Uriah Hall has never been particularly keen on doing interviews, wary of things he says being taken out of context or having his honesty interpreted as anger, shade, or something else that it is not.
For a long time, the 36-year-old struggled to find his place in the MMA ecosystem; an introspective and emotional soul thrust into the spotlight in a sport and community that is drawn to extroverted personalities like they have their own magnetic force. His explosive performance on Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter sent him into the UFC shouldering a mountain of expectations and under intense scrutiny, and for a number of years, Hall battled himself trying to be something and someone that he is not.
“I know a lot of fighters that say, ‘This whole me being real thing isn’t working out, so let me try to create this persona, but still be me behind closed doors,” began the Fortis MMA representative, who faces former middleweight champion Chris Weidman in the final non-title fight on the main card of Saturday’s UFC 261 pay-per-view event in Jacksonville, Florida. “I struggled with that for a while because I was like, ‘Maybe I need to do that’ and it was hard because I felt like I was robbing myself if I did that.
“At the end of the day, I want to do what I have to do in order to become who I need to become and then leave when I need to leave; I don’t want to have to lie about it. It’s a struggle and what I’ve learned, especially after being at Fortis, is to own who I am.”
Hall showed how much more comfortable he is being authentically himself when he faced Anderson Silva last year on Halloween.
Compared to the middleweight icon during his electric run to the finals on The Ultimate Fighter, the Brazilian legend remains one of Hall’s biggest heroes — someone he’s looked up to and emulated — and the prospects of sharing the Octagon from him, with Silva standing in the way of taking another step forward in the division, was a lot for Hall to process.
“Leading up to it, it was one of those (situations where I was thinking to myself), ‘How do I manage this? How do I not let this emotion just take over and take me out of my element?’” admitted Hall, who earned a fourth-round stoppage win over “The Spider” to extend his winning streak to three. “I knew that I looked up to him so much, I knew that I admired him, and I just wanted to separate those emotions.
“I failed so bad in the first couple of rounds because I remember the first round being ‘Oh my God — I’m actually fighting Anderson ****ing Silva!’ and I remember in the second going, ‘****! He’s Anderson Silva — what is he going to do to me?’ The third round was, ‘You’ve got to get out of this mentality.’”
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He lets out a booming laugh as we joke about having an actual job to do rather than just fanning out about the person you’re interacting with, be it in combat or on a call.
“I knew his style so well that I kind of shut his style down,” he continued. “He didn’t do as much, I didn’t do as much because I’ve learned so much from him that everything that he was doing, I was prepared for it, and he knew it, so it shut his style down. It made me wait to set up that counter and the same way he finished Forrest (Griffin) was the way I finished him; I know that and I’ve done that step-back right hand so much.”
As soon as the bout was halted, tears welled up in Hall’s eyes and he turned to walk back to his corner, allowing the medical personnel to attend to Silva, who was down on the canvas. When the icon rose to his knees, Hall went to him, kneeled before him, and the two shared a powerful moment — the soft-spoken Brazilian gracious and complimentary as always, the victorious Jamaican-American caught up in the moment, overcome with complex emotions and joyously oblivious to what anyone else thought about the tears streaming down his face.
“There were so many emotions going in and I’m happy with the victory, but it was bittersweet.”
Who Uriah Hall is today is a very different person than who he was even a couple of years ago, and a lot of that comes down to two men: Clayton Hires and Sayif Saud.
Hires coached Hall as a member of Team Sonnen on The Ultimate Fighter and has remained a prominent figure in his life ever since. Today, calling him a coach overlooks the myriad other roles the ever-positive Las Vegas resident plays in Hall’s life.
“Clayton Hires is like medicine, and I’m sick; that’s the best analogy I can use,” said Hall, who still brings Hires out in the final few weeks before a fight in order to tighten up his fundamentals and help him get dialed in mentally. “For me, what that means is he is exactly what I need to make me become a better version of myself.
“I’ve been with him since The Ultimate Fighter — he’s like a father to me — and at some point, I outgrew him as a student. That’s going to happen sometimes — I feel like I outgrew certain gyms and that’s why I left, and there are certain coaches that are not going to agree with it or be happy with it because they see it as an insult, but I remember Clayton saying to me, ‘If you can find someone that can do the job better than me, I’m all about it, because at the end of the day, it’s all about you getting better.’
“He’s the only one that has said that to me, and that tells me that he really cares; that really shows that it’s more about me.”
Receiving that blessing and the constant positive, supportive presence of Hires in his life contributed to Hall connecting with Saud, the head coach at Fortis MMA in Dallas, Texas.
Early in his UFC career, the emerging middleweight contender was nomadic, venturing from one gym to another, logging training sessions and camps with various coaches and fighters, never really settling down in any one place for too long.
At one point, he touched down in Orange County, connecting with his Ultimate Fighter housemate, finale opponent, and, to this day, close friend Kelvin Gastelum, training under Master Rafael Cordeiro at Kings MMA.
Like Hall, Gastelum lived an itinerant existence in the opening stages of his UFC career, bouncing from gym-to-gym before finding a home working with Cordeiro and the team at Kings. Seeing his friend establishing roots made the Jamaican-born, Queens-raised competitor want to find something similar for himself.
He got invited to Dallas, and something clicked.
“Sayif sat me down and said, ‘You come with me, and in a couple years, we’ll be on our way to the title.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, man,’” said Hall, chasing the memory of their conversation with a deep, telling laugh.
An intense, driven leader, Saud has a reputation for believing in his athletes (and people in general) much sooner than they believe in themselves — recognizing the untapped potential inside of them, confident that the work they do together will help them reach their full potential, not only as athletes, but as human beings.
Although Hall wasn’t completely on board with Saud’s forecast for where his career could go if they joined forces, there was still a lot to like about relocating to Dallas.
“It’s just about me stepping out of my comfort zone,” began Hall, reflecting on his decision to make the move. “Every time I’ve taken those big risks, great things have happened.
“When I stepped out of my comfort zone to go to The Ultimate Fighter, great things happened. When I stepped out of my comfort zone to train at this gym, great things are happening, so for me, I have to realize what really works for me.
“Everyone is going to tell you what they think works for you, and not all of it is true,” added the streaking middleweight. “At the end of the day, you have to decide what really works for you, and I know structure works for me.
“If I have structure, I am great.”
Structure is something Fortis MMA has in abundance.
“Nobody is above the system and nobody is above the work,” Saud told me in early 2019 as the gym was starting to take off. “If we treat a guy who walks in for his first fight differently than the guy who is getting ready to fight in the UFC, the whole structure fails because the whole system is one where everybody is the same and everybody puts in the work.
“That’s what I think makes it beautiful.”
A little more than two years later, the Dallas outfit has six UFC fighters stationed inside Top 15 in their respective weight classes, including Hall, who sits at No. 9 in the middleweight division and has never looked better.
While there have been flashes of brilliance in the past, they were often followed by disappointing outings; moments that felt like the start of something special being turned into lamentations about “what could have been” after another inconsistent showing.
“It’s a mind game, and if I can really, really be honest about this: fighting is 90 percent mental and I’m going to admit it — I’ve doubted myself so many times, in so many fights,” Hall said, his voice carrying flecks of excitement the way his beard now carries hints of grey. “When I lost to Chris Weidman, I didn’t lose to Chris Weidman because I dropped my hands — I lost to Chris Weidman because I defeated myself before that fight.”
Hall and Weidman first crossed paths in the fall of 2010, when both were emerging talents on the treacherous East Coast regional scene. He was 4-0 at the time, with four finishes, and the reigning, defending Ring of Combat middleweight champion, while Weidman was a former collegiate wrestler training with the Serra-Longo Fight Team that had earned first-round finishes in each of his first two fights.
Heading into the fight, all Hall heard about was Weidman’s wrestling — that he was going to take him down, that he was going to look to grind him out, that he didn’t want any part of engaging on the feet — and it got into his head.
“Prior to that I was knocking everybody out,” said Hall, who went 10-0 as a kickboxer in addition to his early MMA exploits. “I did not give a **** — that was my mentality. I was fighting dudes that were so good and I was beating their *** because I didn’t care, and I got away from that mentality because I allowed fear to get in my head.”
Weidman won the first by technical knockout just over three minutes into the first round.
“Fear is like this little drop of poison that if you put it in a bucket of water — it contaminates the whole thing, and that’s what happened to me for most of my life.
“I allowed fear to grip me. I allowed fear to hold me back. I allowed fear to say, ‘Yeah Uriah, maybe you’re not that good. Yeah Uriah, maybe you could never be a champ. Yeah Uriah, maybe this is not for you. Yeah Uriah, you actually suck.’
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“These were people in my ears. These were people in my DMs, people on social media that I’ve allowed to taint my life, and I had to learn that someone’s opinion of you should never become your reality.
“People’s opinion of me became my reality. I started to believe it. I started to believe I’m not good.”
Fear no longer has a tight grip on the middleweight contender, and the excitement that became resonant in his voice as he recounted his mental battles is there because he no longer has any doubts about his talents.
It took him some time, but now Hall feels the same way Saud did at the outset of their partnership — like he’s the best fighter in the 185-pound weight class and that it’s only a matter of time before he reaches the top of the heap.
First though, he needs to square things away with Weidman.
“I think it’s perfect for him because he had more time to train because he knew I was going to beat his ***,” he said of the fight being pushed back from its original mid-February placement at UFC 258 to this weekend’s event. “I hear on social media that he’s talking all this stuff, and I’ve never said anything bad about him, but I hear him talking and I think he’s scared.
“He knows I’m going to beat his ***; you can quote me on it,” Hall continued. “He sees how dangerous I’ve become, he sees my mental game is better, and he’s trying to use this psychological warfare to pump himself up.
“And he better pump himself up because he knows I’m coming after him. He’s in my way. He had the title. He had his run. He had his share. He’s trying to make this comeback, but deep down, he knows that I’m going to ****ing beat him — he knows it — and he’s scared.”
No part of his exposition was forced, nor did any of it feel rehearsed or scripted; it was simply the thoughts of a man who is finally comfortable in his own skin, confident in abilities and willing to put himself out there, regardless of how it’s going to be received.
“I’m a dangerous m*****f***** because I realize what the **** I’m fighting for,” he added, now fired all the way up. “He’s fighting for his family, but he knows he’s on his way out. He’s ****ing old, he’s slow, and he knows I’m in my prime.
“I’m ****ing Prime Time. It’s prime-m*****f***ing-time.”
And while some fighters refuse to speak about things beyond the here and now, Hall has no qualms about letting everyone know where all of this is leading.
“Israel Adesanya is my goal,” he said, putting the middleweight champion on notice. “Everyone is out here saying, ‘He’s this and he’s that,’ but I’ve been fighting that style my whole ****ing life. He’s long and lanky, he does some weird ****, but I’m the m*****f***** to beat that dude.
“Everyone has their kryptonite. I’m his kryptonite and he knows it, but he ain’t going to say ****. Why, because I’m ranked No. 9? He knows it, and it’s just a matter of time.”