He doesn't have to stress about letting anyone down. He doesn't have to lose sleep worrying that he won't live up to expectations. If he can make it out of the first round against UFC welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre at UFC 111 on Saturday night, if he lands a few punches or even -- dare to dream it -- stuffs a takedown attempt, he'll already have accomplished about as much as most people are expecting out of him.
That's the good news. It's everything else that the bad news.
According to the oddsmakers, Hardy barely even deserves the title of underdog. The term implies too much hope, conjuring up images of a lovable little guy you can't help but cheer for. No, at 6-to-1 odds Hardy is officially a longshot. He's in the same nothing-to-lose territory that Matt Serra was when he faced St. Pierre the first time, which might be the most interesting aspect of this fight.
The puncher's chance is one thing Hardy and Serra share. It's quite possibly the most intriguing lottery ticket in all of sports. A fighter can be outmatched in every area, lose every minute of the fight, but as long as he still has the strength to fling one more equilibrium-scrambler, he's not out of the contest.
The difference between Hardy and Serra, however, is that Serra had other tools to threaten the champ with. His excellent grappling skills meant that St. Pierre had to consider, at least in theory, the possibility that he might get taken down and submitted. Hardy stands a better chance of talking GSP into giving up the belt peacefully.
What the British challenger does have is patience, a good counter left hook, and no small amount of power. As Mike Swick found out, Hardy excels when he can force opponents to come to him. He's a better athlete than he gets credit for, and he's as scrappy as they come.
But if he's relying on his ability to knock St. Pierre out, he may have fallen too hard for the myth of the champ's glass jaw. It's one thing to confidently declare that if you hit GSP in the face he'll "fall over," as if it's little more than a high-risk game of cow-tipping, but it's another thing to make it happen.
In eight years and 21 fights, St. Pierre's been knocked out exactly once. If you need to talk yourself into believing that you can make it happen again, you might call that a harbinger. If you're being more realistic, you might call it a lightning strike.
In his four UFC fights to date, the only person Hardy managed to put away was Rory Markham, who is, for all his virtues, fairly knockout-prone. Hardy definitely hits hard enough to rattle even seasoned pros, but on the scale of heavy hitting 170-pounders in the UFC ranks he falls somewhere below Serra and Thiago Alves, but above Jon Fitch and Matt Hughes.
What's something all those guys have in common? They've all been beaten by St. Pierre, and they all learned a grudging respect for him.
A couple months before his title shot, I ate lunch with Alves in south Florida and listened to him express a bemused wonder at the god-like reverence people had for GSP. He was very good, Alves granted, but he was still human. Alves had power. He had a takedown defense that kept Josh Koscheck at bay. He knew what St. Pierre was capable of, but then St. Pierre hadn't faced Alves yet. Right?
After five rounds of being brutalized by St. Pierre in a fight where he was always kept guessing and could never get started, he had a different take on things. Humbled is one way to put it. Educated by force is another.
Because of St. Pierre's shocking loss to Serra in 2007, the prevailing wisdom among those looking for chinks in the champ's armor seems to be that the longer the odds on a challenger, the better chance he has. I guess you've got to tell yourself something.
The truth is that St. Pierre, like anyone, can always be beaten. He can have a bad night, make a fatal mistake, or just run into someone who's better than he is. He could get hit. He could fall over. The lottery ticket might pay off.
A man who bets his future on it, however, is usually a man who's all out of other options.