Jamahal Hill anxious to take Paul Craig to school at UFC 263

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Summer school is in session at Touch Em Up University, and Jamahal Hill is its damage-dealing dean.

The U, as Hill calls it, is more to the up-and-coming UFC light heavyweight than a slogan. It’s his fighting philosophy. He draws a comparison to Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving crossing up hapless defenders who can’t keep up with his handles and plethora of ankle-breaking moves.

“It overwhelms you and breaks you down,” the volume-striking Hill told The Post earlier this year. “That’s basically what Touch Em Up University is. I keep touching you. I overwhelm you. I don’t have to take your head completely off. I know if I touch you up enough, you’re gonna wear down, and you will break.”

Through three UFC bouts, all comers have failed Hill’s class. He’s 8-0 overall with a no contest (a victory in the octagon last May overturned by a positive test for marijuana) and five finishes, with the next man to enroll at The U being Paul Craig. The two men are slated to square off during the pay-per-view portion of Saturday’s UFC 263 from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz. 

So, what’s class like at Touch Em Up University? It’s nonstop, cramming a whole lot of knowledge into every minute of mixed martial arts action — knowledge being a euphemism for strikes landed. In about 35 minutes of octagon time between his three UFC bouts plus the Dana White Contender Series win that earned him his first UFC contract, he’s landed 274 significant strikes, per UFC Stats. After Saturday’s bout, he would qualify for the all-time list of fighters with the highest strikes landed per minute rate, with his current 7.9 average lower only than current welterweight Daniel Rodriguez.

UFC 263 Jamahal Hill
Jamahal Hill (l.) punches Ovince Saint Preux at UFC Fight Night on Dec. 5, 2020.
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Volume striking such as Hill’s is more common at the lighter weight classes, with former 145-pound champion Max Holloway and elite 135er Cory Sandhagen populating the top 10 of strikes landed per minute. Hill dwarfs those men at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds on weigh-in day — he says he can get up to 240 pounds between fights. But he agrees that both men are appropriate comparisons for how he fights.

“That’s why I like Max,” Hill said. “… I said that a long time ago. I was like, ‘Oh, he fights kind of similar to how I do.’ Only thing is, I’m a little more heavy-handed. I know I’m heavy-handed. If I actually wanted to just cock [back] and knock somebody out cold, I could.”

Indeed, the Grand Rapids, Mich., native Hill has no clean KOs on his MMA résumé, but he does have four official victories by TKO. He also dropped Klidson Abreu, whom he also defeated by TKO before it was overturned, twice in under two minutes. On the first knockdown, less than 20 seconds in, Hill was moving backward as he clipped the Brazilian with a straight left followed by a check hook. The end came thanks largely to a brutal knee to the body from the Thai clinch, with follow-up shots on the ground before the referee intervened.

After serving his suspension, Hill returned to action on Dec. 5 with the most high-profile victory of his career when he stopped former interim UFC light heavyweight title challenger Ovince Saint Preux with strikes in the second round. The victory vaulted him both into the UFC’s promotional rankings and the top 20 of the data-based worldwide MMA rankings at Fight Matrix, just 11 months after making his UFC debut.

The win over Saint Preux marked Hill’s first on a new, more favorable four-fight UFC contract, which replaced his previous four-fight deal earned from going the Contender Series route despite completing only two bouts.

“It’s a much better improvement,” Hill said with a laugh of his new contract. “It’s more than double what my last contract was.”

With more money comes a more comfortable situation for the 30-year-old Hill’s family. A proud father who said he was forced to “grow up immediately” after having his first child at 15, he’s driven to “leave a foundation” for his kids after seeing his mother struggle to pay the bills as he was growing up. Success in the octagon means he doesn’t have to struggle financially, he says.

“I don’t have to worry about my bills,” Hill said. “If my kids want something, they can get it. They can have it. If I need something, I can take care of it.”

UFC 263 Jamahal Hill
Jamahal Hill (r.) punches Kildson Abreu (l.) at UFC Fight Night on May 30, 2020.
Zuffa LLC

With increased status in his weight class comes a decreased likelihood Hill will be booked to face any fighters without a ranking next to their name, as long as he keeps winning. Case in point: Saturday’s opponent Craig, a 33-year-old from Scotland, is of similar status in the 205-pound division after forcing former UFC champion and Pride Grand Prix winner Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to tap out to strikes in November. Hill and Craig were originally scheduled to meet on March 20, but the bout was postponed after Hill tested positive for COVID-19.

Although Craig (14-1-1, 14 finishes) finished the legendary Shogun with strikes his last time out, opponents typically tap out to his submission holds rather than his fists. Before the finish of Rua — tapping out to strikes is now considered a TKO rather than a submission — all five of his previous UFC victories came via sub, and each earned him a Performance of the Night. Three of those were stopped via triangle choke, the same hold that earned him six of his 12 submission victories overall.

None of this remotely intimidates Hill, who oozes confidence and points to his 11 years of jiu-jitsu training as reason to feel comfortable if Craig can get the fight to the floor. He coolly notes that he knows his escapes, frames and positions and can get back to his feet as needed. He just doesn’t see the upside of fighting off its back in most situations and looks down on those who are content to strike from the bottom.

UFC 263 Paul Craig
Paul Craig (l.) and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (r.) exchange punches at UFC 255 on Nov. 21, 2020.
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“To me, it speaks of a low IQ of fighters who are on their back and you’re just sitting there, tap, tap, you’re throwing little pop shots,” Hill says with disdain. “That’s the dumbest s–t ever. For me, it’s about position, changing that position, and getting up. Improving my position.”

Hill considers himself a well-rounded fighter. This may be true of the noted volume striker, but that claim has yet to be tested thoroughly in the UFC. But he’s unconcerned as class at Touch Em Up University readies for the next session. And he’s out to turn heads for a pay-per-view audience.

“They should be terrified, bro,” Hill says of his light heavyweight peers. “They’re not smart enough to be worried. None of these dudes are smart enough to be worried. I understand the confidence, but a whole other animal just walked through the f–king door.”

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