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With Greg Hardy, fight week presents more questions than answers

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NEW YORK — If the pressure is mounting against Greg Hardy — the banished pro football player who is charting a second life in mixed martial arts — he isn’t showing it. Hardy arrived to the UFC on ESPN+ media day in New York with a look of small wonder on his face, posing casually for the cameras for his face-off with Allen Crowder, and answering questions about his past with a kind of judgment-absorbent smile.

The one burning question on everyone’s mind as he gets set to fight in the co-main event for the UFC’s maiden fight card on ESPN was this: Does he feel bad? Does he have remorse for what he did back in 2014, when he allegedly assaulted his then girlfriend, throwing her onto a pile of firearms?

Hardy was asked this question in a variety of ways. When he got into that neighborhood of thought, he steered it toward his celestial governors, while at the same time trying to update the question from the past tense to the present, doing his best to swap out the then to the now.

“I’m changing everyday,” he told MMA Fighting at Thursday’s media day. “I’m not just changing inside the Octagon, I’m changing outside the Octagon. I’m trying to be a better man. I just had a daughter. I’ve been through the process with my son. Things like that make you reflect on yourself and I had to be better. I realize I had to be better for them. I’m constantly changing and trying to get better.”

If there’s one thing you notice about Hardy other than his gargantuan stature as a UFC heavyweight, it’s that he doesn’t care one way or another if you take him at face value. Or if he does, he’s not letting on. Whether this is a hardened stance after being ostracized by pro football or an evolved attitude that he believes will translate for fighting, Hardy is expressing himself in his own way. He seems comfortable in his new pursuit.

And perhaps because he dealt with the spotlight for six seasons in the NFL, he seems unaffected by the pressures of fight week. At least for a guy with only three pro fights so far to his name.

“I probably get to enjoy it a little bit more than anyone else because this isn’t my first rodeo, this is not my first time being solicited for everything,” he said. “I just think, man, there is no preparation for this kind of stuff. It’s hard to get used to.”

Still, it’s been a process to thaw the media on the idea of him competing.

Ever since the UFC booked Hardy onto the first-ever ESPN+ card, there has been mild-to-uproarious grumbling among fans as to the wisdom behind that decision. Not only is booking Hardy complicated given his past transgressions, the fact that the UFC would make such associations on ESPN right out of the gate struck many as confounding. Add to those factors that he’s fighting on the same card as Rachael Ostovich — who in late November was allegedly assaulted by her husband, leaving her with a cracked orbital — and things get downright uncomfortable. Hardy isn’t exactly hiding from his past life, and then again nor is he dwelling in that past, either. He uses the words “change” a lot when touching on it.

For instance, when asked if he is able to block out the negative responses to him fighting.

“I feel like blocking it out is for people who don’t want to change, man,” he said. “I’m open to change. To say that I have a problem with anybody else because of their opinion is being just like they’re trying to be to me. I believe in people. I believe in their opinions, and I respect their opinions. So it doesn’t really faze me. It’s a mutual respect for what they believe in, and god bless them.”

The fight game has always been generous on second chances, and UFC president Dana White seems to be embracing Hardy’s foray into MMA under those auspices. Not everyone is aboard with that line of thinking, given the nature of his offenses. Yet one person who was willing to afford him that chance to redeem himself was none other than Ostovich, who on Tuesday sought Hardy out to introduce herself. Ostovich even went so far as to say that after she talked to him, she saw him as a very genuine human being.

When asked about that encounter, Hardy smiled.

“I feel like people have a lot of emphasis on what we talked about and how was it and was it was two amazing people talking and coming together and talking and just being people,” he said. “It was a great moment because I got to realize she’s an amazing woman and how strong she is. Just finding out about her story and realizing that she’s awesome, man.

“She’s about to go out here and kick butt. It was a positive for me because I got to be a part of her solution.”

Hardy went on record recently saying he intended to become the “great American heavyweight,” which tells you how he is viewing himself as opposed to how so many are viewing him. He said he’s confident that once MMA fans get more familiar with him, they will change their tune as well.

“I’m not really concerned with the outside stuff so much as actually meeting and introducing myself to people,” he said. “I believe that the more people actually get to know me and talk to me, their opinions will change based on what they know and what they see. Consistency kills everything.”

Still, there are two sides to Hardy, just as there are two sides to most athletes. When asked if he believed he deserved the co-main event slot on a major card with only around 2-1/2 minutes of pro fighting experience, he got biblical.

“I believe that God died for our sins and we don’t deserve to be here at all,” he said. “So I got to be appreciative, and thankful for every moment I get, and that’s what I am. I’m appreciative and thankful to be here.”

And when he’s asked if he’s being groomed for an expedited run at the heavyweight title, he went the other way.

“Isn’t that what you do with princes, man?” he said. “Prince of the world has got to be the king someday. I’m as ready as any human being is ready to take the next step in the world, and it’s scary, and it’s different, but I accept all challenges and I’m here to conquer each and every one of them.”

Some media stayed away from Hardy. Others didn’t know how to handle him. Any hesitancy seemed to be based on a basic question: Not so much who is Greg Hardy, but do we really want to know?

There are other questions, too. Is he different from the man we knew? Can he be accepted as a changed man through time? Does he deserve any such hope? Can a polarizing figure with a very ugly past turn things around for himself in his second career? Isn’t that what the fight game is known for? Is there a redemption story worth telling? Does his fighting prowess do away with moral plays, for those who prefer their fights without the weight of context? Is Greg Hardy salvageable, or is he forever tainted in the eyes of fans?

For his first big fight week in the UFC, there were more questions than answers.