When Mehdi Hassan arrived at Georgetown University as a freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he was in the same mindset as many as of his college freshman peers. He didn’t quite know how hard the work would be.
Then he got down the reason he was on the campus: He was a football player. An undersized linebacker whose heaviest weight during his career would be just 215 pounds, Hassan knew he had to work hard from the start.
He was around older, more experienced players from his earliest days on the team to provide guidance. The tossed-into-fire trend would continue when he and his brother later decided to pursue MMA careers. Their first stop? American Top Team’s Coconut Creek facility in Florida.
“My brother and I talked about it, and we said, ‘OK, if we want to try this, let’s go somewhere that’s the best,’” Hassan told MMAjunkie about him and his brother, fellow pro fighter Hayder Hassan. “We had wrestled, and we were in shape, but we had to learn right away. That’s not usually a place you just walk into and start training.”
The quick dose of a strong fighting environment started Hassan on a fighting path that has been frustrated by injuries and near-misses. With fresh perspective in the form of a 6-month-old son and a new style fueled by a new boxing coach,
Hassan (3-3) is set to take on Oscar Delgado (6-3) at the Nov. 14 Absolute Fighting Championship 23 event in Hollywood, Fla. Taking a .500 record into the fight, Hassan notes that he struggled through significant injuries and short-notice fight matchups to make it even that far.
Learning passion as an undersized athlete in high school as a football and wrestling star and in college as a hard-hitting linebacker, Hassan has changed his style to fit that personality, becoming more of a come-after-you puncher than a smooth-moving counterpuncher.
He also learned hard work from his Iraqi immigrant parents, who both earned advanced degrees despite coming from difficult conditions. With the support of his brother, who is a year and a half older and training with him regularly, Hassan believes he’s in the best position of his career.
He’s hoping to show that next weekend. “Before I was more of a counterpuncher, and I would try to slow things down and pick people apart,” he said. “Now, I like to make people react. I like to take the fight to them. I’ve never trained this hard, and I’m ready to make it worth it.”
Hassan’s parents moved to the U.S. from Baghdad, leaving behind a difficult life for one that held more promise in the U.S. His father earned a medical degree after his move, and he spent years as a doctor. His mother was also educationally motivated, and she earned a Ph.D. in psychology.
“They motivate me,” he said. “They’ve gone through hell. Where they came from, everyone was poor, and there was nothing over there. To get out of there, that’s a blessing.” The Hassan brothers took advantage of their childhood by mixing strong grades with athletic success, especially in wrestling and football.
Because they were just a year and a half apart in age, they motivated each other and kept each other focused. That paid off when Hassan traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2002 to start his college football career at Georgetown.
He was immediately one of the smallest guys at his position, but he was around more mature college athletes who helped him grow up quickly. “Everything you do (as a college football player) is designed to keep you busy,” he said.
“Things are scripted. That’s one of the biggest differences about MMA, is that you have more control over when you train and how you train. But some guys can’t handle that, and they can’t handle really fast success. I think (playing college football) helped me with that.”
As a junior, Hassan led his team in tackles, with 102, which ranks as the 10th-best single-season performance in Georgetown history. As a senior, in 2005, he was second on the team with 88 tackles, continuing to build his scrapping mentality. Once he finished his college football career, that would serve him in a much different way.
Mehdi and Hayder were both interested in pursuing MMA careers after college, but they didn’t know how to get started. They decided to go to a gym not far from their Florida home known for its strong stable of fighters.
His experience was mostly in sparring once he made his professional debut in June 2009, losing by a second-round knockout with a cracked rib as he tried to react to his opponents’ actions more than take the fight to him.
After recovering from that rib injury, he entered an M-1 tournament in June 2010 and won his first fight by a first-round knockout, looking impressive in the process. But, there was another injury, this time to his knee. “I tore my meniscus,” he said. “I fought the second fight (against Pat Bennett) basically on one leg, and I had stuffed my face just to try to get to 230 pounds.”
That unanimous-decision loss ended his M-1 tournament, dropped him to 1-2 and sent him to a long rehabilitation on his knee. When he returned, he scored a knockout win in June 2012 before suffering a second-round knockout loss to Adrian Henderson (who would move on to Bellator MMA), who was much bigger than Hassan.
Fed up with his approach, Hassan decided that he needed to work on his offense. He searched out a better boxing coach, who helped mold him into an attacking fight instead of one who was calculating and reactive. The other key thing that happened for Hassan recently was having his first child.
Now more motivated to provide for his family and feeling more confident with his striking ability, the former undersized, tackle-machine linebacker whose brother is a 6-1 pro MMA fighter feels that he’s in the best position yet to make a statement.
“I’ve never trained so hard in my life,” he said. “I’m that guy in the gym now, I make people fight for their lives. I understand now that you have to train how you want to fight. And that’s how I want to fight.”
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at]