He'd do it if he had it his way. But he doesn't.
It's a UFC fight week in Toronto and Hardy has come at the request of Xyience, a sponsor of his that has him scheduled for autograph signings and fan meet-and-greets all week. And Xyience? You better believe Xyience wants the mohawk. That's because the fans want the mohawk. They expect it. You book Dan Hardy and he shows up with a shaved head, it's like having Carrot Top show up as a blonde.
The fans want the guy they've seen on TV. They want the brash, cocky Brit with the punk rock swagger. But after a rough stretch of four straight losses in the UFC -- a 17-month span that dropped him from top contender to just barely employed -- he's not even sure where that guy went, or if he's ever coming back.
"I don't feel like myself right now," Hardy says.
You look in his eyes and you know he means it. He sits slumped in a plush leather chair in the lobby of a posh downtown Toronto hotel. He speaks so softly you have to lean in close just to hear him. The last thing he wants to do these days is draw attention to himself. He knows what people are thinking. And even if they aren't thinking it, they might as well be, since he hears their accusations in the wordless glances from across the room. It's not just the fans, either.
"I start to feel like other fighters are looking at me like, why is he still in the UFC? And I don't want people looking at me like that."
These days, he feels it more and more. When another fighter gets cut after two or three consecutive losses -- even when the possibility is merely mentioned, as it was when UFC president Dana White suggested that he might cut "Mayhem" Miller after one unimpressive performance -- Hardy's name gets dragged into it.
"That had nothing to do with me," he says. "But I'm constantly hearing about it."
Social media tools like Twitter, which is almost a job requirement for UFC fighters these days, make sure of that. Fight fans seem to think that an internet connection and a working keyboard entitle them to tell Hardy exactly how he should spend his days. It's gotten to the point where he can predict the tweets almost word for word.
"If I ever tweet something that's not about training or fighting -- anything, whether it's about a movie I've seen or I'm out on the [Las Vegas] strip and see something funny and send a picture of it -- I'll always get some jackass tweet back, 'Oh, don't you think you should be working on your wrestling?'" he says. "Every. Time. That really winds me up."
But he asked for his. He knows he did. He struck this bargain when he showed up on their TVs asking to be watched, judged, rooted for or against, maybe even loved. And nobody loves a loser. Not even himself.
How does it happen? How does a winning fighter become a losing one? In Hardy's case the answer seems to be: a little bit at a time, until it seems like it's been that way forever.
In March of 2010, he was the number one contender in the welterweight division. He'd won seven fights in a row -- four in the UFC -- and had earned the right to fight for Georges St-Pierre's 170-pound title. He was one step from eternal glory, already far beyond what most fighters ever achieve in their careers. Then he lost. And lost again. And again and again.
Oddly enough, the first one was the easiest to live with. It was at the hands of GSP, after all.
"To be honest, I went in there to give it my all," he says. "I didn't expect to totally dominate the fight or anything like that. I knew if I caught him with a good shot I could knock him out, but I also knew the chances were pretty slim on that because he wasn't going to play that game."
And he didn't. Instead he schooled Hardy in a grappling match for five rounds, nearly tearing his arm off with one submission attempt after another. But Hardy took it. He went the distance with the champ and lost a decision that at least had some dignity to it. Later, GSP would tell anyone who would listen that Hardy was better than he expected, much better than people realized. It was nice to hear, but it's like getting dumped by a girl who tells you that you're going to make someone very happy some day. Hardy didn't need compliments; he needed a rebound.
Seven months later he stepped into the cage again, this time back home in England against Carlos Condit.
"I knew I was going to win. No doubt about it. Then I opened my eyes and saw the doctor standing over me and I thought, man, it finally caught up to me."
Maybe it was inevitable. As much as Hardy loves to stand and slug it out, and as much as fans love to see him do it, he always knew it was a gamble. He always knew that, if he kept it up long enough, one day it would be his turn to find out what it felt like to wake up on his back.
"You know sometimes how you're watching the fights and you see a guy get knocked out, and then he opens his eyes and stands up and he's asking people what happened, did he win? And I always thought to myself, if I open my eyes and the doctor's standing over me, I'll know I didn't win. And then as soon as I opened my eyes and saw I was in that situation I thought, I'm the guy. That's me."
But so what? It was two fights. Anybody could lose two fights, especially if one of them was against the world's greatest welterweight. All Hardy knew was that he had to win the next one, because losing three in a row almost always means losing your job in the UFC. When he got offered the fight with Anthony Johnson, a fighter he knew and liked, he thought that at least he'd get a chance to go out on his shield in a striking war. He thought wrong.
"I got in there just expecting this blaze of glory," he says. All the way through training camp he'd exchanged emails and direct messages on Twitter with Johnson, both of them talking about what a slugfest their fight would be, how they'd steal the show in Seattle. But Johnson was the superior wrestler, and he knew it. Why trade bombs with Hardy if you didn't have to? And why not let him think he was walking into a kickboxing match, since that would only make him easier to take down.
"He punked me," Hardy says. "And he punked me good."
After three rounds of far more wrestling than slugging, an exhausted Hardy sat back in his corner and let the disappointment wash over him. He didn't need to wait and hear how the judges had scored it. Nobody did. Three in a row, he thought. That ought to do it. When he looked up, there was Johnson strolling over to him like a kid who'd just cheated his best friend out of his lunch money.
"He came over to me right after the fight was over and he hugged me and said, 'I'm sorry, man. I love you like a brother.' And I thought, dammit, he punked me. He knew he was going to do it all the way through training camp. He properly played me."
What's worse, he couldn't even really stay mad at Johnson afterward. If anybody understood that desperate need for a win -- a desire so strong you'd spend weeks lying just to get it -- it was Hardy.
"[Johnson] did the calculated thing. Whether you agree with it or not, he felt like he needed a win and that was the smartest way to get it. I know he got a lot of [expletive] for it, but he got the win and now he's progressing, in a good place in his career. And me? Not so much."
He expected to be cut. Maybe he even felt like he deserved it. The UFC has few official policy stances when it comes to deciding which fighters stay and which go, but he'd seen the three-strikes-and-you're-out rule applied so consistently over the years that it might as well have been passed down through the generations on a stone tablet. When the axe didn't come for him after three straight, he almost wished it had.
"It's like the ship went down and everyone else drowned, and I was the captain and I survived," he says. "You're like, how did that happen? I should be the first one to go."
When the UFC decided to not only keep him around, but also give him a main event bout against veteran Chris Lytle on a cable TV fight card, he was nothing short of baffled.
"I kind of felt like, I'm not sure why I'm getting this opportunity, but I've got it, I'm in the main event, and I'm going to try and make the most of it."
Of all the losses in this miserable streak, this is the one he still can't watch. He's tried. The guy on the screen looks like him, has the same recognizable haircut, but there's this strange disconnect, like watching video of yourself during a blackout. That's him doing those things, throwing these blows, but he doesn't feel any particular sense of ownership over it as he watches himself shooting for a takedown and getting choked into submission.
"It was just a terrible fight," he says. "I can't watch it."
Four in a row. This had to be it. He just knew it. But Twitter actually brought some good news for a change, this time in the form of a tweet from UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta.
"Will not cut @danhardymma," it read. "I like guys that WAR!!!"
That was all it took. Like getting a stay of execution via text message.
"When I saw Lorenzo's tweet...I just kind of thought, well now I have to turn this around," he says. "If I don't, I'm letting him down. I'm letting the UFC's reputation down, because they're the ones that only keep the best fighters in the world."
But if halting a skid like this was as simple as wanting it badly enough, he never would have found himself here in the first place. It wasn't as if he hadn't been putting in the work in the gym. If anything, maybe he'd done too much, worked himself too hard in search of a win. As the fear and the doubt piled up, it made everything worse.
It would be one thing if he had a regular job that he was struggling at, he thought. If he worked in an office he could go home at night and forget about it. Whatever went wrong, he could put it away on weekends and holidays. But for Hardy, his job had become his identity. He was a pro fighter, the guy with the mohawk who knocked people out. Then pretty soon he was just the guy with the mohawk.
"With a career like this, you're so invested in it that it affects everything," he says. "It causes issues with your personal relationships. I get down on myself and then I'm short-tempered, I'm angry most of the time. That's the hardest thing, is how it affects the people close to me. It affects everything. Like, my car breaks down, and it's just another thing on top of the pile of [expletive], another thing that's gone wrong. If my car had broken down after I fought Mike Swick, I could have laughed about it. But now, it's just another thing, like it's all just piling up."
That's why he hasn't jumped back in the cage just yet, he says. He needs time. Time to grow as a fighter, maybe even as a person. Time to step back and figure out what in the hell has happened to him, and what he can do about it. Maybe in the spring he'll be ready. May sounds like a good month for a comeback. All he knows is that he can't keep going like this. Something has to change.
"I want to be able to go to Lorenzo after my next fight and tell him that I appreciate him not cutting me and it was the right decision, you know? I want to validate that decision."
If only wanting it were enough. Then you could simply decide to win. But maybe then it wouldn't feel so good when you'd done it, when it was your turn to stroll back into the locker room grinning that bloody grin with all the exhausted losers slumped over on folding chairs in your wake, watching you go by and wondering to themselves, why does it look so much easier for him? Didn't it used to be that way for me? And if so, then what happened? What happened?
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