Uriah Hall has made it. No, he’s not a world champion or a top ten contender in the UFC’s middleweight division, but when it comes to figuring out the twists and turns of the fight game while in the heated glare of the spotlight, the 31-year-old seems to have a good grip on things at precisely the right moment.
Maybe that’s why he decided to make a quick turnaround after his August 8 stoppage of Oluwale Bamgbose and not take just any short notice opportunity, but one against the sixth-ranked fighter in his division, Gegard Mousasi.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that Hall sees some secret flaw in the veteran contender that will allow him to sail to victory on Saturday at Saitama Super Arena. Quite the opposite.
“Fighting a guy like Mousasi is nerve-racking,” he said. “The guy is a beast. When I took that fight, I was like ‘hell yeah, but in my mind, my body and my soul, I was like what the f**k are you doing?’”
Hall laughs, at ease with such a revelation, even though that wasn’t the case a while back. He had legitimate reasons for not wanting to be honest with the fans and the media, because those entities can take that honesty and use it against you. So when Hall talked about not having the “killer” mentality on fight night or about his concerns going into every fight, it was open season on the Jamaica-born New Yorker.
These days though, Hall has come to grips with the beasts that exist outside the Octagon.
“I have no problem being honest,” he said. “I was scared. It’s that simple. I was scared and not everyone wants to admit that, especially in a sport like this. You don’t want to tell the world you’re scared because people expect you to go out there and be a warrior.”
Anyone who steps up those four steps and into the ring or cage in any combat sport, regardless of the level or the result, has earned that warrior card, but Hall says it’s an entirely different thing when you’re competing in the UFC. To explain, he refers to a Donald Cerrone quote about the fighting life that – coupled with Hall’s feverish delivery – really does capture what it must feel like to fight someone in front of thousands in an arena and millions watching at home.
“Donald Cerrone said it the best – you’re backstage, you’re scared, nothing makes sense, you’re tired, ‘why am I so tired, I prepared for this,’ you listen to the people in your ear telling you to go out there and do this, and you’re trying to tell them to ‘shut up, I’ve heard this a million times.’ And then when you walk out there, you’re looking at the crowd, they’re cheering and you don’t know what to do or how to act.”
“But then you go into the ring and it kind of goes away, but it’s still there. The only difference is that I’m not afraid to admit to it.”
Add in some words of wisdom from his coach on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, Chael Sonnen, and Hall has learned to channel those feelings into something pretty potent.
“Chael realized this and said whenever you’re scared, whenever you second guess or have that little doubt, for some reason you become dangerous. And when my back is against the wall, I become very dangerous,” Hall said. “And I think something like that scared me when I was in the house. There’s another side of me that scares me, and I’m learning to embrace that because in life, to do something or get somewhere you’ve never been, you’ve got to be able to do stuff you’ve never done and you’ve got to become a different person. You’ve got to destroy that old you – you have to – and it’s a process. And it’s unfortunate that I’m in the world’s eye and have to be criticized, but I have to not be distracted by it because I’m just working at what I’m trying to get to.”
Hall, who has won four of his seven UFC bouts, with the only losses against Kelvin Gastelum, John Howard and Rafael Natal all coming by way of split decision, could win his next 20 fights in the Octagon, all by knockout, and there would still be critics chirping somewhere. It’s the nature of pro sports.
Now, Hall admits that “You can’t fight the system,” but when he first came off The Ultimate Fighter as the greatest thing since pizza, getting skewered for less than stellar performances that didn’t match what he put together on the reality show stung him. So he had to get back to the mindset he had when locked away from the outside world for six weeks in Las Vegas. Then, there was no internet, no social media, no one critiquing his performances, and he responded with four wins, three by knockout, one – over Adam Cella – holding a place on highlight reels in perpetuity.
“When I was in the TUF house, I was nervous but I was calm,” he said. “I had that reassurance and that positive reinforcement constantly with Chael, and that’s why we connected so well. He told me things I never heard.”
Hall remembers his pre-TUF days, when he coaches made it clear what was expected of the talented up and comer.
“I was told ‘you’re not allowed to lose,’ ‘failure is not an option,’ ‘it’s about representing the entire organization,’” he said. “I felt like if I lost I would let everybody down. Chael was like ‘it’s okay to lose, it’s okay to fail.’ I said ‘You sure?’ (Laughs) It made me forget about the future, forget about the past, and focus on the now. And believe it or not, that’s all we’ve got is right now.”
And for Hall, right now means Gegard Mousasi and the biggest fight of his career to this point, but probably not the last.
“I respect the guy, he’s tough, and I think a guy like that will probably bring the best out of me,” he said of his opponent. “It’s a great matchup, and there’s an expectation of what he might do, but I’m excited because it’s completely outside my comfort zone.”
It’s a place Hall has become more than accustomed to over the last two-plus years, so does that mean on Saturday we will see more of what made him a “can’t miss” prospect back in 2013?
“I can’t answer that question directly,” he chuckles, “but what I can tell you is that I’ve failed countless times, and that’s why I will succeed.”
You don’t hear that too often in this sport, or any sport, but Uriah Hall isn’t like the other athletes. And he’s fine with that. Some might even say he’s happy about it.
“I’m able to be at peace,” he said of his current mindset. “And when you’re at peace, you can do anything.”