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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on ESPN 4

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-San Antonio-Hardy vs Adams Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s UFC show in San Antonio was just another example of one of the truths, perhaps sad truths, of combat sports.

In an era when most of the biggest fights are either on pay-per-view of a subscription streaming service, the UFC got a six-hour window on ESPN. The main event saw Leon Edwards dominate Rafael dos Anjos, a former lightweight champion, for five rounds. In doing so, Edwards came out as a leading contender for Kamaru Usman’s welterweight title.

But the talk after the fact among the public, both based on Google searches and questions I received from a casual audience, was hardly debating whether Edwards, Colby Covington or Jorge Masvidal deserve the next shot at the title.

To the casual audience, Saturday was all about Greg Hardy.

Hardy is one of those great conundrums. Yes, he’s, with the possible exception of Brock Lesnar, the best heavyweight athlete the UFC has had in its modern history based on things like drills an NFL combine would put you through. He was a legitimate star in the NFL. He hits very hard. His overall skill level is in question, both due to lack of experience, and the one time he was taken past three minutes with Allen Crowder, he did not look good at all. And every time he fights, the UFC becomes a target for those who bring up his very well known domestic violence charge. And it’s an even bigger target since Dana White years ago proclaimed that if you put your hands on a woman, you’re done in the UFC, and then he’s defended Hardy at every turn.

Hardy (4-1) blocked a takedown and landed 31 punches on the ground on opponent Juan Adams to finish him in 45 seconds. Like in all three amateur fights and four of his five pro fights, there isn’t much you can say negative about Hardy’s game-day performance. Sure, he’s yet to face even a second-tier fighter, but the longest any fighter except Crowder has lasted has been 2:15, all ending by knockout or TKO from punches.

Still, with Crowder, he did not at all look like a UFC-caliber fighter. But he’s also less than two years from his first amateur fight, and barely a year past his pro debut. Had he not been an NFL star, he obviously wouldn’t have been signed so early and fast-tracked into top main card positions yet. But, at this point, he’d be on people’s radar as a real heavyweight prospect.

Hardy got in excess of 100,000 searches on Google over the weekend, a figure that only top stars get, although it was less than the 200,000 Urijah Faber got the previous Saturday. Edwards didn’t chart with his biggest career win.

And therein lies the sadness. The curiosity and interest for Hardy is at least partially due to the very reason many very legitimately question his being signed in the first place, his checkered past. It’s why he got a high slot on an ESPN card against opponents who otherwise would never get much past early prelims.

But unlike team sports, individual sports, combat sports in particular, at a professional level, will always cater to what interests the public. Some who don’t like that use it as evidence that the UFC, or MMA in general, is not a real sport. But that type of thing has existed in boxing for more than a century, and will likely exist in individual fighting sports for at least another century.

But in the end there is another truism. Unless he walks out of the sport early, he may be fast-tracked, but he will either start losing or face major name competition. His career will in the end be defined by how he performs, not how many Google searches he did early on.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday’s show.

LEON EDWARDS - Edwards (18-3) won his 10th of his last 11 fights, with the last three wins coming against Donald Cerrone, Gunnar Nelson and dos Anjos. Those caliber of wins should get one a title shot. But Edwards lost to champion Usman via decision on Dec. 19, 2015, before Usman was champion.

That loss likely puts him behind Masvidal (34-13) as far as the next contender for Usman, even though Masvidal has only won six of his last 11 fights. But in a sport about what have you done for me lately, Masvidal has just come off a five-second knockout win.

If we go with the idea the title match next isn’t going to happen, and Masvidal gets the next shot, Edwards should face the winner of the Aug. 3 fight with Covington (14-1) vs. Robbie Lawler (28-13). The hard part is if Covington wins, he will feel he’s already earned the next title shot.

RAFAEL DOS ANJOS - dos Anjos (29-12) is now in a tough position with three losses in his last four bouts, even if they were all to the elite, Covington, Edwards and Usman.

A good next opponent for him would be Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (14-4-1) or Ben Askren (19-1).

WALT HARRIS - With two straight immediate knockouts, Harris (13-7, 1 no contest) seemed to have punched his big ticket to a name fighter. Good choices would be either Derrick Lewis (21-7) or Alistair Overeem (45-17).

GREG HARDY - If you are just looking for an entertaining fight for Hardy, where it’s two big guys with power going at it, Tai Tuivasa (8-2) is your guy. Maurice Greene (8-2) is another guy. Both of these opponents are true tests at this stage, although one can argue maybe it’s a little too early to face guys of that level.

DAN HOOKER - Hooker (18-8) scored an impressive knockout of James Vick (13-4) in just 2:33. That’s a big enough name to bump him into legit ranked competition like Charles Oliveira (27-8) or Gregor Gillespie (13-0).