Hearty test awaits Brit at UFC 89

Step it up: Dan Hardy, left, is ready to try his fists in the Octagon. Sherdog.com

Dan Hardy never passes on a challenge.

Based out of Team Rough House, he will face arguably his stiffest test to date when makes his promotional debut against Japanese veteran Akihiro Gono at UFC 89 at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, England, on Saturday.

Hardy (19-6), who earlier this year signed a four-fight deal with the UFC, might be a new face to many mixed martial arts fans, but his talents are well-respected at home and abroad.

"I'm the kind of fighter that likes to break people down, mixing in fast kicking and fast punching," he said. "I'm always looking at finishing a fight. I'll pick people apart and smile at them in the process. When I fight, you know it's going to be exciting."

A professional since 2004, Hardy cut his teeth in the British fight promotion Cage Warriors, in which he became a champion at two weights. A black belt in tae kwon do, he holds a victory over Hidetaka Monma and has tested himself against UFC veterans Forrest Petz, Chad Reiner and Yoshiyuki Yoshida.

Training alongside respected fighters like Paul Daley, Andre Winner and Jim Wallhead at the Team Rough House gym has benefited the native of Nottingham, England.

"We do a lot of stand-up stuff, a lot of sprawl-and-brawl," Hardy said. "A lot of our guys have got a similar style, so we work off each other. We work a lot of technical stuff."

Hardy also trains jiu-jitsu under Nathan Leverton with the Leicester Shoot Fighters.
Leverton speaks highly of Hardy, who has won eight of his past nine fights -- a disqualification loss to Yoshida the only blemish.

"He's one of the most professional guys I have ever worked with," Leverton said. "He's not just one of those guys who turn up to train. He structures his training sessions for each fight. The main thing about him is his drive and focus; he's not in the sport just to be a big name down at the pub. When people ask him what he does, he tells them he's a professional athlete, not a cage fighter. A guy like that is a dream to work with."

Hardy also fine-tunes his submission game with groundbreaking Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Eddie Bravo in Los Angeles. As a result, he calls California home for a substantial part of the year.

"I have been training there for the past two years, going backwards and forwards between there and England," Hardy said. "My girlfriend lives in L.A., and it's come to the stage that I am based out here most of the time. I like being in L.A. The weather's nice, the people are polite. … It's a good place. But come fight time, I come back over [to England] to prepare at the Rough House."

For the stand-up side of his game, Hardy works with Team Rough House's respected striking coach, Owen Comrie, who has been with Hardy since the year before Hardy turned professional.

"Dan's got a high work ethic," Comrie said. "He's the sort of person that if he wants something, he goes and gets it. I'm not saying I am the greatest coach in the world, but we have a connection; it's difficult to explain. It's like a plant, and we have grown together. The connection we have makes it happen for us."

Hardy's gradual rise through the MMA welterweight ranks has led to his competing in the United States and Holland. After two victories for Greatest Common Multiple's Cage Force promotion in Japan, Hardy got wind of a rumor that the winner of the organization's 2007 welterweight tournament would be rewarded with a UFC contract. It was quite an incentive for an aspiring mixed martial artist.

Initially, it did not go as Hardy hoped. After a pair of wins, he was paired with Yoshida in the final.

In the first round of their December 2007 encounter, Hardy offered skillful and stubborn resistance in the face of heavy takedowns, a judo throw and an array of submission attempts. He ended a competitive first round on Yoshida's back.

Four seconds into the second round, the fight was over. The finish came courtesy of an accidental kick to Yoshida's groin. Unable to continue, the Japanese fighter was declared the winner by disqualification.

Now that both men are on the UFC roster, Hardy has grown lukewarm to the subject of a rematch with Yoshida.

"If that's what the UFC wants, then fine, but that's up to the UFC," he says. "I'm sure they have a plan for me, and if part of that is Yoshida, then that would be fantastic."

Despite the disappointing defeat to Yoshida, Hardy was back in action a week later, when he stopped Manuel Garcia with strikes in the first round at a Cage Warriors show. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva had been keeping a shrewd eye on the Englishman for some time.

"It was a strange story," Hardy said. "After I beat former UFC veteran Chad Reiner, I signed my contact with the UFC. The problem was, shortly afterwards, I had a fight scheduled [against Daniel Weichel]. The way I chose to look at it was that if I couldn't beat this guy, I didn't belong in the UFC."

The experience might have served as an invaluable dry run in dealing with the "Octagon jitters" many fighters have described during their first UFC appearance.

"It was nerve-racking," Hardy said. "When I stepped into the cage, the pressure hit me, and I realized what was on the line. If I lost, the UFC contract goes. It was that simple. I spent three minutes defending takedowns, d'arces [and] guillotines. I just couldn't switch on and relax."

The voice of one of his Team Rough House teammates threw Hardy back in gear.

"Jim Wallhead looked me in the eye from the corner and said, 'Calm down,' which woke me up," Hardy says. "So I took a deep breath, and in the second [round] I reversed him, grounded-and-pounded from half guard and finished the fight."

Birmingham, site of UFC 89, rests a little more than 50 miles from Hardy's hometown.

"I think it is going to help me," Hardy said. "It will be all the same people that have watched my fights at Cage Warriors shows, and I don't have to alter my sleep pattern like when I'm fighting in America or Japan."

Leverton agrees.

"He seems very composed, and it goes back to his level of professionalism," the trainer said. "He's the sort to read sports psychology books to get himself in the right mental state for fights. He also attended UFC 85 to get a feel for the experience. And remember, he's trained at places like Xtreme Couture [in Las Vegas], sparring with people like Wanderlei Silva, which makes this so much more achievable and gives him greater confidence going in."

Gono (28-12-7), a seasoned veteran with nearly 50 professional fights under his belt, presents a number of challenges.

"He's very good at surviving; he moves well and is really difficult to pin down," Hardy said. "I've noticed he tends to draw people in, look for openings and capitalize on their mistakes. Often in Pride, he was fighting people at a higher weight class, so with his speed, reactions and kickboxing, he drew them into a brawl. He's very clever, but now he's fighting at welterweight against a younger opponent with quicker reactions."

Gono has lost to only three men -- Dan Henderson, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Denis Kang -- in the past seven years. Hardy knows the Japanese welterweight will provide a formidable test.

Gono holds notable wins over Hector Lombard, Yuki Kondo and rising Armenian standout Gegard Mousasi, the winner of the recently completed Dream middleweight grand prix. Hardy's motivations remain simple.

"I have lots of people helping me prepare for this fight, and I don't want to let anyone down, myself included," he says. "I'm there to prove I belong and not just make up the numbers."

Paul Concannon is a contributor to Sherdog.com.