With all the drama surrounding the UFC light heavyweight division, it's easy to overlook the progress of Matt Hamill. After nearly five years and eleven trips to the Octagon, the former Ultimate Fighter standout is a week away from headlining his first UFC pay-per-view, and a win away from breaking into the top 10 of the division.
While it took injuries to Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard for Hamill to ascend to the top of the marquee of a major event for the first time in his career, there was no luck involved with landing Quinton "Rampage" Jackson as an opponent.
Hamill and his team targeted the former Pride and UFC champion as a good match-up even prior to his fight with Lyoto Machida at UFC 123. Now that they've gotten their wish to stand across the cage from Jackson at UFC 130, Hamill says he's ready to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of the deep 205-pound division.
"Beating Tito definitely put me in line to get some big fights like this, and I knew I was ready the next level. I look at Rampage as a big name and somebody that would put me in the next level. I'm not in the top 10, and I thought Rampage would be keeping his eye on Rashad Evans or rematch with Forrest Griffin or whatever. He doesn't think I'm in his league, and this is my chance to prove that I am."
Duff Holmes, Hamill's trainer, expanded on the reasoning further during Thursday's media conference call for next weekend's event.
"We just looked at Rampage stylistically. No knock to Rampage – he's my favorite fighter to watch because he's so exciting, he's got amazing power in both hands and hand speed like a welterweight. That being said, Rampage gets by on being the bigger, stronger guy in the Octagon a lot of times, and this time he's not going to be. He's going to be out wrestled and taking down, there's just no way around that."
Though he has developed his striking a great deal over his time with the UFC, Hamill is still a wrestler first and foremost. A three-time Divsion-III National champion during his days at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Hamill's game plan will focus on bringing the fight to the ground, not only because it plays to his strengths, but it also keeps him away from Jackson's biggest weapons.
"This whole training camp, I've been training to avoid Rampage's hands; he's got great power in both hands. Even though I do have a good chin, I can be knocked out, so my #1 goal is to avoid that."
As the public feud between Jon Jones and Evans rages on, and talented young stars like Phil Davis continue to take steps towards contention, the strides Hamill has made inside the cage don't get the attention they deserve. Most recognized recently for his disqualification win over Jones, the better measuring stick of how far Hamill has come since his days on The Ultimate Fighter are his performances in a pair of fights with Rich Franklin and Tito Ortiz.
Hamill is very close with both former champions; Ortiz was his coach during Season 3 of the Spike TV reality show, while the connection with Franklin runs even deeper than that. The way Hamill approached both fights and the outcomes of the two bouts speak volumes about his progress inside the cage.
"It was really hard because Rich was instrumental in getting me into the UFC. We had grown up together in Cincinnati. We're more like brothers. I couldn't really fight him, but I learned from my mistakes when I fought Tito. I was able to put the friendship aside and go out there and beat him."
When asked if he thinks a victory over Jackson next weekend at UFC 130 will be enough to propel him into the title mix and who he might like to fight next, Hamill offered a new twist on a standard fighting response.
"I don't think about stuff like that. Every time I fight, I take it one fight at a time. With this fight with Rampage, I feel like I'm in the semifinals of a wrestling bracket, and I've never lost in the semifinals of a wrestling bracket."
If he's able to keep his semifinal winning streak intact through UFC 130, it won't take another five years, eleven fights and the misfortune of others for Hamill to headline another UFC pay-per-view.
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