by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
For Branden Lee Hinkle fighting at UFC 55 was the culmination of a long career in MMA that had seen him begin his career in 1998 in Vale Tudo leagues where rules were far more open than they are now. After years of competing overseas, taking various Championships, he was given his shot and proven worthy when he decimated Sean Gannon last October.

Now Hinkle returns to the biggest American MMA promotion to face possibly the toughest challenge he’s ever faced in American Top Team grappling master Jeff “Snowman” Monson at UFC 57. This bout could very well determine the next contender for Andrei Arlovski’s UFC Heavyweight Championship, so both men will be looking to impress and move forward towards glory.

“I thought it went well,” said Hinkle to MMA Weekly of his past year. “I finally got my shot at the bigtime. I won my last nine or ten fights in a row, only lost once in 2000, I feel now that I’ve got sponsors behind me and facilities together and I can really put together a run in 2006.”

Branden, entering his eighth year of competition, has seen just about everything the ever-evolving sport of MMA has had to offer. And while many from his early days are content to not evolve, Hinkle feels he’s grown with the sport, rather than let it change and remain in the past.

“I started in ‘98, when it was real Vale Tudo [laughs],” commented Hinkle of his beginnings. “I’m absolutely happy how I’ve grown, I mean the sport itself is evolving, but the pay really hasn’t jumped up like everyone expected it to. The guys who’ve been in it for almost decade now have always been hearing the, ‘the sport’s blowing, it’s going to blow up,’ but it finally looks like it’s going to.”

Even though he’s been around many organizations and faced many different styles of fighters, Hinkle hasn’t quite faced anyone as adept at submission fighting as Jeff Monson is. While there is a lot on the line for both fighters’ careers and the UFC heavyweight rankings, Hinkle refuses to be overwhelmed by his opponent’s reputation or the pressure of expectations.

“I expect Jeff to come in ready to go,” commented Branden. “I think this is probably – maybe not for the UFC – but as far as the international and MMA crowd, the biggest heavyweight fight on the card. Me and Jeff have been around and have won titles in different countries on different continents and I expect to be ready to go. I expect to be a little too much for him when it comes down to it.”

Hinkle is always known for having a motor that’s always running, constantly working and pressuring his opponents. His style is in desperate need for the UFC whom have failed to bring in constant performers to the nearly anemic heavyweight division over the last couple of years.

As Branden explains, it’s in his nature to push the action and be exciting. “I always try to finish my fights. I’ve only had a couple of decisions and Maurice (Smith) that was in RINGS, it all depends on how you count it. I count my record as 14-3, I don’t really care if they count those RINGS matches on my fight record, I don’t know who decided those would be on there [laughs]. Yeah I’m just going to go out there and try to finish fights, be entertaining, and throw down like I always do.”

If Hinkle defeats Monson he could find himself instantly in the championship mix depending on how things work out for Frank Mir against Marcio Cruz, also on UFC 57. According to Branden, he feels a win would put him right up in contention with the likes of Mir and Tim Sylvia for Arlovski’s title.

“I have to think if I win this next fight I’m going to be right up there in the mix,” explained Hinkle. “I can’t see why I would not be, especially with another win, which if I win it’s going to be exciting. I feel I’m right up in there in the top three or four in the UFC. Everyone in there is tough and we’re all going through the same thing. There isn’t any million-dollar contracts here, so we’re all sort of in the same boat. Whoever they want me to fight, whoever the fans want to seem me fight I’ll fight, no problem.”

Branden continued, “Whoever comes to fight; I’ll fight basically. I’m at the point where I’ve got no grudges [laughs], I sign to fight, send me a ticket, and I’ll be there. That’s pretty much how we do it at the Hammer House. We’ve never ducked anyone and there’s no reason to start now. We’re getting a little long in the tooth to be doing that [laughs], tell us who we’re going to fight, give us a plane ticket and we’ll be there.”

The Hammer House of course being the group of fighters formed by MMA legend Mark “The Hammer” Coleman and veteran Kevin “The Monster” Randleman in the early days of the sport, becoming one of the first true MMA teams. As Hinkle explains, while they might not always come out on top, the team never backs down from a challenge is still going strong after all these years.

“I think the Hammer House is headed in the right direction,” said Branden. “You have a lot of haters who talk about the Hammer House, but they never mention how we always fight the toughest guys in the biggest organizations and never duck anybody. We’ve all stuck together, you see a lot of big teams break up or lose members and not show a lot of loyalty, and that’s one thing you can say about the Hammer House, we’re still kicking and we’re still together.”

Hinkle closed out the conversation by wanting to take an opportunity to thank his sponsors and give a message to the fans on what to expect from seeing him fight. “I just want to thank my sponsors, Smitty Floors, Ameripark, and KTFO and say good luck to all the next level wrestlers and high school kids I’ve been working with down here for the state tournament. Basically to the fans, just watch me, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, just throwing down and keeping the pressure on. Forget a gameplan, just go out there and just throw down and try to knock somebody out like I’ve been doing in the streets since I was 15 [laughs].”