LAS VEGAS — Jamahal Hill’s nickname is “Sweet Dreams,” and if you knew nothing else about him, all you’d have to do is watch a 15-second clip of his last UFC fight and you’d know why.
In his first main event, on Feb. 19 against Johnny Walker at Apex, Hill made a very loud statement that he belongs with the elite of the light heavyweight division and lived up to his nickname in the process.
Walker threw a half-hearted jab at Hill, who was moving forward. There was nothing half-hearted about the right hand that Hill shot over that jab that landed on Walker's temple. Walker went down in a dead man’s fall immediately right onto his back.
If Hill had just walked away, he’d have had a spectacular one-punch KO. Walker wasn’t getting up from that.
Hill raced in for the finish. As he sprinted in, Walker lifted his shoulders up. And Hill spotted something.
“If you look at that follow-up shot, his eyes were still open,” Hill said. “I didn’t know if he was out or not.”
It was a right hand Hill landed after the big punch from the standing position. The second right hand was another blistering shot and connected on the chin. That seemed like that was the last shot unless you watch the replay in slow motion. As Hill blasted Walker with that right on the chin, his momentum carried him toward his left, Walker’s right. Hill’s shoulder also clipped Walker on the chin.
That, though, was no accident.
“I didn’t want to fall too far over, and so I knew I had to drop my shoulder into his jaw, as well,” Hill said. “One hundred percent, I thought of that. I was aware of everything that was going on. It was no accident. And if you look, right after I checked him with the shoulder, there was an elbow coming.”
Fortunately for Walker, referee Jason Herzog was there to prevent that. Walker had already taken enough abuse, and Hill had already stamped himself as one of the best in his division.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native is building a name for himself as one of the most dangerous men in the sport, let alone his division. He’ll get another big test on Saturday at Apex when he faces ex-title challenger Thiago Santos.
The 38-year-old Santos has lost four of his last five, but don’t try telling Hill that. Hill is a hefty -320 favorite at BetMGM, with the buyback on Santos at +250.
“I trained for this guy like he was the same guy who gave [former light heavyweight champion] Jon Jones such a good fight,” Hill said. “To me, he’s still right there, but if he’s not, well, that’s on him.”
Some of the greatest fighters who ever lived have hailed from Grand Rapids. Las Vegas is known as the boxing capital of the world, but the elite talent it has produced pales into comparison with the superstars who have hailed from Michigan’s second-largest city.
Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the most famous fighter from Grand Rapids, but hardly the only star. Legendary middleweight champions James Toney and Stanley Ketchel are from Grand Rapids, as is former heavyweight champion Tony “TNT” Tucker, Roger Mayweather, Peter Quillin, Buster Mathis Jr. and many others.
Hill is determined to add his name to that long list of his city’s famous fighting alumni.
“The one thing about Grand Rapids, you growing up there as a kid, you have to know how to fight,” Hill said. “You want to run your mouth, do something, then you’d better be ready to back it up. It’s a no-nonsense kind of place. People don’t take kindly to being challenged and they’ll let you know.”
Since earning a UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series, Hill is 4-1 with a no-contest that was originally a TKO win but was changed to a no-contest when he popped for marijuana when that was still an anti-doping violation.
He’s taken to calling himself the most successful alumnus of the show, and while that is debatable, what isn’t is his career trajectory. Hill is ranked 10th in the division and a win over No. 6 Santos on Saturday could push him up several spots.
“I’m going out there every day and giving every last thing I have to put myself in position to [fulfill my potential] and do that,” he said of chasing a championship. “I feel like this is what I was meant to do.”
Anyone who sees the Walker KO could hardly argue that.