Josh Gross
Friday November 13th, 2009

When Zuffa traveled to the United Kingdom in 2007, the organization was intent on pushing the UFC brand into the furthest reaches of the country. Dana White famously said every sheepherder on every rolling hill will know of the UFC by the time the event was over.

It nearly cost the company a CFO-busting 4 million pounds to get the word out its first year there, but it worked. Now established in the UK and expanding throughout the continent and into parts of Asia, the UFC spends just an eighth of its initial marketing budget to effectively reach places like London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Belfast.

On Saturday (Spike TV, tape-delay 8 p.m. ET/PT), the Octagon returns to Manchester, the city where UFC kicked off its European initiative, with a heavily UK-flavored card that includes Michael Bisping and a score of mixed martial artists from Season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter.

It also boasts the first Brit who could earn a crack at a UFC title, 27-year-old welterweight Dan Hardy.

Competing in the penultimate bout to Randy Couture's first light heavyweight contest since 2006, Hardy (22-6) faces Mike Swick (14-2) for the right to challenge UFC champion Georges St. Pierre. It's something both men feel they've earned, even if each steps into the cage a borderline top-10 fighter at 170 pounds.

St. Pierre, who plans on watching the fight live at the Manchester Evening News Arena, believes the winner will make a worthy contender: "Hardy is a very hard puncher. He can end the fight at any time. Swick is fast. He's tricky."

Though both men said their gaze remains firmly fixed on this upcoming weekend, they also acknowledged the looming title opportunity, and all that could come with it.

Swick has been a staple of UFC promotions since appearing on the debut season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. Early last year, the 30-year-old American dropped down in weight from 185 pounds after Yushin Okami smothered him in his hometown of Houston, Texas. Since the move, Swick is unbeaten in four efforts against game though unranked welterweights. Swick's success and marketability put him in position to be considered for No. 1 contendership, and the UFC booked him a fight with Martin Kampmann for September with that purpose. While training for the bout, however, Swick suffered a concussion and was forced to watch from the sidelines as British slugger Paul Daley upset the Danish fighter.

"I've never had a concussion before," said Swick, who was injured when his head was slammed to the ground while sparring. "It was just a random thing, and I don't see it happening again, unless I get hit really, really hard. And there's nothing I can do about that. But I'm not going to go out there and be afraid to get hit over it."

That's good because standing gun-shy in front of the eager-to-strike Hardy would not do much for Swick's health. While Swick has enjoyed the good fortune of training out of one gym for the bulk of his career (American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif.), Hardy has essentially lived like a nomad to test himself and learn beyond the limits of most UK gyms. The willingness to seek out different types of training resulted in Hardy becoming one of England's most complete fighters, someone with enough skill to represent a legitimate threat to almost anyone in the division.

He also talks a great game, though unlike his last bout, a decision over Marcus Davis, Hardy decided against traversing that route with Swick.

"I've got to spend a bit of time with Mike in Germany, and he's a nice guy," said Hardy, who is 3-0 in the UFC. "We got on well. He seems real laid back. And, you know, I just didn't think that this fight would need that."

"I felt Davis was a little open to a bit of psychological warfare," the Brit continued. "And most people find it funny, but unfortunately for Davis he took it quite personally. I don't think that Mike would react that way, so I didn't see the point in wasting energy or much time on it."

Like Swick and Hardy, the UFC welterweight champion believes Saturday's contender fight will come down to tactics.

"The guy who wins this fight is the guy that will fight the smartest," said St. Pierre, who expects to face the winner early next year. "They both have the tools to beat each other."

Another couple of victories, and the sheepherders might know Dan Hardy's name just as well. Swick's too, should he do the same.

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