Hazelett, Burkman Battle to Bounce Back

By Tommy Messano Jun 18, 2008
No matter how fighters lose, it leaves the same mark on their records.

Josh Burkman (Pictures) and Dustin Hazelett (Pictures) are both coming off defeats. Whether due to a questionable decision or a stunning TKO, the sting of the "L" remains the same. And at 170 pounds, arguably the UFC's deepest division, back-to-back defeats could mean seeing a pink slip in your locker.

Burkman and Hazelett have taken different approaches to ensure that they will have their hands raised Saturday when they meet at "The Ultimate Fighter" finale.

Burkman needed to leave his comfort zone. He said goodbye to Salt Lake City, Utah, and hello to the bright lights of Las Vegas. After a few weeks of sampling the local gyms, Burkman found a home at Xtreme Couture.

"About a month and a half ago, I decided I was going to come down to Utah and train in Las Vegas," Burkman said. "I wanted to improve on certain things, and one of those was upping the level of the people I train with."

Xtreme Couture mainstays Mike Pyle (Pictures) and Jay Hieron (Pictures) have become Burkman's primary sparring partners. The duo has made sure that he runs the extra mile and fights the extra round. With a gym full of top-level fighters and world-class trainers, Burkman has been forced to improve.

"When guys are constantly pushing you during sparring, you just become a little more game," he said. "It's like a fight in there everyday."

Hazelett, on the other hand, feels as if he is suffering from déjà vu. Again his training camp has focused on an opponent who is a strong wrestler with the fame of being on a reality show plastered to his resume.

Working out of Jorge Gurgel (Pictures)'s MMA Academy in West Chester, Ohio, Hazelett plans on employing a game plan similar to the one he used somewhat successfully versus Josh Koscheck (Pictures) in March. Again the wrestling advantage favors his opponent while Hazelett's jiu-jitsu credentials are superior. That means Hazelett will again focus on stand-up, which he feels is a toss-up in this contest.

"The main thing is like Koscheck, he's a good wrestler," Hazelett said of Burkman. "So I'm going to have to win the stand-up. I probably won't be able to take him down at will. Winning the stand-up is main priority."

Both fighters saw their strategies work to perfection in the opening round of their last fights. Hazelett controlled the action on the feet versus Koscheck, and Burkman simply outmuscled Mike Swick (Pictures) against the cage early.

In the second round, however, Hazelett and Burkman lost control. A surprising head kick from Koscheck floored Hazelett, and a subsequent barrage of strikes ended the fight.

Burkman's majority decision loss to Swick was far from a decisive ending. Both men were showered with boos during the final 10 minutes, as neither distinguished himself as the clear winner.

Even though his loss to Swick was just six months ago, Burkman refuses to kick himself for past mistakes. When asked how he normally fights after losses, he posed his own question about the decision he dropped: "Did I come off a loss? I don't think I'm coming off a loss."

Moments later he laughed. "I'm just kidding," he said.

With a loss to Hazelett, though, Burkman's sense of humor may vanish into the Vegas night.

The same goes for Hazelett, whose UFC record would drop to 3-3 with a loss. Yet the fighter nicknamed "McLovin" after a character from the 2007 comedy film "Superbad" surprisingly feels little pressure.

"Normally it would be a must-win situation, but for some reason I'm not feeling the pressure," Hazelett said. "I don't know why and I'm not going to question it. I'm going to go with it."

At just 22 years old, Hazelett knows he's in the MMA business for the long haul, win or lose.

"I did a lot of thinking after the Koscheck fight and I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "I dropped out of college to become a professional fighter. This is it. This is my life. I really don't have a Plan B at this point."

The 28-year-old Burkman also left the university life to pursue a career in MMA. Two years of junior college football, including a sophomore season during which he rushed for more than 1,400 yards, gave Burkman the opportunity to play Division I football at the University of Utah. The allure of fighting caused him to trade in his shoulder pads for five-ounce gloves before he even stepped foot on the campus, though. To this day Burkman has little to no regret about his decision to drop football for MMA.

"There is such a pureness in this sport," he said. "There is no ball. That guy has two arms and two legs. I have two arms and two legs, and let's see who's better. I've always loved that. Even in football I loved to hit, and in baseball I would slide into people hard. I always had that aggressive personality."

Burkman needed MMA to push him into new challenges. Blessed with plenty of physical tools, he was almost bored with football when he decided to stop playing. In making the transition from the gridiron to the cage, Burkman was forced to adapt his work habits to keep up with the competition.

"I was always a natural athlete and I took that for granted," he said. "The crazy thing is it took someone standing across the ring from me [and] knowing that they wanted to kick my ass to learn the work ethic and dedication that I have now."

With less than a week until the opening bell sounds on their Saturday night showdown, both Hazelett and Burkman casually shrug off the potential outcomes of their fight.

"Burkman and Koscheck are very similar, only Koscheck is more explosive," Hazelett said. "I'm coming off a fight with an almost identical opponent. I learned where my mistake was and I'm not going to make that mistake again."

Said Burkman: "I'm really not worried about Dustin Hazelett. I obviously respect his ground game and respect his hands, but I feel like I'm going in there in shape and whatever happens, happens."

Burkman and Hazelett are two fighters at different points in their careers, though both are in search of a win. A victory on Saturday could turn one man's last loss into a slight hiccup on the long climb back up the welterweight ladder, and another defeat could leave someone with only more questions about his career in MMA and his status in the UFC.
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