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Hammer's Time - The Rise of Matt Hamill

Matt Hamill headlines UFC 130, as he battles "Rampage" Jackson on May 28th...

Longevity. To have it in the sport of mixed martial arts at the highest level of the game is something to be proud of, but you can’t treasure it because it only takes a moment or two of complacency to lose it.

Matt Hamill was probably the most unlikely candidate from season three of The Ultimate Fighter to still be battling it out in the UFC. A talented athlete, but still raw, when he competed on the Spike TV reality show in 2006, his career consisted of a host of wrestling accolades and a 2-0 MMA record.

Coach Tito Ortiz took an instant liking to Hamill, who was born deaf, and he led his charge to a hard-fought victory over Mike Nickels in his lone fight on the show before leaving the competition due to injuries suffered in the bout.

A bout in the TUF3 finale was almost a given, and he pounded out fellow rookie Jesse Forbes in less than a round, guaranteeing that he would be back. The question was – for how long?

Considering that Hamill will be headlining UFC 130 against former light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on May 28th, that answer is pretty clear. But what about his journey to this point? After nearly five years in the UFC, Hamill has quietly waited his turn, won most of his fights, lost a couple key ones, dealt with injuries, and basically built himself into a contender.

In 2006, just 11 months into his career, he talked about the start of that journey, saying, “In wrestling, success came easy. It came so naturally, and the mat was my home. Joining this sport has been a challenge. I learn new things every day and others can knock me down, which they never could in wrestling. But I'm getting better and I’m still striving to be at the top in MMA also.”

You expect to hear that from any athlete trying to come to grips with something new, but few are willing to put in the work to get there. Hamill has been the exception to that rule, but it wasn’t easy. Case in point, his fight with Seth Petruzelli in October of 2006. Hamill had just come off the TUF show and had one win over Forbes under his belt. The veteran Petruzelli was going to be his first real test, but for the first two rounds, Hamill dominated. In the third though, Petruzelli began to realize that his standup attack was really getting to his opponent, and he began tagging him with regularity. It looked like Hamill was on the verge of getting finished by the first consistent string of strikes that Petruzelli would put together, but that string never came, and he won a three round unanimous decision.

The bout told us two things. One, Hamill’s standup really needed some work. Two, he had the heart to battle through a tough fight and still get the W. The first problem could be solved; the second attribute is something you’re born with.

From there, Hamill learned his craft in the Utica, New York, gym he still calls home, with longtime trainer and manager Duff Holmes calling the shots and keeping a core team around his fighter that has gone largely unchanged, a rarity these days.

Hamill’s next bout was an impressive first round TKO of fellow wrestler Rex Holman at UFC 68, and then at UFC 75, he traveled to London to face his old rival from TUF3, British star Michael Bisping. What followed was one of the most controversial bouts in UFC history, as fans, media members, and the fighters themselves debated Bisping’s split decision victory in September of 2007.

Surprisingly, it was Hamill’s improved standup that many considered the difference in the fight, which ultimately didn’t go his way.

“I felt I could stand and bang with him since I was able to stand with several professional boxers that I routinely spar with,” said Hamill after the bout. “Bisping always called me a one dimensional wrestler so I wanted to show him how much I have improved. We had a great game plan for this fight. The plan was to push the pace, throw bombs and use the takedowns to score points if I needed to.”

It was enough in the eyes of many observers for him to win the fight, but it wasn’t met to be. In response, Hamill opted to take the high road, garnering him even more fans, and seven months later he left the judges out of it with a second round TKO of Tim Boetsch.

A TKO loss to Rich Franklin followed, and there was no controversy over that defeat, which came courtesy of a liver kick from the former middleweight champion. But following the bout, it looked like Hamill fell under the radar a bit, with casual fans assuming that after six UFC fights, if “The Hammer” hadn’t already secured a title belt or at least a championship fight, that was it for him.

Hamill wasn’t finished though, and he wasn’t about to go away. He stopped Reese Andy in workmanlike fashion at UFC 92, and at UFC 96 in March of 2009, he stole the show from Jackson’s headlining win over Keith Jardine with a one kick finish of Mark Munoz that earned Knockout of the Night honors.

Those matches started off a five fight winning streak that will carry him into the Jackson bout, but the third fight of the streak was anything but a win, as he was awarded a disqualification victory over current UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones in December of 2009. Dominated from the outset, Hamill suffered a dislocated shoulder early in the bout and was unable to recover. The final scene of the contest saw Jones unleashing an unanswered barrage of blows and eventually an illegal elbow that cost him the bout.

Again, Hamill took the high road and didn’t celebrate the continuation of his winning streak. Instead, he healed up and went back to the gym to fix whatever was broken in the Jones fight. And when he returned against veteran Keith Jardine, he showed no ill effects of the Jones fight as he engaged in a bloody three round war with “The Dean of Mean” and gutchecked his way to a majority decision win and a Fight of the Night bonus.

The win over Jardine set up an intriguing UFC 121 bout with his former mentor Ortiz, but Hamill did the right thing, taking the drama out of the fight immediately and simply dominating the former light heavyweight champ for three one-sided rounds. It was a defining moment in the career of Hamill, who had practically come full circle. He studied under Ortiz in the early days of his stint as a pro fighter, and now he had defeated him.

It’s almost as if a chapter closed for Hamill with the bout, opening the door for a new one that begins with his showdown against Jackson. With a win, he will take another high-profile scalp and place himself squarely in the title picture. And though a rematch with Jones isn’t one that people are demanding at the moment, wins over Jackson, Ortiz, and another high profile opponent would certainly leave him with a compelling case for a redemption fight with the man at the top of the 205-pound weight class.

But such talk is much too premature at this point. Hamill’s toughest opponent awaits, and in Jackson, he will be facing a fighter with a lot of incentive to climb his way back to the top. In fact, when first informed that Hamill, and not Thiago Silva, was his opponent, “Rampage” balked at the bout, but soon came around when he was told that Hamill actually requested the fight. That was seen as a slight by Jackson, and such slights are usually dealt with by force.

So there will be fireworks in this one, and the gameplans are clear – Hamill wants to take Jackson down and punish him, and “Rampage” wants to end the fight in explosive fashion as soon as possible to send a message to Hamill and the rest of the division.

It’s the kind of fight Hamill has been waiting for, and at 34, he knows that if he’s going to make a run at the top, the time is now. Longevity is one thing, but you don’t want to stick around too long at the same level. Matt Hamill has progressed from prospect to contender; now it’s time to move further up the ladder, and the only man standing in his way of doing that is “Rampage” Jackson.

And you may want to count him out, but consider that of the 16 fighters on season three of The Ultimate Fighter, only four (Hamill, Bisping, Ed Herman, Kendall Grove) remain in the UFC. Hamill has proved his worth in the Octagon, not only as a fighter, but as a survivor, and it’s hard to beat someone who just refuses to lose.