“My art is dismantling human beings. When we strip it down to the bare bones of it, the whole focus of what I do is to destroy people.”
These do not sound like the words of a commentator. They certainly don’t sound like the words of a former fighter. But for the best part of the last eight years, Dan Hardy has been known by MMA fans as an analyst whose days competing in the UFC are long behind him.
“I’m respected for what I know, not what I can do.”
Now, those sound like the words of a fighter-turned-commentator. The frustration behind that statement is also one of the reasons why the Nottingham native could finally find himself standing in the Octagon – rather than peering through its fence from the outside looking in – in the near future.
But to understand why Hardy’s future in MMA might mean returning to his past, you have to delve into the origins of his fascination with the sport.
“For me, martial arts was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he tells The Independent, appearing as animated as those cartoons themselves.
“When I was a kid, it was just completely captivating for me. I was obsessed. I was a relatively quiet kid, always kept to myself, but all of the kids at school were into the Turtles as well and it kind of helped me integrate into a group, just mimicking the Turtles.”
Hardy’s parents took him to Taekwondo, which was when the child who grew into ‘The Outlaw’ realised martial arts were “far more than a cartoon”. Along the way to earning his black belt at the age of 17, Hardy also picked up Kung Fu, karate, jiu-jitsu, judo and Thai boxing, becoming a mixed martial artist in the most literal sense of the word through his teenage years.
Hardy also started art college at 17 but soon realised it wasn’t the type of art he really cared for. It was at that time that he saw UFC 2, his introduction to mixed martial arts and the catalyst for a journey to China.
“It terrified me, because it was martial arts, but not like anything I’d ever seen,” says Hardy, now 38. “Because it intimidated me, I needed to try it.
“I wanted to go the source and I’d kind of fallen in love with the Xiaolin monks. The idea of waking up and having to think about nothing other than martial arts the whole day, every day, seemed like a dream to me.
“I managed to find a place in China that I could go and train. It’s almost like the memory of a movie I watched – it feels so disjointed from everything else. It taught me that I was a lot physically and mentally tougher than I thought I was; there were a couple of points while I was out there when I was at breaking point, and I didn’t break.”
But for his love of the values and theatre of martial arts, Hardy wanted to know that what he was learning would actually work. “Realistic combat.” And so he started competing in the UK around 2003 in between training sessions in the US, where he worked to improve his wrestling with the likes of American Top Team and Team Quest.
He “obsessively chased” a career in MMA and soon established himself in British promotion Cage Warriors – which to this day is home to many future UFC fighters – where he became welterweight and light welterweight champion. That set him up for a UFC debut in 2008.
All of this seems like it was inevitable in retrospect, but Hardy disagrees.
“There were so few fighters making it over from the UK, and when I got an offer, I turned it down,” Hardy laughs. “Which surprises me even, thinking back. It was a sensible thing to do at the time, though – I just wasn’t ready.”
But once he was ready and had taken his place in MMA’s flagship promotion, self-confessed brawler Hardy went on a four-fight win streak.
“I had to get every single percentage I could,” Hardy recalls of his approach to fighting. “So, where are my opponent’s weaknesses? Where do I see scars on his body? Where do I see he’s had surgeries? Where do I know he’s had surgeries? What am I seeing in his body that’s changed? Is he limping? Is it his left leg he’s limping on? Is it his knee or his ankle?”
Dialled in, Hardy put together the run that secured a shot at welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, the man deemed the consensus G.O.A.T. Hardy entered the 2010 bout as the first Briton to fight for a world title in UFC.
“It was a rough training camp for a lot of reasons. I had one coach turn his back on me, because he didn’t want to be in the losing corner, which I’ve never forgotten. Then six weeks before the fight I lost my grandfather, and I wouldn’t have gotten to the UFC if it wasn’t for him.
“In those early teen years when you want to go out and play football with your mates, he was showing up to my house to take me to Taekwondo. He actually started when he was 60 and trained for five years. He was my anchor in martial arts in the years when I would have probably otherwise drifted away.
“Before the GSP fight, I was spending a lot of time going from training to the hospital, then the UFC cameras showed up as well, which further accentuated the pressure. And I’d not been able to mourn. It was rough, and the truth is I didn’t have the money to be preparing for a title fight. I spent about $20,000 on the training camp, compared to GSP, who spent about $125,000.
“The whole thing was: I was gonna get taken down and submitted in the first round. So, on the night, when he got me in an arm bar, I was like: ‘Motherf*****, you better snap this.’ There was no way I was tapping, just no way – I’d sacrificed too much. And if you snap that arm, I’ll hit you with the other one. And if you snap that, I’ll keep kicking you.”
Hardy ultimately lost to GSP via unanimous decision but – upon staring down his opponent – realised he had in fact earned the French-Canadian’s respect long before that night. A losing streak began with that result, however, with defeats by Carlos Condit, Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson and Chris Lytle following. Hardy began to believe he was expendable and being used as a stepping-stone for other fighters, and his mind drifted to going back to university and studying philosophy – a field in which he would later earn a PHD.
Hardy was not cut from the UFC, however, so sought to move forward positively, relocating to Las Vegas and reinventing his training regimen. What followed were back-to-back wins, but this renewed momentum was halted by a diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
A more recent check-up revealed that the heart condition should have no impact on Hardy’s ability to fight, though, and ‘The Outlaw’s physical and mental muscles have been twitching ever since.
“I’m embarrassed by my old fights, if I’m honest. If I watch them back I cringe, because I made so many mistakes. And I’ve learnt so much in the last seven years that I want to show people not only what I’m capable of but also what MMA’s missing. There are lots of facets of MMA that are underdeveloped, underused, and I feel I’ve got the knowledge to plug some of those gaps. Plus, I’ve got so much s*** talk in my head that’s wasted.”
The UFC wanted Hardy to make an announcement at UFC London back in March regarding his return to the Octagon, but the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. His contract also needs to be amended, but Hardy has spent lockdown training ahead of a planned 2021 return and has even spoken to Anthony Pettis about a match-up between the two.
“I’m not interested in chasing these young kids around and trying to take belts off them. I occupy a different space now. I don’t wanna be involved in the rankings.”
What Hardy wants is one last run to prove that, against all odds, he is now in his prime.
Come 2021, ‘The Outlaw’ may well be back in the fold.