Hamill still a work in progress

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – Every season, it seems, Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White makes a variation of the same speech to cast members of the reality series "The Ultimate Fighter."

Something is going wrong in the house, one or more of the fighters are acting up and White appears at the UFC training center and angrily asks the assembled group: "Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?"

Matt "The Hammer" Hamill heard the speech when he was a contestant on Season 3 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Hamill has demonstrated with his actions that he understood White's message and that he does indeed want to be a fighter.

His lifelong dream has been to wrestle in the Olympics; he came close in 2004, when he was a runner-up in the U.S. Olympic Trials.

He's 33 now, would be nearly 37 at the time of the 2012 Games, and still hasn't fully gotten the idea out of his head.

"Being in the Olympics really means the world to me," Hamill said.

His trainer, Duff Holmes, flashed an impish grin as he listened to Hamill describe his Olympic aspirations.

Holmes, who's as much a big brother to Hamill as his coach, suggested Hamill call Rulon Gardner and ask him how much money he made from the Sydney Games gold medal he won in 2000.

"As a wrestler, Matt is one of the best in the country," Holmes said. "As a [mixed martial arts] fighter, he's one of the best in the world."

Hamill has also sacrificed his body to further his MMA career. He had to withdraw from a match with Brandon Vera at UFC 102 in August because he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

It was the eighth time, Hamill said, he had some kind of a surgical procedure done on one or the other of his knees. Former hockey star Bobby Orr, whose knees were spaghetti by the time he ended his legendary career by playing briefly with the Chicago Blackhawks, has nothing on Hamill.

And Hamill, who fights Jon Jones on Saturday in The Pearl at the Palms Hotel & Casino on Saturday in the main event of "The Ultimate Fighter Finale," knows he'll pay for it down the line.

Already, his knees are rubbing bone on bone. When he's 40 or 50, he realizes getting out of a chair might turn out to be a painful experience.

It's the price one has to pay to be great, however. And Hamill desperately wants to be great.

"I'm still learning this sport and I'm kind of clumsy at times," he said. "But I just started a couple of years ago. I'm still a baby in the sport. I'm still not anywhere near my potential."

He's 6-2 since appearing on "The Ultimate Fighter," with his only losses coming to Rich Franklin at UFC 88 and to Michael Bisping in perhaps the most controversial decision in UFC history at UFC 75 in London in 2007.

He had a difficult time against Franklin, he says, because he and Franklin are close friends and he wasn't able to summon the emotion he needed to fight.

"I shouldn't have taken that fight," Hamill says.

But he only wants to fight elite guys now, given his knees and the fact he feels he's ready to make his mark in the light heavyweight division.

Jones is perhaps the brightest prospect in the game and is nearly as touted as UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn was when he entered the sport in 2001 and was quickly dubbed "The Prodigy."

Hamill, who will wear a shirt that pleads "Legalize MMA in New York" when he walks to the cage on Saturday, eagerly accepted the fight with Jones, 22, because of the impact it could have on his own career.

Jones, who learned many of his unusual strikes by watching videos on YouTube, is so highly regarded that beating him is already a big deal, despite his youth.

"He beat Stephan Bonnar, [Andre] Gusmao and Jake O'Brien – and those are very good fighters," Hamill said.

Jones is a former junior-college wrestling champion but, in light of Hamill's own wrestling pedigree, isn't likely to try to turn the bout into a grappling match. He's a powerful and deadly striker and has an 85-inch reach – the longest in UFC history.

Hamill knows he can't stay at the end of those punches because it could turn into a short night. So he plans to cut the distance and keep close to Jones.

But he's also coming off one of 2009's best knockouts, a head kick that sent Mark Munoz into unconsciousness at UFC 96. And much as Rashad Evans' head kick of Sean Salmon sent him into a different league as a striker, Hamill believes the ending of UFC 96 will make him more difficult to prepare to fight.

Staying on the outside can no longer be considered safe now that Hamill has shown he has kicks like that.

"This has been one of Matt's best camps ever," Holmes said. "And Matt is such an incredible athlete that he picks up a little more each time. He still gets careless and he still makes some mistakes that I have to point out to him, but he progresses each fight and he's at a different level each time out."

Hamill, the UFC's only deaf fighter, nodded as Holmes spoke.

"There are a lot of great fighters in my weight class and they're getting better all the time," Hamill said. "I have no choice: I either have to improve every fight or else. It's not going to get any easier."

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