“I told her I’ve invested so much time and so much energy in this sport, and I’ve sacrificed so much for it, that people now think I’m not worthy of being there,” recalled Hardy. “And that’s what I miss. I miss that respect from people, I miss people looking at me and saying ‘you’re one of the best fighters in the world. That’s what I miss, and on May 26th, there’s gonna be a lot of surprises. People are gonna look at me and go ‘wow, in three fights, we want to see him fight for a title again.’ And that’s really how I feel. I’m in a better place than I have been ever before in my career.”
It’s welcome news for fans and friends of the Nottingham, England, the ones who stuck by him as the losses piled up, starting with his five round loss to Georges St-Pierre in their March 2012 UFC welterweight title fight. Defeats to Carlos Condit and Anthony Johnson followed, and when he was submitted in the third round of an August 2011 bout by Chris Lytle, many thought that his UFC run was about to come to an end.
That speculation ended before Hardy left Milwaukee that night, as UFC CEO and Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta took to Twitter to announce “Will not cut @danhardymma I like guys that WAR!!!”
Hardy, appreciative of the support, didn’t rush back into the Octagon though. Instead, he walked away to regroup and take some time to not just sew up the holes in his game, but to re-evaluate everything in his life. Over nine months later, he is rejuvenated.
“It’s been essential, to be honest,” said Hardy of the break. “It was the best thing I could have done, and I should have done it a while ago. A lot’s changed since the Lytle fight. I have a completely different camp, different guys around me, it’s just a new outlook and a new approach to it, and if I hadn’t taken that time off, I wouldn’t have been able to be as settled in the changes as I am now.”
It’s a new attitude from Hardy, one that he didn’t necessarily have in the past, when he adopted a fighter’s stubbornness, insisting that if he just kept fighting, the universe would return to its natural order. That didn’t happen, and even going into the Lytle fight, he knew changes were needed, but he still assumed he had enough in the tank to get things done anyway.
“The problem going into the Lytle fight was that everything was still a little bit up in the air,” he said. “I knew that changes needed to be made, but I was so concerned with getting off a losing streak and back on a winning streak that I was just trying to sprint ahead through it, and it really wasn’t the right thing to do. I should have stepped back a couple fights before that and really assessed where I was at and what was going wrong.”
The loss to Lytle was a personal ultimatum from Hardy to himself though, and as he sat back and reflected on a whirlwind ride through the UFC from 2008 to 2011 that saw him go from relative unknown to world title challenger and international star, he admits that he lost his way and a bit of his love of the sport.
“The thing that kinda pushed me away from it was all the stuff that comes with the job and not the actual job itself,” explains the 30-year old Hardy. “I’ve been training full-time since I was 13. I’ve been in the gym twice a day and I’ve been competing regularly, and I loved it. I enjoyed every day and I woke up and I was looking forward to getting in the gym and looking forward to fighting and testing new skills out and things like that.
“And when it gets to this top level and there’s so much more attention on it, and then you’re dealing with sponsorships and dealing with management and trying to find training partners, it just takes some of the fun out of it. The fans think that all you do is train and fight, and it’s not that easy; there’s a lot more to it.
“It changes the approach to training as well. I enjoy being in the gym, but when you’re in the gym because you have something to do, because you have goals to achieve, then it has to change the approach to the training sessions, and sometimes it’s not as enjoyable because you just can’t develop naturally; it’s almost forced. And if you have a bit of a bad streak, there’s that added pressure, so the demands on yourself increase, which means that the training sessions are less enjoyable because you’re forcing yourself to improve. And then you’ve got all these people that have no idea what they’re talking about telling you how bad you are and how much you need to improve, and it takes away some of the ownership over your life. You become less and less of a martial artist on a journey.”
That may have been the part that hurt the most for Hardy, who has always embraced the martial arts end of mixed martial arts. Yet slowly, but surely, the love began to come back, and with a new team and new coaches, he began to tighten up the areas of his game that have historically given him trouble. Key in this transformation has been his work with the man who used to be a secret but who no longer has that luxury, Ricky Lundell.
“I have traveled and I have trained with numerous different coaches and camps,” Said Hardy. “I’ve spent time in Florida, in Oregon, all over California, and the grappling in general was always kind of a chore for me because I enjoyed striking. Striking made sense to me, I understood the dynamic of the sport, and the way to approach it in order to get the results you wanted.
“Grappling, I always felt like I was trying to keep up. There was something I was missing that I wasn’t understanding that was really holding my progress back. I started working with Ricky right after the Chris Lytle fight because I came in to help Frank (Mir) sparring for (Minotauro) Nogueira. I was in his camp, I was watching how the coaching was going on, and who he was working with, and all of a sudden I started to realize that it was starting to make sense to me.
“And then I’d wake up in the morning and before I’d go to training I’d be watching NCAA wrestling on youtube, which before was something I had to force myself to do. (Laughs) But now I’m spotting things that I’m using in the gym and I’m seeing things that I can go into training sessions after I’ve watched it and put into practice, which for me was very, very strange. And never before have I had somebody say to me ‘you know, you look like you’ve got a natural instinct for wrestling; you just have bad habits.’ And Cael Sanderson told me that the other day. I enjoy being in there now and I enjoy getting these things to work and I understand how it pieces together.
“I’m a huge Lego fan, and a lot of the time in my head – and this is going to make me sound like a little bit of a crazy person (Laughs) – I build Muay Thai combinations like I put Legos together. I can take two strikes out of one combination or two pieces out of one Lego set and add them to another to make it different and better, and I kinda piece things together like that in my head. It’s the only way I can really rationalize it and vocalize it to make somebody understand. And now I started to do the same thing with grappling. Now it makes sense to me and now I understand the process to get the result that I want. Whereas before, I just had a whole bag of techniques that I was throwing out there and seeing what stuck. I never had a system before. And the good thing is that Ricky’s around all the time, he watches my sessions, watches the tape, and then he sits and says ‘at this point, where you made that mistake, this is what you should have done.’ And I’ve never had anybody doing that before. I’ve just had somebody trying to teach me their style of jiu-jitsu, which has just never stuck.”
Earlier this year, Hardy was ready to return to the Octagon, and despite all this new grappling knowledge he had to unleash on the world, the UFC gave him a striker – and one of the best – in “Bang” Ludwig. It may be safe to assume that Saturday’s bout will be a kickboxing match, but then again, we assumed that Hardy’s wrestlefest with Anthony Johnson in March of 2011 was going to follow the same course and that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, Hardy thought the same thing. As his countrymen The Who so famously put it, he won’t get fooled again.
“I’m not taking anything for granted anymore, let’s put it that way,” he chuckles. “I was very smart at the start of my career and I would watch tape on fighters and I would play those tricks on them and I would say I’m gonna do this or I’m gonna do that, and I’d do something completely different. I’m not really sure where I got away from that, but Johnson fed me a line and I took it. It was my mistake. And with this sport, you can’t take anything for granted. You can’t trust people’s words that they’re gonna do one thing because they’re probably gonna do something else, and everyone’s out for themselves. It’s a dog eat dog sport and there’s one thing going in there and having a great fight and entertaining the fans, but on the flip side, you keep doing that and keep losing, eventually you haven’t got a job and nobody cares then.”
Hardy knows what’s on the line this weekend and he doesn’t need to be reminded of it. What he may need a little nudge on is remembering that he is a talented fighter and not just a wild swinging brawler. Putting that old part of his personality may take some doing, but he knows it’s necessary.
“I kinda got away from being a martial artist,” he said. “I was always about efficiency and taking the least damage possible and getting the job done as quickly as possible, and I got away from that because I like that gamble, I like that roll of the dice. I like to trade punches and see who falls over first. And at this level, you can’t do that. It’s not a smart thing to do. So I’m trying to be smarter now, and I have good coaches around me that are encouraging me to make the right decisions and do the right thing, and I feel like I’m in a good situation to step into this fight, and I really, genuinely believe I can beat Ludwig at any range, so it really doesn’t matter what he’s gonna do.”
Nine months later, Dan Hardy is back. He’s talked about missing the respect he used to get, but he misses something more that he hopes to rectify on Saturday.
“In the past three years I’ve missed winning more than anything,” he said. “That’s really all that matters, getting back on track.”