Greg Hardy, the UFC and the Limits of the Second Chance

The NFL pariah, a domestic violence cloud forever over his head, is chasing a second career in mixed martial arts, and just won promotion to the big time. How far is the public, and the fight industry, willing to go to accept him back into the spotlight?  
June 25, 2018

LAS VEGAS — The first fist that landed squarely on Austen Lane’s jaw threw Dana White out of his ringside seat. The second and final fist that landed brought White’s open hand to a mouth agape. There was no modesty about this, no sweet science—this was a hammering. Fifty-seven seconds into Greg Hardy’s first professional MMA fight, the referee had seen enough. A 6'5" man built like a Ferrari knelt in anguish and considerable pain while his wild-eyed and grinning opponent stomped around and rejoiced at more than just a victory in a cage. In less than a minute, a once-mighty man unaccustomed to laboring in anonymity was returned to the light on the strength of the defining characteristic of his life as an athlete: swift and sudden violence. White had seen enough, too. Hardy would agree to a UFC contract less than an hour later.

Three weeks earlier, Hardy wore a different face. Sitting in the kitchen of the no-frills suite of dorm rooms above an MMA gym where he has lived these last 18 months, Hardy was calm and deferential, and growing annoyed that his calmness and deference hadn’t quashed the big question: Do you maintain the position that you’ve never put hands on a woman?

“Let me ask you this,” Hardy shoots back. “What’s the point of the question?”

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

I explain to him that the UFC has a conflicted and inconsistent relationship with domestic violence even as it’s also promoting women fighters, that it’s competing for attention with major North American sports and still crafting its policy on accused abusers. As a reader sits there and tries to decide whether Greg Hardy should get a second chance, I say, that’s the first question: Does Greg still maintain his innocence? “I don’t maintain my innocence,” Hardy says. “The United States government maintains my innocence.”

It goes on like that.

There’s a difference between the government maintaining your innocence and you personally maintaining your innocence.

“I’m an American,” Hardy says, smiling coyly. “Why would I not go with my government?”

You know what I’m saying.

“I don’t. You’ll have to explain it better. I prefer not to get caught in the same trap by being put on the spot and asked the same question I’ve repeatedly answered before.”

I’m not trying to trap you. I just want to make sure that you haven’t changed your stance.

“That’s my answer,” Hardy says now, the smile gone. “My stance has been the same—it’s always been the same. I would ask the readers what their next question is, and why you would you still judge me off of my maintaining my innocence more so than for what I’m doing with my life and moving towards the future. I do maintain my innocence. I do regret what happened. I do feel like that is something that has happened, it’s in the past.”

What people questioned was when you suggested the photos could have been doctored.

“I did not suggest that at all.”

Didn’t you say something like “They can do anything with pictures”?

“Yessir—do you know where the pictures came from? It is in the case file, the one that was supposed to be locked away and never seen again, and what happens when case files are released is people take them and write their own story. ... If you’re going to ask a question, it should be a question that pertains to something relevant and that makes sense, because you can do anything to photos.”

What’s your theory on how the bruises came about?

“I’m not going to get into all that. I’m gonna keep the same answer I’ve always kept.”

And so here is Greg Hardy, after his ascent to NFL stardom and rapid fall. In May 2014, following his breakout season with the Panthers, Hardy was arrested in Charlotte and charged with assaulting and threatening to kill his then-girlfriend, Nicole Holder. Found guilty by a judge in a bench trial, he appealed for a jury trial under his rights in North Carolina. Before that trial, however, prosecutors say he came to a settlement with Holder, who declined to testify, and the case was dismissed. The release of photos and graphic accounts of the incident in November 2015, while Hardy was with the Cowboys, turned the public against him for good, and no NFL team would sign him. He then dedicated his life to a new sport, and is still not apologizing or admitting fault. He says he didn’t do it, and the state of North Carolina isn’t arguing otherwise, and another sports league is putting him back on television, back in your living room.

If that’s the end of the line for you, if you’d prefer not to watch the show or read further, no one will blame you. The UFC and its controversial frontman, Dana White, took a calculated risk in inviting one of America’s foremost athletic pariahs to compete in its Contender Series, a sort of tryout for the UFC, culminating in the defeat of Lane in the June 12 bout. White once said, in September 2014, “There’s one thing that you never bounce back from, and that’s putting your hands on a woman.” In June 2018, however, White has amended that decree: “There are a couple things in life that are pretty hard to bounce back from,” White tells The MMQB, “and this is one of them—putting your hands on a woman is right up there with as bad as it gets.”

Right up there. Pretty hard. White knows it sounds like a softening stance, but he points to some mitigating factors. He says Hardy has kicked drugs and alcohol since his 2016 arrest for cocaine possession (for which Hardy pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge). Mixed martial arts gave Hardy a sense of discipline and respect for others, says White, though he’d never had a conversation with Hardy before the night of the June 12 fight. White says he didn’t reach out to Holder or her lawyer because she’s had ample opportunity to comment since the trial and hasn’t done so. (Holder did not reply to multiple messages from The MMQB for this story.) White says he trusts the coaches who’ve given Hardy their blessing, and the renowned gym owner whose dorms Hardy is living in. White says he believes in second chances.

“The case was dismissed,” White says. “As human beings we’re all going to make mistakes. It’s how you bounce back from that. I personally think he’s a changed guy. He’s learned from his mistake, and he’s trying to make a change in his life. I’m sure he’s hit rock bottom and he had to pick himself up, and his life is where he wants it to be. People around him respect him and like him and feel he’s a good teammate. So we’re gonna give him this shot.”


The Contender Series that bears White’s name isn’t the balls-out big-venue UFC show that fight fans are accustomed to. It’s held in a gym, not an arena. Only family and friends are invited, and the intimate setting reveals some idiosyncrasies of mixed martial arts that often go unseen and unheard. During the second fight of the evening, as Hardy and Lane prepared in their respective dressing rooms, the gym grew quiet enough to hear a 30-year old bantamweight exclaim across the ring to his opponent, during a low-blow stoppage, “You hit me right in the dick!”

Lane and Hardy in the ring.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Lane’s mother- and father-in-law flew in from Wisconsin to see the former Jaguars, Lions and Bears defensive end contest his fifth professional bout. A day before the fight, Hardy wasn’t sure anyone was coming to see him. Asked what family would be watching, Hardy pointed to his boxing coach from American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., Billy Padden, a snub-nosed two-time collegiate champion steeled in the Philadelphia brand of boxing.

Padden was a juvenile probation officer in north Philadelphia for 10 years, from 1986 to ’97, running the B.A.D. program—Boxers Against Drugs—out of the Front Street Gym, where Rocky was filmed. He’s been enamored with what he sees as Hardy’s kindness to others, and his ability to learn. He says Hardy has twice volunteered to coach autistic children for charity alongside him. Padden says he hasn’t read the case file or any of the media coverage of Hardy, because he wanted to give Hardy a fresh slate. “I’ve always felt like you have to give someone a second chance, no matter if he did it or not,” Padden says. “The way I’ve seen that guy hit people, if he’d hit her, she’d be dead. But I think he deserves a second chance even if he did do it. He’s not set in his ways. He’s still growing and learning.”

If Padden had read up on the case, he’d have found in the police report a 16-line inventory of the injuries Nicole Holder is alleged to have suffered at the hands of Hardy after an alcohol-fueled night of partying with several others, including Hardy’s former friend and assistant, Sammy Curtis. He would have seen the corresponding images of Holder’s bruise-covered body, a result, she said in the bench trial testimony, of Hardy dragging her by her hair and body-slamming her across an apartment, throwing her in a bathtub and atop a futon covered in assault rifles. Padden would have read Hardy’s account to police alleging that Holder was the aggressor and that he and Curtis (who was not charged) were the victims of her rage, and that she’d launched herself into the bathtub and atop the couch. Padden would have read about their rocky relationship, her previous night on the town with rapper Nelly (allegedly a source of embarrassment for Hardy), and Hardy’s initial 911 call to police characterizing Holder as merely an acquaintance, as well as his lie to responding officers about the number of guns in his apartment—according to the police report he said he was only in possession of a handgun, but later he turned in 10 firearms.

Finally, Padden would have read about the judge’s guilty verdict in the bench trial, Hardy’s successful bid for a jury trial, the reported settlement, Holder’s dropping contact with investigators and the state’s decision to not pursue a new conviction.

Hardy (right), with Billy Padden, his Florida-based MMA coach.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

These days Hardy says he has no contact with Holder or Curtis. He lives in a dorm room with two double beds—one covered in rumpled laundry—with a 15-inch television screen, a laptop and seven pairs of shoes. (His collection of more than 500 pairs is split between storage units in North Carolina and Dallas.) His former agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has been replaced by Abraham Kawa, who handles dozens of MMA fighters, including many who train alongside Hardy at American Top Team, one of the sport’s renowned fighting houses. His friends are the handful of foreign-born fighters who live in the dorms. His idea of a night out, he says, is an hours-long session playing the computer game Minecraft.

Gym owner Dan Lambert allowed Hardy to train there on Kawa’s recommendation. Hardy took the unusual step of living in the upstairs dormitories, to fully immerse himself in training and resist temptation. He’s had four amateur fights in the last year and a half, pummeling chunky heavyweight opponents in regional promotions across the south. Meanwhile, he says he’s taken clandestine visits with two NFL teams, each time walking away with a strong sense that he hadn’t convinced the team’s upper echelon he was worthy of another shot. “I went on a visit and the whole place loved me,” Hardy says. “I went to the owner and he was like, So you’re a wife-beater. You did it, so just tell me how you changed. I didn’t know where to go from there.”

At the gym he’d find a kind ear in Jessica Aguilar, a 36-year-old professional fighter who runs a juice bar attached to ATT with her girlfriend, Elena Rodriguez. Aguilar was introduced to Hardy by their shared agent, Kawa, and she and Rodriguez broke Hardy of his habit of referring to them as ma’am. Aguilar had no idea who Hardy was, so she googled him and found the football highlights and the accolades. Then she read the things Padden declined to read. Fourteen years ago she was the first female fighter to train regularly at the Coconut Creek location, and she’d dealt with misogynistic fighters on a daily basis, telling off men who felt a woman didn’t belong in the fighting space. Aguilar says she hasn’t had any experience with men who are violent with women, but Rodriguez has. They weighed all of it—all they’d experienced and fought through—and decided to give Hardy a chance.

“I’ve had experiences with violent men, but I haven’t let that change how I approach new people,” Rodriguez says. “My mom taught me to trust people until they show you not to trust them, so that’s it.” Says Aguilar: “Every time he would come in here he was such a sweet guy. He didn’t cause any trouble, so I was like, all right, everybody makes mistakes, everybody has a past. We don’t know the exact story, and there are always two sides. There’s so much there that I can’t sit here and say he did this and he’s going to do it again.”


Of all the defenses of Hardy coming out of Coconut Creek, Padden’s is the most dubious, though none are particularly surprising, says Kim Gandy, president of National Network to End Domestic Violence. Billy Padden’s reason to doubt Holder’s account—that if Hardy had actually struck Holder, she’d be dead—is coincidentally a defense Hardy’s attorneys employed at trial. Her injuries, they argued, would have been much more severe if inflicted by a Pro Bowl defensive end. Gandy labels the argument “nonsense.”

“Maybe if he were trying to kill her, her injuries would have been more severe, but they were severe enough as is,” Gandy says. “I would think he has a pretty good idea of his own strength.”

Gandy has been working on behalf of domestic violence victims since 1974, when she helped start a program for domestic violence victims and a rape crisis hotline in Louisiana. She helped write the domestic violence abuse act that became law in Louisiana in 1983. Inspired by a close friend’s involvement in an abusive marriage, she was part of an early wave of advocates who spearheaded basic policy initiatives now taken for granted.

“We had to fight the Louisiana sheriff’s association to simply make a police report every time they responded to a domestic violence call,” Gandy says. “They argued that if they wrote a report every time we responded to a domestic call we wouldn’t have time for anything else. And we’re thinking, umm, that’s the point.”

Gandy says the willingness of others like Rodriguez and Aguilar to give Hardy the benefit of the doubt is emblematic of a society that does not take violence against women seriously. Aguilar said there were certain offenses that would have been harder to swallow. If Hardy had been convicted by a judge of harming a child, for instance, “well, that’s another story,” Aguilar said.

“It shouldn’t surprise you, because these people live in the United State of America, where harming children or harming animals is considered really terrible,” Gandy says, “and abusing women is considered something that happens, and after all women lie. Men hold this view predominantly, but even women are impacted by the fact that this society does not take domestic violence seriously unless they see it with their own eyes.

“People were furious about the Ray Rice video, but the conversation here in our office was, imagine if there had been no video. The denials would have been accepted by a lot of people. It’s consistent with the way our society views domestic violence, and it makes it very difficult to combat domestic violence.”

The rest of the MMA community isn’t as forgiving as Hardy’s gym. After his first pro fight, flyweight UFC fighter Jessica-Rose Clark slammed White’s decision on the “Phone Booth Fighting” podcast. Clark was assaulted in 2016 by her fiancé, an MMA fighter, after she brought home an incorrect food order for dinner, she says. He received a fine and a suspended sentence. “I don’t believe people like that change,” Clark said. “What stops [Hardy] from going and doing it to the next girlfriend?

“Now he’s going to be televised on one of the largest broadcasts in the world, for one of the most popular sports in the world. What’s stopping him from doing it to every girl that comes into contact with him?”

A year ago, when Hardy’s foray into MMA began making headlines, Jay Glazer similarly implored the community to reject him. “It’s pretty cut and dried, here,” said Glazer, a Fox Sports NFL journalist who runs Unbreakable Performance, an MMA training facility in Hollywood. “And I asked all my fellow MMA coaches not to give this guy a chance because he doesn’t deserve it. It’s a privilege to play this sport or play football, and at Unbreakable Performance, and I know other places I’ve worked, we actually train women to defend themselves against people like Greg Hardy and with threats [of] violence.”

Dana White.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

For Clark, Glazer and much of the viewing public, the evidence that compelled Judge Becky Thorne Tin to convict Hardy in the first place is enough to pass judgment. Even White slips into a speaking pattern that assumes Hardy’s guilt. “I don’t know if he was drunk or using drugs at the time, but he did something horrible and he paid for it in many different ways, and got himself back to this point,” White told The MMQB.

He later clarified that he didn’t know whether Hardy was guilty or not.


When Hardy has fought in Fort Pierce, Fla., and Bossier City, La., and Dallas, he’s been roundly booed by audiences that appear to agree with Glazer and Clark. Lane, seen as the more experienced and well-rounded fighter before his bout with Hardy, received a flood of encouraging social media messages and interview requests. He took up MMA during his NFL career as a way to train his hands for pass-rushing, much like Hardy did. Soon, like Hardy, he started looking at the UFC as a realistic goal. Unlike Hardy, Lane left the NFL quietly and without issue after he was released by the Bears in the summer of 2014. He’d graduated from Murray State by taking online classes during his NFL career, producing a podcast as a final project in which he interviewed people he admired about the music that shaped their lives. Before venturing into a career in media, he decided to give everything he had to mixed martial arts, and discovered in the sport’s independence a new sense of freedom he hadn’t known in football.

Austen Lane in his hotel, pre-fight.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

“It was refreshing,” Lane says, “When I first started training in MMA, my coaches didn’t let me use my athleticism at all. They started me from ground zero. How to throw a proper jab, stuff that becomes mundane and kind of boring. As I progressed they started to let my use my athleticism, and I started to create my own style. So, coming from a sport that is all about structure to a sport where you still have teammates but less structure and I can get in the cage and do whatever the heck I want, that kind of self expression, that feeling of freedom is probably my favorite aspect of the sport.”

The same sense of freedom that emboldened Lane sobered Hardy, who had relied on outstanding athleticism to do much of his damage in the NFL. “People were telling me, you cant ‘play’ MMA,” Hardy says. “It’s not a game. You can’t play-fight. You gotta be dedicated because it’s gonna show in the ring. My first sparring session I couldn’t breathe. It shows in the cage: This guy trained, this guy didn’t. And that’s when I started feeling at home.”

The pairing of Lane and Hardy was a natural one for the UFC’s matchmakers—two former pro football players who had never gone to ground in a fight and were sure to draw attention. After the other Contender Series fighters weighed in on Monday morning, Hardy and Lane were asked to stick around and talk with a gaggle of reporters. Hardy was reserved but forthright as he fielded questions about the allegations. Lane was gregarious and upbeat as he recalled his amateur fight escapades, including one bout he won by knockout and then climbed the fence to celebrate, only to have family members and friends of the downed fighter try to pull him down. He was asked for the 100th time if the fight carried more weight for him given Hardy’s reputation.

Lane weighs in.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

“People, for whatever reason, love that type of stuff,” he later told The MMQB. “There’s a reason [athletes] getting arrested or getting tased is getting more retweets than guys buying kids gifts on Christmas. Whatever Greg’s done in the past, he has to look himself in the mirror and accept, good bad or indifferent. If I was to focus on the type of person he is, that’s gonna take energy away that I could be focusing on the type of fighter he is. The MMA gods don’t care about what kind of rep you have, what your belief system is, when you get in the cage.”

A Lane victory might have spared White and the UFC considerable scrutiny. Instead, Hardy’s win has the group poised to add another fighter accused of domestic abuse to its pay-per-view roster. The go-to example for UFC critics is Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, who has been accused by three women of domestic violence and has fought in 13 UFC shows since pleading no contest to assaulting his girlfriend in 2009, most recently entering the cage at UFC 210 in April 2017. (Johnson has denied wrongdoing.) HBO’s “Real Sports” in 2015 reported that the rate of domestic violence arrests among MMA athletes is 750 per 100,000, compared to 210 per 100,000 NFL players and the national rate of 360 per 100,000 males.

White has often cited mitigating circumstances for fighters accused of domestic violence, reinstating some immediately after charges were dropped, or citing third-party investigations that cleared players of wrongdoing. (The UFC says it hires outside investigators to consult on incidents involving fighters on a case-by-case basis but declined to give its investigators permission to speak about the process with The MMQB.) In Hardy’s case, White implied in an interview with reporters after Tuesday’s fight that he’d done some Hardy legwork on his own. “You talk to the people in his camp, they love the guy, men and women,” White said.

Hardy meets the press.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Aguilar says that while she supports Hardy’s career in mixed martial arts, she’s not buying the UFC’s party line. “He didn’t get convicted, so they see the big name, they say he can make us money. It’s business,” Aguilar says. “They don’t care about domestic violence. I’m being honest. I’ve been around the sport for a while and seen how things work. It’s about business. You lost? Okay, next. They’re constantly looking for popular people, the next superstar. She looks good, let’s bring her in. He has a name. Lets bring him in. It’s entertainment. It sucks.”

The impetus for the “Real Sports” report on domestic violence in mixed martial arts was the August 2014 arrest of War Machine, a former UFC fighter who would be found guilty of 29 felony counts, including sexual assault with a weapon and the kidnapping of his former girlfriend, adult film actress Christy Mack—crimes for which he was sentenced to life in prison. The story made national news when Mack shared on social media images of her injuries, including 18 broken bones, missing teeth and a ruptured liver. More than the testimony, and more than the graphic police account, the images sparked the outrage that elevated War Machine, born Jonathan Paul Koppenhaver, to national villain status. Similarly, although details of the Hardy-Holder incident were revealed in a Sports Illustrated story in September 2014, it wasn’t until November of the following year, when Deadspin published photos of Holder’s injuries, that the real backlash came.

(Diana Moskovitz, the author of the Deadspin story, says she’s not surprised by Hardy’s intimation that the photos could have been doctored: “I know what he’s trying to do when he says that. I haven’t seen any evidence that those photos were faked, and that would be a lot of photos to fake by multiple officers. Before photos of injuries, people would dismiss a woman’s accusations by saying, well, there’s no visual evidence. Now the evidence has evolved, and so the defense evolves too.”)

Before the photos were published, Hardy had found in the Cowboys a team desperate for pass-rushing help and willing to take the public relations hit that came with signing the disgraced former Pro Bowler. Hardy believed he was getting his life on track—while sitting in jail after the Holder incident he says he decided he’d no longer pursue traditional relationships, and he later proposed an “arrangement” with a close friend he’d met early in his pro career. She’d have his child, and they’d raise him or her together, with no romantic attachment.

Hardy’s son, Carter Dallas, was born Sept 8, 2015, named for the city that gave him a second chance in the NFL. He tattooed a Cowboys star in his hand, with Carter’s name in the center. Any reporter who noticed it in passing might have asked Hardy why he had a star tattooed on his hand after only a couple months with the Cowboys, but no one noticed.

“I arranged to have a kid, with someone I could trust,” Hardy says matter-of-factly. “I no longer wanted to be married, to do it the long way, the correct way according to the Bible, the proper way, the down-south way. The reason I was in a relationship was to start a family. Never been arrested, never been in trouble, so I felt like I wanted to start a family. I hit a snag there. I felt like the only way to have someone to pass everything down to was to do it like that. I have trust issues now.”

Hardy has his son’s name, and a Cowboys star, tattooed on his hand.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

After months of seeing warnings on social media in Charlotte not to return to the restaurants and bars he once frequented, Hardy found in Dallas permission to hit the nightlife again. “Being in no man’s land leaves you without somebody having my back,” Hardy says. “Having the Dallas Cowboys was like having the biggest bully in the world have your back. It said, Greg’s okay, give him a chance, he’s a Cowboy. That launched me into a party phase. I got away from reality.”

In his Cowboys debut, a Week 5 game in 2015 against the Patriots, he sacked Tom Brady twice and collected four tackles. He was practicing like an All-Pro and influencing a room full of inexperienced pass-rushers to do the same. But after the Deadspin story, Cowboys sources say Hardy’s mood soured. He slept through meetings and practiced in a fog, and as he went, so went his impressionable young teammates. The Cowboys chose not to re-sign him after the season. In September 2016, Dallas police found a baggy allegedly with cocaine residue after pulling him over. After that arrest, Hardy says he underwent court-ordered drug and alcohol counseling, submitted himself to a rehab program and took voluntary therapy and anger management sessions.

“I was depressed,” Hardy says. “I had a child, I had shingles. I was reading all the feedback. Pictures surface. Get him out of here. How do you choose to keep living? It’d be very hard to bring me to suicide, but I did think about quitting, disappearing, falling off the face of the earth. But it’s not for me. It’s for my son. It’s to redeem and bring honor to my name. I want to prove that this is Greg Hardy. There was never a guy who had horns and devil wings and lived on Lucifer’s stoop.”

Hardy smiles and reflects on what he’s said: “Just in case you wanted one of those soundbites.


In February 2014 I met Hardy while on on assignment for SI. We rode around Manhattan in a black Suburban during Super Bowl week and talked about his first Pro Bowl selection and his desire to be paid a “crapload of money.” He was loud then, and supremely confident, a world removed from the gentle giant who sat across from me in Coconut Creek, who now speaks to female MMA fighters with outstanding manners and dutifully shadowboxes off to the side when he’s the odd man out during one-on-one warmups. He was mean then. Curtis, his friend since high school and former manager, rode with us through midtown until Hardy spotted a hot dog stand, told the driver to stop and ordered Curtis out of the car. “Sammy, get me a hot dog,” Hardy barked, without a hint of sarcasm. Sammy got him a hot dog.

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

“I wish when I was 20 that somebody would have stressed the importance of it all,” Hardy says now. “You get a sense that you’re untouchable in the NFL. People hoist you up. I wish somebody would have come and told me, like Caesar, You’re only a man, brother. You ain’t doin’ shit right now. You’re not untouchable.”

Much has changed in four years, but Hardy still has an ear and a tongue for a good quote. He started transforming into an “entertainer,” by his own description, in October 2008, when he appeared on the cover of SI leaping toward a flailing Tim Tebow during Ole Miss’s 31-30 upset of Tebow’s Florida Gators. One of his former college coaches told me the magazine stardom went to his head. Years later he developed “the Kraken,” a wild-eyed alter-ego for game days (the name comes from a sea monster of Scandanavian myth). “The Kraken is an outlet,” Hardy said in 2014. “People say I’m different. But you can’t put it all on the line—the pressure of this game, feeding your family—and not be different. The Kraken is like putting on a mask. I’m growing to love it.”

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

Hardy says he still loves football more than mixed martial arts, but he respects MMA more. “The sport demands so much respect and humility,” he says. “If you don’t match its respect and humility back, it will crush you. Getting beat up and retaught and seeing how humble Junior dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski act, like they’re nobodies. That’s way different than a football locker room.

“In football it’s about the ego and measuring and who’s the biggest man on campus,” he says. “Here it’s about the art, the craft. It’s about respecting each other. Somebody chokes you out, but he’s trying to work his craft, not embarrass me. And then afterwards he showed me how he did it and how to stop it.”

The wrestling, Dana White says, is what Hardy needs to work on most. It’s a safe assumption given that none of Hardy’s four fights have gone to the ground. Lane was his biggest challenge yet, landing a straight jab in the first 30 seconds that connected and influenced Hardy to charge the taller fighter and bring the fight in close. After the stunning KO, Hardy peeled off his gloves and sat in the dressing room while Padden bounced off the walls and texted with coaches back in Florida. Hardy looked at his hands and grinned: “It feels good to be back in the spotlight, man.”

He called his mother, who didn’t answer. He guessed she was still working. He went to a press conference in a small kitchen next to the gym, and an MMA reporter lobbed Hardy the kind of question he could get used to, the kind of question we ask athletes when all we’d like to do is get along: “How long do you think you’re going to battle that stigma, and is that difficult, that you’re gonna have to keep addressing this interview after interview, fight after fight?” Hardy told the reporter: “If you’re doing all the interviews I’ll address it all day, man. You’re really cool.”

That night Hardy sat in a booth at Scotch Prime, a steakhouse in The Palms Casino Hotel, with a pair of friends who flew in last-minute for the fight and mused over the attention he was now receiving. He fielded dozens of texts from friends current and former in the span of two hours, after radio silence in the days leading up to the fight. A streaming service reached out to one of his managers regarding a possible documentary. “This is a message to everybody in the world that I’m willing to go up against it every day of my life, to prove that I am a human being,” he told reporters after the fight. “I have worth, I’m willing to earn it. And that I’m an entertainer, one of the best in the world. I keep the fans happy, and I love them just as much as I love my family.”

Kohjiro Kinno for The MMQB/Sports Illustrated

And yet there’s a looming, inexorable reality hanging over Hardy. It may not happen in his next fight. It may not happen in his next five fights. But someday, unless he goes out on top—no one ever does—Hardy will be knocked out, or will otherwise submit to the impermanence of triumph in mixed martial arts. You can’t make a chin stronger, or buttress the delicate wiring that tells the brain to go dark upon sudden and violent collision.

But he’ll wake up, and part of him will be okay with it, because at least someone is watching. At least he’s back in the light.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)