Hardy embraces GSP’s challenge

Every day when Dan Hardy goes to the gym, he sees proof that the odds, in most places hovering around 8-1 against him capturing the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title, are not as great as they seem.

Hardy faces Georges St. Pierre, arguably the most complete MMA fighter on the planet, on Saturday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. It’s the headline event of UFC 111, which is expected to be the biggest MMA event in several months.

Most give Hardy about the same chance of winning the title as they did his recent coach, Matt Serra, when Serra earned a title shot as a stipulation for winning a tournament on The Ultimate Fighter season four reality show.

Hardy is 23-6 with one no contest, with 11 of those wins via knockout.
(Neil Davidson, AP Photo/The Canadian Press)

But Serra is living proof of the axiom a punchers’ chance, or that on any given day in this sport, anything can happen. In the last five years, St. Pierre has physically dominated everyone he’s been in the cage with, a run unprecedented in the promotion’s history.

In his 12 wins in his last 13 fights, he won 31 of 33 rounds, including his current string of 19 straight, a UFC record.

But in the middle of some of the most talented fighters in the world, from Jon Fitch to Thiago Alves to Matt Hughes (twice) to Penn to Josh Koscheck, not even putting him in any danger, there was one loss.

On April 7, 2007, Serra, an 8-1 underdog, caught St. Pierre with a hard right behind the ear, and stayed on him, keeping St. Pierre from regaining his bearings before finishing him with punches on the ground in the first round.

“You can’t put muscles here (pointing to his face),” Hardy said during the “Primetime” series on Spike TV that is hyping the event. “And that’s all I’m aiming for…He can jump higher than me. He can lift trucks. It makes no difference to me. When I connect on his chin, he can lift all he wants… he’s still going down.”

But it’s easy to look at film of that one night and come up with the strategy of cracking St. Pierre with the perfect punch. It’s a lot harder to do it from your back, which is where every one of St. Pierre’s opponents since the Serra loss have spent the majority of the match.

Hardy has punching power, he’s 23-6 with one no contest, with 11 of those wins via knockout. But Alves was supposed to be almost impossible to take down and a better striker than St. Pierre, and once the match started, neither ended up being the case. B.J. Penn and Serra in the rematch talked a similar tone, to the point St. Pierre has talked of his opponents being like comedians who have run out of material.

Hardy himself thought Alves would do a lot better.

“I think the problem is Alves was so afraid of being taken down that he didn’t show his best stuff standing,” he said. “With me, I know that I’m going to be taken down at some point. And I’m not afraid of being on my back.”

“I have a lot of guys in England working on my takedown defense,” he said. “I have a guy in Los Angeles who was a Division I wrestler, a guy on the British Olympic team. It’s not because I’m fighting Georges, but it’s an area of my game I want to work on.

At the Serra Jiu Jitsu Academy on Long Island, one of the main aspects of Hardy’s training the past few weeks has been fighting from his back with training partners who are 200 pounds and more, bigger than St. Pierre, and working on ways to get back to his feet, figuring he’s got 25 minutes to connect with a punch.

Obviously that’s easier said than done. Serra himself had little luck getting back to his feet after being taken down in their rematch in Montreal. That aspect may be the key factor in the fight, whether he can get off his back on a regular basis. There is no guarantee Hardy wins if it becomes a striking battle, but his game plan is no secret, to try to make it as much of one as possible.

“Matt’s been in there twice with Georges, won one and lost one,” said Hardy. “Some of the mistakes he made in his second fight, he can relate to me so I don’t make those mistakes. My situation is the exact situation he was in in his first fight.”

“Not a lot of guys give Dan a chance,” said Serra. “I know what that feels like. I know what it’s like to prove people wrong. There are a lot of people you are going to give a big F.U. to when you win this fight.”

Hardy said he’s not mad about the odds makers and many fans giving him little respect, noting that it’s a conclusion you can come to when looking at the fight on paper.

“If I was looking at if from a fan perspective or a bettors’ perspective, that’s what it would look like,” he said. “When people doubt me, it gets me more excited for the fight. I think people are ready for a change in the division. I think people are more excited about what can happen in the division if I win the belt. I know a lot of people are doubting me, but that will change after the fight on the 27th.”

While St. Pierre has tried to paint a picture that it’s a martial artist, himself, against a brawler, and that once the fight starts, the difference in skill level will be obvious, Hardy, 27, is hardly a stranger to traditional martial arts.

Hardy started in taekwondo at the age of six. When he was 19, he ventured to northern China to train with Shaolin monks. For two months, his life consisted of all-day training at a level he said was the toughest thing he’s ever done in his life. It would be six days a week, and the seventh day he had no energy to do anything but rest. When he returned, he decided to become a fighter, and a traveler, noting after that experience he gained confidence to go places to learn, including frequent trips to the U.S., gaining a wide variety of training that has shaped him into the fighter he’s become.

A lot of people expected Hardy to play the villain role to hype the fight. Billed as “The Outlaw,” stemming from growing up in Nottingham, the home of Robin Hood, Hardy made his first impression almost as much with his mouth as his fists, particularly in building up a June 13, 2009, win over Marcus Davis, where he called Davis, who lives in Maine but is of Irish ancestry and had become a fixture on UFC shows in the U.K., a “fake Irishman.” Hardy never let up, and the talking may have gotten to Davis, who to this day still seems upset when Hardy’s name is mentioned.

But aside from remarks questioning St. Pierre’s chin, the same thing every opponent does since you can’t question is athletic ability, conditioning or wrestling game, Hardy has in recent weeks come across almost as a likeable Rocky Balboa.

He’s somewhat unknown as compared to most UFC main eventers. He’s being given little chance, but he’s trained hard his entire life for a title shot against a champion who will go down as an all-time great.

Hardy is coming off four straight UFC wins in the 19 months since he debuted at UFC 89 in Birmingham, U.K., with a close decision win over Akihiro Gono. He was quickly pushed by the UFC’s U.K. promotional office as a local star, both due to his color, his red Mohawk haircut and gift of gab, along with his knockout power. A quick knockout of Rory Markham was the match that established him as more than just hype. He got the title shot with an upset of Mike Swick on Nov. 14., in Manchester, U.K.

Hardy, whose fight Saturday will be his first in the U.S. in four years, outstruck Swick for three rounds, hurting him in the first. He was able to keep Swick from taking him down, and handily took the decision. But St. Pierre’s takedowns and ground control are at a different level.

The Prudential Center sold out for UFC 111 well in advance, and it will be the first UFC event that airs not only on pay-per-view, but also in 300 movie theaters across North America. It will almost assuredly be the biggest UFC pay-per-view event since December, when stars B.J. Penn and Frank Mir co-headlined UFC 107 and perhaps since August, with the loaded Penn-Ken Florian and Anderson Silva-Forrest Griffin double bill.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 22, 2010