Balance Studios in Fishtown Philadelphia.
When I first heard that’s where I was going for an interview on a Wednesday afternoon in November I’m expecting yoga, lots of stretching and a test of my coordination. Quite the contrary, it’s home to Anton Berzin, a TUF 19 alum and CFFC light heavyweight champ taking on Dan Spohn at CFFC 69 on December 16th at the Borgata in Atlantic City.
“It’s not a MMA gym - not that there’s anything wrong with MMA gyms in particular,” Berzin said of his abode. “We’re more of a jiu jitsu/yoga studio. They (Owners Ricardo and Phil Migliarese) refuse to be a MMA gym because quite frankly they don’t pay the bills. If you’re making your gym around fighters they’re not going to pay you. The mindset here says, ‘Leave your shoes and ego at the door.’ There’s no fake wrestling personas or any of that. Everyone here is laid back and no egos and you just train.”
The studio has helped contribute to what Berzin dubs a calm fighting style and a drastic change in mindset having come to Ricardo and Phil as a purple belt.
“I get better training partners. In my old gym I was always the top dog. I was the only pro fighter. The gym was new and learning and it was growing as I was. It was a lot of weight on my shoulders. I came here the first day rolling with Ricardo and I was a purple belt and he submitted me three times. Before that I wasn’t submitted in years. I couldn’t tell you when I was submitted. I was like, this is where I need to be. We just became friends after that.”
Anton took to teaching at the Studio since its inception more than a year and a half ago. His self proclaimed love of fighting manifested itself in a number of ways including mimicking the moves of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and the like on a blanket he tied to a tree after seeing the moves on video. But the move to Balance Studios seems to have made an incredible impact on Berzin’s mindset as a fighter.
“It’s very discouraging losing whether it’s in the gym or wherever,” proclaimed Berzin. “But it takes a certain kind of person to go, ‘Well this is what I want to do. This is part of it. I need to try again and again and again.’ I’ve always been competitive. I always wanted to be first and wanted to win. I understood that in order for me to get better and be the best I first have to lose in order to win. I’ve seen really good guys come in here all the time and they’ll catch an ass whooping and they’ll never come back. They don’t want to go through it. But that’s part of it. If you want to be the best at something, you have to fail before you succeed.”
But just like any pugilist, Berzin has experienced his fair share of anguish even following the move to Fishtown. But the height of his anguish comes in an unexpected form. His appearance on the 19th season of The Ultimate Fighter may have been Shangri-La for some but it became quite the opposite for him.
“It was a good moment but at the same time the only reason I went to The Ultimate Fighter was because I had so much trouble getting fights in the area. I was fairly well known in the tri-state area. I wasn’t a big enough draw for people to fly in to fight me and that’s why I went on The Ultimate Fighter. It was a good experience for me but I ****** up. I blew it. It was good. I learned a lot. Then it’s like, you’ve got to start again.”
But losing isn’t special though. Through all the seasons of The Ultimate Fighter there have only been so many winners compared to exponentially more total fighters. So what in particular are we missing?
“I would never do it again,” Berzin stated. “A lot of people don’t talk about it. It sucks. People don’t understand what it’s like. You’re in a prison with nice ammenities and it’s all set up for you to lose your mind. What people don’t realize is you can’t watch TV, read a book or mentally unwind. What happens is you’re constantly on edge. Your adrenaline is always pumping because you’re not sure if you’re going to fight or who’s going to fight. You don’t know how to feel and you begin to bond with these people you’ve never met before. The thing people don’t talk about is you can’t turn it off.”
Even with adrenaline constantly pumping and never being able to relax though - Berzin did learn a valuable lesson specific to his development in MMA. Take the time you need to perfect your craft.
“I messed up and I lost but at the same time I think it was the best thing that happened to me because I wasn’t ready to be in the UFC, Anton admitted. “I took that loss and I still think about it every day. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. I learned a lot from that fight. I changed my mindset about training. I changed my mindset on how to look at a fight because I was always lucky enough. Since I started I got it. I understood it. Like the way Mozart was able to play the piano I understood the mechanics like jiu jitsu came so naturally to me. I didn’t put in the hard work because I relied so much on my talent. I would just smoke these mother f****** and when I couldn’t it was like oh shit now what?”
Saying he doesn’t “need the UFC” but rather wants to be so good that they’re “begging to fight for them,” Berzin gets ready to fight the bigger Dan Spohn on December 16th at CFFC 69. But as we were sitting at his Studio talking the question begging to be asked was - how does he get around having to fight potentially bigger guys again like with Spohn?
“When they offered me Dan, they offered me a few other guys too. I was like, ya know what? I don’t need an easy fight. I want to fight Dan. I want to fight the best guys. If I can’t beat Dan then I have no business fighting in the UFC. I don’t want to get to the UFC just to be in the UFC just to say I’m here. If I can’t be the best in the world then what am I doing this for?”
The fight with Spohn is one of four on the card featuring two title holders under the Alliance MMA banner. Berzin is the CFFC light heavyweight champ while Spohn comes in the Iron TIger Fight Series heavyweight champ. Regardless of titles though, Berzin looks at this fight as just another step toward his bigger goal.
“The way I like to explain it to people is I have a goal. I want to be UFC champion of the world. The goal is all the way over there. But to go in a straight line it’s really hard to do. You’re going to veer off constantly until eventually you get to your destination if you work hard enough. The closer you get to it the further away it seems to be. Another way - say you want to save a million dollars. $50,000? A little bit easier. $1000 is even easier. $100 bucks is even easier and $20 is way easier than that. I call them microgoals to get to your main goal. The more microgoals you set for yourself, the better chance you’re going to reach your bigger goal and not veer off. The CFFC belt is good because it’s keeping me straight. It’s a microgoal that’s keeping me straight. For me the way I look at it is the UFC is the main goal. To do that I have to retain the CFFC belt.”
Tickets on sale for Cage Fury's next event
CFFC 69 on December 16 back at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa
Lutfi Sariahmed has been covering Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in some capacity since 2008, primarily with Sherdog. He's covered local NJ MMA promotions including Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships.