Uriah Hall and the ghost of killer instincts past

USA TODAY Sports

So far Uriah Hall lives as a figment of our imaginations. He was the boogeyman of The Ultimate Fighter 17, the guy that nobody wanted to cross, and yet who sat just behind every door like a modern day Ajax smashing his fist into his palm. You might remember that Bubba McDaniel was about as spooked as a fighter can be before an encounter. Hall incited paranoia in grown men. Hall, it could be said, lived under everybody’s bed in that Las Vegas mansion.

But the whole thing really started with Adam Cella.

For weeks before the canned material made its way to our innocent living rooms, we were teased with footage of somebody being wheeled into an ambulance in a critical swirl of red lights. It was teased to titillation when Dana White declared that what was to come was "one of the nastiest knockouts I’ve even seen in the fight business, let alone The Ultimate Fighter." This churned the fight game viscera real good.

It turned out to be the work of Hall.

And the victim was Cella, whose neck held his head out like a tee for Hall to spin around and vaporize with a kick of explosive athleticism and shimmying awe and instantaneous contrition. The room gasped. Then the room fell silent. Hall might have seriously hurt Cella (or worse). Hall himself fell into despair at the blood on his hands, before falling into a million reflections. (He didn’t seriously hurt Cella nor kill him, but he did make the other people in the house begin sleeping with nightlights).

This, of course, was the moment. It was the moment that the public lifted Hall, who had fought (and lost to) the likes of Chris Weidman and Costa Philippou before being cast on TUF, into a Candlyland of hyper-expectations. It was the moment that his coach Chael Sonnen began a bold campaign for Hall as a contender in the middleweight division. It was the moment his housemates shuddered. It was the moment that Dana White saw the future, and Tiger Schulmann -- from whence Hall sprang -- came scrambling back to life.

And it was also the moment that Hall, remorseful of what his hands (and feet) were capable of, lost his stomach for violence. Or maybe he never had it; that line has always been hazy. But in his most glorified moment, Hall’s sense of humanity surged through him. We saw it again in the McDaniel fight. It sickened him to hurt people, which is admirable in real life but hardly a fight game virtue. That sense of humanity is a conflict in the profession, one that’s led to his downfall quicker than it has to any of those projected heights.

"I love Uriah Hall," Dana White told a media faction one disappointed night in Boston, after Hall dropped his second UFC fight to John Howard. "I have a great relationship with this kid. He’s one of the nicest human beings you can ever meet. But he’s not a fighter, man."

As much as we wanted the Jamaican-born Hall to re-enact the Cella wheel-kick on an endless loop -- that sequence of speed, acceleration and warped animal violence -- he couldn’t. Through two fights he’s 0-2 and conspicuously unspectacular. The criticism that comes with that kind of letdown sounds like a long sigh. Before White expressed his own disappointment in the Howard loss, he went on record to say that Hall "mentally broke" in his TUF finale bout with Kelvin Gastelum. And who knows. Gastelum, who lived with Hall for all these weeks, may have sensed this was possible.

But that’s where we stand heading into UFC 168 on Dec. 28.

Hall has gone from outsized expectations as a world-beater to a fighter thought to be without the guts to do his job effectively in the space of a year. Now he’s facing a do-or-die situation in his fight with Chris Leben, and he’ll arrive to Las Vegas fully aware of the things people are saying.

Here’s the odd thing, though -- he agrees with a lot of the criticism.

"I hear those things, and my first thought was what? Whoa. No one wants to hear those bad comments," he says. "But for me it’s taking the good out of it. I think you can learn from any situation. There was one point when my buddy brought the news to me, saying, ‘oh man, Dana says you’re not a fighter, what do you think about that?’ And I explained to him that Dana is right, I am not a fighter. I don’t go in there trying to kill someone. I enjoy the idea of picking someone apart. I’m more of an martial artist, and for me it’s just getting things perfect. It’s trying to get to that perfection level, even though I know that’s not something that I can achieve.

"[Dana’s words] did some good things for me, man. It’s in your face, but you look at people who are successful in life, you’re always going to have those struggles, always going to have those battles, but it’s about overcoming it. For me personally, it was a big deal. I just felt at one point that it was just so fast and so sudden that I couldn’t handle it. But it didn’t break me, it taught me. So it’s about redefining myself and bouncing back."

Obviously White can’t turn Hall’s blood cold. But when the objective is to get your hand raised, and your best route for doing that is separating your opponent from consciousness, Hall understands which side the paradox he has to fall on. And to shake things up, for this camp he trained primarily with Mark Munoz in California before heading to Oregon to tweak some things with Clayton Hires, Chael Sonnen’s striking coach.

"Coming off the show, I would say I felt nervous," Hall says. "It was just a new game to me. And I look at the UFC as like the Harvard of martial arts. You reach that high of a level, it’s like, whoa, all eyes are on you with the media and all that.

"But the other day I was at a local event and these guys were just fighting in the cold man. It was outside. It was in the middle of nowhere, and it was a mismatch in weight, I was like…are you kidding me? At that given point, I was like, I think I’ve got it good. And I realized I was kind of wasting away what’s in my hands. I wasn’t grasping it. It was like I didn’t realize my potential. It’s just a lot of stuff going on, but it’s about balancing it out."

Yet while training in the Northwest -- where Leben originally hails from -- Hall’s been dealing with the same old conundrums.

"I feel like this fight is a do or die, but I also look at it as a way to bring that side out of me," he says. "It’s kind of hard to explain. It’s like these two losses make me appreciate the wins more. It just kind of changed me to understand what I’m fighting for. And to go in there and put all those emotions aside. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

"Because, again, I don’t have that killer instinct. I don’t know how to go in there and kill someone. But I do know how to pick you apart and dismantle you. It was just focusing on that and understanding it and I’m at a point where I’m working with some great guys. I’m up here in Portland man and chopping trees and punching meet, that Rocky mentality, and it feels good."

If there’s ever been a fighter who could provoke the killer instinct (or at least some facsimile), it’s Leben, who came from the original Ultimate Fighter show.

Leben is entering his 22nd UFC fight, and he’s made a career of jumping on live grenades. He’s a fight night roulette player who moves forward and is ever-punchable, banking on his own chances to be the first to clip. The more he gets tagged, the more he trudges forward winging hands from the hip. Sometimes he knocks guys (Aaron Simpson got it that way, so did Wanderlei Silva), and sometimes he gets obliterated (hard to forget the Anderson Silva incident of ’06).

But when trying to draw the "fighter" back out of the fighter, Leben is the guy. And if the UFC had that in mind when booking "The Crippler" against him, Hall says he’s catching the drift.

"Probably," he says. "If anything, once I’m backed into a corner man, I’ll go through that person. It’s an interesting match-up. I think it’s great. I know he likes to come forward, and I know he said something about, ‘I’m going to pressure Uriah and break him.’ For someone to come at me, especially him who just walks forward, you couldn’t ask for a better target. It should be interesting."

Interesting because it’s a plank walk. Very likely this will be the last we see of either Leben (who sustained himself for so long on something like brawlability, but has lost three in a row) or of the 29-year old Hall (who will have extinguished himself out of empathy) in the UFC. The notable difference is that while Leben’s had his share of moments on the big stage, Hall has not. He has beaten guys with names like Nodar Kuduxashivili and Aung La Nsang, yet against fighters with Wikipedia pages, in the moments that count most, we’ve watched him disappear into himself.

"A buddy of mine made a comment, ‘are you afraid to be in the ring?’" he says. "It’s a little nerve-racking to be in there, but I’m not afraid to be in there. I’m more afraid to what I might do to my opponent. When I see myself bashing someone’s face in I’m like, oh crap.

"But, I’m over that."

Those are the inner-workings of what’s on display at UFC 168. Can Hall discover the killer instinct? Is he over that? Can he treat Leben as Leben will treat him -- that is, as a threat to do him harm, instead of a human being that must be handled with care? We’ll see Saturday night.

But what a thing it would be if he doesn’t. To come into public view as a boogeyman that incited fear in opponents, Hall may go down in history as the guy who, because he had such a vast collection of weapons, scared himself out of the fight game for fear of what those weapons might do.

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