A Conversation with Diego Garijo: Fighter, Artist, Drag Performer

Diego Garijo is a professional fighter, a drag performer, and a fine artist. Here, he tells just a few of his stories from each world.

Content warning for drug use, violence, weight, mental illness, and a brief mention of violence against trans and GNC people.

Diego Garijo felt like he was about to make it in MMA.

He had the right connections, and the right training partners. He’d amassed a 7-1 record, including a Bellator 10 win. There was even a close call on a UFC opportunity, Garijo said, which he turned down due to the fact it was outside of his weight division. “I’m not the most technical fighter,” Garijo admits, “but I’m so fun to watch.” And he figured that would get him where he wanted.

But then an uppercut happened. And so did a detached retina. Garijo can still remember the words he heard from the doctor next — something about “100 percent chance” of blindness in case he didn’t get surgery right away. There was a possibility Garijo could return to fighting — which he did, several years later, this time as a bare-knuckle boxer — but the doctor didn’t recommend it. Garijo had bad retinas, he said, and that would mean risking damage to the good eye.

So Garijo, a self-admitted person of extremes with a history of drugs and crime, was once again lost. After dropping out of college to become a full-time fighter, he had to deal with a devastating departure from MMA. And though he’d go on to land his highest-paying job yet, as a process server (thanks, Pineapple Express!), Garijo found that delivering bad news to people all day was taking a serious toll on his mental health. 

It took some reflection (and quite a few mushrooms) for Garijo to find his way back to something that once had seemed like the natural path of his life: art. And, with that, Garijo also found his way to Lola Pistola.

 

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I talked to Garijo about fighting, art, drag, not giving a fuck what anybody thinks, and how all these things interact and overlap. Check out our chat — edited for length and clarity — below.

I guess I just wanted to start off by kind of exploring first, your pretty solid career, like seven and one is a pretty good record. How did you first, like, get into MMA specifically?

I grew up in a life of crime and drugs, and I guess I’ve always — I don’t know if it’s genetics, we’ll never know — or if it’s how I was brought up, but I’m attracted to extreme things. So, for a long time, I was in and out of jail, I was doing a lot of drugs. And then when I kind of cleaned my life up, I got into motorcycle racing. And then I was crashing motorcycles all the time. And then my wife, who I was starting to settle down with at the time, was like, “If you want to get serious about a relationship, you need to maybe have a different hobby that doesn’t cost so much money” and motorcycles are pretty expensive. 

We met in high school, I wrestled in high school. And she was like, “Why don’t you try wrestling? Go back to wrestling or doing something like that.” Right around that same exact time, my brother said, “Hey, I want you to come over to my house and watch this movie called ‘Mark Kerr: The Smashing Machine.'” So I went over on a Friday night to watch it. Monday morning, I was at a gym signing up. I was going to [go to] college to be a mechanical engineer and I had straight A’s. I dropped out of college in three months to become a full-time fighter and just train full time.

diego garijo boxing big swings
All images courtesy Diego Garijo

And so you had already the athletic base with wrestling?

I wouldn’t even say that. I sucked at wrestling. So bad. I had no idea what it took to win, you know? That was only sport I ever played and I was just outside, with some kids, doing some WWF shit. And then this older kid — I was just about to enter high school — he was like, “Oh, when you get into high school next year, you should try out for wrestling.” And I tried it and I enjoyed it very much. 

But I was never an athletic kid. I was never talented. I was never gifted. When I showed up to jiu-jitsu, I was absolutely the worst person there. I got nothing but tapped for months and months and months. I would just go every single day, though. I was always the first person on the mat and the last person to get off.

It was less about “talent,” and more about just having the work ethic on the mat. Had you had you had that before, something you really threw yourself into? Or was MMA a first in that you actually found a drive to do that hardcore?

It was the first thing that got me to be passionate as an adult other than motorcycles, but I really didn’t see where motorcycles were going to get me other than dead. And before that, my life was like this: I was born an artist, I was into art and I thought I was going to be an artist. I thought I was going to go to graphic design college. I was so into art.

diego garijo art 1

And then I lost my way and I was so into crime and drugs. I’ve been extreme into whatever I am, 100 percent. And then after crime and drugs came motorcycles.

And then after that came fighting. That’s just the story of my life.

You had a pretty good run in MMA. You have a good record. You fought Saad Awad, you fought Jens Pulver, you have some names there. And then I know you suffered a detached retina that forced you out. How was that? 

You finally find this passion, you throw yourself into it, and then you have something that’s very much out of your control derail you. Was it a painful departure from MMA?

It was devastating. In my opinion, I was just about to make it. I had all the right connections, I had all the right training partners, all my friends were in the UFC. I never bullshit myself — I’m not the most technical fighter. But I’m so fun to watch. So I knew that I was going to make it. 

And then I got an offer to fight in the UFC at (145 pounds). It’s when Jose Aldo was fucking murdering everybody, they were running out of 45-ers, and they called me up and they said, “Hey, do you want to fight at 145?” I was such a huge (155-pound fighter) that I was like “I know it’s crowded at 155, but I know I’ll get my opportunity because I’m so entertaining. It’s going to happen.” So I passed on that offer. And then next thing I know, a couple of months later, I almost go blind in my eye. if I had to do it all over again, I would have taken that chance.

Did you suffer the injury during a fight? 

Training. Which just goes to show how dangerous MMA is, because it happened with big gloves and headgear. It was an uppercut. I saw it. I remember it. It went right into my fucking guard, and I was like, “Ah, fuck.” And it went right inside my eyeball. I had this white light in my eyes for a long time. It was just white, white. I couldn’t see out of it, really. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t say anything to anybody. I just played it off.  And then the eyesight came back, but then it turned into a flashing light. And then as the week went by, the flashing got worse and worse and worse, until I finally went to the doctor.

I would imagine the doctor kind of said, “I’m pretty sure that is it for your fighting career.” Was it done for you the minute you knew about it? Or did you consider trying to fight through it? How did you absorb the news when you got it?

OK, so first of all, I remember exactly what he said. He said, and I’ll never forget it: “I’ve got some bad news. If you don’t have surgery tomorrow, 100 percent chance to go blind in that eye.” And I was like “Oh, shit, OK (laughs). Not 90 percent? OK, let’s set that up, I guess.” 

After the surgery, he said, “Look, I don’t want you to do contact sports for two years.” He said, “It’s very possible that you can come back to fighting after that, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I think you have bad retinas and then your other one can go bad. Do you want to have two shitty eyes or one shitty eye?” At the time, I had three kids and I was not making enough money fighting. I was struggling, I was in debt. 

I thought I made the decision that was smart for my family, but I always regretted it. If I was single, I would have kept fighting, for sure.

diego garijo boxing hug

At that time, like you said, you mentioned you were struggling. Was fighting your sole source of income?

Well, I signed with Bellator, and they said that I was going to be in the tournament — the very first Bellator tournament, number one. The first paycheck was 10.000 dollars. So I knew that if I got that fight, I was going to be able to float it until [the] next fight, and then another fight. I quit my job when I got signed to Bellator. After that — that’s a whole different story, that’s a crazy fucking story.  

I was going to make it in fighting. I was like, “If I get those ten thousand dollars, even if I lose, I’ll be able to go to the next fight and I’ll just keep going.” But, from then on, it just never happened, and I just kept living from one paycheck here, and then stretching it out, and using credit cards to survive, always in debt. 

So what happened with Bellator was that the first season was on ESPN Deportes, and they wanted all latino fighters, especially if they spoke Spanish — which I did. So I was going to fight Jorge Masvidal (current UFC welterweight) in the first round. And I was fucking ready to do it, I don’t give a shit. I would have still fucking given that guy a better fight than the guy they picked for him. I was already cutting weight.

diego garijo fighting under angle

I was already on weight, with a ticket to fly out to Florida, when my manager calls me up and says, “Hey, nobody ran this by the athletic commission and they’re not going to let you do it, because he has four times as many fights as you, so they think it’s a mismatch.” So they pulled me off the card and because the whole first round of the tournament was set up, they go “You can’t be in the tournament anymore.”

So they got some guy who was 10-0 from the Midwest, who fucking sucked, and as soon as they said “Go,” the guy just covered up and ran backwards until Jorge overwhelmed him and they stopped the match in seconds. And I was like “Fuck, I would have been way better than that dude.”

So then they go “Hey, we’re very sorry, we know that you quit your job.” They had even shot footage at my house, had a storyline for the tournament. They go “We’re going to get you another fight in two weeks, OK?” So I have already peaked; I have been training for months because when they told me about the tournament, I had months to prepare, I quit my job. I was training full time. I had already been on wait to fly out to Florida. 

So two weeks later, they get me another fight, I think it was at the Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, Connecticut. And they had to get a different physical, I think, from that doctor for some reason. And when I went, they found a little tear in my retina. That was the beginning — see, even though I didn’t have detachment, I always had little tears that they had to do a cryogenic seal or laser. I went to a retina specialist and they fixed it, and they go, “OK, you’re 100 percent, this is good, you can fight.” A retina specialist said I was cleared. 

So I get to Uncasville and I hear that my opponent doesn’t get medically cleared. So then, I think what happened was somebody said, “Hey, make sure this guy doesn’t get cleared either, because that way we don’t have to pay him his show money.” So then the fucking commissioner — which is not a doctor — in Uncasville because that’s an Indian reservation and I’ve heard lots of bad stories about that dude, was basically like, “Oh, even though your doctor says it’s OK, I don’t think it’s a good idea. So we’re going to pull you off the card.” 

So I get no show money. I get sent back home. I already made weight twice. Now I get a call from (former Bellator CEO) Bjorn Rebney and he’s like, “Hey, I’m sorry that happened. We’re going to get you another fight in two weeks.” So in two weeks they send me to Corpus Christi, Texas. I forgot the name of the opponent, but the day of weigh-ins, I’m already on weight at the hotel, I get a phone call and they’re like, “This is Hector’s brother. He got sick. And he’s, like, really overweight. He couldn’t make weight for the fight. Will you fight him?” And I’m like, “Let’s go to the fucking weigh-ins first. I’m not agreeing on anything over the phone.” So we get to the fucking weigh-ins and he’s like eight pounds overweight. 

diego garijo fighting making contact

They’re like “Will you fight him?” And I go, “Well, once you weigh in, you have one hour or two hours to cut weight still, see how much he can cut and once we figure out how low he is, we’ll figure it out then.” And then he goes, “I will give you my show money right now if I don’t have to cut any more weight.” So I said, “Yes, fuck it, I’ll fight you.” So they signed his show money into my contract. I’m on weight, I’m looking good, I’m ready to fight him. I’m there the next day. I’m all wrapped up. Bjorn Rebney comes up to me again, “Hey man, I’m really sorry. This guy hasn’t shown up.” 

I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” He’s like, “We don’t know what’s up, we don’t know if he’s coming. I don’t know what to tell you, I’m sorry.” I take all my hands wraps off. I go in the fucking audience. I buy a hotdog and a beer. And I’m literally sitting next to his family. I’m eating my hot dog and my beer, and Bjorn comes up to me again, he goes, “He just called, he said he’s on his way. Do you still want to fight him?” I said “Yes, I do.” 

We go backstage. I got my hands wrapped by Shawn Tompkins, the famous Canadian coach who passed away. He was back there — one of his fighters was on the card and he was the only person available to wrap my hands. I get wrapped up, I’m ready to go. I’m backstage waiting, the card is almost fucking over. The guy never shows up. And then at some point Bjorn Rebney comes back up, and he’s like “I’m so sorry. They said even if he shows up right now, at this point they wouldn’t let him fight.”  So I take all my shit off, I go get another beer and another hot dog and watch the main event.

I was supposed to fight at Bellator 2 or something, and I ended up fighting at Bellator 10, with Saad Awad. So I go home from Texas — at least this time they paid me my show money and his show money — and then they call me in two weeks and they go, “OK, we got you another fight: Saad Awad.” I go “Fine, perfect.” At this point, I’m so burned out. I’ve made weight three fucking times. I go, “I need a break. I’m not even going to train for this fight.” I’m not a fucking striker and I lose the timing right away. I just, I couldn’t. I was so fucking burnt out, and I had to make weight again. I just didn’t train.

I stayed home for two weeks and rested. 

And then I went in there rusty as fuck. I made weight again, for the fourth time in like six weeks or some shit, and Saad, who’s a monster, was beating the fuck out of me. He was killing me, right?

But I just kept getting up and eventually I think he mentally cracked, he was like “Fuck, I can’t kill this kid.” And the tides kind of turned. If you watch the fight, I got him in a guillotine. Watching the footage, I didn’t know his feet were off the ground. I was carrying him. And I remember thinking, “Oh, fuck, he’s getting out of it.” He was fucking unconscious. He went limp for a second and slipped out of it because I couldn’t hold him up anymore. If you go back and watch it, you can see that. He was going limp, and then I get on top, I get the back, I hit him, I get the rear-naked choke. Boom. 

They changed it, but for years and years, on YouTube, it used to say “Bellator 10 Fight of the Night.” But they didn’t give me any fucking bonus, they just gave me my show and win money. Bjorn Rebney was like, “That was the most amazing fight, it was so exciting. Oh, my God, I can’t wait to get you in season two.”

Never heard from him, ever again. Every time my career was right on the cusp of making it, it just never happened. And then I think there was like a long period like nothing happened and shit. And then I think I did one more fight after that, and then another fight after that in the Philippines. And then I got fucked up training, and that was the end of my career.

At that point of your life, having been through what you had been through, involved with drugs and crime and everything else, were you scared that having that avenue of MMA close for you would pull you back into a path that maybe you didn’t want to go to anymore?

Oh, I was fucking lost. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I was going to do drugs or what.

I had dropped out of college to become a pro fighter. I still wanted to train a lot. So I looked up jobs that had flexible schedules so I could train whenever I wanted to. And the movie “Pineapple Express” had just come out, so I googled that. And that was like, you need no education to do that job. It’s insane. Like, you need an eight-hour class to be a security guard, but you don’t need shit to serve papers.

pineapple express still

It doesn’t even make sense, (because) you’ve got to know so many laws to do it right. It’s like the job that time forgot. It doesn’t even make sense. It’s like being a bounty hunter almost. Almost the same rules apply. You can do things that other people can’t do. So I got into that job and because I didn’t have the excitement of fighting in my life anymore, I threw myself into that job 100 percent. And I became the best process server in the world — like not in the world, but in San Diego. Every time anybody needed a crazy fucking paper, they would give it to me, because I would get it done.

But that also became the darkest point of my life. When I hated my life and I became suicidal. I was making 60,000 dollars a year, which is the most money I have ever made. And I was working like 50, 60 hours a week. I never saw my family, I was in the car serving papers all the fucking time. Every time I tried to quit, they would give me a promotion or a raise or some benefits.

And I hated the job. I mean, at first it was exciting. But delivering bad news for a living every fucking day, and chasing people that don’t want to be found, it can get so draining on your soul. And I did crazy shit. I would serve people in the hospital; they were like in the ICU unit after trying to commit suicide because they were going to threaten to kill their wife and their kid. I ruined concerts, and I served Chargers, you know, from San Diego, like here in the stadium. I would just track people down and wear costumes and do the craziest shit you can imagine. I legit served Mick Fleetwood on stage once and ruined the concert.

Were you still doing art at the time at all?

No, I had completely forgotten about art. That’s when I lost my way. I was going to go to art college and then when I fucking got into drugs and kicked out of high school, I was so concentrated on survival that I forgot about art.

So the next stage in my life came one day when I took some mushrooms and I then I forgot I had to go serve a paper that day. And I went to serve the paper, and when I was there, I realized, “Oh, this job is why I hate my life.” I knew I hated the job, but I didn’t know that I hated myself because of that job.

I knew I hated the job, but I didn’t know that I hated myself because of that job.

So I told myself, “I’m going to serve this paper and I’m never, ever going to do that ever again.” So I waited for the person to come home. I served them the paper. I walked into work on Monday and I said, “Hey, I quit.” And then I knocked some shit off my bosses’ table. And they just saw a look in my eye that they’re like, “OK, he’s done now. Let’s not try to get him back, he’s 100 percent done.” [laughs]

And then what? Did you have a plan or anything or was it just kind of, “I just need to be done with this and then I’ll think about it?”

Let me tell you about my plan: I had two months worth of living expenses, and I saw somebody on Instagram doing a 30-day push-up challenge where they did push-ups every day.

And I said “I’m going to do a 30-day mushroom challenge where I’m going to do mushrooms every day for 30 days and post it online.”

And then I’m going to go through this spiritual journey and I’m going to figure out what I want to do with my life. So I shut down my Instagram, I turned it private. I kicked off every single person that I didn’t know. And every day, for 30 days, I did mushrooms and just like had awakenings and all these fucking experiences.

I was just, like, learning all about life again. And on the last day, I chose to do five grams, which is what they call a heroic dose. I took five grams, I locked myself in a room and there happened to be some art supplies in there. And I took a painting that was on the wall already, that was like some Ikea art, and I painted over it. And I realized, “Oh, fuck, I was meant to be an artist.” 

“I’m going to do a 30-day mushroom challenge where I’m going to do mushrooms every day for 30 days and post it online.”

I was born in Guanajuato, which is the same region where Diego Rivera was born, and he was a famous Mexican muralist, married to Frida Kahlo. My whole life, I would walk around with my pencils and crayons and draw as a kid. I thought that was my life until I lost my path. 

And then here it was. It was like a light bulb went off and it was like, “How could I have ever forgot that this is what I was meant to do?” Wherever I go — I feel like if I’m a fighter, I’m the most creative fighter, not just in fighting, but at the gym. I’m just different. 

I see myself as different than most people. I have always seen myself as an artist. So I was like, “What am I going to do? Fuck, I’m going to start painting.” And I just started fucking painting. And then I started doing everything I could to sell the paintings.

I sold them for 20 bucks, 50 bucks, and then 100 and 200 bucks. And now I’m selling paintings for 600 bucks, 800 bucks, 200 bucks. I just struggled, though. Struggled.

And there were so many fucking times that I was just about to lose my shirt or want to go to a mental hospital, or be like “I’m going to end up homeless. Because I’m so miserable doing anything except this that it’s like, I don’t think I could be free. If I can’t make it in this, I’m going to end up homeless for sure.” And then, luckily, I was able to also add tattooing, which kept me making some money until I was able to concentrate more and more on my art. 

diego garijo art 2

In all of this process of sort of finding your way back to yourself, when did Lola appear?

When I re-discovered that I wanted to be an artist, Eric Del Fierro (head coach of Alliance MMA) took this class. And the reason he took the class is because (former UFC bantamweight champion) Dominick Cruz took the class, loved it and got him to do it. A very famous American black belt, Jimmy Harbison, did it. And he loved it. And he got Dominick to do it. And I believe perhaps Scott Nelson and Ed Clay, the owners of On The Mat, did it, loved it, and they got Jimmy. So it’s like, it’s spreading through the MMA community, it’s crazy.

My coach saw that I was dealing with a lot of issues, and this class — if you do want to set goals, it’s really good for that, as well, even though it’s for emotional intelligence.

So I took the class, and one of the goals was to do something artistic and outside of your career. Let’s say, somebody’s a real estate agent. And after the 100 days of coaching, they’re going to set a goal to sell 10 houses. They’re going to force that person to do a creative goal that’s outside of their regular business plan, so they can do something outside of their comfort zone. When I took the class, my business goal was to do 40 paintings in 100 days.

So they go, what can you do that’s completely different than anything creative you’ve ever done? And to this day, I have no idea why, but out loud I just said “What if I do a drag show?” 

And everybody lost their shit. Because you’re in a group, and you become best friends with these people, you work together for months. And then they’re like, “Oh my God, that’s fucking crazy” — because the class is about vulnerability — so they’re like, “This fucking masculine dude who’s a professional fighter, (it’s) so scary for him to do drag, this is amazing.”

So I got a bunch of support right away from the class. One of my best friends, Jacqueline Sapigao, who’s a stylist, she’s like, “Hey, I’ll help you get the outfits.” And the photographer, Luna Ferox, who was in the class too, wanted to do a project on photography. And that’s the iconic picture that got me to where I am right now. Because the very first time I was in drag, she said “Let’s do a photo shoot” for her creative goal, and she took a picture of me on the toilet. 

 

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So that picture, I started sending it to tattoo magazines. And a huge tattoo magazine reposted it.

So a German journalist from Vice magazine saw that picture and went through my profile and said, “Wow, this is a pretty interesting dude.” He contacted me and said, “Hey, can we do an article about you?” I said yes. He goes, “Hey, there’s no guarantee that or go anywhere other than Vice Germany. But, if you’re lucky, maybe it’ll come out in the U.S.”

He does the article, two weeks go by, I don’t hear anything. I get a couple of German followers. And I’m like, “Well, that’s better than nothing. I’ve sold some paintings internationally. If I could sell a couple to Germany, that’s great, too.” Next thing I know, I started getting a bunch of French followers, a bunch of Greek followers, a bunch of Arab followers. And it’s just like, he contacts me and he’s like “It’s been out in eight different languages, and it’s the most read article on Vice this weekend.”

And you had only been in drag once at this point?

No, I had done it a couple of times after that. That was the first show. My goal was never to be a drag performer. But I noticed how good feedback I got from people. So I was like, “How could I incorporate that into my routine?” And I realized, OK, when I do a gallery show — I still haven’t done a major gallery, which is my life goal, to have my work in a very established gallery — I was still doing small gallery shows and I said to myself, “Whenever I show up on opening night, I’m going to show up in drag.” 

Now, most people don’t want to be judged for anything. That’s what’s normal. Artists put their works out to be judged. I have heard somebody looking at one of my paintings talking shit about it before, that didn’t know I was the artist. I was next to them, hearing them talk shit.

When you’re an artist, you’re putting something of yourself out there to be judged. And you have to face the music.  And I figured, what better way to really push that to the next level than not just put my art, but myself out there? So when I do an hour show, I’m going to show up dressed as Lola. Being 100 percent vulnerable, and open, with my feminine energy and my masculinity, just being who I am.

lola bag and hand photog carlos garate
All outdoor Lola pictures courtesy photographer Carlos Garate

The drag thing, the reason maybe I picked that is because I did come from a single-parent home, raised by a single mother. We never had a male influence, really, in the house. And I didn’t know that it’s, by culture, frowned upon to act certain ways. I’ve been very comfortable with my feminine energy and while the dressing up wasn’t a part of it until very recently, I’ve always been known as the guy who’s like, I’ll shake my ass or dance a certain way, where people think it’s usually funny. 

But now it’s like a thing, and now I fully embrace it. And it’s like, you know what? I got tired of carrying a fucking fanny pack and now I have a purse. It just makes more sense for me. And then, sometimes, fuck it, I’ll put some earrings on and I’ll go out. I’m still me. I’m still the same dude. But I like being able to express myself as an artist. And it makes people uncomfortable, and it should. It should fucking make them think about things like that.

Because, as an artist, if you’re not pushing the boundaries, you’re not doing fucking nothing. You’re making IKEA art. 

And I don’t want to make fucking IKEA art. 

I’ve been covering MMA for about 12 years now. So I’ve seen positive changes in the mentality, but it’s still a sport that, despite the female presence, it’s still kind of known as this macho, hyper-masculine environment. And though not conforming to these kind of set roles seems like something that was in you already, was it in any way hard for you to reconcile these parts of your personality?

It really came natural to me. Because I’ve always been weird. I’ve never been afraid to be weird. And I know that people have always appreciated that about me. I think as a defense mechanism, because I had such a rough, rough childhood, I’ve become a way where people like to be around me. I try to be a very positive, entertaining person.

People like my company, and it’s because it’s a defense mechanism. I was abandoned a lot as a child, so it’s like the puppy dog that makes the cute eyes at the pound that he wants to get taken home. So, even though I’ve been weird, I’ve been able to make it work for me. And when people see that you’re being authentic, that you’re being yourself, they enjoy it. Because, deep down, they want to be like that. So I think people have always been kind of drawn to me in that aspect. So it wasn’t hard for me to be myself. 

lola wink photog carlos garate

And at the gym, and those relationships. Was there a reaction? Did people embrace it? How did the MMA circle react to the appearance of Lola in your life?

I have gotten nothing but positive feedback. I had one person that asked me, like, “Are you scared now that people might think you’re gay?” And then I was like, “No, I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks.” That’s what makes me happy about life, is I  don’t. I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks. That’s really freedom.

When you can do that, say it, and really mean it, it is a next level of freedom in your life. Also, I don’t know what other people outside of the gym think of me, all my friends have been super positive. But even if they didn’t, honestly — I’m not the best fighter, by far, but I’m definitely tough enough that I don’t think most people want to fucking talk shit to my face.

What about in the drag community? Do you even perform next to other drags? Are you part of the drag community in any way?

Well, I am just a beginner. And I am not as talented as a lot of these performers out here. But I think for a 41-year-old professional fighter that had no history in it, I think I’m pretty good. My first performance was a contest and I got second place. And first place came over to me and said, “You won, baby. They just gave it to me because I come here all the time.” And they gave me part of their winnings. It was like, “You take them, you deserve this.”

And the manager came over to me and was like, “You are welcome back here any time. You did an amazing performance, you had great energy, everybody loved it, it was a full house. Any time you want to perform, you’re welcome back.” People that have reached out on Instagram from other parts of the drag community have all been super positive, and have said, “Hey, it’s really good that you bring this attention here and show that a masculine man, it’s OK for them to act feminine and it doesn’t mean anything.” 

lola standup photog carlos garate

It doesn’t mean that you’re gay. It doesn’t mean that you’re straight, either. It doesn’t mean anything.

And why did you decide to get into bare-knuckle boxing, specifically?

When I was younger, I saw the movie “Snatch” with Brad Pitt and I always thought that bare-knuckle boxing was super cool. And I wasn’t happy with the way that I retired. I also watched movies and documentaries and I know all about the travelers and their history of bare-knuckle boxing. And I think that’s really great, too. I think if people defended their family honor like that, with bare fists instead of guns, how much better would that be for communities? It’s still violence, but it’s a much safer way for the community other than people getting shot because of random stuff. 

But I really like the history of bare-knuckle boxing, I was not happy with how I retired from fighting. So even though I still had the possibility of going blind, I discussed it with my family, they said they supported me, and I went after it. Even before that, I already knew the sport was coming up, so I had already contacted some promoters before it was legalized and I was trying to get on underground cards.

But nobody ever called me back. When the first (Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship) show came out, I saw my buddy Joey Beltran fight on it. He had the best fight of the night, in my opinion. And I reached out to him and I congratulated him and I was like, “Hey, you do realize it’s like you just fought at UFC 1? It’s that important.” Initially, they wanted an opponent for Chris Lytle. And they were considering me. Usually, when you’re a big name like that, they give you options. And he didn’t choose me, he was like “Fuck this dude. No name, but he’s tough as fuck, why would I want to fight him?” (laughs).

So he picked some dude called The Spider Monkey or some shit and obviously he fucking murdered that kid. And then I was like, they weren’t even interested in having me on the card. 

diego garijo fighting under angle wrap

Back then, BKFC didn’t have the following that they have now. And I was making videos every day and tagging them in them, and asking all my friends to tag them and send them. I was doing that shit every day. Until they fell, then got my number from somebody and texted me and it was like, “All right, buddy. I see what you’re doing. We’re going to give you a shot.” (BKFC president David Feldman) was talking about doing a reality show, and I was like “You need to follow me. I’ll make it interesting. I’ve got a fucking personality.” But they went with different things. And what happened was I fought (Tom Shoaff), and Tom is 10 years younger than me, probably a better boxer. 

We scrapped it out, he got me really good at the beginning of the round. I actually cracked an orbital in that fight. But I came back to win. And then I told them, “Hey, I want to fight ASAP.” It was almost a year before I fought again. Which sucked, because at that point I was like 39. And then finally we gave Tom the rematch. And what happened was I have a really sharp bone on the inside of my jaw. And when I get hit, sometimes the bone cuts the lip from the inside. So it started to fill up with blood. And Tom was definitely winning the match for sure.

He was beating my fucking ass. But it’s the same thing as the Saad Awad fight. I could seem him starting to crack. I could see him starting to be like, “Fuck, I can’t put this guy down. He won’t stay down.” And Tom was starting to slow down. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they had not stopped that match, I would have won. Zero doubt in my mind. But they were saying, “Your cheek is so swollen, it looks like your jaw is broken, we have to stop it”  I was like, “No, please don’t.” Boom. They stopped it.

After that, Dave said, “Hey, now you’re so exciting. You can fight on my card any time you want.” Well, I broke my thumb on that card, but I knew it was going to be better. And it was in February and I told them I want to fight in August. Right ahead, I told them”Just book me whenever you have a card in August.” He was like “Oh, I can’t, that one’s all booked up.” Even though I gave him month’s notice or some shit. And then the next one thing is, “I can’t afford you right now.”

So I’m interested in doing one last fight, with Tom. The trilogy.

And then the next one was like, “OK, I got you, but then I’m going to move it to another month.” And then it’s like I never heard from them. And then I finally hear from them another year later, and then he’s like, “OK, you know, we’ll get you the rematch with Tom for 6,000 dollars.” And I’m like, “Fuck you guys. I’m 41. I wanted to get like six fights in, back-to-back, and get out. You take a fucking year to call me back?” I’m like, “No, man. I’m not going to wait around a year and then take a fucking pay cut.”

So I’m interested in doing one last fight, with Tom. The trilogy. Now that there’s all this fucking media attention. I think the first two were some of the most entertaining fucking fights to watch. Nobody can deny that. And that’s it. I’m just going to fucking fix those holes. I know I’ve been doing it my entire fucking life and I’m so fucking stubborn that I never listen to my coaches. But if I fight Tom again, I will fucking keep my fucking hands up, be a little more defensive, and still fucking swing for the fences.

I’m going to get a little philosophical, but I was wondering… When you look at fighting, it looks like there’s something very primal about it. Talking to fighters, it feels like that feeds into a very specific part of their soul. My question to you is, what does fighting do for your soul, for your brain, for your heart?

And what does art do? Do these forms of expression that you have sort of feed into different parts of yourself, or do they speak to the same part?

As somebody who had a rough upbringing and who’s attracted to extremes, obviously I like a little bit of the thrill of fighting, and I love pushing myself. And I do think that’s something that most people who dislike fighting don’t understand, it’s that there’s a lot in the extreme and the emotions that you have to put in to be a champion.

Perseverance, pushing through tough moments. That’s what, as humans, have caused us to survive. It’s an incredible thing to feel. It’s an incredible thing to feel the crowd cheering for you. 

Drag is very liberating. They do have a lot in common. I could say a lot of things that, like, “It feels like this when you’re going to fight and it feels like this when you’re going to perform.” But to me, it’s more liberating.

diego garijo boxing walkout

I just want to say that it’s also liberating to fight, because you have this freedom that not most people in the world could take advantage of you if they wanted to. And, also, as far as doing drag and doing some of the things I do, I do have a privilege that most people don’t.

Because, let’s say, trans people dress the way they see themselves on the inside. They’re victims of crime more often than most people. So I have the privilege of being this strong fucking person who can do almost whatever the fuck I want out of society and not have to worry about it. So fighting is a way of feeling that freedom. And art is another way of expressing, you know, creativity and freedom. And so is the drag. And it’s also very exciting to perform. If there’s crowd outside chanting for you, it’s very similar, also. 

I think that we have this tendency to want to put inspirational labels on things. And I don’t want to ascribe that to you. But, by being so open about all these facets that for some people might sound clashing or just paradoxical, are you concerned with sending a message? With being an example, or maybe teaching something — whether it’s gender roles or self-expression? 

Meaning: Do you take it upon yourself to sort of be an “inspiration,” are you just simply manifesting something that’s inside of you? Maybe both?

I am just 100 percent being myself. The thing that’s most rewarding is that just me being myself is inspiring other people to be themselves. That’s a reward that I wasn’t expecting.

I’m honored to get to do that, because I get hundreds of messages, DMs, almost daily from people, saying, “I love what you’re doing. I love how it makes me feel to see you being yourself. And it gives me courage for me to be myself.” So that was an unexpected thing for me.

diego lola hands on face

I didn’t plan on that happening, but I do love it. And every once in a while, I do get a negative thing. (But) I’m going to focus on the 100 positive things, instead of one negative thing. And, for me, I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t have to do anything but be myself. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do. And hopefully, I can continue to inspire people, because it is a very rewarding thing.

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