Some humans find their passions early. Those people are the lucky few, although that term doesn’t feel right to describe folks who put a hell of a lot of work into being “lucky.” Maybe “select” is better, but that denotes some preordained fate, and when one thinks about the conscious choices that a human makes throughout their lives, well, fate doesn’t do those folks justice either.
Danny Durnavich’s story begins in South Chicago, where he found a youth wrestling team. In high school, he continued in the sport. He did well, but never really thought it would take him anywhere. After school, he joined the Air Force and became a member of the Phoenix Ravens, an elite team that provide security for missions to areas in hostile territory and/or carrying high-level assets.
While stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, home of CENTCOM and other high-level DOD and military installations, Durnavich became friends with a fellow named Scott Thompson. Thompson trained in mixed martial arts at Highlander MMA, a gym known for producing fighters, not just practitioners.
Thompson had a fight, so Durnavich went to watch. At the after party, Mike Yanez, the head coach and owner of Highlander, liked what he saw and kept asking him, “Danny, when are you going to come train?”
Durnavich only had a few weeks before a deployment to the Middle East, so he said, “When I get back.” True to his word, he found Thompson upon his return to Tampa, Fla.
So far, so normal. But here is where it gets different.
After two weeks of training, Durnavich went to a jiu-jitsu tournament and took home two golds in the white-belt division. Coach Yanez is known for testing his fighters via competition. So, just one week later, Yanez had Durnavich compete in his first amateur fight. He didn’t win by out-wrestling or out-grappling his opponent. He won by first-round knockout. Just five weeks later, he won via first-round knockout again.
Durnavich’s first fight occured in June 2016. Now, just 16 months later, his amateur record stands at 7-1. The loss came at the hands of the still-undefeated Gregg Ellis, a welterweight who held the World Class Fight League belt until he vacated it to go pro this year.
Florida produces some of the best amateur promotions in the nation. Durnavich has faced some of the best from XFN, Combat Night, WCFL and, more recently, V3Fights. However, he hasn’t only been tested in the deep Florida waters.
Durnavich met a girl while he was stationed in Qatar. They dated for a while and then parted ways. Durnavich eventually reached out to her.
“I had 10 months left in my service, and I told her, ‘I wanna come see you.’ So, I did,” Durnavich told Combat Press. “It was right. We did the long-distance thing for 10 months until I was discharged. Then, I moved to [Los Angeles] to be with her. And ever since then, it’s been right.”
Right as rain, as southern folks would say. They recently bought their first house together in Florida and got engaged. Durnavich is a tough-looking guy with tattoos and muscles, a man’s man. When he speaks of his fiancée, though, it’s clear that there is a strong emotional bond and mutual respect.
“We had known it was time for the next step for quite some time and we really talked about it,” he said. “We bought the house first, because it was the right deal at the right time. I knew it was time, though, to get engaged, because she becomes so excited when she talks about it. And that makes me happy.
“It’s really exciting to see her so excited. We bought our rings online, and I had every intention to propose in a more traditional way. I told her that when it arrived I would take it, hold onto it, and give it to her when the time was right. But when the package came, I was in school. She was texting me, ‘Can’t I just wear it?’ And how could I say no?”
The move to live with Linsy in California was a big risk for Danny, but it paid off.
“When I told Mike [Yanez] that I was leaving, he was kind of upset,” said Durnavich. “But he stayed my manager and coach from afar and he put me in touch with the guys at Black House. I got to train with killers there. I was training with guys who were blue belts to black belts, and here I was, just a white belt. All my fights were still in Florida, except for the two Tuff-N-Uff fights I took out west. Mike was my corner for one of those, and he put me in touch with Kelly Carter, who is also in the [Pablo] Popovitch lineage. He was great, a real mentor for me out in California.”
As soon as they could, though, Danny and Linsy came back to Florida so he could return to Highlander MMA and Coach Yanez. It’s not easy for either of the young couple, though. Linsy works and goes to school full-time. Danny goes to school full-time and has a taxing training schedule that includes wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA at Highlander and Muay Thai at Koh Muay Thai with Ronnie Briere. Durnavich also runs his own strength-and-conditioning regimen at a local gym. He is often found at either or both gyms on Saturdays, too, especially when in fight camp.
“I’ve never been the type to give up,” said Durnavich. “Wrestling helped my spirit, for sure, but Raven school really solidified it. After all military police training, you go to Raven school — six weeks of grueling physical and mental training. It’s eight to 12 hours of getting smoked every day and then, when you’re at your most exhausted, that’s when they start grilling you with questions.
“That’s how you know you know something, that it’s really sunk in — when you have nothing in the gas tank, but can rattle off answers to complex questions while performing a difficult physical task. When your brain is fresh, it’s so much easier to recall information. I’ve been out for over a year, but I could tell you everything I learned during that time.
“And that’s it. I know that no matter what happens to my body, that my mind won’t quit. When I took that loss [to Ellis, by submission], Coach said, ‘Even in a loss you don’t quit. They are going to have to kill you to finish you.’ I want my opponents to know that. You’re going to have to kill me.
“Mental strength beats physical. You can always build physical strength. It’s really helped me in the cage to already know that I can keep going even when completely gassed. My mind won’t get foggy and I make better decisions. I won’t rush in foolishly for a takedown, even when I’m tired, because I know how to conserve energy and play it smart.”
Durnavich’s last opponent knows this all too well. Raheam Forest and Durnavich squared off for the V3Fights welterweight championship on August 19. Forest was 2-3, Danny 6-1. Despite the records, there were many who thought Forest’s stand-up game might prove to be too much for Durnavich.
“I had one loss, he had four,” said Durnavich. “I was local. But he is the most respectful fighter I’ve faced. And he was game. It was not an easy fight at all. I felt danger a couple of times. I don’t think I was ever in danger, but I told him after the fight that he hits like a truck. The kid’s got hammers for hands. He said the same thing back to me and then we hugged it out. I got my strap and I celebrated. We keep in touch, though, and he fights for V3 in Memphis the weekend after my next fight. I fight November 11th and he fights the 18th. I wish him well.
“V3 is making big progress. The show in August was their first time back, and they’ve told me that for the next card, they are making more changes. Instead of a linear progression and a stage, they are spreading the general admission seats around the cage. It’s going to make it a better experience for the fans and the fighters.”
Durnavich’s next bout comes against the 7-5 Jerrod James on Nov. 11. James’ first fight ended in a disqualification, though, so Durnavich considers his record to be 7-4.
“I don’t take anyone lightly,” Durnavich said. “I don’t really know a lot about his game except he has had three or four amateur titles. We were supposed to fight in October for WCFL, but he dropped me to take a pro fight for [Real Fighting Championships]. Something happened with that one. V3 originally tapped me to make my pro debut — I was ready, James was ready — but Mike said I ought to take one more amateur fight.”
So, now, Durnavich makes his pro debut.
“I don’t consider myself a striker… yet,” said Durnavich. “I am getting good and improving, especially working with Koh. Ronnie is working with me, and I’m doing much better with my hands. Jerrod comes with high volume. He isn’t polished or a clean striker. I’m confident in my defense and my ability to hang with him, and in my ground game. He fought a decent wrestler before and he was getting dominated until his opponent gassed out.
“I am getting better at managing my gas tank. I’ve tried to hold one speed the whole fight. That’s how I train. I go my fastest pace for all rounds, but I have found the better I get, the more I can pick my moments to breathe a little. The more my jiu-jitsu improves, the more I am able to rest when on top on the ground. And I’m throwing my strikes with more confidence [and] with relaxed shoulders. When you’re more relaxed, you don’t gas your shoulders and it’s easier to keep your hands up.
“But again, if we are both exhausted in a hard fight, I know I’ve got the advantage. The later it is, the more I win. I am great at staying heavy on top and wearing my opponent out. It’s what I tell myself in between rounds. I look across and know that he is breathing heavy. He is just as tired as I am, but he isn’t as strong mentally.
“But I am not looking to get into those wars. I want to get in and get out with as little damage as possible. I have been fighting a lot and want to keep that up. I took eight fights in a year and want to keep climbing the ladder as quickly as I can. The only advantage of going three rounds in a war is the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus, but the submission bonus and the knockout bonus pay more.
“My career will last longer if I can avoid damage, so look for me to go out there to find the quick finish. I want to be known for how quickly I am taking to this sport and how quickly I advance. I want to advance in each fight and on to the big stage.”
Of course, every fighter says it. Most truly mean it. But when you look in Durnavich’s eyes when he says it, you believe it, too.