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Negative influences: Anthony Birchak recalls arrest, how wrestling saved his life

Anthony Birchak discusses being surrounded by negative influences during his teenage years, his father dying when he was four, his arrest for DUI in Mexico, his time in jail, how his family reacted, and how the arrest and wrestling changed his life.

UFC Fight Night Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Anthony Birchak has already accomplished a lot in life, even at a relatively young age of 30-years-old. His list of accomplishments include signing to the UFC two years ago, and recently opening up his own training facility, 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu Tucson, as well as mixed martial arts system TOROTech MMA.

Throughout his childhood, Birchak never had the guidance of his father. He reached his list of accomplishments without him, as he passed away when Anthony was only four-years-old. Growing up without a parent was understandably one of the toughest things Birchak has had to do in life, but he ultimately managed.

"It's hard man, it's super hard," Birchak told BloodyElbow.com's The MMA Circus. "My heart bleeds for every little boy that doesn't have a strong male figure in their life. And I try to be that for a lot of the kids I coach on my wrestling team and definitely at my gym. I try to be somebody a little boy can look up to. I had a lot of good coaches, and I had my uncle there. But at the end of the day, the number one face I wanted to see when I stepped off the wrestling mat was my dad.

"Only till I was about 25 was when I really had peace with it. Because I noticed for a long time any kind of movie with a dad-son dynamic, I would get really teared up and kind of well-up and get that choking feeling when you want to cry. And I noticed once I had my second son, Jett, everything just stopped. I was at peace because I had what I needed in my life now in a son. Although I didn't have a father to show me how to be a man and be a dad, there were a lot of people that stepped up and helped out to mold me into the gentleman that I am today. I want to thank those guys. There's a lot of good coaches, my uncle, Art Gonzalez, Rene Matus. And the only reason I said Art Gonzalez, first was because he's my wrestling coach. But my uncle, Rene Matus, was with my dad all the time, so he probably knew me the best. My dad taught him a lot of lessons that he then passed on to me. My uncle, Victor Gonzalez, my brother, Victor Jr.

"So, it was painful, but now, more than anything, being a dad is my number one job. I'm not a UFC fighter, I'm a dad. And then I'm a husband, and then I'm a UFC fighter. I'm at peace now, it's come full circle. I'm now a father and I'm definitely trying to give my sons an image of what to accomplish, even in the face of adversity."

Birchak was surrounded by negative influences during his teenage years. Many of his high school friends unfortunately took the path of drugs and trouble, but he avoided that path as much as possible. He was an aspiring athlete -- to be precise, wrestler, at the time -- and knew if he wanted to go far in life, not just athletics, he couldn't go down that path.

"It was (an) easy (decision) because I grew up in a town south of Tucson, and Tucson is pretty high crime," he said. "For a lot of people that don't know about Tucson, the Mexican mafia has a huge presence in it. That trickles down to the street kids and stuff like that. And even though I was in a small farm-town, we were a big drug hub from Nogales, Arizona to Tucson, because you had to stop in Sahuarita before you got to Tucson. So a lot of the kids were doing cocaine and smoking weed all the time, and of course just high school kids drinking underage and sh-t. I couldn't do that, because I had weigh-ins, or I had a meet on Tuesday and a meet on Thursday and a tournament on Friday or Saturday. So I didn't have the time to be a delinquent. I would hang out with some country boys on the tailgate of my Silverado, but I didn't really have the time to be like that."

Birchak did get into trouble with the law once, however, when he was 17-years-old. He crossed the Mexican border to party with a cousin in his cousin's hometown. On his way home to Arizona, he was pulled over by the police and arrested for driving under the influence. And looking back, Birchak completely regrets driving down to Mexico in the first place.

"It was just, dumb kid sh-t," he said. "We came across the line, we went to Agua Prieta, Sonora, (Mexico), which is a small border-town across from Douglas, AZ, which is in the southeast corner of Arizona. I was coming back and I ended up getting pulled over by the police, and they were like, 'Where have you been drinking?' And I was like, 'Uh, Mexico.' So, that one was terrible. I ended up learning a valuable lesson and I ended up having to do 48 hours in a county jail."

His interactions during his short jail-stint were certainly bizarre, to say the least.

"I remember, I was alone for the first 24 hours, then this guy came in who was driving on a suspended license and drunk, and his name was Thumper. This dude was like 6'4, had one eye and, from that moment on, I was like, 'I'm never doing that sh-t again.'

"I gotta thank wrestling for saving my life, because the dude started talking to me. He was like, 'What are you doing?' And I was like, 'Ehh, I'm a wrestler.' And he was like, 'Oh, my nephew is a wrestler, his name is Frankie Romero.' And I was like, 'Holy sh-t, Frankie Romero is one of my best friends!' And at the time, Frankie went to Flowing Wells High School, where Dominick Cruz is from. So I've known Dominick and Frankie and there were a bunch of other dudes. And he goes, 'Oh, you're friends with Frankie Romero?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I would say I'm really good friends with Frankie.' And he says, 'Okay, cool, I'm going to use my phone call to call Frankie and if he knows you, that's cool, I'll look out for you. And if not, then me and you are going to have some problems.' And I was like, 'Holy sh-t, Frankie, please don't -- this isn't a time to joke. Tell your uncle that, oh yeah man, Birchak's a cool kid, keep an eye out for him.' So he came back and he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, my nephew says that you're dope.' But by then, I was already out, it's not like I had five more days in there where I needed 6'4 bodyguards or anything. But yeah, I was just like, 'Jesus, thank God.'"

Birchak says his arrest for DUI was far from one of the worst moments of his life, but, at the same time, he didn't know how large the consequences would actually be.

"I've had far worse moments than then, but it definitely ranks in the top five of not smart things that I did because it cost me a lot of stuff later down the line that I never thought it would have affected," he said. "You don't think of sh-t like that when you're a 17-year-old kid. They could've technically charged me as an adult, 17 turning 18, which is still a minor in consumption and extreme DUI. I think I lucked out a little bit, and I had a guardian angel definitely watching out for me. But I learned a lot. I remember it because it changed my life. If I can tell anybody, just don't go to Mexico, do not go to Mexico (laughs)."

Birchak's family, as expected, was very disappointed by his actions. He remembers receiving so much backlash from his family, who questioned his decision-making skills and overall intelligence, during a family get-to-together. But there was one man in Birchak's family who put an end to the outcry.

"My mom was pissed," he admitted. "My grandpa is such a traditional Mexican gentleman. He's really straight-edge. He drinks beer and he's gotten drunk before. But everyone was like, 'Man, out of everybody, you disappointed your grandfather. Wait till your grandfather finds out.' My stomach just dropped. That's the male head in my family, my grandfather. So I was like, 'Man, I hope he doesn't f-cking hate me.'

"One day, I remember sitting in my aunt's house and everybody's just yelling at me about how big I messed up, how big of a f-cking idiot I am, just going off. And [my grandfather] just shut everybody up: 'Shut up! Everybody shut up! Leave him alone.' My ears perked up like I was a little dog, like, what's he gonna say. And he looked at my mom and he's like, 'You have one, you have one, I have one, we all got one. He got a DUI, leave him the f-ck alone.' And I was just like, 'Yeah, leave me alone. Grand master said leave me alone.' I love that man. Obviously, it was disappointing to my family but he squashed it real quick. He basically just straight up said, 'Don't throw stones if you live in a glass house.'"

Around the time of his arrest, Birchak realized his passion for and interest in wrestling, despite being a very talented up-and-coming wrestler, was at an all-time low.

"At that time, I had lost wrestling," he said. "I lost the passion for it. And I was like, idle hands are the devil's work. I was like, 'What the f-ck am I doing? I'm a talented guy and I'm over here partying in Mexico doing dumb shit, and coming back across the line and getting in trouble.'"

After the situation was in the past, Birchak's drive on the wrestling mat returned, and he then discovered mixed martial arts, eventually leading to his current career as a UFC fighter.

"I got back to it, went back to college," he said. "I ended up meeting guys like Jamie Varner, Efrain Escudero, James Terry and Drew Fickett. They then showed me the path of jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts and that's where everything really just -- it was like throwing diesel on a fire. Everything got reignited for me; I'd been associating myself not as a roofer, not as a construction kid but as an athlete again. And not just an athlete, but an elite athlete, and I saw the potential of mixed martial arts and what it could do for me and my family down the road.

Commitment to wrestling didn't allow Birchak to get into too much trouble. At the end of the day, the sport saved his life.

"I got every reason to be a statistic, and a f-cking kid that goes to juvie, and does troublemaker sh-t. Wrestling definitely saved my life and set my head on straight and gave me goals of what I was meant to accomplish."