The Kids are Alright

Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - The smiles were a mile wide, and for good reason. Not only were debuting welterweights Tom Egan and John Hathaway the rare preliminary bout brought in to sit on the dais and meet the media at the UFC 93 press conference at the O2 Dublin, but the two youngsters were amongst their MMA heroes, guys like Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, and Mark Coleman.
By Thomas Gerbasi

DUBLIN, January 15 – The smiles were a mile wide, and for good reason. Not only were debuting welterweights Tom Egan and John Hathaway the rare preliminary bout brought in to sit on the dais and meet the media at the UFC 93 press conference at the O2 Dublin, but the two youngsters were amongst their MMA heroes, guys like Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin, and Mark Coleman.

That’s pretty heady stuff.

“I grew up watching these guys,” said the 21-year old Hathaway. “I watched Dan (Henderson) win his (PRIDE) titles.”

“It’s amazing,” echoed Dublin's Egan, who at 20 is currently the youngest fighter in the UFC. “Just to be sitting here with some of my favorite fighters, the guys I’ve watched all my life, and to be here looking out at all you guys with the cameras in my face, it’s definitely how I pictured it and how I wanted it to be. I want to be part of this organization and have a lot of success. It’s my first time here, and to fight a fellow newcomer and be amongst these guys, it’s unbelievable and really a dream come true.”

And watching the young unbeatens (Egan 4-0, Hathaway 10-0) handle themselves like old pros in their first UFC press conference, you had to wonder what was going through the minds of the 44-year old Coleman and 38-year old Henderson. Both came to the sport with extensive wrestling backgrounds and began fairly late for anyone kicking off a professional sports career, Coleman at 31 and Henderson at 26. Back in those early days of mixed martial arts, that was the norm – a fighter spends much of his life learning a particular discipline, comes to MMA, and then adds other dimensions to his game as he moves along. A fighter coming to the UFC at 20, like Vitor Belfort did in 1997, was a shocking exception, not the rule. Nowadays, fighters are starting younger, getting better younger, and learning the entire MMA game at once.

“The sport’s obviously evolved, and we’re gonna keep seeing younger and younger fighters getting better at a younger age and more well rounded,” said Henderson, who takes on Rich Franklin in the UFC 93 main event at the O2 on Saturday. “Mark and I came from a wrestling background, we wrestled most of our lives, and you can’t really get that experience in wrestling in just fighting a few years in MMA. But they’re getting overall MMA training, and you’re gonna see a lot of younger guys coming up. I’m a little bit jealous of that fact I guess, but the money keeps getting better and I’m getting a little bit older, so hopefully I can take on those big paydays.”

Coleman, who returns to competition after a two-year layoff to face Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a highly-anticipated rematch, agrees with Henderson, and it’s something he always felt was going to happen in the sport.

“I guess it makes me feel old (laughs), but I think it’s great (seeing these young fighters coming into the UFC),” said ‘The Hammer’. “The beginning days were unique, and the evolution has been humbling. (But) I felt it would be like that from the beginning, it was just gonna take some time. Just to see all these top fighters hiring individual coaches and seeing some of my old wrestling friends being hired as full-time coaches for these fighters is unique and unbelievable because we were low on the totem pole – no respect, no money, no nothing. And now, I think it’s getting the respect it deserves, and you’re not gonna see any of these older guys fighting soon. This sport’s come so far that it’s gonna be a young man’s game soon, but I think there’s still time for guys like me and Dan now.”

Thankfully, there’s room for everyone – from the prospects to the legends.

NO BACKING DOWN – Usually the bold statements associated with pre-fight hype die down once you hit fight week. Everyone’s talked out and they just want to fight. But welterweights Marcus Davis and Chris Lytle aren’t backing down from their insistence that their bout on Saturday won’t just be Fight of The Night, but one for the ages.

“This is one that I’ve kinda had my eye on for a while because the kind of fights I’ve really been interested in doing are the standup wars – those are what kinda makes me excited right now, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to do it with than Marcus,” said Lytle. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to show you guys a fight that not only will you be talking about at the end of the night, but that hopefully you’ll be talking about at the end of the year.”

“This is the kinda fight I would want to have here in Ireland,” added Davis. “If I could choose an opponent, it would have been Chris. I think we’re gonna bring the best out of each other, and I don’t want this to be the fight people talk about at the water cooler the next day; I want this to be the fight that when I’m 50 and people see me, that’s the fight that they’re gonna talk about. I want it to live up to its expectations so much that ten years from now, 15 years from now, this is the fight that everybody talks about, the gauge where people say ‘I hope this fight is as good as Davis vs Lytle.’”

Them’s fightin’ words – in a good way.

HERE COMES THE HAMMER – Speaking of fightin’ words, Coleman had plenty of his own for Rua, whom he beat in a PRIDE fight in 2006 after the Brazilian dislocated his elbow while bracing himself after a takedown. Rua, who is returning to the Octagon for the first time since September 2006 after being sidelined by two knee surgeries, was respectful of the UFC Hall of Famer in his press conference comments.

Coleman wasn’t having it.

“It’s been a long time waiting for this rematch with Shogun,” he said. “I hear a lot of stories about (the first fight being) lucky, a fluke. I don’t believe that’s the case. I’ve been called two-faced, I’ve been called a lot of things. Now he says he respects me, I don’t know which one it is. I heard if he gets the opportunity, he wants to snap my leg. Well, if you get that opportunity, Shogun, go ahead and snap it. I’m not gonna say you were lucky – I’m gonna say ‘nice job.’ I personally just want to turn this into a war for the fans; they deserve to see a good fight.”

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