Why you should care

Because this man is an unlikely puncher, in more ways than one.

Welcome to The Punchline, a series focused on mixed martial arts helmed by editor-at-large and fight fanatic Eugene S. Robinson.

The fact that 27-year-old, Iranian-born Assyrian-American Christian Beneil Dariush could show up on any given day wearing a shirt emblazoned with a likeness of, yes, Beneil Dariush, already places him in the rarest of classes: people who, without any irony, are unabashed believers in the restorative powers of self-belief.

Watching five minutes of him in the cage at his last lightweight bow in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, you can see why.

“There are athletes, and then there are fighters,” says Denver-based attorney and avid fight watcher Chris Duncan. “But you get a fighter who’s also a skilled athlete and you got murder on wheels.” At UFC 199, held this June in Inglewood, California, approximately 4 minutes and 16 seconds into round one, facing off against the undefeated 6-foot-3 James Vick, Dariush put a finer point on this when he knocked Vick into his first loss.

Back that up.

He was a late replacement, and stands 5-foot-10. Which means he was booked to replace an injured fighter, barely had time to prepare for the fight and knocked the guy who had prepared for it for months — albeit against a different fighter — on to Twilight Street. “Vick was undefeated because of his reach and size advantage,” says Danny Acosta, an MMA radio host at SiriusXM Radio. “But grit, that Dariush loves chess and that he trained with pace-pushing former champion Rafael dos Anjos? That’s how you get people calling you the future.”

That future began not long ago, in 2007, when the Iranian transplant (he emigrated when he was 9) and former high school wrestler decided to try his hand at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ). BJJ, a fairly comprehensive ground-based martial art, can form a steady template for smaller fighters defeating larger fighters — especially when the opponent is trying to take the small guy’s head off with haymakers.

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Dariush punches Jim Miller in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event in April 2015.

Source Josh Hedges/Zuffa/Getty Images

“I just took it to stay in shape,” Dariush says on a call from his fight camp on Mammoth Mountain, where he was spending hard training days preparing for a recent scrap with wrecking machine Rashid Magomedov, 19–1, who hails from the Republic of Dagestan (a federal subject of Russia, for those unaware). “I was training to be an accountant,” he tells us. But as the best laid plans of mice and men often fall asunder, two years into his studies, his family stumbled into dire financial straits and hard choices had to be made.

“I come from a family of professors, lawyers, doctors,” says Dariush. “And I was one year away from my business management degree, but my mother asked me for help and so it was a 9-to-5 or …” So with two years of training under his belt (and the previous four of high school wrestling), Dariush jumped both feet first into MMA. His time spent doing the “gentle” sport of BJJ obscures some fairly significant points about an entry into the more brutal endeavor of MMA, though, the most noteworthy being that when he transitioned from wrestling to BJJ, he never did it easily or casually. Nah, he was all in. Like insanely in. Twice-a-day training sessions, often lasting up to two hours a pop, got him his black belt in five years — most moderately talented players take at least a decade. So that, and a treasure trove of world championship medals, saw him coming into the MMA arena maybe more than just a little prepared.

It showed. A steady spool of victories followed in disturbingly rapid succession and in the five years between 2009 and 2014, Dariush saw seven wins. Five of them in the first round. His opponents never really saw him coming. Not until Ramsey Nijem, who, in mid-2014, put Dariush out in the first round, a perfect wake-up call and one that gave birth to a fighter renewed. In the case of Dariush, that meant doubling down and amping up a training regime that would have killed the “average” fighter, never mind a professional one.

“Four months later, he came out against Tony Martin like a tsunami,” says Duncan. “I was frightened for Martin.” Duncan’s feeling has lasted for many fight fans despite Dariush getting choked out later by Michael Chiesa — his second loss, which came in a flood of six more wins. With wins came attention. Dariush has now made the move into local hero and opened his own gym in Anaheim. His mother, an initial skeptic, but the one who not so indirectly got him heading down this road, has at last come around.

“Not me,” says Kid Nate, league manager at SB Nation. “I like him, but I just never saw him beating [Ruslan] Magomedov. No matter how much grit he’s got. Sometimes it takes five years to be great, but more likely than not, it takes longer and is a lot harder than anyone outside of the cage knows.” That’s an assessment sort of shared by Dariush. “This sport changes you, and if you’re not careful it’ll change you for the worse,” Dariush says. “Fans can change you, money can change you, and really those can’t be your ultimate goal.”

Which should be?

“Being less selfish. Good energy.” Dariush, who grew up living across Syria, Iraq and Iran — and actually speaks Christ’s native tongue, Aramaic — winds up. “And putting Jesus in the center.”

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