The clock is ticking on UFC's Greg Hardy experiment

·Combat columnist
·6-min read

LAS VEGAS — Greg Hardy is essentially Dana White’s science project. The UFC president decided to find out how quickly NFL athleticism, elite MMA coaching and a burning desire to succeed could turn Hardy from an All-Pro defensive lineman into the heavyweight champion of the world.

Thirty months into the experiment, the only thing that is clear is that Hardy’s belief in himself is rock solid.

“I’m a future king, brother,” Hardy said near the end of a nearly 20-minute chat with the media three days ahead of his fight Saturday with Tai Tuivasa on the main card of UFC 264 at sold-out T-Mobile Arena.

Hardy turned to MMA after he was blackballed by the NFL following a domestic violence incident when he was with the Carolina Panthers. He was never convicted, as he said in front of the MMA media Wednesday for probably the 1,500th time since joining the UFC in 2019, but when he became a free agent after his year with the Dallas Cowboys, nobody came calling.

Hardy was gifted with the kind of rare athleticism few inherit, and he wasn’t ready to give up on professional sports, so he said goodbye to the NFL and took up MMA.

It’s still tough to figure what to make of Hardy this long into his MMA career. He’s 7-3 with a no-contest overall and 4-3 with a no-contest in the UFC. None of the four men he’s beaten is still in the UFC.

White has been a huge supporter of Hardy since the day Hardy first fought on his "Contender Series" show in 2018. Despite the rocky first 30 months, White is impressed with what Hardy has done.

“Listen, when you have a guy who came into [MMA] at his age [30], had played football his whole life, played at a pro level, then to come over here and he’s still actually in the UFC, yeah, I’m impressed with what he’s done,” White said.

Hardy was emphatic about his progress Wednesday, and though most of the men he has beaten would in another era have been classified as “tomato cans,” it’s an enormously difficult task to do what he has attempted.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 19: Greg Hardy prepares to fight Marcin Tybura in a heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Has Greg Hardy (7-3, 1 NC) peaked as an MMA fighter? (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

There is a scene in an episode of the classic 1950s sitcom, “The Honeymooners,” in which the show’s central character, bus driver Ralph Kramden, brags to his boss that he is a championship-level golfer.

His boasting immediately backfires, though. His boss believes him and quickly invites him to play in his club’s member-guest tournament in two days. Ralph, of course, had never played golf.

But he buys a book on golf instruction and tries to practice in the kitchen of his tiny New York apartment. After realizing he’s not able to learn to play in his kitchen, he turns to his friend, Ed Norton, in despair.

“I’m never going to be able to learn to play golf in two days, Norton,” Ralph says. “It’s going to take at least a week.”

Anyone who has tried to master golf understands that joke.

But in a strange way, 60 years later, that line may also be applicable to Hardy.

When Hardy signed with the UFC after two first-round knockouts in 2018, it was easy to close one’s eyes and imagine what an NFL All-Pro could do as a heavyweight with the proper training.

Hardy was big, quick, fast, strong and athletic, more so than just about anyone he was likely to face inside the cage. The UFC signed him to a developmental contract after the second of his wins and had him fight once outside the organization before bringing him to the UFC in 2019.

So on one level, it’s remarkable that he’s fighting an opponent as highly touted as Tuivasa, and has fought a top five heavyweight in Alexander Volkov, in such a short period of time.

“I’m here to put everything I have into the ring and I’m here to entertain at the highest level,” Hardy said. “I could sit here and dance for you and give you the Sean O’Malley, ‘I’m going to knock him out in two,’ and, ‘Even when I lose, I don’t lose,’ but that ain’t real, guys.

“I’m the Everyman’s man. I’m the guy who came in here and didn’t know anything and told you that I was going to be here for a long time. And here I am.”

Hardy won't play the villain, calls out fan favorite Lewis

He came with a reputation, courtesy of the domestic violence arrest. He angrily denies having committed a crime, and launched yet again Wednesday into another tirade when asked if he’d be willing to embrace the villain’s role many want to hang on him.

He was having no part of that.

“I’m not a villain,” he said. “I’m well spoken. I’m pretty. I eat well. I have kids. I’m a great father. I’m a great citizen, an awesome American. I’m a Republican guy. I vote. What kind of villain would I be? I’ve never been convicted of anything that they said I was.

“Dude, I’m a regular, run-of-the-mill guy who is learning on the way up and taking responsibility for his mess-ups and taking over, man. If I bow down to this villainous, cowardice stigma, dogma that they try to put on me, I wouldn’t be a prince now, would I?”

Hardy was on a roll. He ripped Tuivasa’s penchant for drinking alcohol out of a shoe — a shoey — after he wins. Hardy blasted ex-heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder, made fun of a weightlifting video he’d put out and came out swinging at UFC heavyweight Derrick Lewis.

“He decided to grace his fat, Popeye’s, greasy chicken lips with my name when I was a peasant, when I was a young child,” Hardy said of Lewis. “What would it look like for me to attack someone who just came off the Contender Series right now. You’d be like, ‘Ah, he’s childish,’ but you guys let that man gyrate [and] belittle me?

“He needs to be handled. The ex-con who doesn’t know when to shut up. I’m going to put him down when I need to. Of course, timing’s everything. I’m still not there yet and I’m willing to admit that he is the better man right now. But he’s still a fatty.”

That was the kind of day it was for Hardy. If he ever puts it all together in the cage as well as he has out of it, the UFC may have something.

For now, though, he’s still a very large work in progress, learning on the job against some of the most vicious men in the world.

It’s not an easy gig, but it’s the one he’s signed up for and is so happy to have.

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