Rookie seasons in professional sports are about proving you belong.
While every first-year athlete enters with different expectations and has their own journeys, everyone’s first season is about trying to find your lane and building optimism for the future. Not everyone is successful. Lottery picks disappoint and undrafted free agents surprise.
Greg Hardy had an eventful rookie year on the UFC roster in 2019, and as he readies to kick off his sophomore season in the Octagon on Saturday night at UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida, the eager heavyweight says he’s both right where he thought he would be and still behind schedule in his transition from the gridiron to the cage.
“It’s going to sound like the cocky answer, but I feel like I’m exactly where I said I was going to be,” said Hardy, reflecting on his place in the division just days before squaring off with Yorgan De Castro in the opening bout of this weekend’s pay-per-view main card. "I feel like every single fight, the difference in my game, the difference that you see in Greg Hardy, the fighter, has been substantial.
“That was my goal, initially, to make sure the difference could be seen; to make sure I was maturing over time and applying it to every fight so that every fight, you get a better fighter, a more evolved fighter.
“I think I’ve accomplished every goal as far as that goes, but in terms of the different levels to this, I feel like right now, I would say I’m behind schedule,” continued the former NFL defensive lineman. “The overall goal is to be a well-rounded fighter. It’s to be the heavyweight Jon Jones. It’s to be Cain Velasquez. It’s to be those kinds of guys and I need to make sure after each and every fight that it’s continuing to come together.”
Those are lofty targets for any fighter to set for themselves and perhaps even greater for someone who only began his transition to mixed martial arts three and a half years ago, but whether he reaches that elite level or not, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to question Hardy’s drive given how quickly he’s proven he belongs.
Hardy fought five times in 2019, with two victories, two losses, and one no contest verdict. After making his first walk to the Octagon in January and showing obvious signs of inexperience against Allen Crowder, he closed out his rookie year going 15 minutes with Russian contender Alexander Volkov in his hometown of Moscow on short notice.
It was the 38th fight in the veteran’s decade-long career. It was Hardy’s eighth career fight and it came just 17 months after he made his pro debut.
Posting eight appearances in that short an amount of time is the kind of pace few fighters can keep and even fewer heavyweights come close to, and going three hard rounds with “Drago” on his home turf on three weeks’ notice is an impressive feat for a first-year UFC fighter.
“It was my ‘I’m here’ statement and it felt really good, especially after the controversy,” said Hardy, whose win over Ben Sosoli in mid-October was ruled a no contest after the asthmatic used an inhaler between the second and third rounds. “I wanted to make sure that I earned it because I feel like the media and some of the fans tried their hardest to diminish my Ben Sosoli fight, which was a great fight. They wanted to shine a light on the negative after I spent so much time that year showing people that I deserve to be here.
“So going to Russia and being able to fight such a great opponent was my moment to redirect the attention and show that I am here to fight. I am here to be the best and it’s possible.”
Though he has lofty goals, Hardy is also acutely aware of the fact that you have to walk before you can run, and he takes every opportunity to make it clear that he wants to ensure he does things the right way, with a focus on advancing his skills and progressing up the ranks slowly.
“The biggest thing is (really seeing) that there are levels to this game,” he said of his first-year takeaways. “I knew there was a difference in opponents, but there really are levels to this game. Every time you go up, it changes — the dynamic changes, the security level changes; everything changes.
“It’s also the amount of work you have to put in to elevate,” continued the 31-year-old, who scored first-round stoppage wins over Dmitrii Smoliakov and Juan Adams during his rookie season in the Octagon. “I put in a tremendous amount of work last year and it got me to a great point, ending the year in Russia fighting Volkov, which let me know that this year, in order to keep up that same pace, it has to be a whole other level.
“I think being able to adapt to that coming into this year is going to be instrumental for me. It’s opened my eyes to how demanding this sport is and I’m excited to attack it. I like challenges.”
He’s facing a serious challenge on Saturday night in the form of De Castro, the 32-year-old from Cape Verde and fighting out of Fall River, Massachusetts who had an impressive rookie campaign of his own last year.
In June, he earned a contract to compete in the UFC with a first-round stoppage win over Alton Meeks on the first episode of season three of the Contender Series, chopping the legs out from under the heavily favored hopeful. A little less than four months later, De Castro made his official Octagon debut, venturing to Melbourne, Australia to take on local newcomer Justin Tafa in the opening bout of the UFC 243 main card at Marvel Stadium.
Two minutes into the fight, Tafa marched forward looking to find a home for a big overhand right, but De Castro beat him to the punch. A quick right hand dropped Tafa like he’d been shot and gave the debuting De Castro a walk-off win while pushing his record to 6-0 and establishing him as one to watch in the heavyweight ranks.
“Heavyweight fireworks,” said Hardy when asked what to expect when he and De Castro step into the cage to kick off the main card this weekend in Jacksonville. “You’ve heard it plenty of times and I’ve never let you down or lied to you about it. I love this.
“Anybody that wants to step in there and go to war, that’s my kind of person. There is no trash talking. There is a mutual respect and it’s dangerous. That’s entertainment for me, that’s entertainment for the fans, and that’s what we’re going to deliver.
I believe in him. I believe in him as much as my fans believe in me. I want a war, especially coming off that loss in Russia. It’s time for me to get back to the roots of Greg Hardy and what we’ve been training for. Let’s be the ‘Prince of War’ and start moving towards the ‘King of War’ and assert my dominance. I’m excited for it.”
Yes, Hardy intends to switch up his nickname as he continues to make his way forward in this sport, rather than remaining the “Prince of War” for the entirety of his career.
But even in something as simple and inconsequential as that, the UFC sophomore recognizes another opportunity to set goals for himself and reaffirm his desire to take things one step at a time and earn his way to the next level of the monarchy.
“If I become the ‘King of War’ too soon, it would diminish everything I’ve worked for and everybody would go back to saying, ‘He’s self-proclaiming,’” said Hardy. “I’m waiting for those big fights, those big moments where I can overcome these obstacles and beat my first ranked opponent, and then I’ll become the ‘King of War.’
“And if the video game allows me, maybe I’ll eventually become the new ‘God of War’ or the ‘Lord of War.’ But it’s all about progress and evolution and this is my first evolution; this is still just the baby version.
“I think what I needed as a freshman, as a rookie, was to go through these things and experience the business,” he added. “Overall, I would say it was a great season, a great year, and I think I’ve evolved to the next level. I’ve become a sophomore fighter and I’m becoming more dangerous by the day.”