LAS VEGAS -- Dan Hardy sat back in his locker room, put his dislocated thumb in a tub of ice, and muttered something that he never expected to hear himself say after a loss.
"I said to my coaches, ‘I’m done. This is it. I’m just done.’ I’ve never said that before."
This was spring of 2011, following loss number three of what would become a four-fight losing streak in the UFC. Hardy had just been thoroughly out-wrestled by Anthony Johnson, and he assumed that his stay in MMA’s big leagues was now over. Who gets to lose three in a row and keep his job in the UFC, especially if the third loss is, as Hardy still describes it, "mind-numbingly boring"?
"Let’s be honest, three losses as a UFC fighter, you assume you’re going to get cut," he said. "From that point, I kind of started to mourn my career as a fighter. I was planning ahead for what comes next."
As he sat there letting the ice do its work on his thumb, thinking about what the rest of his life was going to look like, the British knockout artist and one-time challenger for the UFC welterweight title came to a realization that was at once terrifying and comforting. It’s a realization he’s carried with him since, and one he’ll carry into his fight with Duane Ludwig at UFC 146 on Saturday night. In a way, it’s the very thing that allows Hardy to walk around this week, before what could be his final UFC fight -- perhaps even his final MMA fight -- with the impenetrable calm of a Buddhist monk.
"The thing I came up with was, at some point I’m going to have to retire," he said. "I’ll have to. Now I’m not concerned about the possibility that my career might come to an end. It will come to an end. It has to."
This revelation might sound basic and obvious, but it isn't. Not for fighters, who rarely even admit to considering the possibility of defeat, let alone retirement.
It didn’t hit Hardy all at once, of course. It took the better part of a year, helped along by a four straight losses, from a UFC title fight to a just-for-the-hell-of-it slugfest. Each of those defeats meant something different. Each seems to occupy its own room in his mind these days. From the moral victory that came with surviving the Georges St-Pierre bout, to the night Johnson "punked" him and left him feeling ready to quit the sport altogether, the little deaths of defeat don’t mingle together in his memory.
After he got submitted by Chris Lytle for the fourth straight loss, he assumed it must be over. What was strange, he said, was that it didn't feel as bad as he'd expected.
"I was annoyed that I’d lost, because I’d put a lot of time into it," said Hardy. "But really, I was kind of okay."
Then UFC co-founder Lorenzo Fertitta tweeted that he’d be retaining Hardy’s services, and that’s when everything changed. That's when he felt like he had something else to live up to, and more than his own pride on the line.
"It’s different now. Now I’m not just fighting because I want to fight, or because I feel like I need this success in my life. I’m fighting because he said that he wants to see me fight again, and he’s the boss. He’s also getting a lot of s--t from the fans because he’s not cutting me -- and there’s that small group of fans that demand your head on a stick if you lose three in a row."
The problem is, how do you fix a losing streak like Hardy’s? How do you even pinpoint its cause? Plenty of fighters have gone back to the drawing board and then declared themselves cured of ailments both real and imaginary, only to have another loss shatter that illusion. When everything depends on how you perform for a few minutes on Saturday night, how much control can you truly exercise over your own fate in the weeks and months that come before it?
Those are questions that Hardy didn’t have ready answers for, so just to be on the safe side he went ahead and changed everything. And by everything, he really means everything. He moved out of his house in Vegas and into a new one, just for a fresh start. He sold his car and bought a new one. He finally broke down and hired a manager. He ditched old habits that may have had nothing at all to do with his losing streak, and replaced them with something -- anything -- new and different.
"I made an effort to change as much as I could. And I feel better. I’m in a great place."
But is he a winning place? Better yet, if the process is true and right and as good as it can be, how much does the result matter?
That’s the part that he wonders about now. Back when he was fighting only to save his job and his career, victory meant everything. Nothing else mattered except winning, relieving that pressure, and putting some distance between himself and the end of the line. But now that he’s made peace with the fact that his career, like his life, must some day come to an end, it’s made it somehow easier to live in and enjoy the present. It’s also made him stop fearing the worst-case scenario, since, eventually, that moment arrives for everyone.
"It’s quite surreal," Hardy said. "The odds have been stacked against me in the past, but the stakes have not been as high. Going into the GSP fight, I knew there was another fight after. I knew it. There’s bound to be, regardless of what happens. Even after the Condit fight, hey, I’m down two, but there’s going to be another chance."
This time? No one can tell him if there will be another one. No one can assure him that this won’t be the last time he strolls into the UFC office on fight week and jokes with his friends there. There's no way of knowing if this isn't his last weigh-in day, the last time he'll feel that gradual wind-up as Thursday gives way to Friday and the fight gets so close he can feel his pulse quickening at the thought of it.
This could be the last UFC fight week he ever gets. Knowing that, rather than fearing it, makes all the difference, according to Hardy.
"Obviously, the victory is paramount. That’s the easiest way for people to understand. But in some way over these last three months, I do feel like I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in the sport, and not for me. Not because I just like punching people in the face and that’s what I’m about. But I have opinions and decisions to validate. This is about me being able to go to someone else and shake their hand and say, thanks for the support, it worked."
And while, from the outside, it seems to be his job that’s at stake, it doesn’t feel that way on the inside, Hardy said. The job is temporary anyway. The job has to disappear sooner or later. He wants to win not because he necessarily wants to stay, but because, as he put it: "I don’t want to go out like this."
"It’s going to be a strange feeling, winning. It’s not going to be the same as another win. I’m in such a different place than I was the last time it happened."