(Photo by Brianna Callello.)
After the close of the 2004 Olympics, Rick Hawn lived with the satisfaction of one dream achieved and the frustration of another dream left unrealized. He had dedicated the previous 15 years of his life to a judo with hopes of getting a spot on the U.S. Olympic team: He ended up doing one better, placing ninth as the team’s 81-kilogram competitor. But finishing in the top ten only brought aspirations of earning a medal at the 2008 Games.
“Some people would say, ‘Oh, I got a bronze at the Olympics.’ And a lot of people would be happy with that,” says Hawn. “But then there are people who would say, ‘Well, I want the gold.’ So you’re always looking for something else to train for, your next achievement.”
It turns out that Hawn’s next achievement wouldn’t be another Olympic run at all.
Over the last 13 months, the 33-year-old Hawn has compiled a 5-0 resume in mixed martial arts. On Feb. 26, Hawn faces Tom Gallicchio at World Championship Fighting 9 in Wilmington, Mass., and he’s also signed a contract to face Braulio Estima in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion’s MMA debut on an upcoming Shine Fights card. Hawn had deep-seated aspirations of competing in mixed martial arts that grew as he watched a handful of other judoka climb the ranks in the UFC and elsewhere, and he saw no reason why he couldn’t surpass them. “As I got older and I saw Karo [Parysian] and other judo guys do well in MMA, I shook my head. I would say, ‘If I started doing MMA, I would do better than this guy. I know I would,’” Hawn says. “…That was always the motivating thing for me when I quit judo: If he can do it, I can do it.”
About an hour and a half before his 8 p.m. MMA sparring session, Hawn takes a seat on a bench in a bare-bones weight room at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy in Somerville, sets down his Red Bull, and doesn’t take another sip. He’s just driven an hour from work—he handles loss prevention for a handful of CVS stores—and he seems dressed as such: charcoal grey sweater pulled over a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans, a black beanie leftover from facing the frigid February temperatures outside. The neck that sticks out from the collar, however, is wider than the jaw it meets. Several minutes after sitting, he pulls off his beanie to reveal a cleanly shaven head and gnarled cauliflower ears whose bumps and ridges bear subtle resemblance to peanut brittle.
Hailing from Eugene, Oregon, Hawn began training judo at age 12 at the urging of his father, who was also a judo player. Within his first year of grappling, Hawn aspired to compete in the Olympics. “To me, it was just the ultimate achievement of your sport,” he says. After graduating high school, he moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Over the next eight years, he centered his life on training in anticipation of the quadrennial games, competing and medaling in numerous domestic and international tournaments along the way, including three golds in the National Championships. He subsisted off of sponsorship dollars, the meager funds his parents supplied, and the monetary incentives provided by USA Judo for placing in key tournaments.
Hawn says he likely still has some debt accrued from his judo exploits. “Judo is an expensive sport if you’re an American because you basically have to live overseas to become good,” Hawn says. If he competed in a European tournament, it wasn’t uncommon to tack a grueling three- or four-week training camp on afterward to help justify the overseas travel expenses. “Near the end of the camp, you can’t feel your fingers…It’s not fun. It’s kind of like torture. You just have to dig through it. Those that dig through it and find a way to go train get something out of it.” The bronze medal that Hawn earned at the 2003 Korean Open—an “A-level,” or one of the biggest tournaments—solidified Hawn’s spot as the 81-kilogram competitor on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team.
Hawn vividly recalls arriving for the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Maroussi, Greece. “You walk through the tunnel into the stadium and there’s like 150,000 people screaming. But my first thought was, ‘I thought it would be louder than that,’” he says with a laugh. But the overall experience lived up to his expectations, and when he stepped on the mat, he says he wasn’t nervous. “I sunk right into it and performed fairly well,” Hawn says. In his first match, Hawn beat Erkin Ibragimov of Kyrgyzstan on points. In the next round, he was submitted by Poland’s Robert Krawczyk. He threw Libya’s Mohamed Ben Saleh en route to a 45-second victory and lost his final match against Mehman Azizov from Azerbaijan. His performance warranted a ninth place finish.
Instead of indulging his brief thoughts of retirement, Hawn moved east. In 2005, he moved from Colorado Springs to Wakefield, Mass., the home of Jimmy Pedro, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, Hawn’s 2004 teammate, and now the manager of his MMA career. Hawn earned two silver medals at the National Championships. In 2007, after younger guys started to beat him, he moved up to 90 kilograms. “I was really undersized, but I made up for that with speed,” he says. He took a bronze at the Pan American Games and a fourth gold at the National Championships, and he had designs on competing for the 2008 Olympic team.
But Brian Olson—who held the 90-kilogram slot at the previous three Olympics—came out of retirement at age 35 for a shot at the 2008 games in Beijing. “He was like the golden boy, the favorite of the Olympic center,” Hawn says. That year, Hawn lost to Olson at the National Championships and Hawn vowed revenge at the Olympic Trials in June. After incurring a series of what Hawn feels were unwarranted penalties, Olson was awarded the victory and the spot on the team. After losing in the first round to Diego Rosatti, a judoka from Argentina—“a guy I would have beat,” Hawn says—Olson retired again. “I don’t want to sound like I was whining that I didn’t make the 2008 team. But I believe there was some politics involved and I do believe I was screwed over,” Hawn says.
With his days as a high-level judo competitor in the past, Hawn turned his attention to another dream, one that had been festering since he and his dad watched Royce Gracie latch arm locks on unsuspecting kung fu experts. “Me and my dad would watch Royce and would laugh because all the stuff he was doing was the same stuff we did in judo: the armbars, the chokes. It was funny because we’d watch and go, ‘Watch out, he’s gonna catch him in this,’ and no one knew what was going on…I was like one day, I’m going to do that. I’ll strive to make the Olympic team—that’s goal number one. But when that’s done, I’ve got to try MMA. Why not?”
Hawn made his MMA debut in January 2009 after about six months of training. To prevent falling into a stylistic trap from the get-go, he sought the stand-up acumen of Mark Dellagrotte at Sityodtong. He says that when his opponents hear about his judo background, they’re more worried about trips and takedowns than the punches he’s been landing; four of his wins have been by KO or TKO.
And when he chooses to employ his judo, it’s a dangerous mine field for opponents and training partners more familiar with wrestling to handle—it’s easy to catch people “with stuff they’ve never seen before,” Hawn says. The hard part of coming from a judo background is overriding two decades of consciously tilting one’s head up. “That’s not so good in MMA,” Hawn says through a smile.
One of the starkest differences between judo and mixed martial arts, as Hawn sees it, is the virtual absence of culture and respect in the latter. “Dellagrotte talks about it too: There’s really no culture and there really isn’t too much respect in the sport of MMA. And I guess why should there be? You’re trying to fight someone. There are a few guys that I admire like Anderson Silva or [Lyoto] Machida who keep the culture from the sport they did. It’s kind of ingrained in me as well.”
So when he faces Gallicchio, Hawn plans to wear a gi while walking to the ring. It’s a jiu-jitsu gi from one of his sponsors—the circumference of its sleeves makes it illegal for judo competition. But wearing a gi, Hawn says, conveys that he’s not an average fighter. It says he competed in one specific art, an for which he still holds reverence. “I had 21 years in judo,” he says. “I might as well show people I was a judo fighter.”