Cub Swanson’s fight with Doo Ho Choi at last December’s UFC 206 was kind of like Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed (both times), only with elbows, kicks, and submission attempts. A bout that ESPN dubbed Fight of The Year ended with Swanson’s hand raised in a unanimous decision, although the performance both men put on ensured there was no real loser. Better yet, in just three rounds, the 33 year-old from Palm Springs, Calif.—who many pundits had written off from title contention—proved he’s still one of the best featherweights in the world.

Cub Swanson visited Onnit headquarters in Austin, TX, to reminisce about his war with The Korean Superboy and share the mindset that has kept him one of the most reliable—and likable—fighters in MMA.

Q&A With Cub Swanson

Q&A With Cub Swanson

Onnit: What do you remember going through your mind during the Choi fight?

I remember I was thinking of survival and being tactical. I knew that I was tougher than him.

Did you have any idea at the time that the fight was as great as it was?

Not at all. It didn’t really sink in until a couple weeks after. I knew that it was a big deal to people, because I got a big response. People had been coming up to me and saying it was great. When I had time to sit down and watch it in slow motion and really pick it apart, especially my own performance, I started to really appreciate it.

What would you have done differently?

Nothing. I feel like I had the right game plan. The first round didn’t really go my way because I wanted to stick and move. My team’s thinking was that he wasn’t good against a moving target—everybody he had knocked out before was pretty stationary—so I wanted to keep moving at angles. But he was better at setting his feet and firing than I thought. So it made me uncomfortable. I had to switch the game plan to just throwing down.

Could you have gone another round?

I think if there had been another round we would have sucked it up. But knowing it was the final round I gave it everything I had. I hit him with some big shots, a spinning elbow, a cartwheel kick. I threw a crazy amount at him.

Just get the Work in, No Excuses! #ufc206?? #killercub @virusintl @sixgungibson @thefoxidentity

A post shared by Cub Swanson (@cubswanson) on

Did you ever think you might go down?

I got hit with one shot that sort of hit my pause button. It was the second round and it was the shot that everybody thought would finish me. I don’t think I was that hurt, I just got too wide and too loopy and he caught me with a nice shot on the chin that backed me up. It took me a second but I thought to cover up and wear him down a little. I didn’t want to open back up and risk getting caught with another big shot. I wanted him to slow down on his own.

Did he say anything to you during the fight?

No, he doesn’t speak English. But one thing I thought was interesting was his commentary with his coach after the fight. They were talking about how he had trouble with my rhythm. He didn’t feel he had any power in his left hand. His legs felt wobbly. I feel like those were things I did to him—hitting his body, beating up his lead leg. I feel like I made him change his stance. I was kicking his leg and that made him stand with legs a little closer together. He didn’t fight his normal style.

How was your recovery?

My face was fine. I was just exhausted after the fight, but I could hold conversations. I wasn’t beat up. I was peeing blood, so I know I was in a war, and I had to get some stitches on the top of my head. But I felt fine.

Is there going to be a rematch?

I think if there is it would only be in my favor, because I feel like I figured him out. And he didn’t figure me out. That’s why I won the fight. I think he needs to get some wins but he’s got a good career ahead of him. It doesn’t make sense for me to put a beating on him. He took a lot of shots and I would feel guilty taking away from his career if we fought again. But if the UFC offered it to me… yeah. It’s my job.

Before the fight, people were doubting your career. Did you have any doubts?

It frustrated me that people were counting me out. I didn’t see why. I knew I was a pretty big underdog and that fired me up. A lot of bad thoughts were trying to get into my head but I was blocking them out. For the most part I felt pretty confident going in.

What’s your process for blocking out negativity?

I try to stay off social media. I used to read all the comments and try to respond to people. Now I try not to do so many interviews so that I don’t get smeared. I use a sports psychologist now and he’s taught me to not focus on things that are beyond my control. That’s really hit hard with me. There are so many things out there I can’t control so it’s stupid to worry about them. Things happen and I just think, “OK, how do I deal with it?” Not, “Oh, this happened.” And “Why me?”

Whenever I think about a fight and a negative thing enters my mind, I quickly think about something that’s positive and stronger. So I’m always on a positive note.

What do you say to people who think they can’t make their own comebacks?

I just think they quit. It’s weird to me to hear that I’m famous because I don’t think so. I’m a popular fighter and I’ve done well but I don’t think I’m famous. I get stopped to take pictures with people now… In my mind, I’m just somebody who didn’t give up. I’ve gotten this far in my career because there have been points in my career where I had obstacles and I got past them.

I had injuries and my family begged me to stop fighting. I had to decide for myself to keep going and make changes that allowed me to. More people quit and say it just wasn’t my time. One of the worst pieces of advice I ever got was, “Well, if one door closes another opens.” I think, “If that door closes, you knock it down.” That’s the only thing that separates me from other people.

And that could apply to anybody.

Yeah. If you were chasing something and it truly doesn’t make you happy anymore, then do something else, but if it’s something that used to but no longer does, there’s a reason for it. That’s what happened to me in the sport. The politics of it took the passion away. When I was able to not let the politics bother me anymore, I fell in love with the sport again.

I could focus on the favoritism and what everyone else has that I don’t have, but I could also focus on the fact that I make a good living doing what I love and I do things my own way. It’s all about which way you look at it.

What do you do for strength and conditioning?

I’m getting older, I’m 33, but I feel like training is getting easier. I feel like I’m pushing harder. I have students that I train and they’re known for their toughness. When we go to the track to run sprints, even when I’m in mediocre shape, I can beat them. No matter how tired I am I can push through. That’s because I know it’s all mental.

My strength and conditioning now depends on my opponent. If this guy is big and strong and I know he’s going to try and wrestle me down, I’ll do more strength work. If the guy is fast and the fight will involve me moving my feet a lot, I’ll do a lot of conditioning. I did resistance bands and body weight for Choi. For the two fights I had before, I did a lot of strength training so I think he saw them and thought this guy has slowed down. So for him I did nothing but sprints and agility so I would be surprisingly fast to him.

One of the drills we do is set up cones in a circle and we play duck-duck-goose. Another one is we have a guy who’s five feet behind me in a sprinting stance and I’m on my knees. We start racing and I have to jump to my feet and catch up to him while he gets the head start.

What strength exercises do you do?

Sled pulls. I have an 80-pound load on a sled with a rope attached. They’ll time me while I pull it as fast as I can. When the sled gets to me I’ll run to the other side and pull it again. It takes about 40 seconds to pull it one way. Every set I either have to match it or beat it. If I slow down, we end it. When I’m in New Mexico training at Greg Jackson’s gym, I do more kettlebells. Explosive swings. For conditioning, I do a lot of different exercises for a 20-second burst and 10 seconds off.

My training has become more efficient, smarter, as I’ve gotten older. I know when to take days off. I rest more and I don’t get sick as often as a result.

Are there any exercises a fighter can do for his chin?

You can work on vision so you don’t get hit in the first place. And when you do you can kind of roll with it and absorb it. It’s the punches you don’t see coming that are most likely to knock you out. I’ll have someone drop a tennis ball in front of me and I catch it when it bounces. Reaction-time drills. If I can look at my opponent and recognize when it’s coming, I can react.

What’s your diet like?

I eat less bread and grains and more fats. A lot of egg whites and avocados and mixed nuts. I’m pretty minimal with supplements, but I like Onnit’s Total Primate Care because it’s easy. I take BCAAs too. I put them in my water and that helps with soreness. As far as protein, I read so much conflicting information so I just try to mix it up and do a little bit of everything. I do some whey sometimes, some pea protein, hemp, soy. I want to give my body a lot of nutrients from a lot of different sources.

You’re not much of a trash talker. What do you think of fighters who try to make a grudge match where there isn’t one just to sell fights?

It bothers me because I do like the organic feuds, the ones that are real. That gets me excited. But the ones that are fake and people are just trying to push a fight, that bothers me, because I feel like the fight is like art. To me, it’s like, we’re all artists. And this guy over here has these paintings, and they’re ok. But ours’ are better and he’s walking around telling everybody he’s the best because he’s got the biggest show. And we’re like, “this guy is a fuckin’ dork.”

I don’t need trash talk. I think fighting made me a better person and I cherish that. It taught me about having goals and reaching them and that people could look up to me. Public speaking is something I never wanted to do but I took it as a moral obligation. I thought to myself, “Look, you were in a bad situation and you got out. It’s your obligation to show people how you did it.”

You’re known for your charity work. What have you learned from working with kids with disabilities?

Patience [laughs]. I think kids with Down syndrome are some of the happiest kids. No matter what’s happening, they’re oblivious to negativity. It’s cool to watch kids be happy all the time.

We see them as having a disability but I see them as having an underdeveloped portion of the brain in one way and an overdeveloped portion in another. It’s a balance. Their social skills may not be great but they can do puzzles and all these things that others can’t do. I knew a little boy who could throw three puzzles on the ground and put them together and then walk off like it was nothing.

I never shy away from going to speak at a classroom. The reason I got into it is my youngest sister has Down syndrome. When I found out she was going to be born with it, it scared the shit out of me and I wondered how I would react to that. But it made me a better person. She’s now my biggest fan. I was doing a TV show and I had a fight scene with Nick Jonas, and he’s her favorite. Unfortunately, I had to take a loss on the fight with Jonas [laughs], but I got her tickets to see him perform and she was so happy.

Which of your tattoos is your favorite?

The palm trees on my stomach. They’re for Palm Springs. I got them to represent where I’m from and tell the story of who I am. There are a lot of athletes where I live, a lot of talent, but no big schools so no one really looks our direction. I did it to make them look.

Where did the name Cub come from?

My brother couldn’t say my real name, Kevin, when he was little, so he called me Cub. That was just my name from when I was a baby on. And I was browner and chubbier than my brothers. It’s one of those names where you don’t even remember what your real name is because everyone always called you that.

What do you have coming up?

I’ve been trying to get a couple TV projects off the ground. There’s this golf reality show… I golf. It’s going to be four guys who are successful in different things. We golf and talk about how golf translates into our success and vice versa. It’s still being shopped to a network. To me it was just something to do.

Do you have a handicap?

I shoot in the 90s.

Anything else?

Check out my Killer Cub clothing line. Because I’m not a trash talker I need another way for people to recognize me. My logo is how I promote myself. And it’s who I am. In the cage I attack everything very seriously, but in my everyday life I’m playful.

Discover more Cub Swanson on Instagram @cubswanson.