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After ‘weird’ UFC exit, Dan Hardy details his ‘nail in the coffin’ with the promotion

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UFC Fight Night: Open Workouts Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“With your accomplishments both in and out of the octagon, you’ve contributed to shaping the sport of mixed martial arts into what it is today while also being a global ambassador for the sport,” the email read. “We wish you nothing but the best of luck and much success going forward with all your future endeavors, and thank you for your dedication to the sport of mixed martial arts and the UFC.”

Dan Hardy was fully reading the message for the first time when he spoke to MMA Fighting. Seeing a text block of corporate-speak, sent one day after he gave an interview to Submission Radio asking for a release from his nine-year-old fight contract, he had immediately forwarded it to his manager. But he hadn’t taken the time to really absorb what it meant – the official end of a relationship that had run 13 years.

It felt “kind of weird,” he said, when he thought about it.

“I’d always got this perception that my career within MMA would come to an end, and it would end with the UFC,” he said. “I never intended on fighting past a UFC contract. When I was on that four-fight losing streak, and I was considering stepping away, I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere else. I was thinking about studying philosophy at university, a complete directional change. I always felt like my career, as far as professional MMA, would start and finish with the UFC.

“But then admittedly, I didn’t expect it to continue on so long after me being a fighter. I’d not really considered the idea of being an analyst or commentator. So I’m very thankful for that time and that opportunity. But it’s weird, because I’m still very much in professional MMA and do want to be. I love commentating and analyzing and training fighters. But now I’m right on the outside of the UFC for the first time in, well, forever.

“Before I was unknown to the UFC, and then I was under UFC contract from 2008, and now I’m just not a part of it at all, with efforts to properly exclude me in every way possible, which feels really odd as well, because I don’t feel like any of it is warranted.”

The British MMA vet has on several occasions explained his side of a confrontation with a UFC employee that appeared to be the catalyst for his departure from the promotion as a commentator. He’s repeatedly tried, without success, to get someone from the promotion to explain what led to the split, though he’s well aware that his public confrontation with Herb Dean and private one with the employee are the most obvious justifications.

After getting no clear answers, Hardy was happy to get one via email. Now, he can move on and weigh his options.

On the one hand, he’s already hard at work training fighters, running his own media company, and working on his next book. He is still the star of a UFC-centered breakdown show on BT Sport. On the other, now that he’s no longer under any form of UFC contract, he is eager to find a suitable opponent and write the last chapter in a combat sports story he believes is unfinished. But he’s still processing everything that went down over the past year.

“I don’t think it’s really quite sunk in yet,” he said. “Whenever I visualized myself fighting again, apart from daydreaming about fighting in PRIDE back in the day, my visualization as a fighter was always in the UFC in the octagon. I spent a good 20 minutes in there before every commentary gig, just kind of walking around and feeling the canvas and stuff. It’s a very comfortable place for me now. So the idea of fighting somewhere else, it seems like a bit surreal and alarming.

“But the more RIZIN and ONE and Bellator I watch, we’ll see what happens. I know that people are aware and have been in contact. But at the moment I’m not really thinking about it too much, and until someone comes to me and says, ‘What about this date and this person,’ then I’ll kind of stay out of it and let my manager deal with it.”

Before Hardy’s relationship with the UFC soured, he said he was close to making a comeback. A couple years ago, the promotion had pitched Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller as return opponents, but he turned them down in favor of someone with more personal heat.

“If I’m only fighting one or two more fights, I want to want to fight the guy,” he said. “There a lot of guys on the roster, and I literally just don’t want to punch Joe Lauzon in the face. It’s as simple as that. As a fighter and a contractor, I should have some choice in that, I feel, especially at this point in my career, where you know for sure I’m not contending for a belt, and I’ve said that all the way through. I don’t want to be fighting people that are still in the mix, because I respect the mix enough to know that I’m not in it. But either let me fight someone else that’s not in the mix, or let me go.”

The response he said he got to a release was less than enthusiastic.

“I even spoke to Dana about it a couple of times about it, and he just kind of laughed at me,” Hardy said. “These are actually his words: ‘Why would you want to do that? You’ve got a job for life.’”

Eventually, he found a more receptive audience. He said executives discussed the possibility of announcing his return live during an event. One pitch was to break the news live on air as he worked the commentary desk for UFC Uruguay in 2019. But the idea of announcing his return on a “Fight Night” event in South America was, politely put, unsatisfying.

A much more appealing offer, he thought, was to give the news to his countrymen at a UFC London event in March 2020. Hardy remembered the reception U.K. star Michael Bisping received at The O2 Arena, and he thought he could be ready to fight if the promotion returned to the city as planned in September. He let the promotion know he wanted to face a Diaz (either Nick or Nate would do), fight a rematch with Carlos Condit, or reschedule a bout against Matt Brown, which was scrapped when pre-fight medical tests revealed an irregular heart rhythm that was later diagnosed as Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome. He needed time to prepare.

“I want to make sure I lay a good foundation before I go back in there and let someone try and kill me,” he said.

Then the pandemic intervened. When he got back to work, on Fight Island for a series of events, he adapted as best he could to a hectic work environment in Abu Dhabi. Then came the very public spat with referee Dean, which prompted UFC President Dana White to threaten termination to any UFC employee who confronted an official.

“Something else that I said, which may have led to this situation, was when I spoke to the UFC after the Dean circumstance,” he said. “I said, ‘Please don’t forget, I work for mixed martial arts before I work for the UFC.’ And I think that kind of burned a little bit in their minds, because when you work for the UFC, they want you to be UFC through and through, and I’m a grass roots fighter, and I’ve got fighters around me all the time, people that have come through the sport and are having the same struggles and are dealing with issues that prolong in mixed martial arts’ career. So yeah, I think I was a little bit too unpredictable in that seat, perhaps, and I think after that moment, they were possibly waiting for an opportunity to push me to one side.”

The UFC did sign him to a new contract as a commentator, he said, though after he vented further about the Dean situation at a media day two months later, he was removed from any subsequent media duties. He believes he gave the UFC its opportunity to remove him when he confronted the employee, a PR executive in the promotion’s U.K. office, over what he said was a lie about an opportunity that hadn’t been presented to him. The foundation for that confrontation was set long before Fight Island, he said, when structural changes to the U.K. office took effect after the UFC’s acquisition by WME/IMG (now Endeavor) and attention shifted away from European fighters.

“I’ve never felt like I had a bad relationship, but I’ve also never approached this job as it was a job,” Hardy said. “Sometimes, my frustrations would be people were kind of dragging their feet and doing the necessary work, and this was a person I’d complained about before, because I felt like opportunity would be amiss, not only for myself, but for other fighters in the region, young fighters that the media are trying to get ahold of that the UFC office in the UK is not connecting them, and all these opportunities that would be amiss that were provided for me when I was a fighter.

“It wasn’t like things had always been like that. Things had gotten considerably worse. When I signed in 2008, I had interviews every week. I was busy. I was talking to everybody that was there. Now, these guys are hardly getting any media attention at all, and the disconnect is of the PR team and the office, and that was my frustration, which I’d mentioned a few times. But it seemed to me like perhaps my complaints had not gotten further up the chain. In fact, they’d actually gone back to the person that I had maybe complained about, because their mood toward me had changed.

“I think the Dean situation didn’t help either, but obviously, the UFC couldn’t terminate my contracts after that because that would look really bad, firing a commentator after commenting on fighter safety. I think that was kind of nail in the coffin, to be honest, because of how much control they need to have over those events.”

When he was sent home from Fight Island after the confrontation, Hardy tried to right the ship by calling out his would-be opponent Brown. He reminded the UFC matchmaking team of his desire to fight Brown, Condit or a Diaz. He said he never heard back.

“A few days after that, all of a sudden Matt Brown is matched on the most distant card in the future, there’s not any other matchups on it in the future,” he said. “It was like in July, and they’re putting him on a card in July. You’re just kind of sticking a middle finger at me now, you know? So I immediately knew they weren’t going to match me, and even if they were going to match me, it was going to be a fight that just wasn’t at all appealing to me and wasn’t beneficial to me at this stage in my career.”

What Hardy is looking for now that he’s no longer a part of the UFC is an opponent with his level of recognition – and time to get himself into fighting shape. At 210 pounds, it’s going to be awhile before he’s within striking distance of welterweight or middleweight. He recently ordered an Airdyne bike. He’s auditioning promotions on the heavy bag, trying out ONE, RIZIN and Bellator MMA gloves. He’s not opposed to going bare-knuckle.

“If I’m daydreaming, I can see myself fighting someone like [Takanori] Gomi in RIZIN,” Hardy said. “That would be a lot of fun. I know [Shinya] Aoki’s moving around weight classes in ONE, but I don’t think I’d be able to get down to 170 to be walking around on Fight Week.”

Then again, why does Hardy want to make that drop and trade punches at 39, his age as of Monday, and go through the pain he left behind for a concussion-free job he took eight years ago? Is the leap back to fighting as easy as getting a pink slip?

“I absolutely think so,” he said. “The good thing is I’ve got a couple of Pavlovian responses from back in the day, to certain songs and music that I can use to get my brain switched back on. But I’ve also got a lot of frustration, which helps, from the last sort of 12 months or so. For as awesome as Fight Island was, the experiences of being out there, every single one of them was more stressful than the last. There were really intense environments for whatever reason – it was just crammed in and sh*t up your nostril every single day and weird sleep patterns and clubs on the other side of the harbor.

“I feel like it would be quite cathartic to get into a training camp at this point. I just need something to get my teeth into. I need a date to aim for, and I can’t daydream a date in my head. I need to go, ‘Right, there’s an event that date. That’s what I’m aiming for, and I’ll start working toward it.’”