Rick Hawn can't help but smile.
A 14-time vet of the Bellator Fighting Championships, Hawn (19-4, 11 KOs) didn't make his professional mixed martial arts debut until the age of 32, a late start by anyone's standards, but has since turned what was once a hobby into a full-time occupation.
No longer working the cash register at Home Depot trying to juggle real life with MMA, the 38-year-old Dracut, Mass., native is now looking to make one last run to the top of his profession when he stars in the main event of "CES MMA XXVIII" Friday, March 13th, 2015 at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.
"I've accomplished more than I ever expected to," Hawn said, "and more than most people expected me to."
In just six years, Hawn has fought on 14 Bellator shows, earned two title shots and locked horns with elite fighters in his weight class countless times on national television. On March 13th, he returns to the national spotlight as the headliner on AXS TV, debuting with CES MMA, one of the fastest-rising promotions in mixed martial arts, in a three-round lightweight bout against Derek Loffer (9-2, 6 KOs) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"Obviously, it's nice to be on TV, but I don't need it," Hawn said. "I'm in the later stage of my career. Just being able to fight for the top organizations is what I care about, to be able to support myself and not have a full-time job like I used to.
"Whether I get exposure or not is not the main thing. I'm happy to have the opportunity."
Hawn compiled a 10-4 record with Bellator until the promotion released him in November, a remarkable success rate considering the quality of opponents he faced through the years, including longtime Bellator vet Brent Weedman, Ron Keslar and "The Phenom" Douglas Lima of Brazil. His career soared to new heights four and a half years ago when he finally made enough money to support himself through fighting, allowing him to train more frequently.
"When you're working 40 hours a week and you have to train before or after - or both - it catches up to you," Hawn said. "When you're young, it's not a big deal. You hammer through that stuff. When you get older, it's a lot to ask of your mind and body."
The 27-year-old Loffer is also no stranger to the big stage. He fought under Bellator's promotional guidance twice, most recently in March of 2014 when he beat Bobby Reardanz by unanimous decision, and has won four consecutive bouts since losing his Bellator debut in 2013.
Strangely enough, Loffer and Hawn appeared on that same aforementioned Bellator show in 2013, held in Loffer's backyard in Cedar Rapids. Hawn beat Weedman in the main event while Loffer lost to Cliff Wright via armbar submission.
"It's kind of ironic that Rick and I are meeting now outside of Bellator," Loffer said. "I remember watching him that night and thinking, 'I want to fight that guy!' These are the kind of fights I want."
Loffer will finally get his wish March 13th, but not after a long ordeal with Bellator in which he asked the promotion to grant him his release in September to explore other opportunities.
"Since then, a lot of doors have opened," Loffer said. "It's nice to essentially be able to do what you want with your career. That's what ultimately led me to this fight.
"This promotion is solid. Being from Iowa and fighting in Rhode Island, you might not know much about them, but I was surprised when I looked into their background and their history. It was an opportunity I had to jump on. I'm a huge fan of CES MMA in terms of how they communicate and treat fighters.
"There are so many great fighters on this card who are solid. I'll be watching like a fan, too, right before I fight. This is an organization that will only continue to get bigger and better and I'm excited to be a part of that history."
Loffer admits he's "been in talks" with other promotions about what his future holds and most of them agree if he beats Hawn, the sky's the limit. Such pressure would derail most fighters, but Loffer has been down the road before.
With an 89 percent finish rate on his resume (six knockouts and two submissions in his nine professional victories) he's confident he can successfully trade blows with a skilled striker such as Hawn.
"All together, I believe I'm the better striker," Loffer said. "For the most part, he makes a good effort to keep it standing up. I'm just looking at it as another fight. I'm confident. I feel 100 percent ready. I've put in the work, I've got a good game plan. I don't have too many worries."
Neither does Hawn, who hasn't burdened himself with the pressure of trying to impress the right people in order to leapfrog to a bigger stage. He's adopted an "if it happens, it happens" mentality, already satisfied with how far he's made it regardless of the outcome of his fight against Loffer.
"I like to look at everything one fight at a time and not get ahead of myself," Hawn said. "Ultimately, yeah, it'd be great to be picked up by the [Ultimate Fighting Championships], but I'm not a young kid anymore. Maybe that's not a realistic expectation. If I was 20-something, they'd have a bigger on me. I understand where I'm at with my ability, my age.
"This is a very unforgiving sport," he continued. "It's hard to last and be consistent at the top level. It's just part of the process. You have to keep plugging away and try to get better everyday."
The main card of "CES MMA XXVIII" also features fan-favorite Luis Felix (12-8, 4 KOs) of Providence, R.I., who makes his third AXS TV appearance in the co-feature against Rich Patishnock (6-2, 1 KO) of East Stroudsburg, Pa.; and the television debut of bantamweight Andre Soukhamthath (8-2, 4 KOs) of Woonsocket, R.I. (Boca Raton, Fla.), who'll face New York native and Bombsquad vet Brian Kelleher (11-7, 5 KOs).
Providence cruiserweight Greg Rebello (17-6, 9 KOs) returns in a three-round bout against seasoned vet Mike Mucitelli (7-1, 1 KO) of Syracuse while Pawtucket, R.I., middleweight Todd Chattelle (12-11, 9 KOs) returns to the CES MMA cage for a record 12th time looking to snap a two-fight losing streak when he faces the dangerous Roger Carroll (15-11), who has submitted 14 of his 15 victims.
Also on the televised card, Hollis, N.H., bantamweight Joey Gomez (5-0, 5 KOs) puts his unbeaten record on the line against poised veteran Kin Moy (6-1, 2 KOs) of Cambridge, Mass., the only fighter to beat fellow bantamweight Soukhamthath in the past four years.
The star-studded undercard features the return of rising stars Kyle Bochniak (4-0, 1 KO) and Lewis Corapi (6-1, 3 KOs). Bochniak, a Boston native, faces featherweight Dominic Warr (4-5, 1 KO) of Allston, Mass., while the Medford, Mass., vet Corapi battles Jay Bakanowski (2-1, 1 KO) of Northborough, Mass. Flyweight Chad Kelly (3-1, 1 KO) faces newcomer Jesse Gutierrez of Norwood, Mass.; Warwick, R.I., welterweight Tommy Venticinque (1-2) returns against Toby Oden (1-1) of Milford, Mass.; and Boston featherweight James Grant Murrin (2-0, 2 KOs) battles Brockton, Mass., vet Lionel Young (6-14). Female bantamweights Sarah Payant of West Springfield, Mass., and Janice Meyer of Cortland, N.Y., each make their professional debuts against one another in a three-round bout.
For more information on "CES MMA XXVIII" visit www.cesmma.com, follow @CESMMA on Twitter and Instagram and "like" the official CES MMA Facebook fan page.
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