In 2004, a young judo player named Karo Parisyan had the opportunity to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Instead, he chose to pursue mixed martial arts and the opportunity to compete in the UFC. Karo said in an interview recently that he had been asked the same question about “35,000 times” about whether he ever wished he had chosen differently. He said that he never regretted it once. Judo did not pay his bills. It cost him money. He took his judo skills to the UFC instead of the Olympic trials, a move which he believes was best for both him and the sport of judo.
Did you ever wonder who did win the Olympic Trials in the 81 kg division in which Karo was ranked number three at the time? It turns out, it was Bellator fighter Rick Hawn. After placing ninth in Athens, Rick began his career in mixed martial arts. His next fight will be in the Bellator season six lightweight tournament.
Given that most of Hawn’s wins have come from striking, it is not too surprising that, when asked exactly how Olympic judo helps him in MMA today, Hawn emphasized the training and Olympic experience far more than judo throws or submission techniques.
“When I compare myself to many of the guys I fight, they are coming in off the street and what they have done to develop mental toughness is not really comparable to what I have done. A lot of them are not super athletic. If they get someone who is a top-level athlete, like Ronda Rousey or myself, who has been an athlete their whole life, the regular joe in MMA is not going to be able to reach that level.”
Earlier in the week, I spoke with another member of the 2004 Olympic judo team and mixed martial artist, Dr. Rhadi Ferguson. He believed that a major benefit of Olympic competition was having competed on the largest stage in the world, having dealt with the pressure of representing the United States of America, which is much greater than the pressure of competition in mixed martial arts.
On that score, Rick disagreed with his Olympic teammate,
Because I am older, there is more pressure involved. Because this is my full-time job, if I get injured, I don’t make any money. Also, I may not be representing my country but I am representing my team, the people who helped me, people I care about and I don’t want to let them done.
Ironically, Rick cited Karo “The Heat” Parisyan as one of his inspirations for entering mixed martial arts. After the Olympics, having built up both world-class fitness and a strong competitive drive, Hawn was looking for a new challenge and was in the ideal situation to change from the tatami to the cage.
“MMA was a pretty easy sport to cross over. Why train for an opportunity all of those years to make the Olympic team and let it go to waste.? For me, I like competing. I miss that level of competition. There are not a lot of people who do judo who make the move so that gives the judo players an advantage. There are not a lot of really tough people in judo. They might be good at judo but there is a difference between that and getting punched in the face. There is a different level of toughness. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of the people from the Olympic team you hear talked about in MMA – me, Rhadi and Ronda – all trained at the same school, with the Pedros. If you can survive training at the Pedros, you can survive MMA. It’s not the typical judo school.”
That is one point on which Rick and Rhadi were in agreement. Compared to training for the Olympics, “MMA is easy”.
In closing, I asked the flip side of the question put to Karo, whether Rick had ever regretted choosing the Olympics over a possible shot at the UFC and maybe a total more lucrative paycheck at the end. Although he took the exact opposite path as Parisyan, Hawn says he, too, has no regrets.
“I grew up wanting to go to the Olympics and that was my dream, ever since I was a little kid. I was 28 years old when I went to the Olympics. I could have quit judo in my mid-twenties if I was going to give up. The experiences you have, training around the world, competing for your country, those are worth more than money. You just can’t buy that. Besides, who is to say that I would have had a shot at the career I have now without having gone to the Olympics? Without that experience of my judo Olympic pursuit, having met Jimmy Pedro, moved to Boston, had the training, coaching, teammates, without all of that my MMA career could have been very different and maybe I would have not had the success I’ve had to date. You never know.”
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