Sunday, May 30, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
John Hathaway entered his U.S. debut on Saturday night at UFC 114 as an unknown to just about everyone.
Even his opponent — fan-favorite Diego Sanchez — said on Thursday that he knew nothing about Hathaway outside of watching his fight tapes, despite attempting to hunt him down on both Facebook and Twitter.
But re-watching the display the 22-year-old Brit put on against Sanchez in a unanimous decision victory (30-27, 30-27, 30-26) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena will tell all future opponents everything they need to know.
After stunning Sanchez with a strong right knee in the first round, followed by a ground-and-pound spurt that nearly ended the fight, Hathaway cruised as his confidence swelled.
"The scary thing about a kid like this is that he's only 22 years old," UFC President Dana White said in the post-fight press conference. "And tonight, for a kid of his age and experience, Diego Sanchez is a huge fight. I'm sure there were a lot of nerves and it was a very nerve-racking fight for him. After you get three or four decent fights in the UFC, you start to feel like this is your home. It'll be very scary when he feels like this is his home."
If anyone had a right to feel at home coming in, it was Sanchez, entering the Octagon for the first time since his loss to B.J. Penn in a lightweight title fight at UFC 107 back in December.
He had almost every one of the 15,081 fans in attendance behind him, and had never before lost a professional fight in Las Vegas.
His return to the welterweight division, though, brought an unexpected surprise in Hathaway.
Sanchez tried early to get into his comfort zone by going for a takedown and getting the fight to the ground, but during a first-round attempt, Hathaway's right knee drilled Sanchez square in the face, sending him stumbling to the ground.
The rangy Hathaway quickly mounted him, throwing a series of stinging punches and elbows.
"I was trying to finish quite badly in that situation," Hathaway said. "But Diego is very resilient and he pulled through. After that, I think the momentum went a lot more in my favor. It kind of forced him to become a stand-up fighter and stand with me a little more."
The momentum shift was completely visible.
Hathaway began smiling at Sanchez after nearly every landed strike from that point on — and there were plenty of them. Sanchez grew visibly frustrated, as any takedown attempts were futile and he began to swing and miss on some big attempted shots late out of desperation.
"(Sanchez was) maybe a little surprised," Hathaway said. "I felt like my right hand and my right knee was going to stun him."
Oddly enough, Hathaway's signature victory came against a guy who he admired as a teenager while preparing to make the transition from his first love — rugby — to mixed martial arts.
He did so cold turkey.
"The first Ultimate Fighter series, I must have been 16 or 17 at the time," Hathaway recalled. "I was still a kid at the time. I watched it, and I thought Diego was cool, at the time. I liked watching him in the house.
"He had his own little vibe and things going on. I thought that was cool."
Now, Hathaway has a nice vibe of his own, and the welterweight division could turn into his oyster.
He came out of his 14th professional fight with no injuries and a still-pristine record, including a 4-0 mark in the UFC after completing his original four-fight deal with the organization.
White will surely want to get him back in the cage sooner rather than later.
"I think I need to get a little more experience and a lot more training in the gym, so there's a lot more improvements from me to come," he said. "No return to rugby."