As hard as it is to train for a fighting style and ground game like Chase Hooper’s, what has it been like coaching the son of UFC FIGHT PASS?
Jeff Hougland made his professional MMA debut in July of 2002. After a lackluster 1-4 start, he went on an eight-fight winning streak that landed him in the UFC. Hougland had made it to the top of the sport and secured a win in his debut, but only had two fights left in his career.
For the first time since the infancy of his career, Hougland went on a losing streak and decided to hang up the gloves for good. It may not have been the end to the career he had planned for, hoped for or drawn up, but Hougland took the entire experience in and walked out with the veteran wisdom that would turn him into the coach and mentor he is today.
“I didn’t exactly set the world on fire with my martial arts career,” Hougland said. “I was also juggling a bunch of hats at the same time. I learned from that, and that was the biggest thing. I was able to make it to the UFC but I wasn’t able to stay there for a long period of time, but I kind of figured out what they were looking for and a little bit of the formula.”
Hougland’s debut was shared with Chris Leben, Wanderlei Silva, Tito Ortiz and others in the back nine of their careers. He looked around and saw a card full of 30-somethings before going back to his Enumclaw gym and making an observation that would prove to be true ten years later.
“I sensed that the next wave was going to be a little bit younger,” Hougland said. “My era guys were good around 30. You look back at the champs like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, and those guys were champs around their thirties or older. I saw the young kids in the gym training like him (Hooper) and I thought, this is going to be the next wave of fighters.”
When Hougland got back to the gym, he knew the future was among him. Somebody somewhere in his beginner classes was going to be one of the next UFC stars, but it sure as hell wasn’t going to be Chase Hooper.
“When he was a young kid I thought he was one of the last people to become a fighter,” Hougland said. “He was just kind of gangly and not very strong or athletic, but that kid trained every day. I’ll give him that.”
In addition to not having the physique or coordination of a future star, Hooper lacked even basic social skills most fighters have no problem with. Forget face-to-face heated staredowns with trained killers, Hougland couldn’t even get the gangly kid to speak to him.
“He would just give me head nods the first year-and-a-half, and then finally, I was like, ‘Hey, man, we’re going to need some yes and nos for answers,’” Hougland laughed.
Practice after practice, year after year, Hougland watched Hooper come back in. All of a sudden the awkward, shy, passive kid was starting to look like a fighter. Call it persistence, call it a lack of hobbies, call it whatever you want, Hougland was running out of training partners for the kid he once just wanted to hear speak.
By 14 years old, Hooper had to spar with the former UFC bantamweight. BJJ was no different. With a blank look and a will to win, Hooper was becoming too much for anybody in the gym. Within months he was too much for anybody in a gi.
The invisible killer instinct was beginning to build and fast track him to bigger and bigger shows.
“When I put him in Jiu jitsu tournaments and stuff as a kid, he would win most of the time and then every once in awhile he’d come across a 28-year-old man and they’d beat him,” Hougland said. “I knew that the next two tournaments everybody was in trouble because this kid would come back with a vengeance and slaughterhouse everybody.”
Hooper’s story didn’t even have time to develop past high school before the UFC would get wind of this awkward, skinny, unassuming fighter who still obsessed over M&Ms and his gym crush.
The masses were introduced to Hooper the way Hougland was, and it was the same fighter Hougland would assure everybody to take serious or find yourself tapping out.
In addition to a UFC fighter still on the upswing of his career, Hooper has a leadership role in the gym that molded him into the fighter he is today. He now helps Hougland in the same classes he used to avoid eye contact in.
He’s come impossibly far in an impossibly short amount of time, but Hougland assures everybody we’ve only seen the slightest glimpse of “The Dream.”
“I think the first few fights he might have thought, ‘I’m too young and these guys are going to realize I don’t belong here.’ I was like, ‘No, you do belong here. They know it,’” explained Hougland. “As a coach you can believe in somebody all you want, but if they don’t believe in it, as well, then it’s not going to work. He’s figured out, ‘I am on this level. I can compete with these guys.’ We’re trying to build him step by step and have a long UFC career.”
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