There's a lot of talk from media and fans alike about who's next in line for a title shot in the UFC's stacked light heavyweight division: Rashad Evans, with a win over Phil Davis at UFC 133 in August; Lyoto Machida as perhaps one of the few fighters capable of figuring out the "Bones" puzzle; or Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, could punch his ticket with a win over Matt Hamill at UFC 130 this Saturday.
But few are giving consideration to Rampage's opponent, Matt Hamill.
And while he might be ranked lower (#16 in the consensus rankings) than those other fighters listed above -- even lower than Davis (#9), despite having more experience and facing tougher cumulative competition -- a convincing win over a former champion like Rampage could be just the thing to propel Hamill into the mix of the top contenders jockeying for position.
Ironically, perhaps the biggest obstacle blocking Hamill from a title shot is the fact that he's already faced the champion, back in Dec. 2009, when he was just another casualty in Jones' impressive ascension to claiming the throne of the world's most competitive division in mixed martial arts.
The only thing is ... Hamill technically won that fight, thanks to some illegal elbows thrown by the young Jones.
Critics will say Hamill was manhandled during that fight -- that he had no answer for Jones' 84.5-inch reach or his devastating takedowns -- so what would be any different if a rematch were to happen?
But Hamill is still the one blemish on Jones' otherwise perfect record.
In fact, other than Davis, Hamill has the longest active win streak of any top 20 light heavyweight. After Saturday's fight, he'll have had the experience of squaring off against four former or current UFC champions.
And, as Hamill's trainer and manager, Duff Holmes, told MMAmania.com during a recent conversation, the win over Jones -- whether by disqualification or not -- could be used as leverage to try to market a title shot:
"Yeah, (Hamill's win over Jones) absolutely gives him leverage to maybe get that fight. He definitely wants a rematch with Jon Jones - it didn't sit well with him. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who the champion is. He wants to go for the belt, no matter who's got it."
No wonder, then, that when Thiago Silva -- Rampage's original opponent for UFC 130 -- was pulled from the card for submitting a non-human urine sample at UFC 125, Hamill's camp was quick to contact the UFC to lobby for a fight against Rampage, despite being scheduled to fight fellow-wrestler Phil Davis at UFC 129.
Simply put, a win over Rampage would catapult "The Hammer" higher in the rankings than would a win over Davis. When asked if he actively pursued the change in opponents, Hamill told Mania:
"Well, actually, yeah. I really wanted it. It all happened when Duff, my trainer, he found out that Thiago Silva's not fighting, so it was a good opportunity for me to step in at a higher level. We wanted to fight anyone in the higher level -- the top 10. The higher the level it is, the more motivated I get."
It took some convincing, though, for Rampage -- who was much more keen on fighting rival Rashad Evans -- to accept the match up. So Hamill and his camp decided to start the pre-fight trash talk a bit early, by calling out the former champion to motivate him to take the fight -- something that isn't exactly typical of the normally well-mannered Hamill.
As Holmes says:
"(Matt) doesn't blame Rampage for wanting Rashad and wanting to fight the top guys in the division. He's been doing that. But when (Matt) found out that Rashad was hurt and that he could get a shot against Rampage, that's when he actually -- for the first time ever (in his career) -- he went out and said, ‘I'll break Rampage's will,' and ‘I can beat Rampage.' That's the first time he's ever talked like that. He did it just so he could put a little pressure on Rampage, because he actually figured that Rampage probably wouldn't want to take the fight."
Hamill says he wasn't disrespected by Rampage's initial disinterest in the fight. But he plans to show the world on Saturday that he should be considered a serious threat to the top fighters in the division"
"(Rampage) was not really happy to fight me, and I know where he comes from ... But I can prove him wrong. ... I know he's not really dying to fight me ... But I'll give him a little wake up call."
The fact that Hamill might not be considered a top contender by Rampage in and of itself is a sign that perhaps Hamill doesn't get the respect he deserves. Take for instance the fact that guys like Phil Davis (#9) and Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal (#15) are both ranked higher than Hamill (#16) in the Consensus Rankings.
Hamill is closing in on his sixth year as a pro, has faced top names like Jones, Rich Franklin, Tito Ortiz, Keith Jardine, Michael Bisping and Mark Munoz. He's been tested more and has arguably developed more dimensions to his game than both Lawal or Davis, yet he's overlooked in the rankings, which impacts how his competition -- guys like Rampage -- might view potential matchups with the TUF 3 alum.
Hamill, however, could care less about the rankings. He's just focused on winning:
"When you get to know me a little bit more, then you'll know where I'm coming from. Rankings, all that -- it doesn't matter. The way I see it, I am in the semi-finals against Rampage. It's like a wrestling bracket, and I've never lost in the semi-finals. When I win the semi-finals, I'm moving to the finals. Like I said, I love to be the underdog. So I'm happy to be in this spot in the main event to face Rampage. It's the perfect spot for me to shine."
Despite their impending clash, Hamill shows a lot of respect for Rampage, saying how he's watched Jackson fight since his days in PRIDE and is excited about the opportunity to fight the legend.
And despite giving credit to Rampage for always putting on exciting fights, Hamill considers himself to be a much more technical, multi-dimensional fighter than his opponent:
"(Rampage) is old school. Like boxing. But I'm into a lot of technique, like Muay Thai, wrestling and all that. I'm well rounded. Everybody knows he has the same game plan and style (to stand and bang). So that's why I wanted to fight Rampage."
To prepare for Rampage, Hamill has been working with the Binghamton University wrestling team, a Division I program in upstate New York. According to Holmes, it's the first time in a long time they've gone back to the basics by focusing on what got Hamill started toward his MMA career ... his wrestling base:
"The first four and a half years, almost five years of training MMA, (Matt) didn't train any wrestling, because obviously he didn't need it. He needed to bring every other aspect of his game up, so he didn't focus on wrestling. But now that he's back to training wrestling, everything's kinda coming back to him. It's elevated his game, because now he's able to take the wrestling that he had and put it back into his MMA game, and it's just completely different."
Come Saturday, it's that wrestling base that Hamill plans to rely on to win the fight, admitting he sees no advantage in standing and trading with the heavy-handed Jackson.
"No, no, absolutely not. I know he has heavy hands, so I'll just try to avoid his heavy hands and fight smart against Rampage."
And if he is successful at UFC 130, and if it does lead to a rematch against Jones somewhere down the line, Hamill and his camp plan on being more prepared for dealing with Jones' incredible reach.
For their fight in 2009, Hamill's camp tried everything, even unconventional techniques for simulating Jones' reach, including duct-taping plungers to the ends of Holmes' arms to mimic a 90-inch wingspan.
Mentally, Hamill sounds like he's already mentally prepared for such a challenge:
"I know Jon Jones is more like a long spider. Spider legs and all that. ... But I fought him. I still have unfinished business with him. So if I fight him, I'll redeem myself and not make another mistake. He's the first fighter to ever take me down, and it gave me a little wakeup call. This time, I got my hips ready and my feet ready; my feet are nailed to the ground, and I'm back to a wrestling base."
And to Hamill's critics who have already ruled out a win on Saturday night, just know that Hamill is fighting with inspiration, having recently lost his dear friend and mentor, 1960 Olympic gold medalist Doug Blubaugh, who passed away last week at the age of 76.
A two-time AAU Champion at Oklahoma State University, Blubaugh made the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and would go on to shock the wrestling world by defeating the seemingly invincible five-time world champion from Iran, Emam-Ali Habibi.
Hamill first began attending Blubaugh's wrestling camps when he was in the 5th grade. The two became close, with Blubaugh becoming a mentor and "almost like another father" to the youngster. In preparation for his fight against his former TUF 3 coach, Tito Ortiz, Hamill's team brought Blubaugh into their camp, and he spent a week at Hamill's house, working to sharpen his wrestling skills before that important matchup.
As Holmes says of Blubaugh:
"He was just an amazing man and one of the guys who made Matt what he is today."
For fans who are interested in learning more about Hamill's early life and the challenges he faced growing up deaf in Loveland, Ohio, you should check out the upcoming, award-winning film, Hamill, which could be coming to a theater near you this fall.
The producers of the film, Joe McKelheer and Eben Kostbar, first approached Hamill about the idea to write and produce a film about his life after seeing him on The Ultimate Fighter reality series. Hamill agreed to the project, but didn't anticipate it would get as big as it's gotten. To date, it's been entered into six film festivals, and it's taken first prize in every one of them.
Just this month, the film found a distributor, so it should have a theatrical release this fall. See the trailer here, and yes, that's Rich Franklin in the film, starring as the young Hamill's coach and mentor, Purdue Wrestling's own Coach Pruitt.
While many MMA fighters, including Rampage Jackson and Franklin, are crossing over into acting or are the focus of documentaries, this film is different. Hamill doesn't appear in the film, and it's not a documentary.
It features a deaf actor, Russell Harvard, playing the part of a young Matt Hamill. To prepare, Harvard spent a week with the fighter, learning how he moves and talks. Hamill also taught him some wrestling moves, given that Harvard was not an experienced wrestler.
Despite the film's early success, Hamill has no interest in crossing over into Hollywood himself:
"I've seen a lot of fighters enjoying the movies -- Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture ... Rich Franklin. They're all in the movies. I don't personally want to be in the movies. ... I just want to do martial arts fighting. I don't want to do too many things. I have enough on my own. ... I'll do the travel, promotional appearances with the deaf community, etc. ... I'm not the type of person to be in the movies. But Russell did an awesome job."
He's more content serving as a role model for fighters and for members of the deaf community -- something he does not take lightly, saying he thrives on the energy his fans provide him.
"It feels good to be a role model.... I've always been a good role model. I probably got it from my grandfather. He always taught me (to) be a better person, respect. The deaf community means a lot to me, I have a lot of connection to it. I feel I'm like family to all the deaf people around the world.... They all come up (to me), and it's like, wow, overwhelming. I feed off their energy. The deaf community is motivating me. Every time I fight, more deaf fans come up to me and they give me the ‘Hammer' sign. It's like the Florida State chant, but it's the ‘Hammer' sign."
By combining the popular Florida State "Tomahawk Chop" with a fist -- the sign for hammer -- the deaf community has been making their presence felt at UFC events for years.
Matt Hamill takes on Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at UFC 130: "Rampage vs. Hamill" this Saturday, May 28, 2011, from the MGM Grand Garden Arnea in Las Vegas, Nevada. It airs on pay-per-view (PPV), starting at 9 p.m. ET. The preliminary card begins streaming on Facebook at 7 p.m. and continues on SpikeTV at 8 p.m.
And check out MattHamill.com for more information about Doug Blubaugh and all things Matt Hamill.
Special thanks to Duff Holmes for assisting with the interview.