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Greg Hardy can’t outrun his past, but all he sees is the future

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UFC Fight Night: Souza v Hermansson Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

By this point, one year into Greg Hardy’s pro mixed martial arts career, most minds have been made up in regards to his presence. There are those who believe there is no place for him in professional athletics, let alone cagefighting. There are others who think that he has to earn a living somewhere, so why not let him use his physical gifts? There are still more who are torn on whether they can truly separate the art from the artist, so to speak, the way they might do with John Lennon and The Beatles catalog, or Norman Mailer and The Executioner’s Song.

Bad people sometimes do great things. Good people sometimes do bad things. Where exactly Hardy falls on that spectrum has not been definitively, legally proven, but there are enough clues to draw personal conclusions. Hardy knows he is a lightning rod for an important issue of our times, but he also understands that he cannot control the reaction to him. To hear him tell it, all of that occurs parallel to his own existence. To hear him tell it, he is just a man with an opportunity, one that he plans to take full advantage of.

One year in — 13 months to be specific — it’s safe to say he has maximized upon those openings. Hardy has already fought five times, and has his sixth bout scheduled for the Saturday night UFC San Antonio card, against an opponent who has publicly railed about him for over two years. He’s fighting on ESPN, and media attention inevitably follows him wherever he goes.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” he told MMA Fighting recently. “It’s been the time of my life. This is the second time I get to live out my dream and attack it full-speed ahead. It’s been terrible and wonderful all at the same time.”

In April, Hardy reached the UFC win column for the first time, stopping Dmitrii Smoliakov with punches. That followed his controversial debut, where he was disqualified for connecting on an illegal knee against a downed Allen Crowder.

Of course, results are only part of the story with Hardy. A former Pro Bowl defensive end who played for both the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, his football life came to an unceremonious end one year after he was arrested for a domestic assault against his ex-girlfriend. Hardy was eventually convicted, though the conviction was later overturned after he appealed and the victim declined to testify in a retrial.

It is a part of his history he would no doubt like to erase. Yet one year into his pro fighting career, while the incident hangs over his reputation like a dark cloud, the intensity of reaction has begun to subside. Hardy is a marked man, but not unreasonably so. Now he is a man with a name, one that opponents like Juan Adams may trade upon for their own benefit.

“When I came into the sport, I was prepared for the worst,” he said. “After the things I’ve been through on the football side, it couldn’t get any worse. I had Jay Glazer saying I didn’t belong in the sport, I didn’t deserve to be here, I don’t deserve to live. Seeing stuff like that and seeing people talk like that gave me a new perspective on life. I used to be that guy, and it’s kind of gross if you think about it. Once I changed my perspective and changed my heart, I started getting a warmer welcome. I think it’s an amazing thing, the way people can change and open up. It shows how humanity is still alive in the world and how we can get better. We’re the most adaptable, phenomenal machines ever created.”

Hardy’s ability to turn a phrase has certainly served to soften his landing, even if slightly. He deftly sidesteps uncomfortable questions. He answers other queries thoughtfully. He occasionally flashes humility.

Mostly, he wants to slide the focus from his past to everything that lies ahead. And standing before him is Adams, a 6-foot-5, 290-pounder who wrestled at the Division I level and who takes this fight personally. His mother, he said, was a victim of domestic violence. He can remember being just six years old and standing helplessly as it occurred. Hardy is a proxy for revenge of that moment. Adams has badmouthed and threatened Hardy at every turn, but Hardy says he’s been unmoved by the campaign against him. In the NFL, it would be “bulletin board material.” But not here.

“I’m hyped up by true competitors, I’m hyped up by real athletes and sportsmen,” he said. “A man who wants to beat my face in because he wants to be the best in the world, that makes sense. But a boy, a child who runs his mouth for likes and views and jumps on a side that he has no information on, no idea about, it’s kind of sad to me. So I don’t respect that at all.”

Still, Hardy’s shots back at Adams are fairly restrained. He says he envisions winning the fight by putting Adams out and “maybe a hospital trip for my guy,” but acknowledges that all of these words back and forth don’t mean much. They are more for the fans than for each other. In the end, actions will win the day.

“I wish him all the best. I hope he trained hard,” he said. “I offer every single man on this planet the opportunity to test their mettle. Fear is nothing to me. A common mistake people make with me is they think I’m new to this athletic world, this competition world. I’m one of the sickest competitors on the planet. I welcome all challenges. I fight the baddest men on the planet every single day. This is nothing for me. Let’s bleed, let’s get it out, let’s do it.”

Hardy may never fully put the past behind him but to him, that’s everyone else’s issue. He has too much to do now, in this second chance to live out a dream.

He wants to be, he says, the greatest combat sports heavyweight ever. He has dabbled with the idea of boxing, and is willing to climb the ladder rung by rung. He may never earn redemption in the eyes of some, but he hopes to earn an undeniable reputation as a top fighter. It is the only public perception he can truly control.

“There’s so much negativity in the world, there are so many opportunities, especially on social media, for people who haven’t earned the ability to talk or haven’t gained the knowledge to speak intelligently. There’s just so much hate being thrown around. I call them ‘NARPs’ - non-athletic regular people. They haven’t been through camp, they haven’t had to just run the hill, just finish, just do it. They don’t understand purpose, just like I wouldn’t understand physics. Understanding is everything. Unless you open your heart and mind, you can’t receive any of that. You can’t receive another human being. It creates another negative black hole in the world. That is not productivity. That is not how you excel at the highest level.”

He has a long way to go to reach that highest level. He is not ranked, nor particularly close to it. But he can see the day coming. Even if fans continue to look backward — especially when they look backward — his focus is straight ahead.