The day one dream ended and another began, Austen Lane was simultaneously over the hill and a baby. On the cusp of entering his sixth season in the NFL — and his second with the Chicago Bears — Lane was told to meet with his position coach and then given the news that he was being released. Moments later and still stunned, he met with team head coach John Fox, who told him that while he appreciated Lane’s efforts, the team was “going in a younger direction.”
At that moment, Lane was 27 years old, and the experience was both an eye-opener and a jaw-dropper.
“I remember walking out thinking, ‘Man, I’m 27. I feel great, my body feels fantastic, and I have a lot left in the tank. How can they think I’m too old?’” Lane told MMA Fighting.
Luckily, a backup plan had already been germinating in his head. In his prior offseasons, he had dabbled in boxing and jiu-jitsu, going so far as to enter some jiu-jitsu tournaments on the sly in the process. In the instances when he won, he’d have to sneak out the back door instead of collecting his prize to avoid attention.
In the world of heavyweight mixed martial arts, 27 is a starting point, and Lane felt himself being drawn in that direction, so he created a self-made deadline for his future. If he didn’t sign with a new team by June 20, 2015, he would switch sports. When the date came and went with no action, he stuck to the plan. Instead of being a cog in the NFL machine, he would strike out on his own.
Three years later, Lane, now 30, is on the verge of making it to the big leagues of MMA. On June 12, Lane competes in Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series against another former NFL player, Greg Hardy.
Since the fight’s announcement, Hardy has gotten the lion’s share of the publicity, largely due to his notorious past. In 2014, he was convicted of assaulting a female and communicating threats, though he later had his record expunged after the victim could not be found to testify in his appeal. Still, photos of the alleged assault later surfaced in the media, making him an NFL pariah. While football effectively cast him out of their club, Hardy found refuge within the fight world, eventually entrenching himself in the vaunted American Top Team camp.
His infamy along with his undeniable athleticism — he was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2013 season — has made him a lightning rod of controversy in his new industry. But any thought that the UFC would give him a walkover fight on his way into the promotion was shattered when they paired him with Lane.
At 6-foot-6 and about 245 pounds, Lane brings similar athleticism but far greater experience into the matchup. While Hardy will be making his pro debut after three amateur fights — all first-round knockouts — Lane has taken a more patient and measured road. He fought six times as an amateur, and has four professional fights. With 10 fights and 10 wins under his belt, he sees a clear edge for himself.
“I definitely feel confident with the matchup,” he said. “Let’s be honest: At the end of the day, we’re probably about same height, reach might be in my advantage by a little, and he might outweigh me by a few pounds. All of that stuff is close. But what I have is experience. I have 10 fights. You can train all you want, and you can have the best coaches in the world, but where you get better as a fighter is in the cage.”
Lane and Hardy have more in common than their NFL-to-UFC desires. Both were eligible for the NFL draft in 2010 and were at the draft combine together. Both were eventually drafted — Lane in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Hardy in the sixth by the Carolina Panthers. In 2011, their teams met, with each player taking part in six tackles and Hardy notching a sack for a safety that helped Carolina to a 16-10 win.
While Lane is certainly aware of Hardy’s infamy, he says it’s not something he has thought about as a motivating factor. It’s not even something he chooses to stand in judgement of, simply because he doesn’t want to focus on anything other than his own goals.
“At the end of the day, he’s got to look at himself in the mirror for the things he’s done,” he said. “When we’re talking about a fight, I can’t worry about what he’s done in the past. All that matters is what he brings in his skill set, and that’s all that I’m focused on.”
Still, Lane can’t help but inhale the feeling that most of the fight world and the world at large is pulling for him. For those who want to see Hardy receive some comeuppance, Lane may be the one to deliver it.
“He’s a well-known figure, and there are a lot of people who aren’t fans of his,” Lane said. “So naturally if you don’t like somebody, you’re going to cheer for the other person. Good, bad, or indifferent, I’m the other person. If I can gain more fans or more notoriety for this, so be it.”
Raised in small-town Iola, Wisconsin, Lane didn’t grow up dreaming of fighting or playing in the NFL. Instead, it was hockey that drew his attention as a boy. His NHL hopes were crushed by simple geography, when school zoning and travel times halted his participation. By that time though, he’d already proven to be a natural athlete, skilled in football, basketball, and track.
Despite starring at Iola-Scandinavia High School, his size — he was 6-foot-3, 195 pounds as a senior — dissuaded Division I suitors. Instead, a week before the signing period began, he received a scholarship offer from Football Championship Subdivision team Murray State University.
Upon enrolling at Murray State, Lane had no aspirations of playing in the NFL, but it was only prior to his junior year that things changed. He’d felt good about his sophomore season, at least until he went into a meeting with line coach Johnny Jernigan, a man he considered a mentor. As Jernigan spoke, Lane heard words he wasn’t expecting.
“He said, ‘you’re underachieving. I expect more from you. You have talent to go to the NFL, but you need to work harder,’” Lane recalled. “He said that and my whole mindset changed from there. I didn’t want to let him down, and I didn’t want to waste my talent. But sometimes, others see the talent in you before you see it in yourself.”
Lane dominated in his last two seasons, and still holds Murray State career records in sacks and tackles-for-loss.
He’s carried that work ethic into his pursuit of MMA. Training with head coach Matt Vona at Bulldog Boxing in Jacksonville, Florida, Lane supplements his preparation at Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu along with regular sparring with heavyweight boxer Curtis Harper and wrestling practice with 2020 Olympic hopeful Alton Meeks, among others.
He describes the fight style that’s led him to four straight first-round pro finishes as “controlled chaos,” a freestyle bent that looks to capitalize on opponent mistakes, something he expects to see given Hardy’s inexperience. There are many people hoping he is right. And while they may be rooting as much against Hardy as they are for Lane, all he hopes is to get a foot in the door and win a few people over along the way. Career ambition and opportunity are enough, and in a new sport, the old guy is now young again.
“I think if I need any more motivation to get in the cage and try to knock somebody out, then I’m doing the wrong sport,” he said. “I don’t need any extra incentive to knock someone out. I’m going to do that because there’s a UFC contract on the line, and that’s all I’m focused on.”