This is number sixty-four in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature veteran UFC light heavyweight, Cyrille Diabaté. A French kickboxer and mixed martial artist, Diabaté, at age thirty-nine, is a well-traveled fighter who is still in the prime of his career. Just three years and seven fights into his time in the UFC, Diabaté has more wins than losses. A veteran of Pride FC and a longtime training partner of Dan Henderson, “The Snake” is still very dangerous. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Cyrille Diabaté: My first experience was starting Savate French kickboxing and Muay Thai at the age of eighteen. I was hooked straight away and wanted to compete. I had my first kickboxing fight three months after starting, and I was French amateur champ nine months after.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, a TKO win at Golden Trophy 1999, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
CD: Actually there are a few fights not recorded on Sherdog. My first Golden Trophy fight was the quarterfinals of a heavyweight tournament in 1996! Back then, it was Pancrase rules. I won my three fights and the tournament. It was the first time I made the front page of a magazine. I had no ground skills at the time and relied only on my Muay Thai. Luckily for me, back then, BJJ wasn’t as big as it is today.
JB: In the earlier part of your career, you fought in both MMA and kickboxing simultaneously. What were your most satisfying performances as a kickboxer?
CD: I had a few good stand-up wars in some bareknuckle karate tournaments that I won, and I also had some great fights in Holland. One of my favorites was my win against Rick “The Jet” Roufus, as he was one of my favorite kickboxers when I started fighting.
JB: In 2006, you had what still might be the highest profile fight of your career, a matchup with Mauricio Rua in Pride FC. How did that fight come about, and what did you learn from that experience against the legendary Shogun?
CD: Well I had been fighting in Japan for a few years in some smaller shows like Shootboxing and Deep Impact. I had won all of my fights and naturally my manager was in contact with Pride FC. I was out with an injury (slipped disk in my neck), and enjoying my holidays in Croatia, when my manager called me and offered a fight against Alistair Overeem in Pride. The fight would be in three weeks, and back then, Alistair was my size. I really didn’t have much choice, knowing that opportunities like that are rare. So I said yes. I flew back home two days later to train, and I found out that my opponent had been switched to Shogun.
Being able to fight in Pride was great as it was really one of my main goals at the time. I knew I didn’t have much cardio because of the short time to prepare so I tried my best to hurt him early in the fight. He took me down and wore me out before stomping me. My neck and face didn’t like it.
JB: You finally entered the UFC in 2010, with a victory over Luiz Cane at UFC 114. What was it like to debut in the UFC and to get that victory?
CD: It was another great feeling. It’s hard coming from a country where the MMA scene and fighters are virtually unknown. MMA is still illegal in France, and it seems like it’s a lot harder for us to get shots at the big shows. Hopefully in the future things will change and you'll see a lot more French fighters get opportunities. We have some great talent here in France.
JB: You are currently 4-3 in the UFC. We last saw you fight back in February, against Jimi Manuwa, when, unfortunately, you were unable to continue after the first round due to injury. How has your recovery gone and when do you hope to fight again?
CD: I have suffered a long time from tendinitis in my Achilles tendon, and in the locker room warming up for the fight, I felt a tear in the tendon while kicking the pads. It was pretty painful but bearable. Then early on in the first round, I felt a tear in my calf. That was really painful. It felt like someone had stabbed me in the leg. From then on, it kept on getting worse. I couldn’t continue and lost. The doctor at the English hospital said that he didn’t see much! But I found out, after returning to France for some exams, that I had a five-inch split in my Achilles tendon and a tear in my calf muscle. I've been rehabbing ever since. It’s taking some time just because I had to let the tears heal before starting all the exercising. Apparently I'm a few weeks away from being able to train normally.
JB: Of all the other light heavyweights in the UFC, who do you most respect or admire and who are the fighters that you would most like to face?
CD: Well it’s hard to say. I respect and admire a lot of fighters, but I love Hendo's heart and faith in himself. His competing at that level, having the drive at his age, and getting those results, sends a message out to a lot of people. Will can do miracles.
JB: You have trained internationally with many of the greats in MMA over the years. Who have been some of the training partners and coaches that have really helped you evolve as a fighter?
CD: All my buddies from Team Quest, Temecula, helped me regain confidence in my skills and confidence does wonders for me. Same thing when I trained with my buddies from Alliance MMA. The MMA scene in France is small compared to the U.S., so it’s good to get out and see what goes on outside sometimes.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
CD: I love going to the movies, video games, eating out with friends, and partying, like any other regular guy. I love travelling and I get to travel a lot with my fighters as a coach for the Snake Team, my MMA gym here in Paris. I've always had great support from my team members and that’s where I get a lot of my strength from.
JB: Last question, Cyrille, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
CD: Being a fighter has made me a better person. The path to becoming an accomplished fighter is bound to make you better. That’s what I try to teach my students at the gym, and for me that’s what being a fighter is really all about.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow @CyrilleDiabate and @Jackjohnbrown on Twitter.
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