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Bellator 222’s Phil Hawes plans to take ‘baby steps,’ says two-year layoff was ‘crucial’ to career

Phil Hawes says if you compare him today to him in 2017, it’s a “whole different ball game.”

Phil Hawes, left, meets Michael Wilcox, right, in a middleweight bout at Bellator 222 on Saturday in New York.
Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

Phil Hawes didn’t initially want to be out of mixed martial arts for nearly two years, but in hindsight, he believes the time off will prove to be very important for his career.

Having started his pro career with four straight wins, most considered Hawes a promising prospect in the middleweight division, one who would most certainly make waves in the UFC one day.

Talks of Hawes being the next big thing died down after he suffered two losses in a row, both by stoppage — the latter of which was a brutal head-kick knockout to current UFC fighter Julian Marquez on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. That was all the way back in the summer of 2017. Hawes hasn’t fought since.

After losing out on a potential UFC contract, Hawes went to Thailand with hopes of fixing some holes in his game. To do this, he turned his focus to the separate aspects of MMA — particularly striking, because he felt weaker in that area. Hawes competed in kickboxing in Thailand a few months after the Marquez fight, and a second time home in New Jersey just last month.

Almost two years later after his crushing defeat to Marquez, Hawes is finally set to return to action at Bellator 222 on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York. He meets Michael Wilcox on the preliminary card.

Hawes said he had planned to fight about seven months after the Marquez fight, but found it difficult to find fights on the regional scene. He said he had offers from Brave CF and small promotions in New Jersey fall through.

That said, Hawes isn’t upset at the way the past two years has unfolded. During his time off from MMA, Hawes has been able to sharpen his game in a way he wouldn’t have been able to if he was constantly in fight camps.

Hawes said if you look at him now versus two years ago, it’s “night and day.”

“I think [the time off] was crucial definitely to my growth as a mixed martial artist,” Hawes told Bloody Elbow. “I think it was important. You take a loss like that, and you want to make sure everything is OK.”

As far as what has gone wrong in his career so far, Hawes simply believes he was in it at the wrong time. His cardio wasn’t good enough; his boxing wasn’t crisp enough; his diet wasn’t clean enough; he wasn’t experienced enough.

“Mentally I didn’t think I was quite ready,” Hawes said. “I was 4-0, and those fights were all finishes. I guess I didn’t really have the experience I needed to push the pace and conserve some energy. I think it was just the wrong time. But now it’s the right time, so we’re good.”

Hawes isn’t thinking about what comes next should he beat Wilcox at Bellator 222. He did that when he was undefeated. He called his shots before his fights even happened. He was confident. He read into the hype he had behind him a bit too much, he said. And he paid for it.

“I was looking too far ahead,” Hawes said. “I was already calling out UFC fighters and some of the best fighters in the world. Right now we’re just taking baby steps and we’re gonna get our wins and do what we have to do.”

At 30, some may say Bellator 222 marks a make-or-break moment for Hawes. He’s sat out for two years, supposedly improving every day, and now it’s time for him to prove it. And if he falls short, well, time is quickly running out. He can’t fall short too many more times if he wants to make a legitimate run in this sport.

But is Hawes thinking about what’s at stake in this fight? Not really, he said. He just wants to go out there and get a damn win. It’s been three years since he’s had his hand raised, so can you blame the guy?

“I can’t wait to display the real me, the one that everyone was expecting years ago,” Hawes said.

When asked what present day Phil Hawes would do to 2017 Phil Hawes, “Megatron” got right to the point.

“Murder death kill. It’s over,” Hawes said. “It’s different. It’s a whole different ball game.”