The remaining match-ups on the card will be previewed briefly tomorrow, but this collision should be a doozy and called for a more detailed analysis.
It's rare to witness Olympic caliber Judo in the cage, and even more unusual to see it whittled into such a functional kickboxing package in such a short span of time.
Rick Hawn (11-0) has taken to MMA like Tank Abbott to cocktails, avoiding the aches and pains that normally plague singularly proficient fighters early in their career. The Dellagrotte product enters the welterweight finals with a perfect record after narrowly escaping the dangerous Lyman Good by split decision, propelled by his ever improving stand-up, strong top control in the 2nd, and a key takedown to close the fight.
Jay Hieron (21-4) has always been one of the highly respected 170-pounders outside of the Octagon, even though he went 0-2 inside it. He was once headed for a shot at Nick Diaz's Strikeforce belt, but some shenanigans involving medicinal Mary Jane, Armando Garcia and CSAC licensing unhinged the bout.
Hieron took out Jesse Taylor and Joe Riggs instead, then set up shop with Bellator for the welterweight tournament. The bracket favorite had a tough journey to the finish line courtesy of Brent Weedman, who had previously upset Dan Hornbuckle and almost pulled off a repeat. Their semifinal contest went to Hieron by unanimous decision, though the fans did not unanimously agree with the judges.
An in-depth look at how the main event fighters stack up follows in the full entry.
Judging: There is a list of attributes that judges tend to favor in a fighter, and Rick Hawn has many of them. He's aggressive, he moves forward constantly, he throws big punches, and even one substantial throw or takedown often outweighs any number of unsuccessful attempts. This is like handing your teachers a shiny red apple with a twinkling smile right before they grade your paper.
The Unknown: Each fighter will threaten the other with some unknown elements. Hawn has yet to face a top-shelf wrestler, let alone a wrestler with the submission and striking abilities of Hieron. Conversely, Hawn's unparalleled Judo and Sityodtong striking is a tough union for anyone to accommodate.
Experience: At the elite level, Hieron has a lot. Hawn does not, and "The Thoroughbred" is easily Hawn's steepest test.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
I can't commend Hawn enough for the considerable advancements he's made with his stand-up game. He's displayed a strong grasp of overall fundamentals in a short amount of time; a tribute to his athleticism and malleability.
Against savvy striker Lyman Good, his most capable opponent to date, Hawn was understandably a bit gun-shy and fell back on his takedowns to even things out. In his early fights, Hawn was able to corner and contain his opponents, mashing them into the fence or to the mat where his ground-and-pound followed. Leading up to the Good fight, he showed unnerving comfort in his stand-up and waited for his adversaries to press before enforcing his clinch (shown to the right vs. LeVon Maynard), or more impressively, just beat them standing (see Hawn vs. Rough House scrapper "Judo" Jim Wallhead).
Happy to clinch at anytime, Hawn is somewhat immune to some of the striking tendencies that leave the average guy vulnerable (also depicted in the animation). Hawn's been broadsided with singles and doubles in the middle of throwing a combo, but was still able to recover and fend off the attempt. Whether intentional or not, his uncanny balance and ungodly powerful base have allowed him to get caught out of position and emerge unscathed, or even turn the situation to his advantage.
Lyman Good was the first solid striker that threw Hawn's rhythm off and stung with stiff counters while resisting the clinch, and Jay Hieron should do the same. Though he mixes in low, mid, and straight kicks, Hieron is mostly a proficient boxer with sharp counters and substantial power. Good might be the stronger specimen physically, but Hieron's experience, wrestling background, and tight boxing will yield the same problems that Good presented.
I don't think it's coincidental that Hawn's inexperience in other aspects became more apparent against Good. Forming a dual-pronged attack by adding efficient kickboxing to his Judo foundation was what carried him up to the big leagues, and though he's advanced at an alarming rate, I don't think it's been enough to catch up with Hieron. Jay has also settled nicely into the role of the counter-puncher, and should be able to drill some holes through Hawn's adequate but embryonic striking.
It's fascinating to watch a Judoka of Hawn's status adapt his background to MMA's environment. Where a freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestler has a smaller list of adjustments to make to implement their strengths, the lack of a gi and the preference to close distance and tie up makes the transition more difficult for Judo players.
Along with more intense acclimation comes a smaller range of techniques, as that jacket that was specifically designed for clenching and gripping is no longer there, now replaced by slippery skin.
That's why range and distance is a critical tool for Hawn. In close, his hips are still as deadly as ever, and a subtle ballet of footwork, balance, and momentum unfold in his fierce clinch game. There's a good chance the man could hip-bump the Eiffel Tower crooked.
Hieron was a high school state and JuCo national wrestling champion, but -- just as I feel it's unlikely for Hawn to match his experience standing -- I don't see Hieron matching Hawn's skill in the clinch, especially if Hawn can use the cage to restrict his movement. Hieron can survive if he's very escape-minded, stays away from Hawn's waist and doesn't get trapped against the fence.
However, when directly immersed in the clinch and tangling with Hawn, the Olympic-level Judoka gets the nod. With a gi, without a gi, or even in a clown costume, Hawn has spent more time training techniques in this position than fighters like Rory MacDonald have been alive. The disclaimer is that it's even harder to force a clinch when your opponent knows it's coming and doesn't want to play the game (see Machida vs. Couture), and it's no secret that this is where Hawn excels. Hieron is adept with infighting and can survive in the position for short periods of time, but unless avoided at all costs, it's only playing with fire.
If you re-examine the beautiful throw by Hawn above, but this time, replace LeVon Maynard's clumsy forward-lurch with a fine-tuned double leg, and we have an example of the different kind of threat Hieron brings to the table. I'm not sure Hawn can get away with some of his lackadaisical habits against Hieron and simply make up for it with his strength and skill, especially in a three rounder.
To my knowledge, we've yet to see Hawn on his back in MMA, and Hieron's tenacious top game might be overwhelming if he can impose it.
Hieron wreaks havoc with a litany of catches that are conducive to active wrestlers when shooting, sprawling, scrambling, and clinching. The attempts are usually low risk and maintain or improve position rather than sacrifice it. Backed by Hieron's agile but hefty base: D'arce, anaconda, and north-south chokes, arm-triangles, americanas and kimuras all punctuate his arsenal. Jumping for the guillotine is the one maneuver he's pursued in the past that will be ill-advised versus Hawn.
Hieron is also a great scrambler, so normally he's able to break loose and recover if he ends up on the bottom. Hieron clearly has the composure to hold his own in the guard, but as we saw against Lyman Good, one mistake against a potent control-and-pound fighter can cost exactly one-third of the fight on the score cards.
There's a little too much mystery for me to make a strong pick here. Weedman was able to take Hieron down, and I can picture Hawn flagging down the popcorn vendor while a small army of wrestlers attempting double-legs bounce off his legs completely unbeknownst to him. Hieron is much more proven with freestyle wrestling, but if Hawn can stuff the shot and wrap him up, it becomes his world.
With the right timing, Hieron could also nail a shot and test Hawn's guard, but in most scenarios, I see Hawn on top. Even though this is a close one with many unknowns and Hawn might be the favorite in a straight takedown war, Hieron's experience and comprehensive style should put him slightly ahead here, even though I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Hawn can muffle him and ride out the round.
Advantage: Hieron (slight)
Becoming a well-rounded martial artist is imperative, and Hawn's frightening assimilation in only two short years of pro competition is what carried him to the top so quickly. Being a "complete fighter" is a means to an end, and that end is having the ability to implement a system of tactics to exploit your biggest strength or your opponent's biggest weakness.
This is why I see Hieron negating Hawn's strength by staying elusive and peppering him with precise counters. If Hawn does get him in the clinch, Hieron should be able to escape and punish him on the way in and on the way out, stuffing underhooks and circling away with an array of tight hooks and uppercuts.
As with any MMA bout, Hawn could connect on the feet, score some takedowns or maintain top control, but Hieron has the more expansive inventory and should be smart enough to assemble and adhere to a poignant strategy.
My prediction: Hieron by TKO