The trip from Denair to Las Vegas isn’t an arduous one, for most. It’s just eight hours of leisurely, albeit monotonous, highway driving.
But for Denair native Jeff “Hellbound” Hougland, the trip to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand – and the bantamweight mixed martial arts prospect’s first Ultimate Fighting Championship bout – took 12 long years, with stops in Porterville and Enumclaw, Wash. dotting the map.
It’s there, in Enumclaw, where Hougland (10-4, 1-0 UFC) now resides. He’s founded his own mixed martial arts school, Combat Sport and Fitness, something a teenager in Denair perhaps dreamed of, but never thought possible.
“I started out probably like everybody else,” Hougland said. “I saw the old fights on pay-per-view, I thought it looked cool, but I didn't really see myself doing that.
“I didn't want to get stomped in the head by a big guy.”
The issue was simply one of size. The UFC, notorious in its early days as a loosely-regulated no-holds barred cage match, featured no weight classes.
The bigger guy, most often, won. At 135 pounds, Hougland was no big guy.
But, over time, the siren song of MMA was too much for the self-described “bad kid” to resist – a time his “Hellbound” nickname harkens back to. He started training in kickboxing at Modesto’s Dynamic Martial Arts and Fitness, and competed in a few matches to sate his appetite.
It was around then, back when MMA weight classes were a new concept, that Hougland received an offer to fight in mixed martial arts against someone his own size – at least roughly. That first fight came on July 12, 2002, in a Porterville Indian casino against much stronger fellow first-timer Rusty Simpson.
“I was scared,” Hougland admits. “It was a scary situation.”
At first, things didn’t look great for Hougland. He “got beat up pretty good,” with Simpson raining down blows from on top. But then, as quick as it started, Hougland swept his opponent and sunk in a rear-naked choke, securing a victory by tapout at 4:11 of the opening round.
“I never looked back after that,” Hougland said.
Hougland turned pro, then immediately faced four straight losses. One of those losses came to current Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Gilbert Melendez, ranked among the top two 155-pounders in the world.
But since a July 19, 2003 loss, Hougland has been perfect, racking up a nine-fight win streak. The streak has seen Hellbound win a Washington State 145-pound belt, then a 135-pound belt, then defend the 135-pound belt against a top, out-of-state prospect with a one-minute, six second victory by guillotine choke.
That finally earned the attention of the MMA big leagues – the UFC.
“I've been waiting for that call, I've been wanting that call and I worked hard to get there,” Hougland said.
On just over a week’s notice, Hougland was asked to fight fellow UFC newcomer Donny Walker (15-7, 0-1 UFC) at UFC 132 on July 2.
Hougland didn’t know what to expect. He hadn’t been training much. He wasn’t in his best shape, recovering from a mild back injury.
So he said yes to the fight.
“When an opportunity comes, you just go,” Hougland said. “I do what I have to do.”
The three-round bout was fought at a blistering pace, each fighter chaining together submission attempts and power punches like a fight in fast-forward. But Hougland’s superior Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – a black belt, under James Foster – and strong kickboxing base reigned supreme, sealing the fight with a unanimous decision victory (29-28, 29-28, 30-27).
The fight, relegated to the undercard, was exciting enough for the UFC brass to show on the pay-per-view, after another fight ended early. But it wasn’t enough for Hougland.
“I think I can finish that guy,” Hougland said. “I should have finished that guy.”
Hougland had his chances. Tight guillotine chokes in the first and second rounds, a triangle choke in the first, a brutal counter left hook in the second, and a solid armbar in the third all seemed close to ending Walker’s day.
The next challenge for Hougland comes Oct. 1, when he faces top Bantamweight prospect Mike Easton (10-1) on the UFC Live: Cruz vs. Johnson card. The event – due to be broadcast live on the Versus network – marks the first UFC event ever held in Washington D.C.
“When they're bringing these guys in, they're all good,” Hougland said. “All these guys are alpha males. They're the top of the weight class.”
While Easton will make his UFC debut that day, he’ll have the home-cage advantage, hailing from nearby Temple Hills, Maryland. And he has the pedigree too, with a training camp featuring current UFC bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz and a win over former World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champ Chase Beebe.
“I don't pick who I fight,” Hougland said. “If they want to see me fight [Current UFC 205-pound Light Heavyweight Champion] Jon Jones, I'd do it.”
But a closer look at Easton’s big-name victory shows some potential weakness. Beebe outwrestled Easton for the majority of the fight, leaving the crowd – and much of the MMA media – shocked when judges awarded Easton the split-decision victory. And a broken elbow sustained in that fight has kept Easton sidelined for nearly two years, his last fight coming against Beebe on Oct. 3, 2009.
Hougland expects his bout with Easton to remain on the undercard of the fight, usually televised only online. But, given the duo’s reputation for fast-paced excitement, Hougland’s fight could yet be tapped to appear on Versus nationwide.
“I’ve got a good feeling that me and this guy will make TV,” Hougland said. “I’ve never had any boring fights, and I don’t think Mike Easton has either.”
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail email@example.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.