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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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Captain Eric takes a victory lap

Eric Albarracin has been with UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo the whole way, so forgive him for smiling as he watches the rest of us catch up to what he’s long known.

After Henry Cejudo finished off T.J. Dillashaw in Brooklyn, his longtime training partner and friend Eric Albarracin got loud. With a broad smile that pushed his trademark white-rimmed glasses high up his nose, he was letting everyone in and around the Octagon know that his guy had done the unthinkable. Cejudo had not only taken out the greatest flyweight champion of all time, Demetrious Johnson, now he had delivered on his encore — a quick knockout of the betting favorite, Dillashaw.

“How do you like that?” he was yelling. “How do you like that?” he yelled at the media table as he walked back to the locker room. Albarracin kept telling everyone it would happen and it did. He was just reiterating his original declaration from an evolved point of view.

The one in which he was right. And why wouldn’t he share in his friend’s accomplishments?

Albarracin has been with Cejudo in some capacity since 2004, going back to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Back then Cejudo, only 17 at the time, was brought in as the women’s training partner. Cejudo had no money at the time, no car, and no food in his dorm “except a couple of Pop Tarts.” Back then it was usually “three hots and a cot,” but not around the holidays. The cafeteria would shut down, just like it did that first Thanksgiving. Albarracin, a stud wrestler who shined at Arizona State and with the Army, offered Cejudo a place at his table.

Photo via Eric Albarracin

That was the beginning. The two have floated in and out of each other’s orbits ever since. Over the last couple of years, they have become one of the same unit. It’s why when Albarracin talks about Cejudo’s title takeover, he speaks of it in the royal “we.” When Cejudo talks about the next goal, it becomes the majestic “our.” Albarracin has more than earned his share in the pronoun.

And he didn’t stop beaming at Barclays that night after Cejudo defended not only his flyweight title, but the flyweight division. He flew across the country to Los Angeles to attend a Karate Combat event, then immediately boarded a plane for Brazil to go help his other charge, Patricky Freire, prepare for this weekend’s fight against Ryan Scope at Bellator Newcastle. Now he’s in England to corner Patricky. It’s been a victory lap of passports, security lines and oceans passing below, and through it all Albarracin keeps uttering the same five syllables for anybody that’ll listen.

“Thirty-two seconds!” That’s how long it took Cejudo to finish Dillashaw.

Thirty-two seconds.

He can’t stop saying it because, whether you liked the stoppage or not, it’s what happened. Dillashaw lasted just 32 seconds.

Is it possible that the fight was stopped too quickly? Albarracin doesn’t think so. He saw Cejudo’s speed advantage, and he’s always believed in Cejudo’s heart — but he positively revels in the show of strength. “We pushed him down,” he says. “Who ever handles Dillashaw like that?” That’s the secret Albarracin has been privy too. His little bulldozer flexed. That’s why he gets so animated now that the secret is out. Cejudo is a beast for real. Albarracin has been saying it all along, but now people have the required evidence.

And it all happened so fast at the Barclays that Albarracin had barely settled into his spot in the corner when the first blows landed. He found himself on the coattails of the action.

“We had two buckets of ice and water,” he says. “Just when we sat down, I was like, ‘Hey, where’s the bucket?’ We were still sorting things out, ‘you guys sit here, you sit here, where are the buckets for the interval,’ getting everything situated. Because, nothing usually happens in the first few seconds of a fight. I was doing all that, looking for the bucket, then I looked up and realized I missed the first three strikes. Henry was already into his second knockdown of T.J. Dillashaw when I looked up, so I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is going to end fast!’”

That part was a tad disheartening, but the fight itself — the pebble that turned into avalanche that swept Dillashaw under — didn’t feel anticlimactic from where Albarracin stood. Even if he knew Cejudo didn’t get to showcase the full range of his talents from all those weeks of training.

“No, no, not all,” he says.

Then he slips back into the beautiful fog of war.

“Thirty two seconds against the greatest bantamweight of all-time,” he says. “The guy that knocked out Cody Garbrandt twice, the guy that beat Renan Barao, the guy that should have beaten Dominick Cruz, and we did that to him?”

Now a belly laugh.

“I’m not going to lie, T.J.’s amazing. He brings a lot to the table,” Albarracin said. “They called him the most complete fighter in the game. They said pound-for-pound, this is one of the best — if not the best — and Henry goes out starches him in 32 seconds. There’s nothing anticlimactic about it.”

Albarracin appeared on The MMA Hour following Cejudo’s win over Dillashaw.

Who is this fun-sized tempest of a man? He’s an ally, and a conscience for Cejudo. Albarracin spent his early childhood in New York, where his father — a first generation Colombian-American — was a barber. He moved to Arizona in the fourth grade, and then to Florida after his parents got divorced a couple of years later. He spent his teenage years in Florida wrestling, getting good. Getting stubborn, determined, then great.

“My dad stayed back in Arizona after my parents got divorced,” he says. “At that time ASU was on top of the world, ranked No. 1, national champs a couple of years earlier. I wanted to walk on at the No. 1 school in the nation, and it happened to be in Arizona where my dad already lived.”

So he returned to Arizona to become one of the famous “Sunkist Kids” who wore the pitchforked devil on the singlet, in part because he saw a mentor at the head of the program.

“I wanted to be coached by Bobby Douglas, one of the greatest coaches of all-time, if not the greatest,” he says. “That’s where I wanted to go, to where the best train. So I walked on there. Then a couple of years later I was on the national team and training for the Olympics.”

Albarracin glosses over his rise in the wrestling world, as if it was a thing not to be fussed over. He glosses over his own accomplishments — making the national team by his sophomore year at ASU, winning university nationals three times, being part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and later an officer in charge of Modern Army Combatives — because he enjoys the here and now too much, where it all led. That is, to coaching.

A lot of that scaffolding came from Coach Douglas, the two-time Olympic medalist who defeated Dan Gable during the Olympic Trials in 1968.

“He was not only a coach, but he was a teacher,” Albarracin says. “He has his teaching degree. That’s something he always preached, you can’t just go from wrestling to be a coach without having studied for it. I didn’t get a teaching degree at ASU, but while I was in the military I took instructor courses. It was almost the same as in college because it was eight hours a day, four to six weeks. Eight hours a day for a month straight.”

These days Albarracin is vague about his age. He’s vague about the dates. He doesn’t necessarily want to be tied to any era, but insists on being fully in the moment. He has a kind of joie de vivre that isn’t exactly synonymous with the serious business of fighting. Bespectacled and small in stature, he doesn’t look like he can kick anybody’s ass. There’s a warning, though, in his omnipresent smile that tells you he knows better. It could have been him. He could have fought in a cage. Under the right circumstances, if things had been a certain way — if the trends had matched up to his prime, and the breaks broke differently — maybe it would have been.

“I was a 119-pound wrestler, a flyweight, and at the time the lowest weight class was welterweight,” he says, with no trace of regret. “I grew up watching the UFC, initially because of Royce Gracie. I don’t remember if we watched it live…it might have been a tape. Dan Severn came on board, he was a Sun Devil and I was a Sun Devil. So all the Sun Devils got together, and we’ve been watching it ever since. We’ve had teammates like Randy Couture and Mark Kerr and Dan Henderson. All these guys got into MMA, and they were all my teammates from the Sunkist Kids.

“I followed MMA since the beginning, because the first wrestler in MMA was Dan Severn from ASU, which is my alma mater. ”

Photo via Eric Albarracin

It’s more than a vicarious ride he’s on. Albarracin has a mindset to get the most of out his fighters. He has a command of the room. And he has a passion for the grind that becomes infectious.

“As a captain in the Army, you’re in charge of your soldiers, and you’ve got to take care of them and their families, and you’ve got to take charge when it comes to the hand-to-hand combat system that we were teaching,” he says. “So I think a lot of it came from there, and just being passionate. My dad was a barber, so he was a man of service. I’m the same way.

“Ninety percent of my day has nothing to do with wrestling or MMA. Just recently I had to write an immigration letter. Sometimes you’ve got to be a bank, sometimes you’ve got to be a sport’s psychologist, sometimes a lawyer — there’s a lot of hats you wear as a coach. Sometimes you’ve even got to be an agent, trying to close deals.”

The man has spent time in three continents in the last two weeks, some 15,000 miles of travel, yet he never appears to fatigue. “If I could be in three different places at once,” he says with unnatural exuberance, “I would.”

Albarracin has been like that since he officially retired in 2007. He has been tied at the hip with Cejudo for a long, long time — and says he knew it was headed somewhere. He was in Guatemala with him in 2006. He was in Lithuania. He was with him for his Olympic gold medal in Beijing. He was with him in spirit when Cejudo segued from the mats to the boxing ring, where he won the Golden Gloves twice before he was old enough to legally rent a car.

And he was with him when the idea began to hatch of a career in mixed martial arts, right after the Olympic trials in 2012. Cejudo busted out of the gate furiously, going 5-0 in 2013, then 5-0 over the next two years (including a perfect 4-0 in the UFC). Albarracin lent a hand in Cejudo’s first fight with Demetrious Johnson, which went down as his first loss. It was also a huge learning moment. So was the subsequent split-decision loss against Joseph Benavidez.

It wasn’t until the rematch with Johnson — the changing of the guard fight at UFC 227, in which Cejudo did the unthinkable — that Albarracin ran the full camp. He had training partner Bruno “The Bulldog” Silva mimic Johnson’s movements in the lead-up, and dialed Cejudo in. But more importantly, he had Cejudo change stances, which has proven invaluable through his recent run.

Cejudo had seen Patricio Freire bewitch Benson Henderson with a karate stance in Aug. 2016 before a leg injury forced a premature end to the fight. Albarracin called it a revelation for Cejudo to see how effective the right stance could be.

“That’s one of the evolutions he underwent, the karate stance. It started when I brought him down here to Brazil,” Albarracin says. “He went to Patricio Pitbull’s karate coach, his name is Mano Santana, and I said you’ve got to come down here and check this out. He tried the style, and that was the first part of his evolution.”

With Cejudo’s wrestling ability and heavy hands, the narrow stance on the feet — blading, as Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson likes to call it — he has run through some of the toughest fighters in his weight vicinity. Wilson Reis? Boom. TKO. Sergio Pettis? Boom. Unanimous decision. The all-mighty Demetrious Johnson? Boom. Out-blurring the blur, out-desiring desire’s greatest exemplar. T.J. Dillashaw? Boom. A blitz of speed and strength and the Bella Twins on line 2.

“We just beat the GOAT, followed up by beating T.J. Dillashaw in 32 seconds,” he says, as if the thought is still dawning on him from even now.

Thirty-two seconds. Boom boom boom.

UFC Fight Night Cejudo v Dillashaw Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“Henry’s a conqueror,” Albarracin says. “He likes to conquer things. I could see Henry fighting for that 135-pound belt next, beating T.J. again. But I could see him returning to flyweight and defending it a couple of times.”

Then he laughs, yet again — this time without any intention of coughing up the exact thing that’s on his mind.

“I have an idea of Henry fighting a 145er too, and he’s a legend,” he says. “I’m not going to say who, because Henry doesn’t want me to say who, but I think if we get the 135 belt and we can play around a little bit — going down, going back up — but I have one fight in mind, a ‘45-pounder, to add another notch to our belt. Maybe in the next year-and-a-half or so.”

Oh yes, the majestic “our,” the royal “we.” He doesn’t even realize he’s saying it. The careers and venues just blend together, the miles get logged; the sweat during training sessions becomes indistinguishable from one brow to the next.

“I must be saying it unconsciously, because when I write it down in like a post or something, I go back and take it out,” he says. “You know how the trolls are. It’s not yoursyou’re not in there fighting. I get that.”

Photo via Eric Albarracin

Then again, Eric Albarracin — the force behind so much of Cejudo’s ultimate success, and particularly the behind-the-scenes pain — has no trouble explaining what goes into an “our.”

“You know, when you pour your heart and soul into these guys…I had him for 10 years. I’ve had him from 2008 until now. He wasn’t No. 1 back then, and he went and got knocked out by the guy who was. He was a 4-to-1 underdog coming back for the second time against Johnson, and we stuck by each other. We put it all on the line. That’s a long time.”

Now those white-rimmed glasses go high up on his nose, as he raises his eyebrows.

“Henry gave up his wrestling career [for this],” he says. “He was the youngest ever, he could have went and got three medals. Everyone was against him for that, that he left wrestling to pursue something else.

“But when he won UFC gold, it put all that doubt to rest. I was there for all of it. So yeah, it feels like I say ‘our,’ because we’ve been. We ride together, we die together.”


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