By the age of 30, Ryan Hall had become a decorated black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, gone through the ups and downs of being in that world, and had even been involved in a viral video that saw him subdue a belligerent patron while at a restaurant on the Jersey shore. So six weeks in a house with a bunch of other professional fighters wasn’t really that bad.
“Compared to a lot of the other stuff I've heard, people do a lot of complaining before, and I was like 'This wasn't that bad,'” he said, laughing. “The food was very good, you can't leave - it was like the ultimate prison. It's very nice, but you're not allowed to go.”
And at least when the Virginia native was freed from his time on The Ultimate Fighter, not only did he get a fight in the UFC, he got THE fight, as he will face Artem Lobov in tonight’s season finale. On the line is a UFC contract, and his path to that final is in line with the rollercoaster ride he is accustomed to.
Winner of two bouts on the show, both ending by submission via heel hook in the first round, Hall was then paired up with Saul Rogers in the quarterfinals. He lost a two-round majority decision, but he left the bout with some positive thoughts about his fighting future.
“I felt like I was trying to do a lot of new things that I wanted to do,” he said of the Rogers fight. “I wanted to show that I could strike and get in there, and I don't mind being hit. I remember being four and half minutes into the fight and then going ‘Hey, I feel like I'm winning a kickboxing match in the UFC, or at least close to the UFC,’” he said with a laugh.
“The show was a learning experience, but what was most important to me was to fight well and to also prepare myself to fight in the UFC one day,” Hall added. “And unless I manage to slide in there and heel hook everybody else, I may not be getting the experience that I'm gonna need to one day stand for five rounds and fight on the feet with someone that I'm not able to take down or that I elect to not take down. I grew a lot in that fight and I grew a lot in confidence from having the opportunity to do all that.”
All good things, but the bottom line was that when the show ended, Rogers in the final against Lobov. Hall was scheduled to fight on the finale card at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, and he even went to Dublin to work with Lobov and the SBG Ireland team. Then came the call that Rogers was out of the Lobov fight due to visa issues, and Hall was in.
Now everything has changed, and it’s an odd – but positive – place to be in for someone who admits that his fighting days might have been done after just five fights before the TUF opportunity arrived.
“I was walking my way out the door of martial arts, which was pretty sad for me, to be honest,” he said. “It was a very difficult decision for me to make. I was frustrated, I was stuck in a really, really bad fight contract that was exclusive. I couldn't get fights, the fights that I was offered were garbage, the money that I was being offered to fight made me just feel denigrated as a human being. Even if I thought I could win, I just didn't want to be involved with that. And when The Ultimate Fighter came up, I remember just thinking 'Eh, I'll go out there, why not?'”
It’s a story shared by so many fighters who got a second chance at a career in MMA through the long-running reality show. UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin may be the most notable example, as he was about to focus on a career in law enforcement before the show gave him a new fighting life. Hall has one now, too.
“I wanted nothing more when I left jiu-jitsu to have the opportunity to go as far as I could and to try my best to really face tough opposition and the UFC has been the pinnacle of that, of course, but the path to high-level MMA is not linear, which is a little bit frustrating sometimes,” he said. “In jiu-jitsu, if I want to get into Abu Dhabi, it's simple - win the trials. If you win the trials, they put you in.
“It's a little tougher in MMA because it's prizefighting. It's a sport, but it's also a business in a way that grappling is not. And I wasn't sure how to navigate that, but the opportunity to be on The Ultimate Fighter was very unique, and I was shocked that they picked me. I honestly don't think I'm terribly interesting to stare at and I'm not very scary looking, but it was something that I couldn't pass up, and I hoped that if I performed well enough on the show that I would have the opportunity to fight at the highest level and grow as a martial artist and show what I'm capable of.”
True, Hall is not scary looking, but there may be nothing more frightening than his trademark heel hook. It’s a move that can end fights in seconds, and if an opponent doesn’t tap, it means a long stay on the sidelines to recover. Hall doesn’t mince words when asked if he can make anyone submit to the maneuver.
“I feel that anyone walking around on two legs on this planet, if I get a hold of you in the way that I need to, you're in a lot of trouble,” he said. “The caveat for that is if I can get a hold of you.”
He got hold of Johnny Nunez and Franz Slioa on the show. Rogers eluded his deadly grasp, and while Hall admits that “My MMA game is a work in progress,” he’s had enough time since taping ended to sew up some holes, develop some new tricks and get ready for his big night in the UFC. And now that he’s here, he’s not turning back.
“This is all I've ever wanted, the opportunity to really go for it and have the chance to control my own destiny,” he said. “To be in the big show means everything to me, and I will give this everything I've got. There is no half-measure.”