To hear Dillon Danis tell it, he is already the highest-paid and most popular fighter in Bellator MMA, may well be running the place soon and is the public face of his chosen martial art. In the media lead-up to his professional mixed martial arts debut at Bellator 198 this Saturday in Chicago, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu star has been raising eyebrows with a blend of hyperbolic self-promotion and sincere self-belief that cannot help but remind one of friend and training partner Conor McGregor.
Danis’ first encounter with the “Notorious” Ultimate Fighting Championship superstar was when he was invited to help prepare McGregor for his August 2016 rematch with Nate Diaz. That relationship has blossomed on a personal level to the point that Danis was the one who posted McGregor’s bail after his arrest in New York earlier this month. On a professional level, Danis conducted his primary training for his debut fight at McGregor’s home gym, SBG Ireland. SBG head coach John Kavanagh will be in Danis’ corner for his 175-pound catchweight debut against Kyle Walker. Danis asserts that the transition from being training partner to a fighter in training was effortless.
“It’s never really about one person [at SBG],” Danis told Sherdog.com. “Everybody’s a team and everybody has the big goal of getting better. Everyone there is destined to be a world champion, everyone has the mindset of a world champion, so it’s a good environment to be in. We all just go into training and everybody’s helping each other.”
If Danis plans to model his in-cage approach after McGregor, he may have an appropriate skill set to do so. While McGregor’s in-cage taunting and head games derive their efficacy from his diverse, sophisticated and aggressive striking, Danis made his name in the jiu-jitsu world as a combative, exciting grappler who was bent on the finish. He is also a sometimes-combative personality who has engaged in high-profile rivalries with several of his fellow top grapplers in recent years. Danis is confident that both elements will carry over to his mixed martial arts career.
“It’s kill or be killed, that’s how I’ve always been. I’m going to march forward, and I’m going to be talking to [Walker],” Danis said. “I’m going to be right in his face and I’m going to say, ‘What have you got?’”
Danis’ outsized personality can at times seem to leave little room for anything else, and his assertions at times beggar belief. For instance, he has repeatedly claimed to be Bellator’s highest-paid competitor. While that sounds outlandish on a roster with the likes of Quinton Jackson, Chael Sonnen and Fedor Emelianenko, Danis’ straight-faced assurance makes it sound almost plausible in the moment. However, the Marcelo Garcia black belt sounds inspired, even reverent, when it comes to the idea of representing Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the mixed martial arts cage. It is evident that the “gym wars” and style-versus-style matchups of the pre- and proto-MMA eras have made a deep impression on him.
“Yeah, I do feel [that I’m representing jiu-jitsu],” Danis said. “Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Gracie jiu-jitsu, is something that’s been in my life so long. Jiu-jitsu is who I am. I always felt like I would have loved to do those Gracie challenges. I would watch those Gracie in Action [videos] and I would see those guys defending the art, those gym fights.”
Danis’ tone suggests that he feels like part of a rich history, something larger than himself. However, he does not downplay his own perceived role in that history.
“I feel like I’m representing jiu-jitsu, like I’m the face of jiu-jitsu, like anybody in the street wouldn’t know anybody in jiu-jitsu besides me, [so] I’m going to represent it well.”
Danis’ studied self-assurance is such that he can appear to contradict himself. In an interview with “The MMA Hour” last month, he bristled at anyone who might think he was not taking his MMA debut seriously. He then cheerfully claimed to know next to nothing about his upcoming opponent, all within the space of a few minutes. Asked if he still knew very little about Walker less than two weeks out from the fight, Danis’ response is similar in its sanguine confidence but different in nuance.
“I’ve been telling [people] this since I was a kid: There is no opponent,” Danis said. “You’re against yourself, and once people understand what that means, I feel they will truly unlock their potential. Sometimes you look at some footage of your opponent, see what he has, but ultimately, you’re against yourself in there.”
As far as potential future matchups are concerned, Danis appears to think not in terms of next steps but of an overall trajectory, one which ends with him at the top of the sport. More than at any other point, the 24-year-old sounds like McGregor.
“No, I haven’t even thought about [a next opponent] or even any names,” Danis said. “Everybody is focused on me, though. Even at Bellator, even the champions probably want to fight me, because I’m the only name in Bellator. [Right] now, I’m the most popular fighter, going in 0-0, so I can’t even imagine … after four fights, or even this fight, I’ll probably run Bellator.
“As I like to say, or even as the team likes to say: Winners focus on winning, and losers focus on winners,” he added. “Everybody’s focused on me right now. I see everybody’s calling me out, and I’m just focused on what I have to do. All these guys [talking about me] should be focused on what they have to do.”