Sherdog's Submission of the Year

The Best Things Are Free

By Jordan Breen Jan 7, 2009
It looked like one of the most mediocre “Ultimate Fighter” finale cards to date. Worse yet, the TUF 7 finale on June 21 was one of the most poorly constructed for television. While we weren't bombarded with a glut of hopeless retreads from a mediocre cast, it was a weak and watery mix of matchmaking -- not the usual environment for the sport's submission of the year.

A double headliner featuring Diego Sanchez vs. Luigi Fioravanti and Kendall Grove vs. the late Evan Tanner offered little prospect for the edge-of-your-seat calamity that Roger Huerta and Clay Guida had given the previous season's finale six months earlier. The card's one real potential gem was a well-made welterweight matchup between a rapidly ascending Dustin Hazelett and calculably physical Josh Burkman that seemed like obvious main card fodder given such an unspectacular lineup.

Unfortunately, the fight's flare was doused and consigned to the undercard on a night in which Matt Riddle and Dante Rivera were afforded a televised role on SpikeTV. Those who tuned in from their couch's comforts were teased by online play-by-plays that painted a picture of a fantastic fight with a sensational submission ending. After hope had all but run out for seeing the bout, the telecast advertised that Hazelett-Burkman would be available for free viewing on UFC.com, much to the last-second satisfaction of the sport's diehards.

It was no surprise that Zuffa felt behooved to offer the fight for free. Hazelett and Burkman had launched punches and kicks at each other on the feet. When Burkman slammed Hazelett to the mat, Hazelett responded with a nasty omoplata and followed with an anaconda choke that seemed destined to end the fight. Instead, Burkman escaped and retaliated with salvos of punches and elbows to punctuate a fantastic first five minutes.

Through a nip-and-tuck second stanza, the pair traded strikes at range and battled tough in the clinch. With under 30 seconds to go, Hazelett used a deep overhook to set up an uchimata, which was blocked by Burkman. Chaining his takedown attempts, the lanky Hazelett reached for Burkman's leg, picking his ankle, but "The People's Warrior" again astutely thwarted the takedown, collapsing onto his knees.

As the two scrambled up in the whizzer position, Hazelett struck swiftly and deftly, throwing his left leg up and over Burkman's face from the side and transitioning into an armbar attempt that instantly raised Joe Rogan's voice several octaves. While a clearly surprised Burkman was able to clasp his hands, his defense was futile as his spindly opponent ripped the grip apart, torqued his hips and finished the sensational submission.

The armbar instantly inundated fight forums with commentary and animated gifs from the impressed and enchanted alike. However, Hazelett's success wasn't only critical but financial, as he nearly tripled his take, adding $20,000 “Fight of the Night” and $20,000 “Submission of the Night” bonuses on top of his $24,000 purse.

Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com

Dustin Hazelett earned his
jiu-jitsu black belt
under UFC vet Jorge Gurgel.
On Philosophy, Virtuosity and Coolness

The now-immortal armbar was a manifestation of the work ethic and natural acumen of one of the sport's most gifted young fighters. Those same traits displayed in his posterizing of Burkman were rewarded again less than three months later when Hazelett became just the fourth Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Jorge Gurgel, earning his "faixa preta" in just less than six years.

Given his dedication to his craft and God-given grappling goods, you might expect an instructional-esque breakdown of such an awesome technique. You'd be severely underestimating the off-the-cuff ingenuity of the 22-year-old wunderkind.

“To be honest, I don't even really remember what I was doing or what I was going for. Best I recall, I was trying to take him down, then all of a sudden I was armbarring him," Hazelett reveals. "On tape, it looks like I knew what I was doing, but I'm not going to lie, it's just something that happened in the moment."

If not for an acute understanding, how does the proprietor of the year’s best submission account for his brilliance against Burkman? With a maturity belying his youth, Hazelett offers an intriguing bit of fight philosophy.

“When you start doing jiu-jitsu, drilling the moves is really important," he says. "Eventually, you start doing an armbar before you even realize it. If you have to consciously realize it in a fight, it'll be gone just as soon as you see it. Now I'm doing things before I realize it; it's all muscle memory. Then what's important are the concepts: taking away props so you can sweep and bending stuff the way it doesn't go. It all becomes natural."

Despite the glowing praise the Burkman bout brought him, Hazelett has had to temper, perhaps even eschew, the excitement over his submission. And despite his keen creativity, he still preaches fundamentals and critiques risk on the mats.

“As soon as I came back from that fight, I taught a gi class at the JG MMA Academy, and everyone said, ‘Can you teach us that?’ I told them no. ‘No, I can't teach you that, and you shouldn't try it,’” explains the native of Louisa, Ky. "99.9 percent of the time trying something like that is probably a bad idea. I don't do stuff like that to be entertaining, and I realize it's probably a bad idea, but it's all about the moment."

Despite being a prizefighter for just four years and change, despite just emerging as one to watch at 170 pounds over the last year, Hazelett's influence is felt immediately in anyone standing on the mats worldwide, trying to turn a deep overhook into an armbar. The wildly bearded grappler has larger designs on what he wants his fights to inspire, though.

"I work really hard. I love jiu-jitsu and I want to make jiu-jitsu cool again," Hazelett says. "Back in the day, everyone wanted to do jiu-jitsu because of Royce Gracie's impact. Then guys learned defense, or jiu-jitsu guys couldn't get takedowns, got knocked out or lost decisions, and people were less interested in jiu-jitsu.

"For a while, everyone wanted to brawl, everyone wanted to see people bang. That's awesome, don't get me wrong, but now there's more jiu-jitsu guys doing well," he continues, with just the slightest sliver of boast in his voice. "The card I fought Tamdan [McCrory] on, almost every jiu-jitsu guy on the card won."
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