Dan Hardy is a fighter that millions of fans either love or love to hate.
He is young, extremely talented and overflowing with confidence. Actually, some might call it hubris because the Mohawk-toting Brit exhibited his great confidence early in his UFC career with venomous pre-fight trash talking.
Hardy would almost surely call it mental warfare, rather than trash talking, because he loves to mentally toy with his opponents in the months, weeks and days leading up to a fight. His words are designed to enrage an opponent, thereby making the affair an emotional one, instead of a calculated athletic competition.
The trash talking also made him a polarizing commodity among the fans. Many loved his antics, while others hated them. His mouth had indeed written some rather large checks that some fans hoped his rear end would not be able to cash.
The only thing everybody seemed to agree on was the fact that this kid had serious game, particularly in the standup arena, as he cut through his first three UFC opponents like a white-hot knife through butter. Those wins put him on the proverbial map.
But, alas, those first three wins were against Akihiro Gono, Rory Markham and Marcus Davis—solid opponents, but certainly not top-ranked welterweights.
Hardy received his first opportunity to face a truly elite welterweight back in November when he stepped into the Octagon opposite Mike Swick in a title elimination bout. Hardy’s trash-talking ways all but disappeared during fight preparations, as the brash fighter appeared to be all business for the first time in his UFC career.
His critics interpreted his change in behavior as excessive nerves or intimidation replacing his normal unshakable confidence. Hardy answered those questions with a thorough thrashing of Swick to earn his first shot at welterweight gold.
The win over Swick was an impressive feat for sure. Trying to conquer Georges St-Pierre is a different ballgame altogether.
GSP is the unquestioned king of the 170-lb mountain. He is one of the top two or three pound-for-pound fighters on a planet. He is a man with no perceptible major holes in his game. And he is a whole bunch of other things that no other welterweight walking the earth can claim to be.
In other words, Saturday night is the toughest test of Hardy’s young career by gargantuan leaps and bounds. Actually, referring to the fight as a test for Hardy doesn’t pay appropriate homage to the difficulty of the task at hand. Facing GSP is as close to an insurmountable obstacle as one can currently find in the land of the welterweights.
Of course, neither GSP nor any other fighter in the world is perfect. Any man can be defeated if he fails to properly prepare, makes a mistake during competition or is simply outperformed. Matt Serra faced far longer odds facing GSP at UFC 69 than Hardy faces on Saturday night. And he won by technical knockout in the opening stanza.
Hardy’s task is by no means impossible. It’s just an unbelievably difficult one.
If he wants to leave New Jersey with the title strapped around his waist, he will need to fight a near perfect fight because he doesn’t appear to have any advantages over the champion on paper at least. The first step toward fighting the perfect fight is to keep the action on the feet.
GSP is without peers in terms of his ability to seamlessly transition from striking to wrestling. That ability makes him an exponentially more effective in both facets of the game because his opponents are constantly off balance wondering whether a strike or a takedown is coming next. Hardy needs to find a way to dictate to the champion where the fight will unfold, rather than solely trying to react to and defend against GSP’s tactics.
The best way to prevent GSP from controlling the action is to back him up with strikes and then circle out of harm’s way. Accordingly, Hardy should immediately take the center of the Octagon when the referee signals for the action to begin. GSP fights from a traditional kickboxing stance and loves to lead with the jab. Hardy needs to beat him to the jab by firing first, firing straight and quickly snapping back his left hand to protect against counter rights.
He should mix up the rhythm of his jab—single jabs followed by a half step to the left, double jabs followed by an outside leg or a traditional one-two combination. The key is to keep changing up the attack and then stepping just out of reach so that GSP cannot time his counters.
BJ Penn did just that in the first round of his fight with GSP at UFC 58 and appeared to be easily winning the fight through the first several minutes of action. Penn was so effective pumping jabs and lead right hands and then changing the angle of his attack that GSP struggled to get into a rhythm. Hardy can do the same thing.
The challenger should be careful not to fall in love with his own handiwork if he finds early success on the feet. GSP is very good at stepping through a punch and forcing a clinch. Hardy does not want to find himself in that situation because it will either lead to GSP walking him to the fence and controlling him in that position or the champion taking him to the canvas. Either way, Hardy will find himself at a disadvantage and thus his odds of winning will rapidly diminish.
If GSP is successful taking the action to the ground, Hardy must not waste time trying to work his rubber guard. Sure, he is a brown belt in Eddie Bravo’s Tenth Planet Jiu-Jitsu. Brown belt-level jiu-jitsu isn’t enough to counter GSP’s ground control or ground-and-pound attack. Hardy should therefore look to scramble back to his feet at all costs if the fight hits the ground. He should rely on his solid submission defense to keep himself out of a fight-ending hold, but again, Hardy should avoid playing the guard game and take risks to scramble back to his feet where he is at his best.
Another thing that Hardy should forget on Saturday night is the knockout. This kid is a really big puncher. If he keeps touching GSP with right hands or left hooks, he will win by knockout. If he tries to win by one-punch knockout, then he will end up winding up on his shots, which will give GSP plenty of warning as to what is coming. Thus, the champion will likely be able to avoid the telegraphed shots and counter with either big right hands or explosive double-leg takedowns, both of which could permanently alter the momentum of the fight.
The notable exception to that rule is if Hardy can goad GSP into wild exchanges. The Brit has an exceptional chin and very real punching power. He can rely on those two things during ferocious exchanges. Sure, he might get knocked out for the first time in his career, but he will have the best opportunity to score a knockout of his own if GSP plants his feet and fires recklessly.
Although Hardy’s key to victory is keeping the fight on the feet, that doesn’t mean that he will have an easy time striking with GSP. The UFC welterweight champion is an extremely versatile striker. He is a Kyokushin karate expert, which is a full-contact martial art designed for actual street combat. That is why GSP possesses both boxer-like hands and elite kicks that he fires with excellent speed and power.
There is little doubt that he feels confident standing with Hardy. It is all but certain that GSP’s game plan will be to come out and strike with Hardy early in the fight. Nonetheless, the best part of GSP’s game, as previously mentioned, is that he blends his striking skills seamlessly with his wrestling, which leaves opponents vulnerable to both.
GSP can completely take Hardy out of his game by making him stress over defending the takedown. He can do that by shooting for a double-leg takedown during his opening salvo. GSP shouldn’t worry much about whether he is successful with that first takedown attempt. Even if he is unsuccessful, it will serve as a vivid reminder that wrestling is a big part of GSP’s game. Moreover, if Hardy is able to defend an initial takedown attempt, he may grow a bit overconfident in his sprawl-and-brawl abilities, which will make it that much easier for GSP to take him down shortly thereafter.
Once the action hits the floor, GSP, who doesn’t have a formal wrestling background, should be able to control and punish Hardy. That is something that nobody else has been able to do in the UFC to date, but again, GSP isn’t just another fighter. In fact, he isn’t just another wrestler, either. Some say he’s got the goods to compete for a spot on the Canadian National wrestling team.
That seems crazy, but GSP is a special athlete.
On the feet, GSP’s keys are very similar to Hardy’s—everything starts with the jab, though he will be less concerned with circling and probably more focused on walking down his opponent.
GSP’s jab is the best in the division—bar none. He jackhammers opponents with it because he snaps it with deep conviction and, as is the key for Hardy, continually changes up the rhythm of his jab. He fires it standalone, doubles it up, mixes it with lots of different combinations, and, of course, uses it as a distraction to quickly change levels and shoot in for a takedown.
The only problem is that he occasionally leaves his jab hanging just a bit after doubling up on it, particularly in the middle and later rounds. Hardy absolutely must focus on that and be ready to counter with a lights-out right hand each time GSP double taps him.
GSP doesn’t need to circle because he isn’t worried about being taken down, but he does need to move his upper body side to side while attacking in order to avoid destructive counter fire. GSP doesn’t want to get into a slugfest with his more explosive foe, but he does want to pepper him on the feet and keep him moving backwards.
At the end of the day, this is a fight that is GSP’s to lose. He has far more weapons in his arsenal and seamlessly blends those weapons in a way that few others can match. Once the action gets underway, it will be readily apparent to Hardy that he has never faced or sparred with a fighter of GSP’s caliber.
At least, that is what the world believes based on each man’s career in the Octagon to date. Maybe Hardy is an unrefined diamond just waiting to break free of the excess rock. Maybe he is a champion in waiting. Maybe he is Serra Part II and will shock the sporting world with the biggest MMA upset of 2010 to date.
Maybe. Just maybe.