As in every job and in most hobbies, there are good and bad days. There are days which make you want to lose your mind stressing over the most random things you can think of. However, most of the days will give you the inspiration to pursuit your goals and dreams and realize that you still love what you do, be it for living or for the fun of it. Interviewing Josh Emmett, top 10 ranked featherweight in the UFC currently, and listening to his life story gave me goosebumps and will always serve as a reminder of what every single one of us is capable of doing when there is nothing but sharp focus in our minds. Let’s dig in!
I want to start with your MMA beginnings. You were wrestling for 11 years prior to the MMA world. When did you realize you wanted to be a fighter, when did you realize you wanted to wrestle and how did it all work out in the beginning?
I think I’ve been an athlete my entire life and I’ve done sports since I was a little kid. I got into wrestling when I was in 7th grade just because one of my best friends and his brothers wrestled. I went in there to give it a shot, even though I didn’t want to do it at first. I was a strong kid and I was pinning everybody down and went undefeated in my first year wrestling. When I went to high school, I was the only freshman to wrestle on the varsity team. After that, I continued to get better and better! I was going to wrestling camps in the summer to get even better, doing freestyle and Grecko in the off-season. I went to state my senior year and did pretty well. My plan was to go to the army all along!
What made you change your mind? What made you decide you wanted to be a professional athlete?
It was three weeks up to a month before the training. I got a call from a junior college wrestling coach from Sacramento, David Pochenko, who wanted me to wrestle for Sacramento City College, also already taking care of my classes. I remembered my high school coach John Felix, who told me to use wrestling as a tool to pay for your education and get you places in life. This was what I was thinking about when I made the decision to go and wrestle and I think it panned out in the long run. Ever since high school I’ve been a huge mixed martial arts fan. Me and my best friend were watching the UFC before it even became mainstream, ordering pay-per-views. I wanted to do it and I knew I could do it! After junior college, I had a lot of offers to wrestle in four-year level and after two years of working I realized I needed to get my degree, in case the fighting didn’t work out. When Urijah Faber opened his gym, I started going there because I wanted to try it out. After a few months Urijah came up to me and asked if I wanted to fight, because he sees a lot of potential in me. Then I started doing practices with pros, who weren’t even in the UFC, but they were still getting the better of me. I got the offer to go to Menlo College in 2007 and decided to go there and even got better at wrestling there! I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology and wrestled there for 3 years. I made it to the nationals and was top 10 in the country. When I returned to Sacramento in 2010, I picked up where I stopped in Urijah’s gym.
Returning from college, with additional wrestling experience, how did it all look? Was it easier for you to deal with the guys there?
I actually did a bit of MMA with some of my friends who were fighters, like Cody Gibson, Lee Morrison, Carla Esparza, who were fighting anyways. When I got back to Sacramento I was doing more BJJ, started working on my striking. At the time I started working over the weekends on 16-hours shifts living my wife at our best friends’ house, who believed in me. I won my two amateur fights and decided to go pro. I told myself that if I lost any of my amateur fights that I would not continue to fight and would try to find a new job. In my first pro fight, I actually broke my hand because of a punch from the wrong angle which sidelined me for 10 months. After injuring my hand at the exact same spot, I had the second surgery and was out until late 2013. That is when I had my second pro fight and after that I was just trying to stay as active as possible. My only goal was to fight in the UFC, even though I had offers from other promotions. I almost got on the Ultimate Fighter twice but they didn’t select me for some reason. It even got to the point that people would not fight me because of my record and the team I come from. I was fighting UFC veterans, fighters with 20+ pro fights and it got to the point where if I lost any of those fights, I was done. I was one of the best prospects, I was next in line for the UFC and with my age if I’ve lost a fight it would take me a year or two to possibly make it to the UFC, and that wasn’t a guarantee. After fighting Christos Giagos in 2016 for the WFC lightweight title, I was to first guy to KO him and I was 9-0. I had another fight booked when I got a call from Joe Silva to take a fight in Rotterdam because someone was injured. I took that fight on 4-days notice. That first day, I didn’t even sleep with the time zone difference and the excitement. I got one of the worst injuries in UFC history in my debut against John Tuck, suffering a compound fracture I had to hide from the ref, because I was dominating the fight and nobody was taking my dream!
When you got the call from the UFC, how did it feel? What was your first reaction, did you believe it?
It was crazy! I was training at the gym and everyone was calling me when someone called the gym. I thought something bad has happened and it was Joe Silva who offered me a match in the Netherlands. I didn’t know when or who I was fighting, I was just like “Yeah, let’s do it!”. I was so excited that I forgot to ask him who I was fighting and when I did, he started joking that it was going to be Brock Lesnar (laugh). It was John Tuck, of course. I knew what I was going to do but everyone else underestimated me. I don’t even know how that came to the split decision because I was dominating him for three rounds.
Are you focusing more on body weight exercises now that you moved to featherweight? What is your walking weight, off-competition?
I was always staying in shape because I knew the UFC call was on the way, and when I was supposed to debut in Rotterdam, I had 172-173 pounds, which I had to cut in three days to make it to lightweight. I was lifting more at that time but now that I’ve been fighting at 145 I didn’t even lift weights for a year. I did a lot of body weight stuff, a lot of endurance, cycling, swimming, running, whatever I needed to lose some muscle. I’m starting to do weights again but not that much just to keep it explosive. I do heavy weights but only 2-3 reps and I take plenty of time.
How often do you spar, both when you’re in-camp and off-camp?
I’ll usually spar to help out teammates. When I fought Michael Johnson, I got back to the gym on Tuesday and was sparring on Wednesday! I was helping Clay Guida get ready because he needed help for his fight. Then I returned from Rio and got started my camp for Bektić and right after the fight, on Monday, I was back in the gym helping him prepare for Jim Miller. I don’t spar at 100% until I have a fight booked but when I do, I usually spar on Wednesdays, doing 5-6 MMA rounds of pretty decent hard sparring. Sometimes I go to CSA, which is an hour and a half drive from Sacramento, where I do light sparring with a lot of people from that team. On Fridays I usually, when I’m camp, do my boxing sparring with some of the pro boxers, which is my favorite but also the hardest sparring I get because we’re literally fighting every Friday and it simulates that fight. When I get into the ring and my opponent’s not throwing punches non-stop from every angle and they don’t hit as hard as boxers, that’s when I have the ‘feeling out process’, seeing how hard they can hit , get to the clinch to see how strong they are and I know real quick that it’s only a matter of time.
What is impressive about your fights is that with your wrestling pedigre, you often rely on striking. Why is that?
Just because we’re in the entertainment business and I know what fans want to see! People that know the sport can appreciate the wrestling, the grappling transitions but most of them just want to see people stand up and box with 4-ounce gloves and see big knockouts. And that’s the reason why I feel like I got to where I am so fast too, because I feel like I’m an exciting fighter and I try to be exciting. For every punch or kick I throw, I’m trying to finish the fight. As soon as the bell rings, I hope the first punch I land will knock him out. I think that’s why I’ve risen so fast and I think I have a pretty decent fan base all over and every time I’m on a card they’ll watch me because I’m going to look to finish, I’m not a boring fighter. I feel like I could do that, if I wanted to get a take down I would use pressure, pressure, pressure and grind it out. But it would be boring and it would be booed, and it wouldn’t get in these co-main or main event slots.
When we look at the featherweight rankings right now, it is a serious division. With Max being the undisputed champ, who would you want to fight next?
The rankings don’t mean anything to me. All people in the top 10 right now have fights booked, except two guys in the top 3, Brian Ortega and Jose Aldo and I’m hoping to get one of them by the end of the year. They’re both phenomenal but I got into this sport wanting to be a world champion, I feel like I’m one of the best fighters on the planet and I need these fighters that have a big name and are proven so that I can prove it to the world.
How do you feel about new prospects, Zabit for example?
He’s great and up-and-coming. His fight with Kattar is going to be very good. He’s exciting to watch. I’m still a fan of mixed martial arts, I watch all of the fights and enjoy them.
If you are fighting a BJJ guy or a boxer, would you rather feel them out in their fundamentals or would stick to your comfort zone?
It’s the same thing. I feel like I could stand with anyone in there. Tuck was a super accomplished BJJ black belt, Abu Dhabi champion and I felt I could’ve gone to the ground with him. I have good jiu-jitsu background and I can roll with anyone. I fought a lot of the guys that were strikers, knockout artists and would stand with them and get the better of them. I only have one jiu-jitsu tournament and it’s a world championships and I took first place.
As a featherweight, how many pounds do you roughly put on in between the weigh-ins and the fight? Do you feel that fighters gain certain advantages with gaining weight and do you believe it should be regulated in some way, shape or form?
Usually I fight between 160-170. No, because everybody is going to do this regardless. If you can make the weight, who cares. Especially now, a lot of people are doing it correctly since we have the tools. Working with the UFC Performance Institute, nutritionists, doctors, sponsors who tell me the food I need to eat and when I should eat it. If you have all the tools and are working with some of the best, I feel like you could do a lot more, because it’s all down to science – body composition. If you put in the work, train hard, eat right, don’t cheat the process, you can accomplish these goals and that’s what I’ve been doing. I have a shorter window than some of these younger guys, so I want to maximize my time that I do have left in the sport and I want to take it 100% serious so I can accomplish big things and kind of set up my family for the future.
What are your plans when you’re done fighting? Do you have anything in mind?
I’m not too sure, I’m hoping that if I can accomplish goals that I’ve set out to, that I’m on track to, then we’ll figure it out when we. I have a lot of connections so I can get a regular job but I don’t really want to do that. Whether I’m involved in some companies or if I could partner up with people to do certain things, I want to do some stuff in real estate, because I don’t have a retirement. I could get a regular job with a decent salary tomorrow but it’s just the freedom of fighting, it’s the reason why I love it. Play hard, work hard, it’s the lifestyle I’m hoping to continue to do even without fighting. Just finding something I love, then it doesn’t feel like work or like a regular 8/5 job doing some stupid work and working like that for 25-30 years. I want to enjoy what I’m doing and have the freedom to do what I want, make my own schedule and make money in the process.
Since we’ve witnessed many of the MMA greats walking out on their back, how would you want to go out? What would be your ideal last fight, your ideal walk-away from the game?
It depends. If I could write it out perfect, I win that world title, defend it a handful of times, then relinquish the belt, go out on top. I wouldn’t want to get beat up in front of the world, lose fight after fight. I would go out like Georges Saint-Pierre did, as a champion who relinquished the title. Urijah Faber retired two and a half years ago after a win, came back and won another fight. That would be my perfect scenario, going out on top!