ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Phil Hawes is on the verge of great things in mixed martial arts .... so long as the sport's preeminent free spirit, Donald Cerrone, doesn't accidentally get him killed first.
Hawes, a highly touted middleweight prospect out of the JacksonWink camp, has spent his share of time at Cerrone's BMF Ranch, about an hour out of the city. And like any newbie attempting to fit in, the 26-year-old New Jersey native has found himself doing things he never would have imagined.
"Whatever fans picture in their head about Cowboy's ranch, it's exactly that, and then some," Hawes said. "Cowboy's super active, if you hang out with him, you gotta keep up with him. He's got me shooting ducks. He's got me wakeboarding out there with two life vests ‘cause I can't swim. I could wakeboard, but I can't swim for my life, but just being out there with Cowboy I'm doing crazy stuff."
And people are saying crazy stuff about Hawes, words which just might be wild enough to be true. Hawes (3-0), a product of the Iowa Central Community College wrestling program, is drawing rave reviews from people who aren't usually quick to hype those who have just started in the game.
"I think his potential is limitless," said the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter, Jon Jones. "He's strong, he's smart, he learns fast, and I definitely think he's going to make an impact on the future of MMA."
Coach Brandon Gibson ups the ante even further, comparing Hawes to several competitors who made the jump from collegiate wrestling to MMA to early success at the highest level.
"Phil had what [Chris] Weidman had and what Cain [Velasquez] had and what Jon had," Gibson said. "A pretty low record but ready to come in and dethrone someone right now. Gym wars are one thing, but I've seen Phil have some rounds in here with some of the biggest names in the sport and win decisively that round. But he's also that guy who can apply it on fight night."
So why all the commotion about a guy most of you have never heard of?
Maybe it's the confidence. Hawes doesn't back down to being compared to some of the sport's biggest stars.
"I take it in, but I take it with a grain of salt," said Hawes. "I know that I've got a great team who are helping me with different applications, and my coaches believe in me. I take it with a grain of salt and keep working towards it and trying to prove them right."
Maybe it's the sense of purpose. Hawes went to Iowa Central knowing the wrestling program, which has won seven junior college national titles in the past 13 years, was a pipeline to MMA, from Jones to Velasquez to Colby Covington to Joe Soto. After college, Hawes drove to New Mexico with $200 to his name, sleeping in the back of his car when necessary. And there were bumps along the way.
"I got head kicked by Carlos [Condit] and I guess that was a ‘Welcome to Jackson's' for me," said Hawes. "But if you have talent and they see you're a work horse and you work hard, they accept you. You take your bumps and bruises but you become part of the team."
Maybe it's his work ethic. Hawes was the first man in the gym for a weekend wrestling practice on the morning he spoke to MMAFighting.com. His coaches have taken notice.
"Very few people work as hard as he does," Greg Jackson said. "He's a student, goes to every class, constantly hungry, getting better and better every time, just an impressive individual, quite an honor to train a guy like him. The kid's going to be good."
Or maybe it's his ambition. While Hawes only has three pro fights under his belt, when he's training with someone like Jones, he doesn't act like he's out of place.
"If we practice Tuesday sparring and we're both in here together, it's a fight, we're both competitors," Hawes said. "He's Jon Jones, the No. 1 guy in the world, but in my mind, I'm all ‘I can beat this guy any day of the week,' you know? My upbringing, he helps me a lot, He's a mentor as well, because I want to beat him every day in the gym, and he wants to beat me every day in the gym, but we're still cool, we're friends."
It's been an interesting year for Hawes, one in which he's learned some lessons about the fight business. He briefly left JacksonWink to train with the Blackzilians, something he called "a mistake," before being welcomed back in New Mexico. He's currently under contract with Titan, but expects to be released before the month is out. And on Dec. 15, he'll try out for the next season of The Ultimate Fighter at 205.
Then there's the fact simply getting a fight has been a chore. Hawes has blitzed all three of his pro opponents with a forward-moving style, bulling his way to finishes. But word travels fast, so fighters with similar records don't want to face him.
"I didn't think it would be this tough at 3-0 to find fights with someone who is similar like 3-0, 5-0, 6-0," Hawes said. "Now we're starting to reach for guys who are like 15-1. But I think we'll do well. I guess word got around the MMA community on the lower scene, like, ‘you probably shouldn't fight this guy.'"
That's where the comparisons to Weidman, who entered the UFC at 5-0, and Velasquez, who debuted at 2-0, came in. Gibson feels Hawes could step in and compete on the big stage right now.
"This has been a slow year, but it's been a big year for his fight IQ, his skills are growing immensely," Gibson said. "He's one of my guys that, he just has so much potential, I know it's just a matter of time before we get to show the world what he can do."
Jones concurs. "He has the potential to compete with the absolute top guys in the business, and for him to not be in the UFC would be cutting himself short," Jones said.
While the business aspect sorts itself out, Hawes stays focused on his training. And on trying to keep up with the Cowboy.
"He's been a mentor to me," Hawes said. "What the people don't see is, I mean, he's paid my phone bill for me and gives me a place to stay whenever I need it. People don't know that side of him. The ranch is a bunch of tough dudes up there. We go hard and it's an even higher altitude than Albuquerque, so it's an even tougher workout in that sense. The ranch is fun, Cowboy welcomes everybody."