Rick Hawn has just hit his five-year anniversary as a mixed martial artist after he moved on from an Olympic-level career in judo. To some, those first five years are toiled on the independent circuit, trying to carve out a niche or identity for oneself. For Hawn, he soared to the top of Bellator’s season 4 welterweight final in less than two years of MMA under his belt.
He lost his first fight of his career by split-decision to Jay Hieron, but moved on to win a lightweight tournament (falling to then-champion Michael Chandler) and then finally welterweight tournament.
Now, he’s staring gold in the face, with only one more fight in his way before he can call himself ‘champion.’ Of course, Douglas Lima, a two-time welterweight tournament winner, has something to say about that.
Before we finally see the crowning of a second Bellator welterweight champion on Spike this Friday, we spoke to Rick Hawn about the surging popularity of judo, his eleven knockouts and how much time this 37-year-old has left in the sport.
Jason Nawara: How does the Olympic and judo tournament experiences compare to MMA or the Bellator tournament?
Rick Hawn: It’s kind of similar in some ways. With judo, we’d compete once a week actually. Sometimes for 5-6 weeks straight during the European tour. In some ways it’s similar because in the tournament, win or lose, you have a training camp the following week and then you travel to the next fight. Mentally and physically it’s similar to the Bellator tournament. Just being mentally and physically beat up.
JN: Has your training differed in any drastic ways since the Olympics or when you were fully in the judo world?
RH: The same mindset. It’s a different sport but mentally I go into everything the same weay and try to prepare as best I can. I’m not 25-years-old anymore so I needed to cut things back a bit in terms of being crazy and banging heads all day. I can’t do that anymore. Now it’s more cerebral and working on the finer points of training.
JN: What specific finer points are you working on?
RH: More technical things. Not sparring too much, but working more on refining my technique and being more fluid and a better all-around fighter. It’s better for me.
JN: You’re 37-years-old, but you’re still performing at an extremely high level. You mentioned before you’d probably end your career in Bellator, do you stil lfeel that way?
RH: Yeah, who knows. Ya’ know? The way things are and contracts are, that’s probably what’s going to happen, but we’ll see what plays out. I have a big fight this week and I’m not sure what’s in store for me, but I think I’m relevant enough to compete against most of the guys in Bellator. I haven’t declined in my career yet. So, I think I stil lhave a couple years of solid fighting left in me.
JN: You’re obviously considered a grappler first and foremost, but you’ve gone on to develop some seriously heavy hands. Were they something you were able to develop in training or do you think heavy hands are God-given?
RH: My coach, Firas Zahabi, always said heavy-handed strikers are kind of a God-given thing. Not everyone has that. I think it comes back to my judo days and my hips. The power in striking comes from the hips and I had that in judo, throwing people around. I think it was partially that and then I just really focused on striking from the beginning. I didn’t want to be considered a grappler. I wanted to work on my striking so that it was on-par with my grappling. So when I started MMA I only focused on striking.
JN: You only started you MMA career in 2009, so when did you start training your striking?
RH: Six months before that.
RH: Yeah, summer of 2008 I went to MMA school.
JN: Incredible, and now you have 11 knockouts. For years people called BJJ the best base in MMA, then wrestling took over, but now we seem to be seeing judo carve out it’s own slice of the pie with you and Hector Lombard and Ronda Rousey competing so well. How do you feel about this relatively sudden rise to prominence for your sport?
RH: It’s great. Obviously it hasn’t been very popular, there were only a few people in the past that were practitioners. It’s definitely effective. But then it’s only a piece of the puzzle. BJJ is the ground, wrestling is in-between and judo I consider to be upright. It has a lot of elements with the submissions, but it’s only a piece. It’s something different and it’s gained popularity which has been great.
JN: What’s the number one tip you would give to a new judo practitioner?
RH: Be patient. Like any martial art it takes a long time to get good at certain techniques. Even more so with judo. It’s not just you in the movement, you have to move another body along with yours so it takes a long time. Be patient and do them slow for months and months in the beginning. I’ve seen so many people rush their techniques but you have to be slow to get that muscle and body coordination. Muscle memory has to be there.
JN: I’ve heard broken fingers are the worst part about judo.
RH: Yeah, broken fingers and broken toes are the norm. I personally think judo is harder training than MMA. At least for me. Your elbows and joints are strained, you’re pulling a gi against someone who doesn’t want to get thrown. There’s tons of torque on your shoulders, knees and elbows. It’s rough.
JN: You fought 5 times in 2013. Do you want more fights? Less? Just right?
RH: In my mind that was great. The more you fight the more money you’re going to make. but 5 is probably pushing it in terms of how many fights one has. THis year will probably be less. I wasn’t really expected to be in that last tournament, but that worked out well.
JN: Refresh my memory, you weren’t expected to be in the last tournament?
RH: I was actually preparing for a lightweight fight, about a month and a half out, then I saw a couple injuries in the tournament posted online. So I put my name in because I saw the field and it looked like a tournament I could win so they accepted me on six days notice and I was about a month into training camp. It was a good gamble.
JN: And now you’re fighting for the belt. Is this somewhat bittersweet considering you couldn’t face Askren for the title?
RH: Um, to some degree. It think it would be an interesting challenge to have faced him. We both have the grappling backgrounds. I was close in 2011, but I didn’t get it done. I’m here now, maybe one day we’ll face each other.
JN: Both you and Douglas Lima have been on a tear, knocking guys out left and right. Are you going to rely on your judo or will this be a stand up war?
RH: I think it’s going to be a striking battle. We’re both powerful strikers. It has the potential to be very exciting. I expect him to come out there and try to knock me out and put me down. I hope to counter his aggression and his movements. But… We’ll see.