John Castañeda Chats UFC Vegas 47 Victory and MMA Career: “Fighting is an Art Form”

John “Sexi Mexi” Castañeda may just be one of the most simultaneously friendly – and dangerous – people you’ll ever meet. A double major college graduate fluent in English and Spanish, one-time aspiring paralegal, and local business owner, Castañeda is quick to laugh, willing to poke fun at himself, and easygoing in conversation.

He also happens to be the guy who just choked knockout artist Miles Johns to sleep at UFC Vegas 47 this past Saturday. This marks Castañeda’s second win in a row in the UFC and the sixth submission victory of a now 24-fight MMA career. 

“I think that earlier in my career, people were more like ‘man, this kid’s a savage, he just wants to fight people locked up in a cage,’ but once they really get to know you, and understand the sport and stuff like that, they know that it’s an art form, really,” Castañeda explains to The Jiu-Jitsu Times. He’s aware of the common societal stereotyping of all fighters as violent boors and gently pushes back on the misconception, emphasizing the culture of mutual graciousness at his gym and beyond: “Fighters these days – especially fighters from my gym – we’re all very respectful people. We’re all ‘yes ma’am, no sir’, and I think that comes from the martial arts lifestyle. I think that respect is really big at a lot of academies, not just mine. When [outsiders] see respectful people come out of an academy, even though those same people just got into a savage bloodbath for fifteen minutes, it helps them put the pieces together that this is a lifestyle for sure, but it’s also art, you know what I mean?” He smiles, and adds half-jokingly: “We’re not just a bunch of savages.”

Castañeda’s affable demeanor and self-deprecating wit bely a formidable fight IQ – and knockout power in his fists to match a dangerous submission game on the ground. The choke that put Miles Johns to sleep on Saturday is the third arm triangle Castañeda has successfully used to end a fight – and the second that’s put an opponent out cold. 

Even while explaining the mechanics of his own submission victory over Johns,  Castañeda is careful to avoid any implication of disrespect for a skillful opponent. “Miles has a really, really high pedigree of wrestling,” says Castañeda. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was worried about it, but I was gonna be cautious of it. I was prepared for it – I spent a lot of time working with high-level wrestlers, including one of his ex-teammates from college.” 

So just how did Castañeda manage to get the better of Johns on the ground? “To be honest – I don’t mean to be disrespectful, or throw shade, or anything like that – but I had gotten him down to the ground with that knee, followed by a straight left and an uppercut, which I didn’t think even landed all that well. But he was on the ground, and I was just in a half-guard position, and I heard his corner say, ‘All right, Miles, you might have to give him your back here.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I hope he gives me his back!’ So as soon as he started turning that way toward me to give his back, that’s when I had [the arm triangle].” 

Once again, Castañeda is quick to clarify that he doesn’t in any way blame Johns’ corner for their fighter’s loss: “Keep in mind, we’re fighting in the apex, so it’s not like there’s a super full crowd or anything – which meant I could hear everything. I could hear refs, I could hear my coaching, and I could hear his coaching.” An unfortunate circumstance for Johns, but one largely outside of his or his corner’s control – and something that Castañeda, with quick thinking, ultimately capitalized on. 

Is it safe to call that deadly arm triangle Castañeda’s signature submission at this point? “For sure, it’s my little bread and butter – absolutely,” says Castañeda, with a wide grin. The arm triangle – and for that matter, most head-and-arm style chokes – started becoming a Castañeda specialty during the blue belt stage of his jiu-jitsu practice. “It comes quick,” he’s noticed. “It depends on what kind of lineage your jiu-jitsu comes from, but ours is a Pedro Sauer lineage, and I’m pretty sure that in our curriculum, right away, at blue belt, we start learning stuff like arm triangles, D’arce chokes, pillow chokes – all the head-and-arm stuff, so I got exposed to that whole family of chokes pretty early on in my training.” 

Castañeda comes by his grappling repertoire honestly – he started out as a wrestler, which turned out to be an excellent base for his MMA game. “Wrestling gives you a really good sense of weight distribution,” says Castañeda. “And that’s half of fighting. Even with boxing and striking, a lot of that is also about weight distribution. So you really learn a lot of those little small techniques through wrestling.”

The wrestler’s mentality, according to Castañeda is also a powerful weapon in the cage: “Wrestling is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Training for wrestling is harder than training for mixed martial arts, to be honest. The pace is just ‘go, go, go.’ It really molds your mind for hard work, and it builds character – it really does. Let’s say I’d started off as a kickboxer – I can guarantee that if I’d grown up as a kickboxer or boxer, yeah, it’s gonna be tough, but it’s not wrestling tough.” He laughs. “There’s even a saying: ‘once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’ So I think that wrestling is a really good starting point for mixed martial arts – both mentally and physically.” 

Now a jiu-jitsu brown belt, the submission game pairs naturally with Castañeda’s wrestling pedigree, and he’s had a lot of time since his blue belt days to refine his specialty finishes on the ground. Everything he does in the octagon, he trains in the gym repeatedly. “I would say that even in the training room, [my arm triangle] is something I’m always hitting,” notes Castañeda. “It is something we train at the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy because our head coach is really keen on head-and-arm traps in general – lots of one-arm choke manipulations.” 

Does he feel the need, as a grappling specialist, to prove the power in his hands? In some ways, sure. “When my striking started to pick up, I really fell in love with my hands,”  Castañeda recalls fondly. “It kind of just goes like that – one step after another.”

Castañeda is also quick to note that he’s not the only fighter who’s been down that path. “I think that’s what happened to [Johns] too, honestly,” he observes. “I think that Miles is a really, really high-level wrestler who’s kind of strayed away from that because he fell in love with his knockout power. Once you knock someone out, it’s addictive, man. You want to do that every time. And especially if he’s getting 50k bonuses for doing it? For knocking dudes out cold? I can only imagine! Not only does it feel good, you’re also getting financially rewarded like that? You’re going to fall in love with your hands, and you’re going to stray away from your greatest strengths – which I think for him is his wrestling.” 

Which informed Castañeda’s approach to fighting Johns – who’s indeed famous for his own knockout power – in more ways than one: “I was telling everyone weeks before this fight [with Johns] that I wanted a dogfight,” says Castañeda. “Most of the time, I try to take as little damage as I can, but sometimes when you go in there – like this last time – I went in there with full intention to get hurt, but also do a lot of hurting.” 

More specifically, Castañeda elaborates, “My intention from the get-go was to kind of stalk Miles – he’s obviously a power striker, he’s got a lot of knockout power; he’s got a lot of knockouts in the UFC just in general. But I knew that if I was able to break his rhythm, switch stances from southpaw to orthodox, and kind of throw a lot of different angles and movements and just abnormal movements, I was gonna get him on his back foot, and that’s exactly what happened: I had him backing up the whole time.” 

Still, Castañeda was careful to avoid falling victim to overconfidence: “Signing up for a fight, and just knowing that [your opponent] is riding back-to-back wins of brutal knockouts, it kind of just does something to you. You have to respect it. It doesn’t matter how hard of a chin you think you’ve got, or how good your head movement is, anyone can get knocked out. So my plan was always to try and nullify that power, and just move a lot.” 

“I feel like I still came out of it pretty unscathed,” Castañeda admits, “because sometimes all you really need is the mentality [of being willing to get hurt] to put on a performance like that.” 

It’s all part of Castañeda’s overarching strategy of balancing intelligent fight tactics in the cage with maximum entertainment for the spectators – within reason. “There are guys who are just like ‘go go go,’ Justin Gaethje-style – they might get almost knocked out, but they’re still coming forward,” says Castañeda. He has plenty of respect for that kind of heart, but he’s also wary of the long-term damage that fighting style courts: “I think mixing it up is better for the longevity of your career.” CTE, after all,   has destroyed more than one fighter’s livelihood. Grinning ruefully and shaking his head, Castañeda promises, “I won’t ever sell my soul – or my brain – for a paycheck. I’ll definitely be as responsible as I can, but also as exciting as I can.” 

He cites Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson as an excellent example of an athlete who successfully prioritizes physical longevity without sacrificing watchability: “He’s always been so good at being willing and able to engage, but also having the high fight IQ to know when to disengage. So he’s a good combination of both, and I think that’s kind of rare.” Mighty Mouse may be known for a resume filled with visually spectacular battles in the octagon, but he’s consistently avoided taking major damage for the most part – which is also Castañeda’s game plan. 

So how does a fighter ensure that he delivers on entertainment value for a hungry crowd without sacrificing all his brain cells or suffering a career-ending injury? “There can be really good wrestlers and jiu-jitsu players, and they’re getting wins, but sometimes they might not even keep their jobs in the UFC because they’re not really a draw,” Castañeda cautions. “So now these people have to go out on a limb to change things up.” 

His advice for combatting this problem is simple: “Get good at the exciting stuff. And what that means is putting in the work. I think that even just from my last fight, compared to this fight, I worked a lot on my striking. I worked a lot on my Muay Thai: my knees, my elbows – I’d never really landed a good knee in a fight, and I landed two of them in this fight so that just goes to show that yeah, it’s a little bit flashier, but all you’ve got to do is work on the flashy stuff.”

Learning to transition into a more visually exciting style does require some time and experience, Castañeda acknowledges. “I would say that when I first started my pro career, I was more of a ‘boring fighter’” – he makes air quotes here – “where my strong suit was wrestling, and my strong suit was jiu-jitsu, so I would try and get in there, take as little damage as possible, and get the win, because a win is a win, and that’s the most important part. But as I’ve been evolving, nowadays, people want exciting fighters. That’s what sells.”

Castañeda isn’t just savvy to the physical side of fighting – he’s also careful to stay smart about the business side of MMA. Despite earning enough from the UFC to stay financially healthy, he does maintain an additional full-time job as a nightclub owner, in order to create a bit of extra cushion in his bank account. “I grew up with nothing, in a very poor family,” he explains. “I think that being in the UFC is the most I’ve ever been paid for doing mixed martial arts, and I could definitely live off of just UFC money. That would be no problem. But I think because of my come-up – because of how I grew up – you’ll never ever catch me being broke. So if I have the opportunity to work a full-time job, and be a full-time athlete, and perform at a high level as I have been, I’m going to do it. If that means sleepless nights and stuff like that, so be it. You’ll never catch me with empty pockets, you know?” 

Being a professional fighter who owns a nightclub also brings its own share of amusements. When hiring bouncers, for example, Castañeda doesn’t necessarily look for other guys who can fight; since the club isn’t located in an especially troublesome part of town, he finds that he can get by fine with big guys who simply look intimidating. Castañeda laughs at the irony of being their boss: “It’s funny because the most dangerous guy in the room is probably also the smallest guy in the room!” 

This isn’t to say that balancing his double life is easy, by any means. “It’s a lot of sleepless nights – a lot of late nights and early mornings,” Castañeda acknowledges. “Which honestly kind of counters the whole ‘high-level athlete’ thing in my opinion. When you’re sleep-deprived, scientifically speaking, you’re not at your peak.” Still, Castañeda’s found that he’s able to push through the drawbacks to continue performing well in both careers – and for him, the financial safety net of a secondary source of income is worth being a little more tired in training.

In fact, Castañeda credits his impoverished childhood with the discipline necessary to excel in two careers: “I think [the way I grew up] is also why I’m able to do this. It’s a constant reminder of where I’ve been, and where I want to be.”

He does poke fun at his own frugality. “Oh my god, I’m so frugal!” Castañeda exclaims, laughing. “Every time I visit my mom, she’ll look at the shirt I’m wearing like, ‘John, I’m pretty sure you’ve had that shirt since college, you should really go clothes shopping.’ And I’m like, ‘It’s still a good shirt! It still fits perfectly fine, I haven’t grown since I was a sophomore in high school.’” 

The one thing Castañeda is willing to blow money on? Good quality food. “I buy high-quality food, just because in the profession I’m in, you’ve got to invest in your body for sure,” he says. Luckily, that also means that he gets to write off his grocery bills on his taxes – after all, for an elite athlete, food is a business expense. 

What about building his brand as a fighter? Unsurprisingly,  Castañeda isn’t a big fan of trash talk. “For me, I really don’t like social media, and I could care less about a following, but do I think that they’re important, especially if you’re trying to grow your brand? Absolutely!” acknowledges Castañeda. “But at the end of the day, whether I talk trash or not, I’m getting paid the same, regardless. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m going to let my fighting speak for me. You could be the most humble dude, the least confrontational guy ever, but if you go on a ten-fight winning streak, you’re getting paid, regardless.” 

He tells the story of one promoter – whom he tactfully avoids naming – who tried to pressure him into making a show of pushing his opponent around for the cameras: “I will say that one time, I got coerced into talking some trash,” he confides. “Basically, I was told by the CEO that, since I was the main event, he needed me to push this guy while facing him down, and trash talk him a bit. And I was like, ‘That’s not me, man, I’m sorry.’ And I told him that, and he was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’” 

Castañeda laughs. “But then, lo and behold, turns out he told the other guy to do the same thing! I didn’t expect it, but all of a sudden, we’re facing off, and I’m getting pushed!” He adds, “I know they told him to do that, because this guy wasn’t like that before either – he’s not a confrontational dude – and I remember going back and watching the footage, and it just looked so fake.” Castañeda sports another rueful grin as he shakes his head. “And it’s like, oh my god, that’s embarrassing for me too, being a part of that.”

Even so, Castañeda doesn’t bear particularly negative judgment or ill will toward athletes who do build their brand off a solid trash talk game. In fact, he acknowledges that famous trash talkers have, in some ways, paved a route toward visibility for the sport as a whole.“I think for Conor McGregor for example, [trash talking] worked out super well for him – and not only for him, but for the sport itself,” says Castañeda. “UFC and mixed martial arts have become so much more mainstream because of fighters like him. People love that.” 

That’s not Castañeda’s style, though. Instead, he finds more organic ways of appealing to his fanbase. “For me, personally, that’s just not me,” he explains with a shrug. “I’m just my own little dude, and I’m not really gonna be a trash talker.” 

One route for making the most of his own authentic self? Taking advantage of his bilingual fluency in English and Spanish – and lifelong comfort with cultural code-switching – to capitalize on the increasingly globalized reach of the UFC. “I’m Mexican-American – I was born in Dallas – but both my parents were born in Mexico, and my dad still lives in Mexico,” says Castañeda. That heritage allows him to forge deeper bonds with other fighters from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, especially since he can speak to them in their native tongue. “I always represent Mexico too,” says Castañeda. “I’m very proud of my background and my heritage, and where my ancestors are from, so I definitely embrace the Mexican heritage.” 

Bilingualism and Mexican-American heritage have also granted Castañeda more media exposure – and an opportunity to double his fanbase, since he can also give interviews to Spanish-speaking news outlets: “It’s double the work, but it’s well worth it. It’s kind of like an authentic way to grow your brand without having to put on that whole fake persona and trash talking, you know what I mean? So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing with the UFC; as soon as I was done with my fight, I had a couple interviews with the regular UFC broadcasters, but then I had interviews with UFC Español, and the Spanish-speaking broadcasters. Same thing, pre-fight. We all have media obligations, but I have them in both Spanish and English.” 

Does that have anything to do with where the nickname “Sexi Mexi” came from? Castañeda laughs. “That nickname actually originated from my freshman year in college,” he recalls. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the freshman fifteen, but for me, it was more like the freshman twenty-five, or the freshman thirty. I got pretty chunky. After I quit wrestling in college, I started training MMA full time, and that’s when I came in super chubby. But it only took a couple of months of the MMA training for me to get back in shape. So my coach, one day, he was like, ‘Damn, you’re looking sexy!’ And later that same practice, he called me Sexi Mexi, and I was like, ‘Dude, that’s my fight nickname from now on!’” 

The name stuck for the rest of Castañeda’s career – all the way to the UFC. “Hearing Bruce Buffer say ‘Sexi Mexi’ this past Saturday was pretty surreal, not gonna lie,” admits Castañeda with a chuckle. Castañeda still keeps in touch with that first coach – “Ray White, you’re the man!”  Castañeda calls out cheerfully – who’s reportedly very proud of the mark he’s left on the biggest MMA stage in the world via his protégé’s moniker.

What pointers does Castañeda have for young rookie athletes who want to make a career out of fighting without going broke in the process? “I would tell them to do exactly what I did – which, right away, was make enough time to fully commit yourself to the sport a hundred percent, but also have something to keep yourself accountable for on the weekends,” says Castañeda. “And what I mean by that is that when I first started mixed martial arts in college, I was training all the time. I was giving everything to the sport, training two or three times a day, five days a week, but then on the weekends, it was like, ‘damn, my friends are going to the bars, my friends are going to the clubs.’ And meanwhile, I was like, ‘nah, [MMA] is more important to me.’ So I got a part-time job. I got a part-time job to work on the weekends, and to supplement my income. I was working maybe Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, while my friends were out partying and drinking. I chose the nightlife strategically.

“It keeps you accountable,” he explains. “Because not only are you making money now, you’re also not getting into any trouble, you’re not hungover for practice the next day, next week, whatever it is. So that’s what I would say: try to find a balance between two different things. Get something like a part-time job, and then commit appropriate time to the sport. Find the balance between those two things, to keep yourself afloat.” 

It’s sound and honest advice, from a man who truly emphasizes the importance of balance in all things, whether it’s physical risks in a cage fight, or financial risks on a dream you’ve been chasing since college. One thing, however, remains a sure bet: Castañeda’s determined to keep making his way to the top of the fight game. “I’ve been really lucky,” says Castañeda. “I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve gotten, but specifically, for where I’m at right now. And now that I’m here, I protect [what I’ve earned] with everything I’ve got. I’m really good at what I do, and I feel like I’m just setting myself up for more success, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing. I think it’s just a positive outlook on everything, so we’re rocking and rolling.” 

To keep up with developments in Castañeda’s career and upcoming fights, follow him on Instagram


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