"A Brand New Ballgame" for Hazelett

"If everybody just goes in there and tries to knock each other out, and nobody’s using the ground game or trying to submit each other, it’s basically kickboxing. So it’s always refreshing when the fans want to see the ground game.”
For most fighters - all right, 99 percent of them - losing weight is the one burden of their careers that they could do without. Yet Dustin Hazelett had the opposite problem, as he couldn’t keep weight on.

“It’s weird, my body wants to stay around 170,” said Hazelett, and you would think that was fine, considering that he did compete in the 170-pound welterweight division. But the thing is, these days, welterweights are cutting 15 to 20 pounds to make weight, while Hazelett was, well, just 170. And it began hurting his performances, culminating in back-to-back knockout defeats against Paul Daley and Rick Story.

“It wasn’t so much the Daley fight that made me think about dropping down,” said Hazelett, who will return to the lightweight division this Saturday against Mark Bocek. “I just got knocked out, he’s a really good striker, and it happens. But the Story fights and some of my previous fights also really made me decide to drop down because I’m just getting completely overpowered by these guys. I wasn’t cutting weight to get to 170. I’d walk in right on the money and wouldn’t actually have to cut anything. Most people are cutting 15-20 pounds, so I was at a huge disadvantage. I had fought at 155 in the UFC before, and the reason I decided not to stay there was because I was so young - I was only 20 at the time - and we thought that I would put on weight naturally. I decided to move up to welterweight and I never put on that weight and I was struggling the whole time to put it on and I couldn’t keep it on. So I made the decision to go back down.”

The amazing part is that despite giving up physical advantages in practically every fight, the 24-year old Kentucky native still won four bouts in the ultra-competitive 170 pound weight class, and rightfully earned his place among the top grapplers in the game. But unlike the early days of the sport, when technique could overcome physical disadvantages, the level of fighting has been elevated to the point where something’s eventually got to give, even for the best technicians.

“I always coasted by on my technique to be able to get away with that deficiency in power and strength and everybody’s getting so good now that I don’t have that edge,” said Hazelett. “If I’m gonna want to continue to win fights, you’ve gotta do what you gotta do.”

What Hazelett had to do was drop to 155, a cut that he says is “going better than I thought it would. It’s still gonna suck (laughs), but it should be a much easier cut than I initially anticipated.”

On Saturday, Hazelett’s return will be against a fellow Jiu-Jitsu black belt in Bocek. For purists, it’s one of the most intriguing bouts on the UFC 124 card, and for those who simply want to see a brawl, pay attention, because you might learn something about what you’ve been missing.

“It’s always refreshing for me to see people get excited about the ground game,” said Hazelett, winner of ten bouts via submission. “So many people just want to see the knockout, and even as a grappler, it’s fun watching people get knocked out every once in a while, but if everybody just goes in there and tries to knock each other out, and nobody’s using the ground game or trying to submit each other, it’s basically kickboxing. So it’s always refreshing when the fans want to see the ground game.”

It would be quite a surprise if they don’t see it at the Bell Centre, as Hazelett and Bocek are two of the game’s best. But the question has to be, when two jiu-jitsu black belts get into the Octagon, will a kickboxing match break out?

“I think it’s a really good matchup for me,” said Hazelett. “One of the other things about fighting is that the style matchups make fights. When you’re fighting someone on the ground that tries to fight you as another grappler, it’s much easier. But when you’re fighting somebody who’s trying to get back up and that doesn’t want to fight you from a grappling standpoint, it’s a whole different ballgame. This will be the first fight I’ve had in a while where he will probably engage me on the ground like a grappler, so I’m really looking forward to that.”

Facing a fellow grappler is obviously an exciting proposition for Hazelett, especially after consecutive bouts against strikers and wrestlers. In fact, Bocek will be the most accomplished jiu-jitsu player he has faced since he decisioned black belt Diego Saraiva in his last lightweight bout in 2007. But with such a matchup comes some danger, and Hazelett is preparing accordingly.

“I wouldn’t say I’m going back to square one, but I’ll probably not be able to pull off anything super flashy like the (Josh) Burkman armbar or anything like that on a guy that’s as savvy on the ground as Bocek is,” said Hazelett. “Each opponent you have to fight differently, even if you’re planning on grappling. You have to grapple him different and his level of knowledge is going to make me have to be super sharp on the ground and be smart, not be reckless and careless.”

Reckless isn’t a word you would associate with the calm, cool, and collected Hazelett, which made his August loss to Story explainable considering that the Washington welterweight came out fast and never stopped until he had handed Hazelett his sixth pro loss. In a lot of ways, it was a fight you couldn’t prepare for because it went from sporting event to brawl within seconds of the opening bell. But Hazelett has put the defeat out of his mind, aided by the knowledge that Saturday begins a new chapter in his career.

“It’s definitely tough when you’ve got somebody pushing you that’s a lot bigger than you and a lot stronger than you, and faster and more explosive,” said Hazelett of the Story bout. “I was at a huge disadvantage there and that’s exactly the type of thing I’m talking about dropping to 155 for because I was basically just getting bullied around. And I think when I drop down to ’55, I’ll be one of the bigger guys there, so I won’t be getting bullied around anymore.”

And as far as his two fight losing streak goes, that’s history as well, and with the help of longtime mentors Rich Franklin and Jorge Gurgel, some helpful advice on making it all the way back after defeat is always just a chat away.

“It’s invaluable to have people in your camp like Rich and Jorge who have been to where you want to go and have been where you don’t want to go too, so when you get there you have somebody to talk to who’s been through it and who can help you through it,” said Hazelett. “The importance of that can’t be overstated enough when it comes to coming back with a strong mentality and staying positive through it. So it’s been a great help.”

The I’s are dotted, the T’s are crossed, so what’s next? Meet Dustin Hazelett 2.0.

“Cutting down to 155 is gonna make me bigger and stronger and it’s hopefully gonna help out a whole lot,” he said. “With that weight disadvantage gone, it’s gonna be a whole new ballgame. I’ve switched up a lot of my training as well, so hopefully I’ll fight like a brand new fighter.”

Free Prelims on UFC.com/Live
For the first time ever, two preliminary bouts will be aired live and free online at http://www.ufc.com/live. The Dustin Hazelett vs Mark Bocek and Dan Miller vs Joe Doerksen fights will be available to everyone worldwide at no charge starting at 9pm ET/ 6pm PT/ 2am GMT. 

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