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UFC 104:

Razak Al-Hassan: More than just ‘the guy that didn’t tap’

Fighter looks to use worst injury of his career as stepping stone to future

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UFC

Steve Cantwell applies an armbar to Razak Al-Hassan in the first round of their bout at UFC’s Fight for the Troops show on December 10, 2008. The bout ended when Cantwell won by TKO after dislocating Al-Hassan’s elbow.

UFC light heavyweight Razak Al-Hassan

UFC light heavyweight Razak Al-Hassan

The typical belief is that injuries are known for ending careers, not starting them.

Don’t tell that to Razak Al-Hassan.

Al-Hassan suffered the worst injury of his mixed martial arts career last December, when Steve Cantwell dislocated his left elbow after catching Al-Hassan in an armbar submission.

Instead of becoming demoralized by the injury and the loss in his light heavyweight UFC debut, Al-Hassan doubled his commitment to the sport.

His first move was to quit a full-time job at Wells Fargo in Iowa so that he could find a better training atmosphere.

“I was still working 40 hours a week when I trained for that first fight,” Al-Hassan said. “After that incident, I realized that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. I never wanted to look back and think, ‘What could I have done if only I had trained full time and joined a good camp.’

“Rather than ask those questions, I left my job and contacted Duke (Roufus) and that was it.”

The difference in Al-Hassan’s preparations for his first UFC fight with Cantwell and his second, a meeting with Kyle Kingsbury at UFC 104 in Los Angeles on Saturday, can not be understated.

In the span of less than a year, Al-Hassan has gone from training primarily with a taekwondo coach, to a full training camp at the well-known Duke Roufus Academy in Milwaukee.

After spending nine weeks with a team that included Pat Berry, Eric Schafer and Ben Rothwell, Al-Hassan returned to his home state to conclude his preparations with kickboxing coach Russ O’Connell in Waterloo, Iowa.

“He was doing this part time, basically picking up little bits and pieces from wherever he could,” said O’Connell. “His kickboxing coach was his taekwondo coach with no background in kickboxing.

“He actually has done very good considering where he came from.”

Very good indeed. Before losing to Cantwell, Al-Hassan's professional record had been a glistening 7-0.

As good as his record was, fighters with no formal mixed martial training from unknown instructors rarely get the opportunity to compete in the UFC.

However in Al-Hassan’s case, the fact he had finished six of his first seven professional opponents was enough to grab the attention of UFC brass.

“They saw him fight on these shows and he was like, destroying guys,” O’Connell said. “His stand-up is really good, his shot defense is good. Guys were forced to stand up with him. I’ve seen him stop guys with leg kicks — just crushing their legs.”

His successful road to the spotlight certainly hit a pothole with the loss in December.

The fight has earned notoriety among UFC fans for its conclusion. In the first round, Cantwell caught Al-Hassan in an armbar and waited for his opponent to tap.

Instead of tapping, Al-Hassan flipped his body over in an attempt to find an angle out of the submission. All he succeeded in doing was giving the cameras a clear angle of his arm bending backwards at the elbow when Cantwell applied more pressure.

Al-Hassan has since received criticism that he knew he was in trouble but was too stubborn to tap — a theory he says is entirely inaccurate.

“Honestly, I didn’t even feel anything when it happened,” Al-Hassan said. “A lot of people think I knew it was going to happen and I just refused to tap, but that wasn’t the case. In my mind I was trying to get out of the armbar, somehow move my arm in a different angle. Before I knew it, referee Mario Yamasaki was stopping the fight.

“I didn’t know what had happened and I even asked him what was going on. Only after the fight, when I started walking to the locker room, was it that my arm started bothering me.”

Although the injury kept him out of training for four months, Al-Hassan says that he wouldn’t have done a thing differently looking back on the fight.

“At this level, with this kind of opportunity, I want to make sure that I do everything in my power to win,” he said. “I’m pretty infamous for the injury now, but I’d rather go out like that, than to not be remembered at all.

“At least fans know that I’m going to bring it and I’ll go out on my shield any day of the week.”

Fans familiar with the styles of both fighters will likely look forward to Al-Hassan and Kingsbury’s bout as much as any on the UFC 104 card.

Although Al-Hassan is an intelligent jiu-jitsu practitioner with plenty of submission wins on his record, he's actually most comfortable on his feet according to O'Connell.

Kingsbury will be an equally well-rounded opponent, who also lost his UFC debut last December by unanimous decision to Tom Lawlor.

Unless one is completely dominating exchanges, there is a chance this fight could rarely — if ever — see the ground.

“Kyle has said he wants to stand up with Razak, and if that happens this ought to be one hell of a fight,” O’Connell said. “Razak slips punches well, he counters real well. And he’s built like Tarzan.”

The fighters are also similar in that they are most recognized by their success in smaller shows thus far.

Except, of course, for Al-Hassan’s unfortunate incident with Cantwell — an inexperience he says he isn’t ashamed of but ready to move forward from.

“I want to go out and be a better fighter with every performance,” he said. “When I look at the guys I really respect like Lyoto Machida and Georges St. Pierre, they’ve always improved with each fight. If people can someday say that I was one of the best fighter of my time, that would be a huge compliment and it’s something I’ll continue to strive towards.”

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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