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TUF winner Ryan Hall explains reason for two-year layoff ahead of B.J. Penn fight

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Ryan Hall is undefeated inside the UFC Octagon. He won The Ultimate Fighter 22 with a dominant showing over Artem Lobov. He defeated one of the division’s true veterans in his next outing, outpointing Gray Maynard while suffering just 12 significant strikes.

But that last win came all the back in December 2016, and since then, Hall has been an absent figure from the game.

His time away from MMA is now set to end on Dec. 29 when he faces living legend B.J. Penn at UFC 232, but Hall’s two-year hiatus was never purposeful. He didn’t suffer a major injury and he wasn’t turning down fight after fight.

So what gives? Why all the time away?

“I’d say there was a series of things,” Hall explained Monday on The MMA Hour. “You mentioned that there’s the gym [that I run, Fifty/50 Martial Arts Academy]. There’s other things going in life, I’m trying to work on those as well. After fighting Gray, which I felt very fortunate for that opportunity — that was good, and I felt it was unorthodox but most definitely, by any metric, a dominant performance, similar to the fight against Artem — I was definitely looking forward to the opportunity to facing somebody tougher. But what it’s turned out to be is that a lot of the guys that are a little higher up the chain — and I’m not talking about way, way, way up there where I have no business even asking to compete with them — were very reticent to get into the ring, and that was a problem.

“I expressed the interest to the matchmaker in the UFC, who’s never been anything but a gentleman to me, that I wanted to face very difficult and challenging opposition, and he said okay. He said, ‘I’ll let you know when that comes around,’ that a lot of those guys have turned down the fight. So, no, I’ve not been spending my time turning down fights. Not a ton of offers have come in, but the ones that have, I’ve accepted wholeheartedly, and finally we got a good one. In B.J. Penn, you have someone who’s clearly not afraid of anyone. This guy fought up to heavyweight, he fought Lyoto Machida, so I don’t think bravery is an issue in his case, and I will try to match that myself.”

Hall, 33, is one of the most decorated and respected grapplers in the UFC today. A leglock specialist known as “The Wizard,” his vaunted jiu-jitsu arsenal was on full display on TUF 22, where Hall picked up two first-round stoppages via leglock in the early stages of the tournament. Hall used that same arsenal to dominate Artem Lobov back in 2015 in the season’s finale. He then befuddled and frustrated Maynard in a bizarre but ultimately successful sophomore UFC showing.

Hall said Monday that his problems arose after the Maynard fight. Because of his unique fighting style — a style that he admits is extremely difficult to prepare for — he believes several potential foes over the last two-year stretch opted to accept a more conventional matchup rather than be forced to learn the nuances of Hall’s unusual but effective skill set.

“I think that it’s a tough situation, because I can understand the risk and reward that may be out of whack fighting certain people, and I think it explains a lot about why certain guys are able to get a lot of opponents and a lot of bigger fights, and other people might have significant challenges,” Ryan said. “Say, for instance, ‘Wonderboy,’ whether now or on the way up, I can’t imagine people are lining up to fight Stephen just because it’s a tricky and challenging fight and there’s only one Stephen Thompson running around. So it’s not as if, let’s say you’re fighting the wrestle-boxer but you have many like him and you can practice for this guy — but you can’t just go down to the local karate school and find a black belt and say, ‘Oh man, this guy’s going to be a good stand-in for Wonderboy.’

“As a result, I think it was probably challenging for him until he managed to get in there against Hendricks and Ellenberger — and then you force the issue because of the successes you’ve had — to get those fights. Again, it’s just the nature of the game.”

Ultimately, Hall doesn’t hold any grudges toward potential opponents who opted not to fight him. That’s their right, he said.

In the end, he is simply happy with the way things worked out. Penn is a legend of the game, and even though featherweight is Hall’s natural weight class, Hall was more than happy to move up to 155 pounds to accommodate the UFC Hall of Famer. He said Penn was an inspiration to him growing up in jiu-jitsu and he’s excited to be competing against someone he looked up to since the beginning of his martial arts journey.

Hall also insisted he holds no ill feelings toward the UFC for the way things have worked out.

“The last thing I want to do is disrespect anyone or cause people extra trouble,” Hall said. “And I understand that they have a position as a promoter, I understand that other fighters have positions as other athletes — I glad that they’re able to turn down fights and that they’re not compelled to do things that they don’t want to do, that this is all at will. At the same time, I understand the frustrating components of that, and I would love to a linear progression for everyone, so it’s easier to say — just let’s say, for instance, if you win the quarterfinal, you go to the semifinal; if you win the semifinal you go to the final, no matter what. I think that would make it a lot easier for everyone else if there was a set structure more in place, but fight sports have never been like that for whatever reason.

“So as far as I’m concerned, I understand that other people have their position, but I have mine, and I feel very, very fortunate for the opponent that I have. And I’m glad that, it took awhile and it took a lot of waiting, but I’ve done my best to make good use of the time, so all things considered, I couldn’t be happier. I have a great fight.”