Did Greg Hardy make it to the UFC just six months after his professional debut because he’s an elite heavyweight prospect or because he’s a controversial former Pro Bowl defensive lineman who is guaranteed to attract attention every time his name is mentioned?
Those who know the 30-year-old heavyweight largely as a result of his off-the-field issues during his days with the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys will argue it is because he’s a celebrity lightning rod — a recognizable name who is sure to pull in audiences as he makes the walk to the Octagon for the first time this weekend against Allen Crowder in Brooklyn, New York.
Looking at his resume and projecting his upside, however, paints a picture of a next-level athlete who has taken to the sport quickly and displays the kind of power and potential that fans and critics would be universally drooling over if it were anyone other than Hardy.
A year after announcing his intention to begin training, Hardy took his first amateur fight.
It lasted 32 seconds.
Two more sudden finishes followed, and this past summer, Hardy made his professional debut on the opening episode of Season 2 of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Positioned opposite fellow 2010 draft pick Austen Lane, who entered with a 4-0 record and four first-round stoppage wins, Hardy needed just 57 seconds to dispatch the defensive end who spent time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.
He returned eight weeks later and put it on Tebaris Gordon, ending the fight in 17 seconds. Seven weeks after that, Hardy registered his third consecutive first-round stoppage win, making it through his first three professional bouts in a combined 127 seconds.
“(It brings) a lot of excitement,” he said of competing under the UFC banner for the first time. “(This is) my opportunity to go out, give it my best shot and show everybody what I’ve got. I feel honored to be in this position and even be thought of when it comes to that conversation, so it feels amazing for me.
Anyone who earned six stoppage wins in a 10-month period where the longest fight lasted just 96 seconds would garner interest from a major promotion, especially a heavyweight. That interest increases tenfold when it’s a professional athlete from another sport crossing over into the cage, just as we’ve seen with Olympic and collegiate wrestling standouts throughout the years, as well as the recent increased focus on those transitioning from the grappling world.
But Hardy comes with baggage, and while the heavyweight newcomer is looking for a clean start as a mixed martial artist, talk of his past is something he is going to have to contend with whenever he signs a contract to compete.
“It has been a complete transformation for me,” Hardy said regarding the changes he’s made in his life since transitioning to MMA. “I’ve gotten to know myself a lot. There are a lot of changes you have to go through in this sport in order to stick around, and my journey has caused a lot of revelations.
“Overall, it’s me getting to see who I am and what changes I needed to make, more so than anything else.
“The mark of a good athlete is to stay focused and I would like to think that I’m one of the best in the world, so I’m really good at staying focused and keeping my eye on the prize,” he added when asked about the constant questions about his past mistakes and the distractions they present. “That’s been a key and a goal — focus on yourself throughout the process of figuring out all these things I need to work on. You’ve got to stay focused on yourself or it will never get better, so I’ve pretty much just be staying focused.”
And he seems to be approaching this weekend’s showdown with Crowder with an impressive amount of perspective.
Stationed in the co-main event for his debut appearance in the Octagon after just three professional appearances, it likely wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Hardy came out talking about championship aspirations and barking back at those who questioned how quickly he rose to this level or the merits of his co-main event placement this weekend.
Some might have even expected it.
But that hasn’t been the case.
Instead, Hardy has spoken with reverence about getting to compete on the biggest stage in the sport and crossing the threshold into the Octagon on Saturday, while acknowledging that the best way to prove he belongs is to actually not worry about proving he belongs.
“I’ve been in battles my whole life and you develop a kind of respect for everybody that steps into the cage, steps on the field,” began Hardy. “(This weekend) is just about making sure that I honor everybody that has come before me, everybody that has helped me get here every time I step into the cage. It’s about putting out the best product, for me, and I think with that attitude, it has always put me on top and left everybody entertained.
“(As for showing that I deserve to be here), I think the best way, ironically, is to not go out and try to prove anything, but rather to go out, do my job and do what I was trained to do.”
And while he hopes that results in another early finish, the excited newcomer has no interest in making predictions for how things will play out on Saturday night in Brooklyn.
“I don’t ever pretend to comprehend what the Gods have planned for me in the future, so I’ll just say I’m going to go out and give it my all and I hope he falls when I hit him.”