Why Ryan Hall is eager to face the biggest challenge of his MMA career - B.J. Penn

Monday, September 24, 2018

On December 29, UFC featherweight Ryan Hall will fight for the first time in two years. It was never the surging contender’s intention to wait this long between fights.

When the offer came in to fight former two-division champion B.J. Penn Hall jumped at the chance, just as he said he did several times over the past two years since his win over former title-challenger Gray Maynard. Now, Hall and his fellow black belt wife Jen Hall, will balance a training camp with managing their Virginia 50/50 martial arts academy and caring for their four-week-old son.

“It just played out that way,” the TUF champion tells us. “I’m always ready to accept any fight.”

The only difference this time around is that Hall found another fighter who was game to fight him, he says.

“I can’t speak for others but I had a lot of fights with others turned down," said Hall. "I accepted a ton of fights the past two years only to be told that the other side hadn’t accepted it. ... I’m always interested in tough fights.”

Hall admits to becoming frustrated waiting for another UFC fights. After all, fight careers are short and he wanted to capitalize on momentum from his six-fight win streak.

Beyond that, there are no salaries, year-round benefits, or pensions for UFC fighters, so making ends meet on the promotion’s schedule alone is sometimes challenging or impossible. Then again, Hall doesn’t fight for the money, but rather to challenge himself.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little exasperated waiting for a fight the past two years,” he says. “You can feel the years slipping away and years that are your prime. But I’ve been working hard, improving, and am ready to fight. Which is why you sometimes you have to roll your eyes when you read or hear your fights blatantly mischaracterized by others as an excuse to not fight you.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, he’s just going to lay on the ground all fight.’ Well, that’s never really happened. I’ve spent most of my last fights on a guy’s back, or kicking them in the face, but I’m never just lying on the ground.”

The challenges of paying bills as a professional fighter who has not had a fight in years is “just a reality,” according to Hall.

“I fight professionally because I’ve got the skill and desire to do it, not because I have to do it for money," he said. "If the goal was money, I feel as though I could have accomplished that goal by going into something else, like the tech world, or business. But so long as I can support my family, and we’ve been able to do that with our academy, then I’m happy. Of course, it would be great to make money from fighting, especially since most of what I make from a fight goes towards training camp. I bring in a lot of people and I travel a bit.”

Hall’s camp for the year-end fight with Penn began weeks ago, according to the fighter, since he first thought the bout would happen in the fall at the coming Madison Square Garden card. Hall insists, however, that he never stops training, with or without fights booked.

“I train year-round. I don’t take vacations, I’m always skill-building,” he continues. “Now we’ll get in hard sparring because there is a difference between skill and sharpness. They are not the same thing.”

He plans to train with fighter Jordan Rinaldi, BJJ masters Jeff Glover, Bill Cooper, and Justin Rader, as well as Matt Miller.

Hall has high praise for all those training partners and more, as well as coaches Kenny Florian and TriStar head Firas Zahabi. Hall has relied on both men for years and says he has no plans to stop that any time soon.

That, of course, will mean travel, which is a bit more challenging now that he’s the father of an infant.

“With the little guy there’s an unbelievable amount of work to do and it would be unfair to leave all of that to my wife, though the ratio of work with him will change a bit now, during camp,” he details.

All of the sacrifice and hustle is well worth it for Hall. In addition to his hunger to fight again at all, the ground wizard is particularly excited to face Penn, who he calls, “the biggest challenge of my MMA career by a long shot.”

For one, Penn continues to impress Hall with his bravery alone. The legendary fighter can’t seem to stay retired and, despite many losses over the past decade or so, Penn readily accepted a fight with Hall when he says many other fighters would not.

“It’s great to be fighting someone like Penn, who is certainly not afraid of anyone,” Hall offers. “He’s someone that I’d hope to pattern myself after, at least in terms of his level of bravery. He’s someone I’ve always admired and if I get to accomplish a tenth of what he has, I’d be proud.”

Bravery aside, Hall respects Penn’s singular skillset, and looks forward to testing it against his own.

“There is no one like B.J. Penn,” Hall assesses. “There are people who fit into different archetypes, and then there people who are the archetype. You ask what his skillset is and his skillset is ‘B.J. Penn.’ I feel that I’m that type of fighter as well in that my skills and approach are unique.”

Hall speaks with a matter-of-fact humility that also conveys confidence. His assessment doesn’t need embellishment.

As much as he admires Penn and as great of a challenge as he views the former champion, Ryan Hall is eager to face “The Prodigy” anywhere the fight may go. Offering no specific outcome prediction, Hall’s enthusiasm for the scrap still speaks volumes.

“All I can say is that I look forward to fighting in any and every phase with B.J. Penn,” he ends. “Knowing full well how dangerous he is in every area.”

About the author:
Elias Cepeda is a host of Sports Illustrated's Extra Rounds Podcast, a staff writer at FloCombat, and has a regular column for The UG Blog.

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