Team Megaton is definitely where I developed the majority of my Jiu Jitsu. I was able to get my black belt under him this year. It surprised me more than anything. Megaton is a bad dude, that’s for sure. He puts a hurting on me when he wants to. (laughs)
For your last four fights you’ve come down to Vegas from Oregon and trained at Randy Couture’s gym. For this fight you’ve moved to Vegas, but you are also signed to fight one of Randy’s guys in Tyson Griffin. What did you do when you were offered the fight and how did you decide who would train where as you two prepared to fight one another?
My plan to train when I came to Vegas was to train at Randy’s full time with those guys. Those guys are great. As soon as I was offered the fight I called up Tyson and asked him what he thought of it. There was no question in my mind that I would take the fight. Tyson is a very talented fighter and where I want to be in the sport so in order for me to get there I have to beat someone at that level. And although I had been training there for a year, I hadn’t been training there for years like him so I told him I thought it was right for him to be able to stay there and that I would find somewhere else to train for this fight. I told him, "You stay there. You’ve helped me with my last few fights. But you’d better believe I’ll be back there after this one."
So you’ve been training out of different facilities, have you had to train with different coaches as well?
Yeah, Shawn Tompkins, I train with him a couple times a week. He was at Randy’s for a long time. Another stand-up coach I’ve been working with that I like a lot is Shawn Yarborough. He’s a very talented guy. I had to switch up my strength and conditioning coach, that’s for sure. Because Jake Bonacci is who I’ve usually used but he also coaches Tyson so I didn’t want to put him in an awkward position. So I’ve been working with Norm Turner and I really enjoy working with him. I’ve also started going over to Marc Laimon’s for Jiu Jitsu a couple times a week. I’ve also been working with Cameron Diffley for Jiu Jitsu, who I’ve worked with for a long time. He’s great.
How difficult has it been for you to find different coaches after having found a place you like? It would seem to be pretty challenging.
Yeah, you know, I got down here and pretty much started trying to develop my camp about twelve weeks out. Usually I do a little bit shorter ones but I knew I would have to prepare earlier to get it down with new trainers. It took me about two weeks to figure out a schedule that would work for me and give me everything I needed to get. Now I’ve got a good schedule and everybody is working with me great. I feel great and ready to go.
How well do you feel you and Tyson Griffin know each other based on the training you’ve done together over the last year?
Tyson and I are training buds. We don’t go and hang out with each other outside of the gym. I don’t really hang out with many people outside the gym (laughs) to tell you the truth. I like to go get my work done and go home. As fighters I think he knows me a lot since he helped me a whole lot in my fight against Aurelio since he had fought Aurelio before. Stylistically I know him very well. I know he likes to stand. He’s got great hands, he’s got great kicks. He’s a scrapper on the ground, he’s got great wrestling defense. I think we know each other very well. And he’s able to compare notes on me with our other training partners out there. They know what to expect and I know what to expect.
How do you approach fighting someone you know so well, psychologically? Do you latch on to the times you had success against Tyson in the practice room, or do you block those out? Do you focus on the times you may have had some difficulty against him in practice in order to improve? It seems that your mind could play a lot of tricks on you in this type of situation. What has worked for you here?
I think you just have to look at it very generally. You can’t look at just one day, or what has worked for and against him in the past. You have to look at the broad picture of it. You have to look at his overall tendencies and my overall tendencies and where his and my strengths and weaknesses lie.
What do you think the biggest factor in this fight will be?
Conditioning. Both of us like to push the pace. He’s a very aggressive fighter and so am I. He knows that I have a very hard work ethic so I think that he and Jake Bonacci are going to work very hard on that for him. There is no doubt in my mind that they are training very hard knowing that I’m not going to give up, that I’m going to be there in the third round. I expect the same out of him. He will go all day.