Phil Hawes is drawing high praise early in his career. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It’s monsoon season in the Duke City, and an afternoon thunderstorm has temporarily knocked out power at Jackson-Wink MMA.
Inside the dark, muggy gym, the rhythmic thwack of Phil Hawes hitting focus mitts with Brandon Gibson provides the soundtrack for the early evening. A few feet away, Jon Jones and Greg Jackson sit inside the cage, discussing contingency plans for what was going to be the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder’s UFC 178 bout against Daniel Cormier -- none of which, incidentally, included a media-day melee or knee surgery.
Though the conditions were hardly ideal for a workout, this is exactly what Hawes envisioned when he packed up his car and left Little Ferry, N.J., for the desert with only a couple hundred dollars to his name.
After all, it was Jones who provided the from-juco-wrestler-to-Albuquerque-to-UFC-champion blueprint Hawes is intent on following. It is early, but so far he is retracing Jones’ footsteps pretty well. Like “Bones,” Hawes captured a national championship during his tenure at Iowa Central Community College -- a program which, along with Jones, produced reigning UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Even more impressive, he was not even a starter at the beginning of the season when he won the 197-pound title in 2009.
“It was a battle every day,” Hawes told Sherdog.com. “You got the top prospects in the country at your weight class. People didn’t think I was going to start. That’s the type of talent we had there.”
While Hawes has remained relatively anonymous since trading his singlet for four-ounce gloves, expectations are much higher in the renowned MMA gym than they initially were on the mats in America’s heartland; and it starts at the top of the food chain.
“It’s an honor that I was able to be an inspiration to someone like Phil,” Jones said. “Phil is just an amazing athlete. I think him being in the UFC is inevitable; I think him being a champion is bound to happen. I think he’s gonna carry on that legacy that Iowa Central has been able to produce.”
Although he has less than four rounds of professional MMA experience to his credit, the thickly muscled Hawes is the type of specimen that tends to make an instant visual impression. According to one UFC employee, it is commonly assumed by Zuffa members who meet him that Hawes is already under contract.
Considering his wrestling background and build, it is not surprising that Hawes has already drawn comparisons to current UFC welterweight Tyron Woodley.
“I think I’m a little more dynamic, but he’s fast and explosive, and that’s what people say I am,” Hawes said, without the least bit of Mike Goldberg-tinted irony.
By itself, however, simply looking the part is not enough to get by. The sport is littered with imposing-looking athletes whose performance did not match their presentation.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been impressed with a guy’s physique. I’ve seen plenty of big, old muscled-up dudes come in here, and I know skinny guys like me always love to find those dudes in sparring,” Gibson said. “What struck me about Phil was what he was willing to sacrifice to be here in Albuquerque, and that was real.”
Gibson also thinks the Woodley comparisons might be too confining. Instead, the assistant striking coach likens him to Jackson-Wink teammate John Dodson, who entered MMA as a wrestle-first fighter but eventually developed into a striker known for both knockout power and innovation.
“Even though he’s a big, strong middleweight -- and may become a welterweight -- footwork, explosiveness and speed-wise, I see a lot of [Dodson] in him,” Gibson said. “We work some similar combinations, but then we also use stuff that matches his incredible wrestling skills. The thing I appreciate most about working with Phil is he is an intellectual fighter.”
Like anyone who attempts to join the elite New Mexico team, Hawes had to endure the standard dojo initiation. In Jackson’s gym, pretenders are quickly sent packing if they cannot hold their own. The New Jersey native’s first welcome-to-the-big-time moment came in sparring against former UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, who blasted him with a head kick not unlike the one he used to put Georges St. Pierre in peril in their title unification bout at UFC 154.
Hawes took his lumps with just the right mixture of awe and determination.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I didn’t see it coming at all. It was cool seeing that type of technique and getting hit with it. [Maybe] not getting hit with it -- getting hit sucks -- but it was still cool.”
Jones has been known to dish out some tough love to his fellow Triton, as well, but Hawes does not shy away from such encounters. After all, moments like those are part of why he went from an undersized prep defensive tackle with decent college prospects and poor grades to the precipice of something bigger. Hawes may not get the best of Jones in these exchanges, but he does not back down in them, either. In fact, the newcomer is not afraid to put new techniques to work even in the face of his most difficult tests.
“What impressed me the most about Phil is just his willingness to learn and apply the moves right away,” Jones said. “For him to take it and make it his own ... his creativity is actually refreshing to me to be around.”
Right now, the most glaring hole in Hawes’ game is a dearth of experience. Going head-to-head against the likes of Jones, Condit, Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir and Donald Cerrone in practice can make fight night seem easy. Still, to continue to follow the Jones model, Hawes needs quantity in addition to quality.
Jones, for example, fought seven times in a year when he turned pro in 2008. Fights one through six took place in a span of three months. His seventh, against Andre Gusmao, came at UFC 87 one month later. In short, the plan is simple for Hawes: The more fights, the better. Such a noble goal is not always easily achieved, especially at the regional level.
“Some of these hot prospects out of a big school like Jackson’s are hard to find fights for sometimes,” Gibson said. “So we need to be ready, and we’re probably going to get a lot of last-second calls or maybe [fights in] weight classes that aren’t his natural weight. We just need to keep him sharp, in shape and ready and seize the moment when it comes.”
The immediate plan is a fight against Brandon Collins at Global Knockout 2 on Saturday at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort in Jackson, Calif. To this point, Hawes claims the greatest danger he has felt in live competition occurred when he slipped after missing a head kick. That, he says, is the only time he has been on his back in a fight. His response was to immediately revert to his wrestling. Shortly thereafter, he was ground-and-pounding his way to victory. However, Hawes knows he needs to struggle to experience greater success.
“I think I need more fights -- just experience and knowledge: going deep into a five-round fight or a three-round fight, being put on my back, adversity,” he said. “I think that’d be cool to face some adversity and see how well I do against it.”
In a sense, Hawes has already proven himself. Leaving home to take a chance on a dream is never easy. In the year since he ventured to the desert, he has not returned to visit family and friends. He does not plan on doing so until his goals are accomplished.
“I don’t really like time away,” Hawes said. “I came here to do what I gotta do. I’ve got to work and get it done. My family understands that.”
In the meantime, Hawes has developed a close relationship with Gibson, who has made it a point to work with the fighter individually on a weekly basis. Gibson is more than just a coach, however. He also serves as a de facto advisor and, more importantly, a friend. The getting-to-you process was not without a little bit of culture shock for the East Coast resident. Gibson is fond of taking fighters to various scenic locales across the state to work out, elements be damned. Early in Hawes’ Jackson-Wink tenure, Gibson invited him to an impromptu workout and photo shoot about 80 miles outside of Albuquerque. Mitts were hit; pictures were taken; and it was also the middle of December. You can forgive Hawes if he thought about packing up and heading home right then.
“It’s snowing, and we’re posing in Roots of Fight gear,” Gibson said, laughing. “He was like, ‘You out west white guys are crazy. Is this what you mountain boys do?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, man.’ But he stuck it all out day.”
It sounds like a recurring theme. As it turns out, Hawes is still sticking around, hoping that life-changing call is just around the corner.