Ryan Hall hasn't stepped into The Octagon® in over two years, but it's not for lack of trying.
The 33-year old featherweight last fought on December 3, 2016, defeating Gray Maynard at The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions Finale event — but then he seemingly vanished from the public eye.
His hiatus wasn't from injury, though, or any traumatic event. In fact, Hall has been ready to return to the UFC® several times over the past two years, but it hasn't worked out.
He told the UFC VIP Experience that he's accepted a couple of fights during the layoff, but the opponent didn't want to fight him. That's been a pattern for Hall throughout his career. Whether it's been in the regional scene or the UFC, he's found few fighters willing to step into the cage with him. An elite grappler with an unorthodox striking style, Hall presents a difficult, yet intriguing, match up for whoever he is pitted against.
But the right call came a couple of months ago, as Hall finally got a match up for UFC 232. His opponent? UFC Hall of Famer and former two-division world champion B.J. Penn.
Hall talked to the UFC VIP Experience about the intriguing match up with a returning Penn, his long layoff, his experience on The Ultimate Fighter and more.
What have the last two years looked like for you?
“I’m always training and working to improve. I’ve been working with one of my friends and coaches, Thanh Le, everyday for the past year and a half, which has been a phenomenal experience. He’s been winning fights and I’ve been doing my best to help out and also been learning on my own. I don’t really do anything other than martial arts so, even though I’ve been away from the ring, I’ve been spending my time to improve as much as I can as a martial artist. It’s about improvement and is about the task—competition is always a welcome test, but not the only thing that I get up in the morning for. I’m very grateful that a fight came along, though, and that I’m able to take it on because there’s never been a pause in training.”
How has your fight camp been?
“I feel fantastic and feel fortunate to have the people around me that I do. This is the best fight camp that I’ve ever had. It’s been longer than usual because I’ve had a longer layoff, so it’s been nice to get the equivalent of a bunch of practice fights in. I’ve never felt better and I look forward to having the weapons and being able to do the things I wasn’t able to do two years ago.”
How many fights have you been approached about since you fought Gray Maynard over two years ago?
“Maybe three. Three or four.”
What was enticing about the B.J. Penn fight?
“For the record, I did accept a couple of other fights, but the other guys unfortunately weren’t game for it. What was enticing about the B.J. fight is that he’s a legend in the sport and one of the greatest fighters to ever step into the ring. I think that he’s not given his due sometimes. If you look at the Randy Couture situation with how the records look… guys like B.J. Penn fought anyone and everyone at different weights. That comes with ups and downs, but it demonstrated unbelievable skill and interest in testing yourself as a competitor. The opportunity to get in there with somebody like that is something I was ready to jump at.”
How dangerous can it be to buy into hype or what the outside is saying about an opponent?
“I believe that it can be very detrimental. It’s an interesting thing that can go in all sorts of directions. On the one hand, B.J Penn doesn’t get to bring his resume into the ring with him. He comes into the fight with the skills that he has. That does cut in both directions, though. If you take a couple of losses, the media or the internet starts to act as if this person is not as dangerous as he is. The reality is that people are not their record, nor are they their reputation. They are the skills that they bring into the ring and skills are something that B.J Penn has quite a bit of. He has an unbelievably high degree of ability in multiple areas—definitely higher than most athletes in mixed martial arts—and I believe that buying into some story or romantic idea of being a character in a narrative and something having to happen… this guy being a stepping stone to X, Y, Z…it’s false and I’ve seen that go very, very wrong. The better fighter doesn’t always win. Ultimately, whether I’m better than B.J. or B.J. is better than me is irrelevant. This and every other contest will come down to who fights better on the night.”
How far back can you look at B.J. Penn’s tape when preparing for him?
“I think it’s interesting. When someone has a great deal of tape on them, there are certain things that change, but there also are several things that stay the same. I think almost every great athlete finds him or herself as a performer and technician, and there are always twists and turns to stay at the top, but there is a core of who and what this person is a technician and tactician. I think you can actually look quite a way back to see things that get polished. When he got into mixed martial arts he was already an elite level jui jitsu player from that era. Those skills have carried through in every bout that I’ve seen him in, so I think there’s a great deal that can be learned from tape.”
Is ring rust a thing you worry about after a long layoff?
“Not really. I’ve competed a lot in my life and I know what that feels like. I think that what a lot of people are referring to as ring rust is the idea of forgetting what the experience of performance, of competing, feels like and that creating discomfort. Being away can make it seem alien, I guess, but speaking personally, I don’t really feel that is a factor. If anything I’m just looking forward to stress testing all the new things that I’ve been up to because there’s quite a few. The big thing is focusing on what you control and things that are real. It’s like the matrix – your mind can make it real or fake. I don’t think it’s real.”
What was your experience on The Ultimate Fighter like as a whole?
“It was different. It was what I perceive Belgian prison to be like – it’s a very nice place, but you’re not allowed to leave. It was definitely a unique thing. I got to be around some excellent mixed martial arts fighters in Conor McGregor and Urijah Faber and their teams. I got to fight consistently, four times in five months, which was awesome. That was definitely an experience that I’m thankful for. It helped in a large part to take up some of the slack competitive experience-wise that I’ve had in mixed martial arts because I’ve had the same problem in the regional circuit of people not wanting to fight me. I would say that ring rust isn’t a thing, but experience is a thing. More fights under your belt helps, and that’s something that The Ultimate Fighter did for me.”
When you’re on a show like that, how do you separate a TV production from the reality of a combat sport?
“Just like anything else, you can get caught up in the extra stuff or you can choose not to. I’ve never headlined a pay-per-view, but at the same time I would say that I know exactly what it’s like – it’s exactly the same as stepping into the cage with just some extra stuff added to it. The only thing you can control is yourself and your focus and your calm… Just focus on what you can control and the chips will fall where they will.”
What were your thoughts on UFC 231?
“Oh man, a heck of an event. It was nice seeing Gunnar Nelson, a friend of mine, back in action and fighting through adversity. He came out with a good win against a tough guy in Cowboy Oliveira. Valentina Shevchenko looked phenomenal. I thought she demonstrated some of the best striking that I’ve seen in the UFC as a whole no matter what division. The Holloway/Ortega fight was fantastic as well. Both of those guys are incredibly tough. Brian Ortega displayed an unbelievable amount of toughness and durability and will to fight. It was great to see Holloway back, too, because the big question was going to be how he was going to be physically.”
Win, loss or draw, what’s on deck for you in 2019?
“I would love to move forward in a positive direction, and I know that this fight and other fights like it will make me better at martial arts and will help me learn to be the best I can be as I continue to face top competition. That was the experience I had in jiu-jitsu, but now it’s not just about losing, you can potentially get kicked in upside the head. I absolutely look forward to competing more frequently and I hope that is a reality. But I will control what I can control. I will continue to develop so that when fights like this come along I am up to the task.”
Are you hoping to stay at lightweight?
“I’m definitely a featherweight. I’m 158 pounds walking around. Half of the bantamweight division weighs more than I do, so I will definitely be going back down to featherweight.”
SEE Ryan Hall AT UFC 232
The UFC saved one of its most stacked cards for the end of the year. Be at UFC 232 in Las Vegas with an Official Ticket Package from the UFC VIP Experience. Get tickets to the event and weigh-ins, while also enjoying VIP access, fighter meet and greets and much more!