05/10/2012 02:46 EDT | Updated 07/10/2012 05:12 EDT

No longer Hellbound, Jeff Hougland looks to keep winning as bantamweight in UFC

Jeff (Hellbound) Hougland fights at 135 pounds but thinks much bigger.

Witness the large tattoo of a crocodile on his chest.

The five-foot-nine Hougland says he's fascinated by crocodiles, sharks and the like.

"I don't know if I really believe in reincarnation or anything, but since God put me on earth and made me a little guy, I'm hoping if there is reincarnation, he'll make me a big crocodile or something and I can swim around and feel what's it's like to be a big guy for once," Hougland explained.

The 33-year-old from Enumclaw, Wash., faces a Tiger on Tuesday in the form of Montreal bantamweight Yves (Tiger) Jabouin on a UFC televised card in Fairfax, Va.

The main event features Dustin (The Diamond) Poirier (12-1) and the Korean Zombie, aka Chan Sung Jung (12-3), in a featherweight battle that may produce a future 145-pound title contender.

Hougland (10-4) got his first tattoo — his last name across his stomach —the summer of eighth grade.

"I hung out with a bunch of knuckleheads growing up," he said of his California youth. "We all lived on the same street and kind of started young. We were into drugs and running around fighting, committing crimes and stuff like that. Not being progressive members of society.

"Most of my friends now, the ones that moved away are doing all right. But I've got a couple of them that died, some are in prison. Others are hooked on drugs and stuff."

He says getting married and becoming a father — his daughter is 13 and he will be married 12 years come August — "helped me settle down a little bit."

MMA also steered him away from trouble.

"Fighting gave me an outlet to burn off a lot of energy and it pretty much consumed me after a while," he said. "I didn't have time to party and run around the streets and stuff. I wanted to be in the gym and eventually it took over. I could only do one. I can't party and be a good fighter so I chose to do the fighting instead."

His nickname Hellbound is a reminder of his past.

"That's where I was heading. I was heading to prison or hell."

Hougland was originally slated to meet Brazil's Renan Barao at UFC 148 in July but was shifted to meet Jabouin (17-7) after an injury to Mike Easton, Jabouin's original opponent. Montreal's Ivan (Pride of El Salvador) Menjivar will now face Barao.

Hougland says he was happy to make the move, since he didn't want to wait until July to fight.

He made his UFC debut last July at UFC 132, earning a unanimous decision over Donny Walker in a fight that showed the many tools in his arsenal. Hougland hurt Walker with his jab, took him down and tried for multiple submissions on the ground.

Hougland almost put Walker away with a guillotine choke in the second round, only to be denied by the bell.

"I squeezed with everything I had," he said. "Going into the third round, I couldn't even make a fist, my arms were so tired."

It was Hougland's ninth straight win but his first by decision. None of his previous fights went to the third round and 10 finished in the first round.

Hougland showed his grit in taking the Walker bout on 10 days notice, having fought some six weeks before with a bad back.

He opted to carry through with the earlier May 14 bout because it was local, he was the main event and his opponent was coming in from out of state. Hougland needed just 66 seconds to win by submission and took some time off before returning to the gym to do some jiu-jitsu when the call from the UFC came.

The timing was not ideal but "of course I'm not going to say no," he said.

It was a dream come true for Hougland, competing in the UFC and at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas — "as a fighter, it's one of those legendary venues that everybody wants to fight in."

After the Walker win, Hougland was slated to fight Easton on a televised card Oct. 1 in Washington D.C., but broke his hand the week before the fight in his last day of hard sparring.

"I threw a hook that I've thrown a million times and my opponent ducked a little bit and I caught the top of his head just right and it broke my hand pretty good," he said.

Hougland started training in MMA in 1999 after watching some of the early UFC events.

"I thought it was cool. I didn't really want to fight because back then it was like little guys versus giants and stuff. And I didn't want to get stomped in the head by a big guy. But I did like seeing the little guy choke the big guy out."

Growing up in California, he couldn't find a jiu-jitsu gym nearby so he joined a kickboxing school. He started sparring with some fighters, who urged him to try it himself.

"I did and that's pretty much how it started. I fell in love with fighting."

His pro career started in 2002 and did not go well. He won his debut but lost his next four.

He often fought at lightweight (155 pounds) and even competed at welterweight (170) in his second pro fight even though the heaviest he ever got was 160.

"I lost but I did it for the opportunity," he said of a submission loss to Mike Penalber in September 2002, part of an eight-man tournament that featured Jeremy Jackson, Zach Light and Nick Diaz.

He credits his change in fortunes to a switch in gyms, broadening his skills at Dynamic Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness in Modesto, Calif.

Hougland took time off from his fighting career in mid-2006 to move to Washington State, where his wife is from. He felt where they were living in Modesto was a little rough. Plus he wanted to open his own gym and there were plenty in the Modesto area.

He didn't want to step away completely from fighting but one obstacle after another popped up — first there were issues with the California State Athletic Commission, then a proposed fight in Guam fell through.

"I kind of got discouraged. Then I had a few injuries."

He opened his own gym in October 2008 and started training everyone from pro fighters to soccer moms. Then he got the itch to fight again.

"I was thinking 'Man, I'm getting punched by these guys. They're getting paid and getting all this glory. I'm getting the beating but I'm not getting anything out of it.'"

He fought and won. One fight led to another and he tried out for Season 14 of "The Ultimate Fighter" only to be cut at the final stage.

"I made it through the UFC cuts but the Spike TV guys thought I was too old and told me to get lost," he said.

A couple of weeks later, the UFC called and asked him to fight Walker.

Jabouin has won two of three since moving to the UFC from the WEC with split decisions most recently over Walel Watson and Ian Loveland.

The 32-year-old Jabouin is a talented striker while Hougland, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, sees himself as more of a grappler.

"It's going to be interesting to see who can impose their will," said Hougland. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm honoured to fight him. He's an exciting fighter."

Hougland now makes his home in Enumclaw, about 25 minutes outside of Seattle, where he runs his Combat Sports and Fitness gym.

He was recently named Washington state MMA coach of the year.

While Hougland teaches classes daily at his gym, he says it's a blessing that he can fight and train without distractions.

For years, he had to fit his training around a day job. His job resume includes being an iron worker, construction and toiling in a rental yard.

He's made it to the UFC but says his journey is not complete.

"Every fight I've got to prove that I belong there ... I want to stick around for a while."

NOTES — The UFC has confirmed lightweight champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against Frankie Edgar at UFC 150 on Aug. 11 in Denver. Henderson took the championship belt from Edgar in February ... Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz will remain as coach on "The Ultimate Fighter Live" despite tearing his ACL in training. The injury has forced a postponement to his UFC 14 8 fight with Urijah (The California Kid) Faber. UFC president Dana White says he is looking for an opponent for Faber to keep him on the July 7 card ... English heavyweights Oli Thompson and Phil De Fries will square off on a televised UFC show Aug. 4 in Los Angeles. The Staples Center card will also see English heavyweight Rob (The Bear) Broughton take on Matt Mitrione and lightweight Joe Lauzon fight England's Terry Etim.