This is number eighty in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re honored to feature longtime MMA veteran, Dennis Hallman. Hallman began his MMA career back in 1996, and though we haven't seen him fight since December of 2011, he is definitely not retired. In fact, he'll be fighting Bellator veteran, Dan Hornbuckle, at Titan Fighting Championship 26, in Kansas City, on August 30th! This will be a welterweight fight for Hallman, but the veteran has fought at multiple weights throughout his long career. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Dennis Hallman: I would say that my first experience with martial arts was an argument with my best friend, Dave Davis, when I was in the second grade. He told me that Bruce Lee would beat up Hulk Hogan in a fight, and I told him that Hulk Hogan would beat up Bruce Lee. So I went and joined wrestling, and he went to a Kenpo class. When I got to wrestling, the coach explained to me that the reason we weren't doing it in a ring was because that was "pro" wrestling and this was amateur. So that's how I started wrestling.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, back in 1996, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
DH: I got a call when Matt Hume was putting on an event. It was mostly a kickboxing event. The fight cards would have 12 or 13 kickboxing matches and 2 pankration matches. I remember that the guy that I had fought had been competing in amateur Shooto and he was like the 1992 Japan Shooto amateur champion. We had a quick bout and he tapped out really fast. Then he said, "I didn't want to tap out." So I said, "Okay, I'll fight you again." So we actually competed again right after that and I won a decision.
JB: With a record of 17-4, you made your UFC debut at UFC 29 in Tokyo, Japan. You submitted your opponent, UFC Hall-of-Famer, Matt Hughes, in 20 seconds. Even more impressive was the fact that it was a rematch of a fight from two years prior in which you had submitted Hughes in seventeen seconds. How would you explain your success against Matt Hughes?
DH: I was blessed to be able to beat him. I think I had a type of style that was difficult for him. I was a quick starter and I was really strong with good submissions and ground techniques. Matt Hughes was like a freight train, and the longer he went, the more he was able to wear on people. I had the ability to just catch him quick right off the bat.
JB: How would you characterize the MMA landscape at that time with the regional promotions that you fought in and the international organizations like the SEG-era UFC and Shooto?
DH: The first time I fought Matt Hughes we fought in a little 300-person ballroom-type thing. In Japan, it was packed, but the Japanese crowd was a lot different. They were quiet and they were pretty knowledgeable even back around 2000.
JB: What did you think of the quality of the opponents that you were facing with guys like Hughes, Caol Uno, Dave Menne, Frank Trigg, and Jens Pulver? We know them now, but when you fought them, the sport was still young.
DH: I don't know. I didn't think the sport was going to get this huge or anything like that. I just thought that those were the other good guys that competed and that it was something I could do on the side. I would say that it's astonishing that some of those guys ended up doing what they did. It was great being a part of the birth of MMA, being in the first generation of guys that fought with weight classes and unified rules.
JB: At UFC 33, you fought Jens Pulver for the UFC lightweight championship. What do you remember about that historic fight and that infamous event?
DH: I wish I could take it back. There are a lot of things I'd do differently. I held back a little bit. The crowd was definitely different. There were a lot of people there, but every single fight on that card went to a decision. So it was not a good first event in Las Vegas.
JB: With the exception of single fights in the UFC at UFC 48 and UFC 55, you spent the years between 2001-2009 fighting for various promotions including Strikeforce and the IFL. How did that part of your career help you to evolve as a fighter?
DH: I didn't find out until right after I returned to the UFC in 2009 that I was allergic to gluten. My body wasn't producing cortisol either so I was having a lot of adrenal problems. If you watched my fights during those years, I would either destroy the guy in the first round or after the first round I would gas out immediately. That was due to being allergic to gluten. I'd make weight before a fight and then do what others did and eat a huge bowl of pasta. So before I'd fight I'd essentially be poisoning myself.
But technique-wise, I learned a lot during those years. I traveled and trained with a lot of good guys. My technique got a lot better. I spent some time training down with Ricardo Liborio and I trained with a lot of guys at Team Quest. Matt Lindland had it going really nicely at Team Quest with a lot of great training partners.
JB: Speaking of Team Quest, didn't you recently become a coach at a Team Quest gym in your native Olympia, WA?
DH: There was a guy who ran an affiliate, not really a Team Quest school. He had a local gym in our area and it didn't really work out. The guy told me and another partner to come in and work together to build something bigger, but the guy didn't turn out to do all that he said he was going to do. So we eventually jumped ship and found another building. We actually just opened in Lakewood, Washington, about 20 minutes from my house. We opened a 7,200 square-foot gym on August 1st. It's called Victory Athletics Combat Sports Academy. The name comes from the Victory Athletics that I had in my backyard where a number of fighters learned how to fight. Miesha Tate, Bryan Caraway, and others built their careers there. Len Bentley, John Albert, Brad Blackburn, Benji Radach, a lot of guys cut their teeth in my backyard. I had a gym back there, but now I'm going commercial.
JB: In 2009, at the TUF 10 Finale, you returned to the UFC. You went 2-2 at welterweight, before dropping to lightweight. Your last fight, at UFC 140, was actually contested at catchweight, and was a submission win. Since then, other fights were scheduled, but for a myriad of reasons, did not take place. How have you been doing since your last fight, in December, 2011, during what has been the longest inactive period of your fighting career?
DH: That last fight, against Makdessi, was another good matchup for me, another good styles matchup. I was supposed to fight that May, against Tony Ferguson, but I got injured. After that, I got scheduled to fight Thiago Tavares. I was supposed to fight him at the end of June, then July, then August, and then it got bumped again to September. Then when Jon Jones didn't want to fight Chael for UFC 151, the fight was moved to October. So it got bumped a bunch of times, and I was going through a number of personal issues at the same time. I got really overwhelmed and wasn't able to make the weight at all. Thiago, and this was very smart of him because I would have crushed him like I crushed Makdessi, he said, "No way am I fighting that guy unless he makes weight." There was no way I was going to be able to make the weight with everything that was going on. God bless Dana White because he helped me out financially still. I would have had a really big problem if I hadn't been able to get paid for that fight. He paid me, said, "Hey go get yourself straightened out," and the UFC cut their ties with me.
I was probably ready to fight again in March of this year, after going through everything and dealing with stuff. But I really had trouble finding a fight that made sense financially, and a lot of guys kept turning fights down.
JB: So now you have a fight coming up at the end of the month against Dan Hornbuckle. How did that fight come about and what do you think of that matchup?
DH: Will Hammond, from White Buffalo Fight Management, is a friend of mine who I've been friends with for many years. Back when he was competing, he had a fight team, the White Buffalo Warriors, and they had t-shirts that said, "Our drinking team has a fighting problem!" So now Will runs a successful management group for up-and-coming fighters. I was having a problem finding a fight, and he was able to get me this fight right off. So I appreciate that from him.
I cornered Brad Blackburn when he lost to Hornbuckle. He's a pretty tough guy. He's a well-rounded guy. He's a good striker and good off his back. He has a lot of length on me, but I've fared well in my career against taller guys. Ben Saunders, Rory Singer, I've done well against guys like that. I'm hoping that translates over to doing well against Hornbuckle.
JB: Did you also recently coach on TUF 18, with Team Tate?
DH: I was a guest coach. I went there for a couple days.
JB: What was that experience like?
DH: It gave me a new sense of respect for guys that do that show. I didn't realize how little they have for being in touch with the outside world. To have to go to a place and have no books, no TV, no papers, no nothing, I couldn't imagine being in that situation. That would have driven me insane.
JB: What can you tell us about Bryan Caraway? Is he getting a tough rap from people right now?
DH: I'm a hardass on a lot of people, but Bryan is probably one of the nicest people that you'd ever meet. He's a genuine guy and a really good guy. He's a really good person, but what he does is that he worries so much about what people think about him and then he overcompensates. Whenever someone's mad at him or something, he wants to explain himself completely, but that's not the way that the press works. They'll take one or two words and stick it to you. I think Bryan will figure out that it doesn't matter what everybody else thinks and you have to do just do your thing. It will be a lot easier on him, but he, for sure, gets a bad rap.
JB: What about Ronda and Miesha in the rematch? What do you see happening in that fight?
DH: Ronda reminds me of the old Randy Couture. You want to bet against her because it looks like she sucks. But she really is good even though she doesn't look like she's good. Miesha is definitely the more technical fighter. I think she'll win the rematch. Miesha will get the belt.
JB: You have seen so much take place in the sport of MMA over your career. What do you think of the current state of the sport and what are the issues that you are most concerned about?
DH: I think the sport is doing well. It's growing. People are talking about pay and all that, but if you're selling tickets, then you will get paid better. Still, I would like to see more money going to the middle class fighters and not just to the big event guys. They earn it, but you're not going to sell a card with just one fight in MMA. You've got to have a strong base to carry it. So I guess I would like to see the pay trickle down a little more. Other than that, the sport is looking great.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of coaching and training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
DH: I like to coach my kids and spend time with my family. I like bouldering too. I did that down in Vegas a bit when I was there for TUF. I like to get out and be in nature.
My parents and my children are definitely the ones who support me most.
JB: Last question, Dennis, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
DH: Being a fighter is a big part of who I am as a person. I have been fighting for so long that I couldn't imagine not fighting. I still feel like a kid when I am in the cage or ring anticipating the referee giving the cue to fight. Anything that still gives you joy after nearly twenty years is a rare find, and fighting is still that jewel to me.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Dennis Hallman and Jack Brown on Twitter.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, and dozens more.
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