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Hathaway - From Star-Struck to Star

“I guess you always feel a little bit nervous or apprehensive, especially just before a competition, but again, you’re gonna have to go out there and compete, so there’s no point in worrying about it. You just go out there and do what you’ve been doing in training and do it to the best of your ability.”

If you went simply by the looks on the faces of John Hathaway and Thomas Egan as they sat together at the press conference before their UFC 93 bout in Dublin in January of 2009, it would have been Game, Set, and Match in favor of Ireland’s Egan, who appeared to be an old pro at 20 as he answered query after query from the assembled media.

Hathaway, Egan’s senior at the ripe old age of 21, smiled from ear to ear, but that expression was borne out of the fact that he was sharing a dais with the likes of Rich Franklin, Mark Coleman, and Dan Henderson, heroes of his who he could now call colleagues.

“It was a great honor,” said Hathaway last week when reminiscing about the event. He even admitted to grabbing a picture with another UFC 93 competitor, Denis Kang, making it clear that fighting isn’t just a job for him, but a passion. But when the bell rang against Egan two nights after that first press conference, despite a raucous crowd screaming itself hoarse while cheering for the hometown hero, Hathaway showed that he wasn’t just happy to have made it to the UFC, but that he was going to stay awhile, as pounded out a first round TKO win that kicked off an Octagon campaign that has seen him go 4-0 in just under two years. And in the process, the most telling feature of Hathaway’s is how he turns that smile into a poker face once it’s time to fight.

“I guess you always feel a little bit nervous or apprehensive, especially just before a competition, but again, you’re gonna have to go out there and compete, so there’s no point in worrying about it,” he said with a smile. “You just go out there and do what you’ve been doing in training and do it to the best of your ability.”

The 23-year old makes it sound oh so simple, but it can’t possibly be, not in a game where the slightest bit of lost focus can end your night in a hurry or where men who have been competing since their grade school years can crumble under the pressure induced by the bright lights of the Octagon. No, keeping it all together when it counts is far from simple, but it’s an art that Hathaway seems to have mastered.

Case in point, his second UFC fight against fellow welterweight prospect Rick Story. When asked about being tested in his pro career, Hathaway shot right to that UFC 99 bout, which he won via unanimous decision.

“I’ve been in a couple fights before where I really had to dig deep and pull out a victory and it was a hard back and forth battle,” he said. “My fight with Rick Story, he was a very tough kid and that was an incredible fight as well.”

Yet if you watch the fight again, while it was a competitive and close bout, Hathaway never seemed on the verge of panic against a hard-charging battler like Story. He chuckles when you bring this to his attention.

“I try to stay calm during the fight and not waste energy by getting flustered,” he said. “Rick was a very hard fight and I just try to stay calm and not waste too much energy. That’s probably why I looked not so bad.”

So with these two wins, along with a victory over always tough countryman Paul Taylor at UFC 105, Hathaway had no qualms about taking a fight against longtime contender Diego Sanchez at UFC 114 in May. He may have been the only one, as most pundits and fans believed that while Hathaway was a stellar talent with a huge upside, fighting Sanchez – who was coming off three fights at 155 pounds against Joe Stevenson, Clay Guida, and BJ Penn – would be too much too soon.

Hathaway silenced those skeptics almost immediately with a right knee to the head that rocked and almost finished Sanchez.

“I think after I made that connection in the first round with my upper thigh and knee area, I kinda knew I had him slightly rocked,” said Hathaway. “Diego’s an incredible competitor and an incredible fighter, so he was very hard to put away. But I knew I could keep him at the right range and I could land shots as much as I could, and I tried to put pressure on him to keep him in my flow of the game.”

It was one of the most anti-climactic decisions seen in a long time when the judges rendered Hathaway the winner by scores of 30-27, 30-27, and 30-26, but the impact of the victory can’t be underestimated. This was a huge statement by Hathaway, and a shocking one to a lot of people.

“I still have a long way to go with learning in every kind of discipline, but I hope I’ve surprised a couple people after my last performances and I hope to keep surprising people with each performance,” he said. “I hope to be getting better each time and showing that I’ve gotten better each time.”

With the biggest win of his career to date secured, the 14-0 wunderkind from Brighton has now had to deal with the attention already afforded to his countrymen Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy as he approaches his UFC 120 bout against Mike Pyle this Saturday. He’s taking it in stride, even though when it comes to some pre-fight trash talk, he may as well be described as the anti-Bisping or anti-Hardy.

“It’s a big deal obviously,” said Hathaway of his rise up the main card. “I’m midway through the main card now. My last fight was my first one on the main card and obviously being in the UK with the other UK fighters, I’ve been getting slightly more publicity and doing more interviews, but it’s another fight for me, another one I get to prove my skill in and try my best in.”

And while the Hathaway-Pyle bout doesn’t jump off the page like Bisping vs Yoshihiro Akiyama or Hardy vs Carlos Condit, it is one of the most intriguing fights on the London card, simply because Pyle has the tool set to take advantage of any mistake from a young prospect, and because the young prospect in question isn’t in the business of making too many mistakes. And Hathaway knows just how dangerous Pyle can be.

“He reacts very well in a lot of combat situations because of his experience and he’s an incredibly dangerous opponent, so I’m taking him very seriously and I trained very hard for him,” said Hathaway, whose main strength is that he doesn’t have one particular ‘go to’ move or one style that he’s locked into. He’s one of the new breed of fighters who have learned the sport of mixed martial arts from Day One, and not jiu-jitsu, wrestling or kickboxing with a little of the other disciplines tossed in along the way.

“I think that’s helped me a lot and I think the next generation is taking it in that way where they’re becoming complete mixed martial artists straight away,” said Hathaway. “It helps you when it comes to deciding on a gameplan and building up to a fight because I can use certain attributes where my opponents are either weaker in or where I feel I have a slight advantage, and I can change my training about building up to each competition as an individual thing, as I’m fairly well-rounded across the disciplines.”

As you can tell, he’s modest too, and that may be the key to his success, because nothing brings a huge ego down to Earth like a well-placed right cross to the jaw or a tight triangle choke. Hathaway knows it, so don’t expect him to deviate from what has brought him this far so fast.

“I try to treat every fight with a lot of professionalism, and I train incredibly hard for each one,” he said, “so it doesn’t matter whether I’m fighting at home or abroad, I’m always gonna give it a hundred percent in my training and in the competition as well.”