As John Hathaway readies himself to step into the cage against Mike Pyle at UFC 120 on Saturday he is viewed by many as the future of the welterweight division. It's hard to believe that when he made his debut against Irishman Tom Egan at UFC 93 three of the five Bloody Elbow staffers at the time took Egan to defeat him. Hathaway would take Egan down repeatedly before finishing him with a flurry of big punches and elbows before the end of the first round. It was a nice coming out party but some (myself included) felt that we didn't learn enough about Hathaway because Egan looked well out of his depth on the sport's biggest stage.
Hathaway would return to action against new UFC addition Rick Story at UFC 99. While the Bloody Elbow predictions showed that while we were favoring the Brit, there was still a feeling by many that John did not represent the "top tier" of mixed martial artists. That viewpoint was most explicitly stated by Kid Nate on our prediction post:
Kid Nate: Two very unproven fighters here. You know how they say "Texas leaguer" in baseball? We should be saying "European circuit" for a certain level of fighters and these guys are it. Not impressed with either fighter and would expect either man to get creamed in theWEC lightweight division. Hathaway by decison.
Of course the men are now a combined 8-1 in the UFC with the sole loss being Story's...to Hathaway.Story and Hathaway put on a hell of a fight featuring back and forth action standing and on the ground. Hathaway proved his takedown game was legit and his ground work off his back or on top was very solid. The pace the two men fought at was impressive and established both as legitimate UFC level talent. There was one concern for Hathaway coming out of the fight and that was some apparent holes in his stand-up defense. Story landed at times standing but Hathaway survived and, most importantly was aware of how to fight around the problem.
In November, 2009 Hathaway put on a clinic against the shockingly outgunned Paul Taylor. There was an incredible diversity to his wrestling game as he shot for doubles, hit some nice bodylock takedowns and was timing Taylor's kicks perfectly. On the ground it was Hathaway winning every scramble and brutalizing Taylor with punches and elbows. Stylistically it was the antithesis of "lay and pray" and brought back memories of Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz during the peaks of their title runs.
Finally we come to UFC 114 and Hathaway's upset victory over Diego Sanchez. It was the first time Hathaway entered the Octagon as the gambling underdog on the night of the fight and it was hard to find many that saw Hathaway coming out with his hand raised. Amazingly, the great wrestling we'd seen from John to this point in his career was used to stuff the shots of Diego and keep the fight standing where he used his length as a weapon for the first time in the UFC. From distance Hathaway threw straight right hands that found their home repeatedly and Diego had little answer for it. The amazing timing of "The Hitman" also showed itself as he landed a crushing knee as Sanchez shot on him in the first round.
Hathaway had now outwrestled Story, dominated Egan and Taylor on the ground and outstruck Sanchez on the feet. So what is there for Hathaway to prove on Saturday as he enters the cage as a bigger favorite than any other point in his UFC career? Simple, Hathaway now has to prove that he can beat a veteran who puts together savvy gameplans and is extremely dangerous on the ground. Mike Pyle isn't the best fighter Hathaway has been in the cage with, but he is a man who can capitalize on a positional mistake in a second and finish the fight.
It would shock me if Hathaway doesn't win this fight and with his increasingly crisp striking game he should be able to do it entirely on the feet. Pyle will have trouble putting the Brit on the ground. It will take some old time Xtreme Couture gameplan magic to bait Hathaway into following him to the ground and staying there long enough to get caught. Story managed to come close on a kimura and a guillotine choke so we know Hathaway isn't invincible and Pyle is a much better finisher in those positions.
Again, Hathaway should win here. The biggest thing to watch for is what the ever improving Hathaway has added to his arsenal. If his career thus far has shown anything it's that he can, and will find a new way to amaze every time out.