No one has re-watched Greg Hardy’s train wreck of a UFC debut more than the man himself.
After notching six combined amateur and professional first-round knockouts to kick-start his mixed martial arts career, a run highlighted by back-to-back wins on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, the controversial former NFL star made his Octagon tenure official in January with a debuting showdown against Allen Crowder on the first-ever card broadcasted on ESPN. Thrust into a massive spot at the outset of his UFC career, it is safe to say the night did not go as planned. Hardy swung for the kill early, then gassed out hard and lost via unceremonious disqualification after landing an illegal knee to the head of Crowder midway through the second round.
For Hardy, whose mere presence in the UFC is an affront to many observers because of his past, it was a worst-case scenario brought to life — and one that supplied plenty of schadenfreude to his detractors, as any quick glance online would tell you. But the loss also may very well have been the kind of self-reflective crash back down to earth that Hardy needed. And as he readies to make his sophomore appearance against Dmitrii Smoliakov on April 27 at UFC Fort Lauderdale, the 30-year-old former Pro Bowler has vowed to turn his disappointing introduction to the highest levels of the sport into a positive.
“It’s frustrating,” Hardy told MMA Fighting. “It’s not difficult [to watch] but very frustrating. I’ve watched it a lot, and believe it or not, the knee is not what frustrates me. The mistakes I made while I was on the ground, my [transitions] on the ground, my underhooks and overhooks weren’t right — just the little basic things that went out the window once it got hot [are what frustrate me]. Once I didn’t get the knockout and the first 40 seconds went by, it’s just like, what do you do then? Those are the things that haunt me.”
After a brief regional career typified by ferocious knockouts usually attained in less than a minute, Hardy refers to his time spent on the stool between the first and second round against Crowder as his “oh shit” moment. As in, oh shit, I smacked this guy with everything I have and he didn’t fall. Or, oh shit, the first round ended and this giant man is still coming. Or, as Hardy says simply, oh shit, “I’m in a fight, finally.”
It’s that last point, more so than any else, that was the wake-up call. Like many fighters young in the game, Hardy was forced to learn through trial by fire that “it’s not a knockout competition, it’s a fight.” And now he understands well what it meant when coaches and teammates always told him that he’d learn more from his first loss than he ever would from 100 first-round knockout wins.
“It’s very true, man,” Hardy admitted. “It helps you look more. I wasn’t looking for my flaws when I was winning. Like, I couldn’t see them, I didn’t want to see them. And since I got the loss, I’m a little more humble than I was, which is always a good thing. And you start looking and you start seeing the things where you really messed up. … I’ve had a lot of years of football so I’ve been in control of power for a very long time. Even though you can hit a quarterback, it’s not always in your best interest. Sometimes [being penalized] 15 yards will f*ck your team more than a hit. And it’s just those kind of decisions I’m finding, just because I can knock someone out doesn’t mean I should go for it.
“You’ve got to control these things because there are no timeouts, there are no breaks. You’re in a cage, nobody can save you, man, and you’ve got to make these decisions. That’s the kind of things I’m finding out, and you’ve got to have a humble mind for that, because power’s a drug, man. Power is a drug. In this sport, it’s dangerous. It’ll gas you. You saw me. I was bloodthirsty. The man said he was going to kill me — I wanted to separate him from his consciousness so bad that I energy-dumped everything after I told myself not to energy dump. And you’ve just gotta deal with those kind of things, because you’ve got to be honest. Like honestly, it’s not, ‘Oh, I made a mistake.’ I was cocky. Gotta humble myself.”
It is thus no accident that Hardy has kept low-profile since UFC on ESPN. That has been part of the process. He hasn’t spoken much to the media. There have been no boisterous callouts or proclamations of grandeur. His social media output has generally been confined to Instagram posts about his family or teammates or training sessions.
A lot of eyes were on him for his Octagon debut, for better or worse, and that attention will no doubt continue for UFC Fort Lauderdale. But Hardy knows it simply isn’t his place to speak until he has at least accomplished something worth speaking about.
“Losers don’t get to talk, man,” Hardy said. “I don’t care how it happened. If I would’ve won, that would’ve been a different story, I would’ve had a story to tell. I probably would’ve still come back and been humbled [by my performance], but I’m a loser now, man. And until I can prove differently, until I can go back up my words, that means nothing. You’ve got to get back to the drawing board and pay the price, so that’s what I’m doing right now.”
As for the illegal knee itself, which induced the end to a UFC debut already in disarray, Hardy admitted that part messed a little bit with his mind. The blowback to his mistake compounded with his troubled past to become all-encompassing on social media, and he briefly considered never throwing knees in a fight again. But as it turned out, watching a grizzled veteran like Jon Jones make the exact same mistake in his UFC 235 title defense against Anthony Smith helped Hardy, in a way, to turn his own page.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy because he walks in there like a monster, like a king, like a savage, and has everybody on his back,” Hardy said of Jones. “I know after my last fight: That’s hard to do, dude. That’s hard to do. But just to see him [land the illegal knee] and to see everybody’s response made me feel better, because I felt like a bad guy when it happened. Everybody’s just booing, telling me I did it on purpose, telling me I’m a piece of shit for doing it. And then you get to see [what happened at UFC 235].
“It’s like, oh, well, damn, maybe I’m not that bad of a guy. I made a mistake. It’s just reassurance, you know? Because sometimes fans get to you, dude. They say things and it starts to creep in. So to see that, it helped my confidence a lot and just the fact that, like — because I wasn’t going to throw knees anymore, but you can’t do that — it helped me readjust.”
Hardy now heads into April 27 with even more to prove than he already had before. His opponent, Smoliakov, previously trained at American Top Team before Hardy called the gym home. The former defensive end said Smoliakov was still at ATT when he arrived in Coconut Creek, but the two never got a chance to train together because of restrictions Hardy’s coaches put in place to protect his own newcomer status to the sport. “I would’ve died,” he joked when asked what could’ve happened without those restrictions.
Although Smoliakov may be little known, Hardy knows the Russian is still light years ahead of him when it comes to experience and knowledge and breadth of understanding in the sport. Smoliakov carries with him seven years of mixed martial arts service compared Hardy’s paltry two. In 2013, the same year Hardy had his lone NFL Pro Bowl season, Smoliakov racked up four first-round stoppage wins across the Russian and Ukrainian regional scenes. He had already been there and done it all before Hardy even really understood what it was.
But these are the types of challenges Hardy wants — and he plans to make amends for a first time around that left him hungry for a second chance.
“I’ve only been here for two years, on the negative side. But on the positive side, I’ve been here for two years — I know how to fight,” Hardy said. “Nobody survives this place for more than a month without knowing how to fight. And these days I’m sparring, doing everything that I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve just got to understand, keep it under control and fight. You’re a fighter. You belong here, you earned it. Like I said before in my earlier interviews when I was just starting, I’m not a CM Punk. Like, I’m not here to jump in, take whoopings, and cash checks. I went through the circus for free, man. I was paying basically to go fight people ... and I’ve just got to remember that. That’s a hard thing to remember when you’re in there and your life is on the line and it’s a fight-or-flight situation.
“So that’s from now until the end of my career, man — there is no more ‘let’s knock him out in 20 seconds.’ If it happens, it happens. We’re going to make people suffer. We’re going to make people regret signing the contract. That’s what it’s about for me now.”