The Beaten Path: Middleweight Prospect Phil Hawes Makes a Powerful Sales PitchJune 14, 2016
Aluminum siding salesmen, take note. This is how you close a deal.
It takes guts to be an MMA fighter. Knocking on the door of the sport's most high-profile gym, with nothing in your pockets but $200 and your two bare hands, well, that's another level of chutzpah.
But that's what Phil Hawes did. Essentially a stranger to those inside the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym in New Mexico, he cold-called on a sparring session there one day after driving more than 1,000 miles for the privilege. A few bucks and a friend's hospitality formed the sum total of his plan B.
Lucky for him, plan A did the trick.
"I had a college buddy down here," Hawes recalled. "I knew what Greg Jackson had to offer. The first day I got there, it was a sparring day. You see a guy come in, you want to know who this guy thinks he is. … I can't remember who all I sparred, but I held my own."
Fast-forward two years and Hawes, now 27 years old and 3-0 as a pro, has established himself as the top middleweight prospect in the sport. But after a deflating loss in the first round of the current season of The Ultimate Fighter, a fresh sales pitch may be necessary.
Armed with a new fight contract and an understanding of what he said caused his downfall on the reality show, Hawes is ready to knock on some new doors.
"I want to stay active, on the ball," Hawes said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "You're gonna see a lot of me, probably more than you want to. I can't wait."
After establishing himself at Jackson-Wink, word on Hawes spread quickly thanks to his comic-book build and social-media hype from new teammates like Jon Jones. His national junior-college wrestling title at Iowa Central Community College—the incognito MMA factory that molded Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez—didn't hurt, either. His current status is two years in the making, but it didn't even take one day to convince Jackson-Wink fighters and coaches of his major league potential.
"I was out of town when he showed up, but I got a call from the gym manager saying, 'Hey, this JUCO wrestler just showed up, and he made an impression,'" recalled Jackson-Wink striking coach Brandon Gibson. "I don't get a lot of calls like that. He got the coaches' attention and a lot of high-level fighters."
Other than the mindset it takes to drive from Iowa to Albuquerque for the opportunity to eat a Carlos Condit head kick, what sets Hawes apart? Plenty of people, including Hawes himself, point to the "explosive" way he fights and the cartoonish strength that come from the gym-rat lifestyle he proudly espouses. But to hear Gibson tell it, there's a lot more to the story.
"The biggest part is his intelligence. He has a really high fight IQ," Gibson said. "It's easy to get caught up in his athleticism or his physique. But like Jon Jones, he picks things up really quickly."
There's also the matter of work ethic. Hawes is a man of few words, so when he goes out of his way to tell someone "I don't want to be anywhere else but the gym," it rings true.
"I think I work harder than anyone in the game, and it shows," Hawes said. "I don't really do camps. I'm always training. The only change during camp is running at 5:30 a.m. I do three or four practices in a day."
It paid off in his first three pro fights, none of which reached the third round. He's still young and growing as an MMA fighter, but his remarkable combination of strength and aggression probably gives him a leg up on any other 3-0 middleweight out there. His takedowns are hard to stop, his top control is oppressive and his ground strikes add up quickly.
Signing with Titan FC made some waves in MMA circles, but a fight never materialized, as Hawes' reputation began to precede him and potential opponents switched off their phones. It had to be frustrating. As one month gave way to the next, Hawes tried to use his busy gym schedule to keep stagnation at bay.
It didn't seem to work.
Last year, Hawes left Jackson-Wink for the Blackzilians team in Florida, only to return to Albuquerque before the year was out. Then there were the tryouts for the 23rd season of TUF—Hawes was considered a favorite to win the moment his name was linked to the show—and then that sluggish loss to Andrew Sanchez in the season-opening preliminary round. By the time Hawes faced Sanchez, it had been a year-and-a-half since he last competed.
"Training is one thing, but there's nothing like getting in the cage. You can't simulate that," Hawes said. "The ring rust is all it was. It really dampened my performance. I couldn't piece it all together."
It doesn't take a mind reader to sense Hawes' eagerness to hoist himself out of that bitter TUF stew, and that was a big influence in his recent signing with World Series of Fighting. Hawes and Gibson both emphasized the importance of Hawes staying active as not only a fighter but a competitor, driven by the lessons of TUF and Titan. Hawes said specifically, "It's in my [WSOF] contract that I have at least one fight every three months."
"We'd all like Phil fighting every couple of months. There's only so much you can do in the gym," Gibson said. "We wanted to get him with a promotion that was going to keep him busy."
Hawes seems ready to pound that pavement again. For this round, plenty of converts have his back.
"I've been at Jackson-Winkeljohn for about 13 years, and I've seen multiple champions. That's a hard room to shine in sometimes," Gibson said. "Phil Hawes is one of those guys from day one to shine."
The Beaten Path is Bleacher Report's ongoing series highlighting MMA's top prospects. For the previous interview in the series, click here. All quotes obtained firsthand. Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.