Las Vegas -- By now, pretty much everybody knows the Dan Hardy story.
The guy basically comes out of nowhere, breaks into the UFC in late 2008 and racks up four wins in 13 months. He takes a title shot against Georges St. Pierre, gets dominated, as many believed he would. That loss turns into a four-fight losing streak, during which he looks downright awful. At this point, he’s still got a job with the UFC, but just barely. Where might one find Dan Hardy? Check the gutter.
That’s the story in a nutshell and Hardy himself will tell you that’s the gist of it. But to hear the 29-year-old tell it, it’s a little more in depth than what’s on the surface. This wasn’t a simple case of a short-on-talent, one-hit wonder.
When asked to sum up his journey in mixed martial arts, Hardy has a lot to say.
“The thing is, when I got to the UFC it was like, ‘Wow. I made it,’” Hardy told ESPN.com. “Those first four fights, I just went in and fought. Whatever happens, happens. I didn’t feel like there was a great deal of pressure on me.
“Then the [Mike] Swick fight threw me into a title picture a lot sooner than I had anticipated. There were lots of pressures that came with that and they took the enjoyment out of fighting. I was the first Brit to get a title shot. I only had four fights in the UFC and no one thought I deserved a title shot. That was a lot of pressure.
Though things seemed to be coming together on the outside, internally things weren't so smooth.
“I had a new Thai boxing coach," Hardy said. "I had no jiu-jitsu coach because I had gotten in a disagreement with him. I lost my grandfather during that camp, which I’ve never really got back together from. The last four weeks before the fight, I had cameras following me 24 hours a day.
“I went in there, basically hoping to show I didn’t have any quit in me. After the fight I was like, ‘That really couldn’t have gone any better.’ If I had knocked him out, they would have said it was a lucky punch. But the fact I got my a-- kicked for 25 minutes and survived, people said, ‘Well, he’s not on the same level technically, but he’s game.’
While the outcome couldn't have been better for Hardy, what proceeded afterward weren't exactly ideal.
“After that, my ego swelled. Because I performed better in that fight than people thought, I got respect from the fans. All of a sudden everyone wants to know what you’re doing because you’ve got a colorful Mohawk and a British accent. It was exhausting. I couldn’t focus on being a better mixed martial artist. I had to focus on being the guy everyone wanted me to be.”
The reality is, Hardy wasn’t ready to fight St. Pierre for the title. His game had holes. He was bouncing between coaches, almost regularly, because of a lack of resources. While St. Pierre could invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into training, Hardy’s cornermen consisted of a Thai coach with no MMA background, a brown belt jiu-jitsu student under Eddie Bravo who Hardy flew out because he was a friend, and a strength and conditioning coach.
“I was working with what was available to me,” Hardy said. “I was chatting with GSP’s coaches [during a recent trip to Montreal], and they said, ‘We watched that fight back and were listening to your coaches. You were on your own in there.’ That was how it was the whole training camp. They did their best, but they weren’t able to give me what I needed.”
Eight fights into his UFC career, Hardy is finally starting to train like a professional.
He’s put his faith in Las Vegas-based boxing coach Jimmy Gifford and puts in work at Robert Drysdale’s jiu-jitsu academy three days a week. He’s also employed UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson as his “ground coach,” primarily to improve his wrestling.
And, for the first time in his career, he’s turning down fights. Hardy has declined multiple opportunities to fight already, including a very tempting offer to fight Matt Brown at UFC 138 in Birmingham, England.
Hardy says passing on fights has been difficult, but he needs time if he’s serious about turning his career around. He became so unraveled in the past two years, he barely recognizes himself when he watches film of the Chris Lytle loss.
“As much fun as that fight was, it was an awful performance,” he said. “Chris is not the most technical striker. If I had fought him three years ago in a kickboxing match, I don’t think he could have hit me.
“But I was learning from two different striking coaches at the time, with two very different styles. As a result, I went in there just throwing punches with no real regard for any kind of technique. I am a smart fighter, but when I get in there I just want to bang. I don’t know why. But I’m feeling like I’ve come out the other side now.”
Hardy admits he very nearly called it a career after suffering a humiliating loss to Anthony Johnson at UFC Fight Night 24 in March.
After retreating to his locker room following that co-main event fight, he told his team members, which included Nelson, he was finished. He wasn’t enjoying himself anymore and wasn’t sure how to get back to that.
Of course, he eventually snapped out of that night’s disappointment, but his mindset still wasn’t where it's at today. As cliché as it sounds, Hardy is starting to believe in himself once again in Las Vegas. And the guy who made it to a title shot on basically raw talent alone, is finally starting to evolve.
“I think Dan Hardy needed somebody to give him a hug,” Gifford said. “He can fight. He belongs here. Let’s slow some stuff down and train. I asked him, ‘When have you ever trained?’ He’s sparred and hit mitts, but has he ever really learned? Nobody has really spent time with him.
“The good news is he works. The rumor was he didn’t put the time in. No. Nobody put the time in on Dan Hardy. This is a new Dan Hardy now. He gets a couple wins, he’s right back in the picture. And he’s capable of it.”