“I think that they were just trying to keep me humble,” says “Mean Hakeem” Dawodu, the multi-decorated Muay Thai kickboxer of his experience at Calgary’s Champion's Creed gym, where his trainer, Brian Bird—along with others—built him into a burgeoning MMA star.
It’s hard to be humble, especially now that the 5’8, 145-pound featherweight has a four-fight contract with the UFC. His first UFC fight is with Scotland’s Danny Henry (11-2) at London’s O2 Arena on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17).
What’s more, his trainer for that fight is John Kavanagh, Conor McGregor’s world-class coach.
That’s the latest in a surging fighting career for Dawodu, who was in and out of juvenile detention starting at the age of 14.
His early life was a tough go at times, with a Nigerian mother who gave birth to him at 14 years old and a Jamaican father who was deported when he was just six.
The turning point was when his counsellor recommended he train at a Muay Thai kickboxing gym as a healthy outlet for his early frustrations.
He quickly found success, building an impressive 42-5-0 amateur record with 15 knockouts and a perfect 9-0-0 professional record with 7 knockouts in his kickboxing career.
From there, he started training with Bird at Champion's Creed, and the rest is history. While being in the UFC was a big deal at his gym, Dawodu says, it came as little surprise to everyone who knew how good he was.
Everyone gave me props. But it wasn't that surprising. I think that everybody was more in the mood that it was a long time overdue.
It wasn't: Oh my God, he signed up. It was more like: Let's get to work. It was that kind of attitude. I knew it was overdue
“I think [UFC] is going to just be a bigger scene and a lot more legit. I don't think it will take long to get used to, it is just that you are now in the big leagues, the league to be in.
I know what to expect. I already know. I have been under pressure like this before. You are in the UFC for a reason.”
“I've proven to everybody that I am supposed to be in the UFC. With me, I feel like I got a lot of pressure because people know I can be the best in the world. I feel pressure that way.
I think I feel pressure in the sense that I feel like I have to perform nicely. Internal pressure and external pressure.
That is the one thing about fighting. A lot of people put pressure on you and you feel like the whole city is relying on you. And yet some of these fights are only minutes long.”
In the hyper-competitive world of UFC, Dawodu knows what he needs to do to make an early impression.
“I am going to take my first couple of fights by storm. I am going to knock these guys out. I am going to start turning heads. They are going to look at me.”
Dawodu certainly has his eyes on the prize.
I am going to make a title run. And I'm going to fight my way up to the belt. Become a world champion. And then start solidifying myself as a pound-for-pound. I love the sport. No one has been able to stop me. I don't think anyone is going to stop me. I am still getting better. The belt is next. The world title belt. To become a world champion.
And starting off with Kavanagh as his trainer is a big deal, says trainer Bird.
“[Dawodu] is now in a situation where he is going to be able to go train with some of the best in the world, have no distractions, not worry about money, living with [Kavanagh],” Bird says.
”That is like—talking about boxing—you're going to live with Mike Tyson's coach for a camp.”
That allusion to Iron Mike isn’t lost on Mean Hakeem.
“I was greatly influenced by Mike Tyson,” says Dawodu. ”When I was in juvie, I read a book by Mike Tyson, 'Fire and Ice'. They didn't even try to make him look as a good person.
But just very real. I really liked it. I just liked the story about how he grew up so rough and he was still a real rough guy but he had a talent.”
In the same vein as Tyson, who also rose through the ranks quickly in his early career, Dawodu feels he’s ready for the big show starting with London.
“I like that I am an established athlete now. Before, you may look at me and you may think that I was a thug that liked knocking people out. A thug that gets paid for it.
Now when they look at me, I mean in the UFC, I am a legit athlete. I get respect. And I am just living it up right now. Living in the moment.
This is what I wanted. I am in a good mind space right now.”
The Champion's Creed-trained Dawodu signed on with the UFC in November 2017, and his first UFC fight is scheduled for March 17, 2018, in London, England against Danny Henry (11-2) from Scotland.
He is currently training in Dublin with Conor McGregor’s world-class coach, John Kavanagh.
Want to read Part 2 of Hakeem's Journey?