Bellator fighter Rick Hawn became a seasoned competitor long ago. The Judo player has competed on national and international levels since he was a child.
That's probably why the fighter is able to be so fiery in the ring but cool as chilled steel just a few days before fighting for a major championship. Cagewriter is visiting with Hawn as he heads into an April 18 fight against Douglas Lima for the vacant Bellator welterweight title, and he's calm and unhurried as we pester him with technical questions about the differences between Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Hawn is also relaxed as he talks about taking on Lima but admits that winning the Bellator title would be a major accomplishment. "It would mean a lot," he says.
Hawn is well-acquainted with desire. His dad had studied Judo before Rick was born and got his son into class early on.
By the time Hawn was 12, he had a specific goal in Judo - make the U.S. Olympic team. It was an unusual amount of certainty and commitment for a 12 year-old.
Judo wasn't huge in Hawn's small Oregon town so after high school he moved to Colorado to train at Team USA's Olympic Training Center. Hawn says he saw his family only once a year or so while training in Colorado.
When he moved to Boston to train with Judo legend Jimmy Pedro a few years later, Hawn worked as many side jobs as he needed to pay the bills while training full-time. Now on opposite coasts and mostly self-funded, Hawn saw his family only once perhaps every other year.
"Every day, you wake up thinking of that goal," Hawn remembers of his mindset as a kid and young man pursuing Olympic glory.
All this was what was needed to make his Judo dream come true, in Hawn's mind. It might sound excessive to thouse unfamiliar with high-level athletics but you can't say he was wrong.
Hawn's sacrifice eventually paid off, and he made the 2004 Olympic team. He placed 9th overall at the Athens Summer Games.
When he couldn't do it a second time in 2008, Hawn decided to retire from Judo and began his MMA career. The Judo fighter jumped in with both feet, training with the best and taking fights almost immediately.
Hawn had always felt like he knew a secret watching MMA competition as a kid while also training Judo. "We watched the first UFC events with Royce Gracie," he remembers.
"Back then, no one really had any idea what he was doing except for Jiu Jitsu and Judo people. He'd go for something and the announcers would say, 'what is he doing?' and we'd be sitting there like, 'that's an arm bar!'"
Hawn knew he would give fighting a chance one day. His elite Judo pedigree and skills would certainly help him, he felt.
However, he suspected he had something else needed to transition from grappling to full fighting. The MMA world has seen many top athletes from other fight sports, like wrestling, Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, dabble but flame out in the cage and ring.
Some guys got smashed, sure. Fighting is a cruel hobby.
However, other grapplers found success early but, for whatever reason, decided that fighting wasn't for them. American Olympic wrestler Rulon Gardner is one such example.
The giant won a fight in Pride but said he had no interest in continuing to hit and be hit.
We ask Hawn, is there something inside certain people, in addition to athleticism and skill, that makes them a fighter? Why can some make the transition while other, perhaps even more accomplished grapplers, not?
"Yeah, you know, I think there is," he says.
"Not everyone has 'it.'I've seen guys who were even better than me in Judo and they don't fight and I wonder what it is. I wish I could say what 'it' is, but I don’t know. I've always just been able to take the same approach I had in Judo, in MMA. Even in Judo, I had a killer instinct."
Maybe "killer instinct" is it. Maybe 'it,' is something else. Hawn has fought over twenty times in the last four years, losing just twice.
Tonight, he heads into his biggest fight ever. He's confident and calm.
Perhaps it is because, whatever 'it,' is, Rick Hawn definitely has it.