CHEYENNE – As a high-schooler, Mike Hamel started thinking he might not be cut out for a 9-5 job.
Those feelings only deepened when he was being recruited to wrestle by schools like the University of Wyoming and Arizona State. Their coaches asked him what he might be interested in studying, and the two-time Arizona high school state champion didn’t have a good answer.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want any major because I was going to school to wrestle,” Hamel said. “The education was just going to be a side note for me because I knew when I got done with school and wrestling, I was going to start fighting.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Hamel spent two-and-a-half seasons at the University of Wyoming before finishing his career at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Hamel fought his first amateur mixed martial arts bout only six months after his last match in a GCU singlet.
Six years later, Hamel has 11 professional fights to his name. Friday night, he will be part of the five-fight main card of Bellator 255 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. The main card starts at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Showtime.
Hamel (7-4) will square off with Usman Nurmagomedov (11-0), who is the cousin of MMA legend Khabib Nurmagomedov. Considering the fight is being carried on premium cable and the bloodlines of his undefeated opponent, Hamel isn’t afraid to say this is the biggest bout of his professional career. However, he quickly adds that he tries to look at them all that way.
“I could be fighting behind a bar and – at the moment – that would be the biggest fight of my life,” Hamel said. “I don’t really do that anymore, but you know what I mean. I could be fighting in the main event for a big organization, and that would be the biggest fight.
“You have to have the mindset that every single fight is the biggest fight of your career because that’s what’s going to help you train, help you get up early and help you stay on your diet.”
Hamel’s professional record doesn’t jump off the page, but hardcore MMA fans know it’s a sport where even the best suffer defeat. Hamel also notes he took his last bout on a week’s notice and lost a split decision when he felt like he controlled the match on the mat. He also lost another bout because of a late disqualification his camp later appealed.
“My coach has never appealed a call, written a formal complaint or tried to overturn a call in 15 years,” Hamel said. “He tried to overturn that disqualification because that’s how ridiculous it was. So, my record might be 7-4, but it easily could be 9-2.”
Taking his last bout with only a week to prepare was less than ideal, but working with smaller promotions taught Hamel to train in a way that made him ready in a moment’s notice. Fighters in smaller promotions get paid per appearance, but they also never know when their big break is going to come.
Hamel’s wrestling background has made him a force when fights go to the mat. He recently advanced to a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. His daily training with jiu jitsu black belts have only bolstered his ground game.
Hamel continues to work on his striking skills.
“If you go back and look at my early fights, I barely threw any punches on my feet,” Hamel said. “If you fast forward to my last fight with (Adam) Borics – who a lot of people consider one of the best standup fighters in Bellator – I think I got the better of him in a decent amount of exchanges.”
Moving up to the 155-pound weight class also should help Hamel’s striking, he said.
“When I was fighting at 145, I would hit somebody, and I could tell it hurt them, but it wasn’t turning their lights off,” he said. “I was losing a lot of power because I was depleting my body so much (to make weight). My training partners aren’t liking sparing as much now that I’ve moved up to 155.”
Hamel lives and trains in Phoenix, but was born in Gillette, briefly lived in Alaska and spent all but his high school years living in Green River. He will be announced as fighting out of Green River.
“I was born and raised in Wyoming,” the 28-year-old said. “I have multiple little kid Wyoming state (wrestling) championships, and I represented Wyoming at schoolboy duals.
“When I look back on my home, that’s it. I like representing Wyoming. I like what the state stands for, and that’s why I fight out of there.”
Hamel still has ties to the Cowboy State.
His father, Mike Hamel, was Cheyenne South High’s first principal, worked for Albany County School District 1 in Laramie, and is currently superintendent of Carbon County School District 1 in Rawlins. The elder Hamel is UW’s all-time pins leader and a member of the school’s athletics hall of fame.
Being billed as fighting out of Green River isn’t the only way the younger Hamel maintains his UW ties. He currently is training with Bryce Meredith as the former Cowboys standout makes his own transition into MMA.
“I told him to come out to Arizona for a week before he made a crazy decision,” Hamel said. “I thought he needed to see if he liked it before he moved out here and went all-in on MMA. He moved out here about a month after that first stay, and now he is one of my full-blown training partners.
“He helped me get ready for this fight. We’ve been wrestling twice a week during our team practices. He has helped me take my wrestling up a notch because he has such a fantastic mind for wrestling.”
Meredith was a four-time Class 4A state champion at Cheyenne Central and a two-time NCAA runner-up at UW. A year ago, Meredith said he was gearing up for a run at the postponed Tokyo Olympics before making the move to MMA.
Meredith changed his timeline for that transition last fall. He has a future in MMA, Hamel said.
“Anybody with the mindset Bryce has is going to go far in whatever they want to do in life,” he said. “When you have that work ethic, discipline and belief in yourself, it doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, an accountant or a fighter, you’re going to have success at it.
“You add that to his physical talents, the fact he is going to fight at 135 and the fantastic training partners he has around him, and he has a bright future in MMA.”
Hamel is just getting started in the sport himself. He is progressing in jiu jitsu and is still learning how to succeed on his feet. Hamel is excited about his own future in MMA.
“I got a late start at this compared to other people,” he said. “I’m only 11 fights in at 28 years old. I’m just now getting into my prime. When I started fighting, I wasn’t physically mature. I was still like a little boy out there.
“I have always been a super late bloomer. My body is finally mature, and I’m moving up a weight class. I work like a horse, I’m hungry and relatively young. Things are only going up.”
Jeremiah Johnke is the WyoSports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-633-3137. Follow him on Twitter at @jjohnke.