When Chris Lytle made Dan Hardy submit to a guillotine choke last August in the main event of a UFC televised event, there were people calling for Hardy's head.
It was Hardy's fourth straight loss, one more than the number that in most cases would cause the promotion to hand one their walking papers. Saturday night showed why UFC made the right call in giving Hardy a vote of confidence.
To the locals in Nottingham, England, Hardy (25-10, 1 no contest) was the star of the show. Hardy scored a unanimous decision over Amir Sadollah (7-4) in the co-main event of the UFC on Fuel show.
Hardy actually lives across the street from the Capital FM Arena, at least when he's not living and training in various locales around the world.
On a roster with hundreds of fighters, most interchangeable to all but the most ardent of fans, Hardy is a star. He's not a superstar by any means, but he's a guy people know, who can talk up a fight, works hard at promotion. More often than not, he delivers a crowd-pleasing fight, although his biggest career fight with Georges St-Pierre was the exception.
But he helps a pay-per-view card being on it, and can viably be put in a one of the top two spots on a televised card. In the U.K., in particular, he can help draw. The near sellout of 7,241 fans and $970,000 gate was a tremendous gate figure by UFC 2012 standards for a Fuel-level show. It's just the latest U.K. event he's been featured on that drew well, even though the lineup was maligned in many circles going in.
The situation was similar two years ago, at UFC 120 at the O2 Arena in London, a show built around Hardy vs. Carlos Condit and Michael Bisping vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama. The UFC office was flooded with complaints from fans who gave them the business advice that U.K. fans don't want to see Bisping and Hardy on top, that UFC was overrating their local popularity and they wanted big names from the U.S. The complaints were loud enough that some were sweating after the card was announced, wondering if they miscalculated. Then the show got off to a huge advance the first weekend, and ended up selling out the arena with 17,133, setting what is still the all-time European attendance record for the sport.
Dana White, not above gloating when people tell him ahead of time that a show won't draw well, or a lineup is bad, and it ends up successful, noted, "We had a gate of almost a million bucks. Right up your a** everybody."
But being a recognizable star has its limitations, case in point being Phil Baroni, because in the UFC, you have to also be able to win fights. While it was never outright said, Hardy's back was probably against the wall in his previous fight at UFC 146 in Las Vegas, when he scored an impressive first round knockout win over Duane "Bang" Ludwig. That saved his job, and then when he found out UFC was planning a show in Nottingham, where he grew up, he pushed hard for a spot on the card.
Hardy, who was already popular in U.K. circles for his recognizable red-haired Mohawk and pre-match hype, became a star in North America in early 2010 during the Prime Time series as he was preparing for a welterweight title fight with St-Pierre. He got virtually no offense in that five round fight, which consisted of St-Pierre taking him down at will and keeping him there. But St-Pierre was unable to finish him, including an armbar which showed some kind of freakish flexibility that Hardy not only didn't tap to, but wasn't seriously injured by.
Unlike many who gain a measure of success, Hardy remained a model employee, working hard to promote every fight. But the losses piled up. After St-Pierre, he lost to Condit via firs-round knockout. Next he was outwrestled for three rounds by Anthony "Rumble" Johnson. He followed that with a guillotine submission loss to Chris Lytle in a fight that he got the worst of the stand-up game. In reality, his losses weren't to slouches, and the fight with Lytle was a fan-pleasing main event.
What was notable about last night's fight is Hardy's wrestling, once the subject of comedy, was a key in what won him the fight. Hardy had been one of those types who in pre-match interviews would talk about standing and trading, and giving fans the kind of fight they want to see. Then, like in the St-Pierre fight and a later loss to Johnson, when his opponent didn't feel the same way, it didn't matter what his strategy was, as his weakness in that aspect of the game led to another "L" on his record. Few remember, because he wasn't successful, but Hardy did try a few times against Lytle to go to wrestling when he was getting the worst of the boxing. But he wasn't successful and it was a takedown attempt late that led to him being caught in a guillotine that ended the fight.
A few years back, when Roy Nelson had been training with Hardy and ended up losing to Frank Mir based on Mir getting takedowns, Nelson joked that it was his English-style wrestling training with Dan Hardy that made the difference in the fight.
"Dan Hardy looked like a mixed martial artist tonight, he didn't look like a kickboxer," said UFC President Dana White after the fight.
At 30, now older and wiser, his battle plan was to engage Sadollah into a striking battle, and when Sadollah would be off balance, take him down. Since Hardy had rarely gone for takedowns, and when he did, they were usually, like in the Lytle fight, more desperation than strategic, that's the last thing people would game plan against him to defend. Still, Hardy had his own trouble at first employing his strategy.
"I heard the crowd chant my name and I wanted to trade punches," he said after the fight. "I probably let the first round go, but I needed to let that pass, and be a bit smarter. I'm working hard to improve."
He noted that Condit fight in London wound up with his being knocked out in the first round, and he came in with the mentality that he simply could not lose fighting in his home town. And that the reaction lived up to everything he expected when he pushed to get on the show.
"I've been in that building a few times for ice hockey, but that was the loudest I ever heard it," he said.