(Menjivar facing Matt Serra in his UFC debut two weight classes higher than his natural 135-pound bracket.)
Ivan Menjivar is not new to the sport, but to many post-TUF fans the Canadian MMA pioneer whose resume includes bouts with Georges St-Pierre, Matt Serra, Caol Uno, Joe Lauzon and Urijah Faber is an unfamiliar face in the Octagon.
After spending the better part of four years away from the sport rehabbing injuries and raising a family, “The Pride of El Salvador” is back and will get the opportunity to compete in front of his legion of fans in his adopted Canadian homeland when he takes on Charlie Valencia Saturday night in Toronto.
We recently spoke with the 21-7 bantamweight and touched on a number of topics including his long-awaited return, his career as a moneyweight fighter and his early days in the sport.
Check out what Ivan had to say below.
You stepped away from the sport for about three-and-a-half years. Why did you take so much time off?
I had two reasons. After my fight against Caol Uno I got a knee injury. I came back here to Montreal and the doctor told me to recuperate and to lift weights for the operation. That was OK. Sometimes it takes a little while for an operation. At the same time my wife got pregnant. I had a baby the same year, so between working, family and training I was very busy for the last three years before my [W-1] fight.
Where were you working?
I did security at the airport. I’m the one who checks people before they go to the plane. It’s a good job. It’s fun. I like it a lot.
Now are you still doing that?
Have you ever had to use any of your MMA expertise to subdue someone on the job?
No, only the boss (laughing). No, the passengers understand that it’s mostly for their own protection. Sometimes people are really stressed about the situation and it’s my job to reduce the stress of the passengers. It’s a nice job and I want to continue working there.
Do you find that you have enough time to train since both of your jobs are essentially full-time careers?
I used to work less before to help me relax my brain from training. Right now I work, train and try to spend as much time with my family as I can. After my WEC fight with Brad Pickett I trained, but I spent a lot more time with my family because I knew that as soon as started my next camp, I would need to be at the gym a lot more. I try to spend as much time as I can with my family to make them feel better. It’s hard, but I make it work.
You sound like you really enjoy and cherish being a father. How has the experience been?
It’s been amazing. I think it’s the best thing in life. You need to be there for them. I know fighting is important to me, but family takes a lot of space in your life. I think it’s the same with many fighters. We do it because we love fighting, but at the same time we do it to bring money home to take care of our families. We enjoy training and fighting, but the moments that I play with my kids are the most important to me.
You’ve fought all over the place in terms of weight, mostly because it was tough for you to find fights at 145 and 135. How happy were you that the WEC and now the UFC decided to bring in your 135-pound weight class?
I’m happy. After my last fight in the UFC against Matt Serra, I thought it was fun to go and fight there at 155. It’s a good challenge being a small guy fighting against big guys. It’s really fun to do that to prove to people that you can beat bigger guys, but MMA is a sport and it’s becoming more challenging to do that. My normal weight is 145, maybe 135 – I tried and it was amazing. The way the sport has evolved, you need to stay in your weight category if you want to be successful. It was fun to move up and fight guys at other weights like BJ Penn did. I’m proud that I did that, but I want to be competitive and if you want to do that, you need to stay in your own weight category. That’s why I don’t understand why people want Georges to move up to fight Anderson Silva. That doesn’t make sense. Tell Silva to go fight Fedor is he’s that good and he wants to move up to test himself.
You put out a few highlight videos the past couple years in which you would drop hints about your return, but besides that we didn’t hear a whole lot from or about you. How long has this comeback been in the making?
I was preparing for my comeback from the beginning when I took the break to heal from my injury. I never stopped training. I was unlucky to go at the time when the sport was becoming big. I took my time to come back. The UFC is a big challenge for me now. At 135 I don’t have to lose my chance. I had two months to prepare for this fight. My schedule is set and my coaches know where I need to train. Everything is done and I’m going to be 100 percent prepared for my fight. I’ll be ready.
I talked to Firas last summer and he told me then that you were close to being ready for a comeback and he said that contrary to popular belief, you had never been away from the gym, whether it had been to train or to help your teammates prepare. It’s not like you walked away from the sport completely.
Yes. That is what I did. It was important for me to go there. Even when I was injured I was there two, three, four times a week. I started slowly playing with the beginners. Now I’m ready to come back.
You fought Georges back in 2002 in his first pro fight. What weight was that at?
It was at 169 [pounds].
You’ve been competitive even while fighting at higher weights, but fighting at 135 there are a lot of fights for you if you can get past your next opponent. Kid Yamamoto has been a fighter fans have wanted to see you fight for some time. You also have some unfinished business with Urijah Faber.
The UFC is big. I know if I win this fight what can come, like more interviews, more fans and more recognition. I understand that. When you’re training, you never prepare for that. I wanted to take my time and be a good representative of the sport. I’m focusing on my training right now. After my last fight, I learned a lot. I learned many things like I need to prepare more smartly for this fight. I loved my fight with Brad Pickett. It was a good fight, but I’m mad that I didn’t play smart. I didn’t follow my strategy and I didn’t take the time to study him well. This time, I need to do my job. My job is to take my time and prepare well and to make a good fight. Honestly, I love to give people a good fight and to put on a show for the fans. That’s what makes the sport grow. I’ll go there not just to win; I go there to everything my best and to play my game. I play MMA. I play with my opponent’s head, I play my stand-up, I play on the ground. I play MMA.
I’ve followed your career since your early days in UCC and TKO and I’ve seen a few of your fights live and one thing I’ve always said is that you always get your money’s worth when Ivan Menjivar is on the card.
Thank you. That’s what I’ve always wanted. Maybe I didn’t always win my fights, but I always wanted to put on a beautiful fight. I go there to fight. Fighting is a beautiful sport with a lot of techniques. I want to make people jump out of their seats. I want people to say to me, “Even when you don’t win, you make a good fight.”
The disqualification loss to Faber is obviously one that could very well have ended differently if it hadn’t been for the bad call. You were arguably winning the fight before the stoppage…
Maybe we can fight again. We’re in the same weight category again.
For sure. As soon as I heard he was dropping down to 135 and that you were planning to go down after you got your return bout under your bout, that’s a fight I immediately thought of. The WEC’s 135-pound class is getting stacked.
Yes, it is.
Is it strange that you’re a veteran who has been fighting as long as you have and who has fought some of the opponents that you have faced and you’re just beginning to be recognized by the media and the fans?
It’s true. Many fans who got into MMA three or four years ago never knew me before. I need to introduce myself to them by fighting. After my last fight, people are starting to know my name and to see what I can do.
Your first bout in four years was with W-1 and you won in quick and impressive fashion. Walk us through the series of events that led to you signing with the WEC.
When I started training again my friends and training partners contacted the WEC and said, “Hey, Ivan is training. Do you want to give him a fight?” They said, “Yes. We know him and we’ve been waiting for him to come back.” I said, “Whoa. Hold on. I need to take a fight somewhere else first to be sure that my body is ready for fighting. So I took the fight with W-1 at 145 and I won and I was deciding whether or not to do one more fight in Quebec before I fought in the WEC. Then they made me an offer and I accepted it to fight Brad in December. I knew it was early. Firas said, maybe it was too early. I said, “Yes maybe it’s too early, but it’s now or never.” I knew I could go there and be one of the best Ultimate Fighters in the world again. Next year that’s what I want. I want to go in the top ten. If I’m training smart and I have good preparation, so it can happen.
You have the advantage that a lot of fighters coming over from the WEC don’t have, and that’s the fact that you’ve fought in the UFC before. You’ve had the opportunity to see what the experience is like as far as getting through the nerves of fighting in front of a huge crowd. I know you’ve never fought in front of 55,000 people, but at least they’ll be on your side. How do you think this fight will be different than your first in the UFC?
First, it’s here in Canada, so I think people will be happy that I’m there representing our country. Second, when you’re a fighter, whether you’re fighting in the UFC or wherever, you think about fighting first. I’m preparing myself in my head to go there and to visualize what I’m going to do in the fight. I don’t know what to say. I know it’s a fight and I’m taking it one fight at a time. Every fight could be my last. I say to myself before every fight, “If this fight could be your last one, make it amazing.” If this is my last fight I need to make it amazing. I tell the fans to watch my fight and enjoy it. I need to be ready and I’m ready.
I think a lot more fighters need to adopt that attitude. Some prefer to go in and be cautious and just do the minimum necessary to win.
That’s why it’s a sport. MMA is not a street fight. It’s like playing football or hockey at a high level. If you don’t win a fight in the beginning, you lose the fight during the fight. You need to win the fight before the fight in your mind.
You’ve been fighting since you were 18. What prompted you to try MMA?
It was a new sport back then and there were not as many rules as other competitions. It was really fun for me because we were allowed to punch, kick and knee and we could throw our opponents onto the floor. I was like, “Wow! This is fun. You can do pretty much whatever you want.” You could do everything. There were safety rules, but you could do a backflip and kick guys in the head. It was amazing. That’s why I enjoy MMA. You can use so many movements and techniques. It’s not like boxing where you can only punch in the head or the body. It’s not like Taekwondo or judo where we can’t punch in the head. It’s a fight.
Do you remember your first fight?
It was against David Guigui. The first round was 10 minutes long. I just remember that one moment I was on top of him and I was saying, “Oh, man Guigui, tap. I’m too tired.” I remember he tapped because I had a good submission on him. Oh my gosh, after that fight I got out of the ring and I grabbed a garbage can and threw up. That was a long fight. 10-minute rounds are long. I remember my dad looked at me throwing up and he was laughing. It was fun (laughing).
As a pioneer of the sport here in Canada you’ve been around a long time and have seen first hand the evolution of the sport. Talking to your teammates and coaches I know you take a leadership role in the above and beyond what many guys do in the gym. How gratifying of an experience is it to pass on your knowledge to the younger fighters coming up and see them grow and improve?
I’m happy to see the new guys coming into the sport. They know the names of the techniques before they come to the gym because they watch MMA. I remember back when Sherdog was the only place you could go to read about MMA. Now we have sites like yours and many others where people can go to get information about the sport. That’s the main difference is that people are a lot more knowledgeable now. Young guys want to be ultimate Fighters and they want to train hard, which is great. At the same time, I’m scared because the new guys go to schools who tell them they are MMA schools ho will teach them to be an Ultimate Fighter and they are not qualified to teach. They give a bad image to the sport. Trisar is such a great gym. We have new guys who we introduce to the techniques and rules and teach MMA like any other martial art with respect and honor and skill. We teach philosophy and that being a fighter is a way of life. Many schools only sell a product or an image of MMA. Many people tell me they do UFC and I’m like, “You do UFC?” They tell me they’re training at this place or that place and I’m like, “Oh my God!” It’s scary. I think there needs to be rules or regulations put in place in the future to protect the young guys from getting hurt. That’s what I want for the future of the sport. People love MMA, but we need to keep the image and the prestige of the sport intact and keep people from getting hurt.
It reminds me of the Taekwondo boom from the late 80s and early 90s when all of the guys who were infatuated with Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies wanted to learn how to beat people up in bar fights, so they found a dojo to train at and earned black belts in a year and thought they were badasses and would go out looking for fights on weekends. That’s not the type of image that should be associated with any martial art.
Exactly. I think that’s what will be best for the sport: protecting the image and putting in more rules to ensure people are learning safely.
Well, Ivan, that’s all I have for you. It’s been a pleasure. As a fan, I’m glad to see you back. I’m looking forward to watching another one of your fights live in Toronto. Thanks again for taking the time.
My pleasure. Thank you very much. Call me any time.