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Phil Hawes came to a realization after back-to-back second-round losses: He had not yet developed into the well-rounded mixed martial artist he had sought to become and needed to evolve more rapidly. The New Jersey native hopes Bellator 222 on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York will serve as a showcase for Hawes 2.0.
Skilled wrestling often leads to immediate success in the sport of mixed martial arts, and Hawes, 30, was a perfect example. A national champion in junior college, he was unbeaten through his first four professional bouts and had finished every opponent in two rounds or less. By July 2016, the situation had changed. Hawes was choked into submission by Louis Taylor in the World Series of Fighting, and in August 2017, he was on the receiving end of a brutal knockout from Julian Marquez during Season 1 of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Hawes then disappeared from the MMA scene for the better part of two years. He did not purposely decide to take time away from the sport and in fact attempted to return to the cage on several occasions. However, after some reflection, staying away may have been the best remedy for the flaws he began to see in his game.
“I think a lot of fighters take a loss and they really don’t look inside and try to figure out what happened,” Hawes told Sherdog.com. “They just think, ‘OK, he got me. I lost [and] I’ll get them next time,’ but they’re not [trying to understand] how they got beat [or questioning] what improvements can they make in the time off.”
When analyzing the areas he needed to address, he honed in on his striking. Hawes started to feel as though his innate wrestler’s mentality may have been holding him back and thought he needed to force a better balance.
“I feel like a lot of wrestlers really don’t grasp boxing and kickboxing as their own entity,” Hawes said. “They just stick to their roots of wrestling, so I really just wanted to expand my horizons as a mixed martial artist.”
The process included a two-month stay in Thailand, where he worked with high-level muay Thai coaches and fighters. He also took part in several professional bouts during his time away from MMA. Hawes believes the man who steps into the cage for his Bellator MMA debut will be quite different than the fighter fans remember from two years ago.
“Now I am more confident in my hands and my ability to strike and stand,” he said. “I think you’ll see a completely different athlete.”
Although Hawes sees himself as a more proficient striker, it does not mean he will forget the skills that brought him success in the first place. Wrestling will always provide his backbone, and his coaches at Team Tiger Schulmann continue to remind him of that fact.
“My coaches really harp on that,” Hawes said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, don’t forget your wrestling. I know your hands are improving. I know you’ve been doing muay Thai and kickboxing, but let’s not forget what got you to the dance.’ I’m definitely not forgetting.”
Hawes believes his improved striking skills will open up even more opportunities to implement his wrestling. The former Jackson-Wink MMA rep put down roots at Team Tiger Schulmann out of a desire to train closer to home. The New Jersey gym stood out for a number of reasons, the aggressive nature of its fighters -- they include Julio Arce, Shane Burgos and Lyman Good -- chief among them.
“You look at those guys,” Hawes said. “They never take a back step, and they never get tired.”
Cardio has long been a weakness for Hawes, and he points to his lack of endurance as a key element in his loss to Marquez two years ago. He blames poor eating habits, not an absence of training. “I never even thought about [nutrition] training in college and how big it is,” Hawes said. Cutting weight at Iowa Central Community College -- and during his MMA career -- has been an easy task for the 5-foot-11 middleweight. As a result, he thought he could eat whatever he wanted without consequence, an admission by which he remains “embarrassed.” Team Tiger Schulmann put him on a more refined diet. He claims his cardio has improved greatly since he switched camps and that he no longer finds himself “wilting” in the late rounds of hard training. It gives “Megatron” one more reason for optimism about his return.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster knowing you can go on in there [thinking], ‘OK, whatever way this fight goes, I’ve got the gas tank to do it,’” Hawes said. “It’s night and day. If I’m in shape, no one beats me.”
Much will ride on his battle with Michael Wilcox at Bellator 222, where Hawes tries to return to the win column for the first time since 2016 and looks to impress Bellator officials enough to land a multi-fight contract. He also wants to display the upgrades he has made. While he desires a finish against Wilcox, Hawes would welcome the opportunity to show doubters he can compete at a high level for three full rounds.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Hawes said. “I want to go in there and really test myself and make it a long, grueling, 15-minute fight, but I also want to put on a show for the fans and get that hype train going again. Part of me wants to finish it quick, and part of me really wants to put the naysayers to bed and go 15 minutes. We’ll see how the fight plays out.”