A Victim No More

By Brian Knapp Jan 2, 2010
Dustin Hazelett was an easy target.

The younger of two sons born to a coal miner and court reporter in Louisa, Ky., he was the subject of relentless taunts and bullying as a kid. His slight build did him no favors. Hazelett spent many of his formative years at a private Christian school but transitioned to public schools in sixth grade. It was a shock to his system.

“At the Christian school, you’d get paddled for saying, ‘Crap,’” Hazelett says. “I went from that to being around a bunch of delinquents who cursed out the teacher almost every day. It definitely humbled me.”

Always on the small side, he did not break the 100-pound plateau until his freshman year of high school. By then, he had long been singled out as a weak link. Torment was a daily experience and had far-reaching consequences.

“I hate to say it, but getting my head shoved in the toilet definitely helped me with martial arts,” Hazelett says. “Just that feeling of being victimized was something I never wanted to deal with again.”

He sank his teeth in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at age 16 and was forever changed. A natural on the ground, Hazelett was soon studying under UFC veteran Jorge Gurgel and had begun his ascent up the mixed martial arts ladder, reaching the UFC in October 2006, less than six months after his 20th birthday. Now a BJJ black belt under Gurgel, he has emerged as one of the most feared submission fighters in the sport. The tune of those who once bullied him has changed.

“I still see them. Usually, they throw it up like we’re friends: ‘Hey, this is Dustin. We grew up together,’” Hazelett says. “They really don’t bring up the fact that they bullied me, and it’s probably better for them that they don’t. Being bullied a lot made me strive to be a better martial artist.”

Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Dustin Hazelett will take on Paul
Daley at UFC 108 "Evans vs. Silva."
Hazelett will compete for the first time in 14 months when he confronts British striker Paul Daley in the co-main event at UFC 108 “Evans vs. Silva” on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The challenges Daley poses are many, but they begin with explosive knockout power, hence the nickname “Semtex.”

A brash Englishman who backs up his bravado, Daley dazzled in his UFC debut in September, as he smashed through the highly regarded Martin Kampmann at UFC 103. The 26-year-old Strikeforce and EliteXC veteran will ride a three-fight winning streak into his match with Hazelett. Seventeen of his 22 career victories have come by knockout or technical knockout.

“I’ve never fought a striker of his caliber,” Hazelett says. “I’m looking forward to that. I got into MMA for the challenge. I like fighting people with different styles.”

A victory over the potent but flawed Daley -- his issues with well-versed grapplers are well-chronicled -- could vault Hazelett into immediate title contention, though he has placed few expectations on himself.

“It would move me up the ladder,” he says. “I’ve been working really hard during my time off. I’m going to go out and do my best. That’s all I can promise.”

Plenty of questions surround Hazelett entering the bout. He suffered a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his knee during a “freak” non-training accident in January 2009, underwent reconstructive surgery a month later and endured countless hours of grueling rehabilitation.

“I knew there was going to be a long layoff, and I definitely wasn’t looking forward to that,” Hazelett says. “But it got me mentally stronger and renewed my zeal for fighting.”

The daily grind of rehab tested his mental and physical resolve.

“It sucked,” says Hazelett, who could not train for five months. “It was an incredibly long and painful process. Just bending my leg was difficult. It made me enjoy being able to train, fight, walk, the little things, too. I really enjoy training and learning, being able to roll and drill. Not being able to do anything was hard.”

The Cincinnati-based 23-year-old was originally slated to return at UFC 106 in November, but Karo Parisyan’s persistent personal issues nixed their matchup and left Hazelett in limbo. He took the news in stride.

“I was shocked at first,” Hazelett says. “I was kind of in disbelief, but I wasn’t nearly as upset as I thought I’d be. Anytime something bad like that happens, you have to believe it’s for the best. I’m more prepared to fight now then I was then.”

When the UFC needed a replacement for injured former World Extreme Cagefighting welterweight champion Carlos Condit, Daley’s original foe, Hazelett’s name moved to the top of the list. And his phone rang.

“I was kind of hesitant to train through Christmas,” Hazelett says. “I didn’t really want to do that, but I was hungry to fight, so I accepted. It’s a great opportunity to get more exposure. I’ve only had one fight on the main card, and it’s good to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.”

I hate to say it, but
getting my head shoved in
the toilet definitely
helped me with martial arts.

-- Hazelett on his bullied past.

Daley represents Hazelett’s second crack at a top 10 welterweight. In March 2008, the bearded ground wizard had Josh Koscheck in trouble during a harrowing first round, only to succumb to a head kick and follow-up punches from the American Kickboxing Academy standout in the second. The defeat showed the MMA community how close Hazelett was to becoming an elite welterweight and taught him several valuable lessons.

“I learned a lot from that experience,” says Hazelett, who bounced back with consecutive “Submission of the Night” wins over Josh Burkman and Tamdan McCrory. “You always learn more from your losses than you do your wins. The biggest thing was not to be too dead set on getting to the top so quickly. I need to make myself more well-rounded, so when I do get to the top I deserve to be there and can stay there for a long time.”
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