Jim Hettes could have been one of the first featherweights to ever compete inside the Octagon. UFC fans could have already heard Bruce Buffer utter his name.
That’s because Hettes could have made his first impression on the big stage Dec. 4 at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, save for the tactics of Northeast MMA Cage Fight and its promoter, Maury Nehme.
Rather than supporting Hettes on his quest to reach MMA’s version of the big leagues, Nehme decided to look out only for his own best interests by refusing to allow the young fighter out of his contract.
“I wasn’t too happy,” Hettes told MMA DieHards. “I’m free of that contract now and I don’t ever plan on going back to that organization either.”
Long before he was ever concerned about contracts, the Pennsylvania native was just a kid with a love of the martial arts. He started training in Brazilian jiu-jistu at the age of 16 and it would be jiu-jitsu that would lead Hettes to MMA.
“There weren’t any jiu-jitsu tournaments for a while, so a buddy of mine said I should try MMA,” said Hettes. “So, almost on a whim, we went to New Jersey. I was the first person in my gym to ever do MMA. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did a few MMA fights just because there were no jiu-jitsu tournaments in the area. They all turned out well, so I just kept doing it.”
After going 4-1 as an amateur, Hettes started his professional mixed martial arts career in June 2009 at Northeast MMA’s Cage Fight 1 show. He submitted his opponent in less than two minutes and hasn’t looked back since. His next five fights, from August 2009 through August 2010, all ended in submission with the longest bout lasting just over three minutes. The last of those contests netted Hettes the Cage Fight featherweight belt and put him on Joe Silva’s radar, leading to a contract offer from the UFC.
“I had to get the promoter of Cage Fight to release me so I could fight on Dec. 4,” Hettes said. “He wouldn’t release me, so unfortunately the UFC had to go elsewhere to get a fighter.”
The UFC planned to bring Hettes in against WEC and Strikeforce veteran Tyler Toner. Instead, he was forced to fulfill the last fight on his Cage Fight contract. He did so on Nov. 26, stepping into the cage to face George Sheppard in a 152-pound catchweight bout.
“Stylistically, he was a real bad matchup for me, and he was up a weight class,” Hettes pointed out. “It was a blessing because I wanted an opponent to take me out of the first round. I wanted a real good challenging fight and George definitely gave me what I asked for.”
In fact, Sheppard, a former state wrestling champion in high school and a NAIA All-American, turned out to be the biggest challenge yet for Hettes.
“I knew he was a real strong guy,” Hettes explained. “But I didn’t really appreciate it until I got in there and decided to take him down – it was like taking down a pillar. I just knew that I had to keep attacking him with my takedowns and just try to set up my takedowns with strikes more,”
Sheppard even pushed Hettes into new territory, becoming the first opponent to survive beyond the first round against “The Kid.”
“It wasn’t any harder or easier,” Hettes said of fighting in the second round for the first time. “It was more of a different experience for me. I knew I was tired, but me and George had a real good first round – we were both going back and forth – so I knew as tired as I was, that he had to be just as tired if not more.”
Eventually, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt would find a way to submit Sheppard.
“In the second round, after he landed a few good strikes, I went on the offensive,” said Hettes. “(I) hit him with a few strikes myself. I was lucky enough to get him to the ground and from there it was a lot easier.”
“I got past his guard,” continued Hettes. “(I) got to full mount, landed a few strikes and then he gave me his back, so I sunk in the rear-naked choke.”
Seven fights, seven submissions. Obviously, the Gracie NEPA fighter has the grappling game down. He has been working on his wrestling, jiu-jitsu and judo with the camp. In addition to his BJJ purple belt, the 23 year old holds a brown belt in judo.
Now, he’s working with new striking coach Kru Sean Diggs, of World Class Boxing, to improve his striking game.
“My standup is getting better every time,” Hettes said. “I got to use a good amount against George in my last fight. (Diggs) has been working a lot of Muay Thai around my grappling game. Instead of trying to turn me into a pure striker, he’s really helping me revolve my Muay Thai around my ground game, which is helping me tremendously.”
With Hettes continuing to win and develop his skills, another call from the UFC might not be too far away. However, the top promotion isn’t the only big fish with an eye on Hettes. The featherweight prospect is currently in negotiations with Sengoku, though nothing is finalized yet and no opponents have been discussed.
Nehme might have kept Hettes out of the spotlight for one night, but he can’t do it forever. Now, it’s only a matter of time before “The Kid” arrives.