If you listen to Dan Hardy speak today, he sounds slightly different. Not better or worse per se, but certainly not the same. Yet, while he sounds unlike the brash Englishman we are typically accustomed to hearing, he doesn't sound like someone he's not.
In fact, given all he's been through - from the meteoric rise in popularity ahead of his title fight with Georges St. Pierre in March of 2010 to losing four fights straight in the Octagon - he sounds exactly as if he should. He's a tiny bit quieter, more focused, slightly humbled by life's ephemeral blessings as well as its sudden ravages, but still very much witty and candid in his public pronouncements.
Hardy most recently fought in the UFC in August of 2011, a fight where he lost to retiring fighter Chris Lytle. It was a third-round submission defeat and his fourth in a row. Some fans called for his departure, although UFC CEO Lorenzeo Fertitta publicly praised Hardy for his fan-friendly style, something Hardy feels he has to 'validate' with a win this weekend. Still, the loss forced his temporary departure from the sport and a round of personal introspection about why he was continuing to fail at meeting his personal and professional obligations.
That soul searching is over now and Dan Hardy is ready to demonstrate the time off was time well spent.
"It's been good. It's been real good," said Hardy of the sabbatical from fighting on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I moved to Las Vegas just before my last fight and as soon as the fight was done I came back and started working with a bunch of different coaches. I've had a good nine months to work with these guys now and this is the first time I've had a training camp with them. I feel awesome. I feel good."
There's a lot that's different this time. There's the new coaching regimen (more on that in a moment). There was the time to reflect on what went wrong, something generally not possible when moving at the speed of UFC operations. And despite Hardy being in what has to be a must-win position against Duane Ludwig this weekend at UFC 146, the circumstances aren't psychologically bearing down on him like they once did.
"I feel entirely different, to be honest," said Hardy. "For starters, this is only the second time in my UFC career that I've been on the undercard. My first fight at UFC 89 was an undercard fight and after that I was co-main event. I've never really had that build-up into the UFC to the top level. It's nice to be stepping down the card and let the big guys take the spotlight for a while. And changing my team has been a huge difference as well."
Hardy also told Ariel Helwani his vantage point for this fight isn't about 'must-win' even if he knows that's the reality. For Hardy, this is about proving his place, evidencing his growth and debuting a person he believes the world has not seen yet although he may look a little familiar.
"It's going to be an entirely different Dan Hardy. I've still got the same mentality that I always have. I still want to get in there and win the fight with strikes, but I have options now. I'm much more confident in every area."
Hardy maintains he's still part of the Rough House Gym in England, but he's developed a system of putting coaches (and training partners like former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir) around him to help maximize his time and preparation. And those coaches aren't anonymous names unaccustomed to athletic success. Coaches like Robert Drysdale, Ricky Lundell and even Olympic gold medalist in wrestling Cael Sanderson have worked with Hardy to raise the level of his game while shoring up some of the more notable ground-based deficiencies.
"I can prove that," affirmed Hardy when speaking of his growth in skills. "I can get in there against guys who can wrestle and who've got good ground skills. I can at the very least hang with them, if not beat them at their own game now. I really do feel confident with that now."
Against Ludwig, that isn't MMA's toughest task even if 'Bang' has steadily worked to evolve the grappling aspects of his game, too. Still, Hardy isn't dead set on any particular game plan and appears energized to fight Ludwig, although he admits it wasn't a fight he ever thought he'd have.
"Funny enough, I actually asked for a fight against Josh Neer. Obviously Neer's just beaten Ludwig and my idea was I was going to fight Josh Neer and bring Ludwig in as a training partner," Hardy confessed.
"I've always gotten on well with Duane. I've always been a fan of his. I used to watched his King of the Cage fights before I even started fighting MMA. The guy's been around for a while. He brings a very high level kickboxing to the sport and a good pace. I'm excited about the fight. I was surprised that they offered me Duane, but it's the kind of fight I can really get up for."
Another fight Hardy claims he could get up for is one with former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes. Hardy took several swipes at Hughes in interviews and on Twitter in recent months, but insists there was a misunderstanding about his intentions when he criticized the former champ. Well, sort of.
"There's a little bit of a misunderstanding about that situation. I wasn't actually calling the guy out," Hardy insists. Yet, "if the fight was offered to me I would fight him now. I don't like the guy and it'd be an honor to get in there and put a beating on him. The thing is, I'd spoken out about his love for shooting things. I'm not in agreement with it. I just don't like the fact that he thinks it's ok to do it."
"The problem is because we're in the same weight class people automatically assume it was about mixed martial arts. The guy was a champion. He's a legend in the sport. He's done great things in the sport, but people can't disconnect that from the fact that he's an asshole as a person."
"I don't like Brock Lesnar and his idea of fun either," a not 'entirely different' Hardy continued, "but obviously because we're in different weight classes people don't automatically assume I'm calling him out."
Ultimately, Hardy doesn't suspect Hughes will take the fight and doesn't blame him. After all, in Hardy's mind, why should he? This is a Dan Hardy 'entirely different' from the old one. This one has had time to train the right way, be coached the right way, prepare the right way and think clearly ahead in his time away from the fight game. Why would Hughes want to face a fighter like that when he's looking to just win and get out ahead of retirement?
"Although obviously I've been on a rough streak, I still think I'm a bad match-up for him," said Hardy.
"Or at least I am now."
That's the Dan Hardy we know: passionate and outspoken. But now he's on the other side of glory and despair; quieter and a touch more humble. This Dan Hardy is the same as the old one, but entirely different.