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If Hayder Hassan had turned down a spot in The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption tournament, it would have been understandable, considering he fought three times in 17 days during his first go-round on the show in 2015.
But when American Top Team’s Dan Lambert told him about this season’s format, ten days before Hassan was scheduled to fight in a December bout for the Titan FC promotion, the 34-year-old didn’t hesitate to take another shot at TUF glory.
“I was excited to be fighting on UFC FIGHT PASS (for Titan FC), so the UFC would have a good view of me and my skills,” he said. “That was my path and what I needed to do, and I was focused on that. But once I heard The Ultimate Fighter was coming back, I was excited for that because I also know how tough it is. It’s the toughest competition in all of sports and from doing season 21, I felt comfortable and I felt I had an advantage over guys that hadn’t done the show in quite some time. I was excited and looking forward to the challenge.”
Challenges are nothing new to Florida’s Hassan, who lost more than three years of his career to hand injuries before returning and getting a spot on season 21 of TUF, which pitted his American Top Team squad against the Blackzilians. What followed was a gutsy effort from Hassan, who defeated Andrews Nakahara, Felipe Portela and Vicente Luque in the space of a little over two weeks. So for him, another six weeks in a TUF format would be a walk in the park because it couldn’t possibly be as tough as the first one.
“Coming from that previous season, fighting three times in 17 days, going into my third fight, I was physically feeling it,” he admits. “I went into the fight with an injury, and after all those mental challenges, I was like, ‘Wow, I have to put myself through this gauntlet again.’ But I was excited for it (TUF 25). I had such great growth, not only as a professional, but such great growth as a man. Win, lose or draw, I knew it was going to be positive growth for me.”
Hassan became an instant fan favorite for his run on TUF 21, but it was what happened after the show that left him on the outside looking in when it came to being in the UFC. Back to back losses to Kamaru Usman and Luque prompted his release from the promotion, and simply put, 2015 left him drained.
“My first fight in the UFC was my fourth fight that year and it was just a lot of fighting,” he said. “I went into it after the worst training camp of my entire career, and I went into the finale beat up, injured and a shell of myself. I fought a stud in Kamaru Usman and I didn’t have my A-game, and if you’re gonna go in there and fight an athlete like Kamaru, you have to have your A-game. And I suffered because of it and ended up getting caught in a submission. Then I fought a couple months later against Vicente and that was my fifth fight of the year. I was mentally run down and I didn’t have the ferocity that I normally do.”
He pauses, and then deadpans, “That’s a lot of fights and I fought tough competition.”
That’s an understatement. After the Luque fight, he took his release from the roster not as a personal matter, but one that was going to give him an opportunity to rest up, heal up and come back stronger. And though that Titan FC fight was going to be the first step, now his path has changed and he’s back in the world of reality television. It’s where he first made his name, and now he’s back to reintroduce himself.
“A lot of times when I’ve had a path, a speed bump comes and it takes me to a different path,” he said. “At this point, I take it day-by-day and fight-by-fight, and where I’m at now, this is the most complete I’ve ever been as a fighter. And with that comes the confidence that I need to go in there and fight diverse fighting styles. And once you know yourself as a fighter, that’s when you can really go out there and excel, and no matter what opponent you’re going to face, you know what to do. I feel I’m ready to climb that mountain and stay on top this time.”