- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jay Hieron takes pride in his belief that other men, if put through the kind of frustration he’s endured the last couple of years, would have quit a long time ago.
The 34-year-old could write a book on his hard luck in the sport. Not to open old wounds, but a quick recap:
He had a first-round knockout win over Jason High at an Affliction event in January 2009 dropped from the main card due to time restraints. He was expected to face Paul Daley at Affliction later that year, but didn’t get the chance when the promotion suddenly ceased operations.
He went on to sign a deal with Strikeforce under the assumption his first fight would be against Nick Diaz for the first-ever welterweight title. That fight fell through when Diaz skipped a prefight drug test. Instead of rescheduling the title matchup, Strikeforce paired Hieron with Joe Riggs five months later as an untelevised prelim fight in a Miami show.
Hieron (21-4) did nothing but win during that stretch, but the fact that none of the fights made television has undoubtedly cost him in terms of notoriety and sponsorship money. He’d be lying if he said he never thinks about it.
“I’m fuming,” Hieron told ESPN.com. “That kind of stuff can make or break somebody’s career. It could force somebody to pack it in and say, ‘This s--- ain’t for me anymore.’
“But I believe the man upstairs has a bigger path for me. He’s just making me take the long road. I’m a fighter that’s been through everything negative you can go through in a career and I’m still here.”
In many ways, joining the Bellator welterweight tournament this year has been the perfect opportunity for Hieron to start feeling good about his career again.
For one thing, it’s got him fighting with regularity again. After sitting out for more than a year while his contract issues were sorted out, his tournament finals bout against Rick Hawn this weekend will be Hieron’s third fight in as many months.
“It’s a grind, but at the end of the day I feel blessed,” Hieron said. “I had that year off and now this is what I signed up for -- a lot of fights in a short period of time. I want to get back on the scene and show everybody the real Jay Hieron. I’ve been out of the game but it’s time to get back in the rankings.”
As eager as Hieron is to get back in the public eye, especially after watching the careers of his Xtreme Couture teammates like Gray Maynard, Martin Kampmann and Mike Pyle take off during the past two years, he’s constantly reminding himself to do it one step at a time.
Immediately following the announcement he had signed with Bellator, Hieron received questions regarding a possible matchup with champion Ben Askren, an undefeated wrestler with hype building.
But Hieron has seen too many opportunities fall apart on their own to overlook an opponent and mess things up himself. This week his focus is Hawn. Then he’ll start thinking Askren.
“I can’t wait for May 7,” Hieron said. “[Askren] is a great wrestler. I don’t think he’s well-rounded but he has a good foundation and I hope he does keep winning. We’ll meet up soon. But one thing at a time. I work on my mind as much as my body just because of all the stuff I’ve been through. I’m not looking past anyone.”