He’s 30 years old, with less than two years of mixed martial arts experience and a reputation he’ll never fully shake, but on the eve of his UFC debut, Greg Hardy said his goal is to become the greatest American heavyweight of all-time across all combat sports.
That encompasses not just Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic and Randy Couture in the UFC, but legendary boxers like Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Rocky Marciano and Mike Tyson.
A former NFL All-Pro lineman, Hardy is the kind of athlete rarely seen in mixed martial arts.
“I know the difference between a superstar in the NFL and a superstar in MMA right now. And there’s still a pretty big gap between the two,” said Dan Lambert, a co-founder of the American Top Team and one of the most influential figures in MMA’s brief history.
Hardy not only trains at Lambert’s American Top Team (ATT) gym in Coconut Creek, Florida, but he lives there in one of 13 tiny dorm rooms above the gym, which Lambert said are as spartan as one could imagine and are designed for short-term stays.
“My kid’s college dorm room is bigger than these,” Lambert said.
It’s one example of the commitment that Hardy, who faces Allen Crowder on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the co-main event of “UFC Fight Night” on ESPN+, has made to being the best fighter he can be.
Hardy’s outsized goal won’t be easy to reach, though, and the reason has nothing to do with his talent or age or lack of experience in the fight game. There is, Lambert said, an “elephant in the room,” regarding Hardy that will likely never fully fade from public awareness.
Hardy regrets incident that led to his 2014 arrest
Hardy was arrested on May 13, 2014, in Charlotte, North Carolina, on domestic violence charges against Nicole Holder, who he was dating at the time. Though Hardy insisted that Holder was the aggressor in whatever incident occurred between them, he was convicted of a misdemeanor by a judge and sentenced to 18 months probation. He appealed and requested a jury trial. Holder failed to appear for trial and on Nov. 5, 2015, the domestic violence charges were expunged from his record.
Saying he still had an urge to compete and unsigned by another NFL team after he was dropped by the Dallas Cowboys, Hardy turned to MMA. He won a contract with the UFC at “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series” last summer.
Lambert said Hardy has been among the most humble and respectful athletes he’s met. And he said Hardy has never shown any aggression or negative behavior, though Hardy is well aware he’ll never shake the questions that follow him because of his domestic violence arrest.
“I don’t want to paint him as a victim in any way, shape or form, because I don’t think he is,” Lambert said. “You’re a big boy. You make your bed, you lie in it. … I don’t think Greg ever expects to be at a point in his career where nobody ever brings this up. It’s a situation that he was in part responsible for creating.
“But he keeps his head up. He has gotten to the point where he understands that people are going to doubt him and judge him. He said, ‘The only thing I can control is what I do from this point forward.’ The guy has shown me nothing — nothing — in the gym other than total respect for everybody and the sport and the process. As long as he does that, he’s welcome to stay there forever.”
When prosecutors dropped the charges against him after Holder failed to appear for trial, they noted there was “reliable information” that Hardy and Holder had come to a settlement.
Hardy didn’t speak to Yahoo Sports specifically about what occurred between himself and Holder. Asked if he regretted the incident, he said yes and said it’s taken a toll not just on himself but on others close to him.
“This is not something I like to talk about or like to bring up, but I would like to say that people don’t really understand that this is something that has affected my whole life,” Hardy said. “This is something that went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. It didn’t just affect me. It affected my daughter, my son. It affected my mother and my sisters and my whole team.
“I wouldn’t understand if someone who was in this position and said they didn’t regret it and didn’t feel bad. It’s a horrible feeling and there is a horrible hole in their hearts and their lives. The answer to your question has always been yes and will always be yes.”
Hardy apologized to Ostovich for causing her any issues
The UFC put women’s flyweight Rachael Ostovich on the card in a fight against Paige VanZant, which brought more scrutiny to the past allegations against Hardy. In November, Ostovich was hospitalized with facial injuries after she was allegedly beaten up by her husband, Arnold Berdon.
When UFC president Dana White made the decision to include Ostovich and Hardy on the same card, it created an uproar. Ostovich said she had no problem sharing a card with Hardy, but it appeared callous, at best, to victims of domestic violence.
White, though, was unfazed and refused to budge by moving either of them to another card.
“[Ostovich] gave me 75 reasons why she needs to be on this card. I agreed with her and I put her on the card.” White said. “Realistically, she was off this card and Hardy was going on when she was off. She talked me into it. If she doesn’t care, why do you?”
The high-profile nature of an NFL star being accused of domestic violence all but guaranteed that Ostovich would get a spotlight she wouldn’t want and would have to answer questions she shouldn’t have otherwise had to take.
Hardy and Ostovich met on Tuesday and chatted, and Hardy apologized if his presence on the card caused her any issues.
“I didn’t know much about what had gone on with her, but as I learned about it, I understood that it does suck taking away her moment,” Hardy said. “It’s a long, grueling process to become a mixed martial arts fighter, and I understand how hard it is to get to this point, man. I felt it kind of cut away from her moment.
“We got to meet here in New York and she let me know she’s OK with it and everything is fine on her end. She seems like a really good person and I’m kind of excited to see her dominate in the ring.”
Scrutiny won’t keep Hardy from competing at the highest level
Hardy said he’s excited to be back in the spotlight again, and said he’ll be able to deal with whatever controversy surrounds his UFC debut.
He understands his actions will be more closely scrutinized for the rest of his time in the public eye than others, and that the allegations against him are never going to go away.
It’s something he’ll have to deal with, and he said that it won’t have an impact on him as an athlete.
“My personality as an athlete is, I believe I can do anything when I put my full heart, mind and soul into it,” explained Hardy, who said former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk was among his ATT teammates who proved helpful to him in learning MMA. “This is something that will allow me to compete again and get me back to that same kind of feeling and same kind of norm that I had when I was competing in football.
“The media and controversy and athletics go hand-in-hand, and I understand that. There was going to be an issue about me regardless, but my focus is not at risk. I’m a prime, top athlete and I’m able to focus through intense and hostile situations.”
Lambert raves about him as a prospect and said Hardy is ready now to compete at a high level.
He said he understands the seriousness of domestic violence allegations, but doesn’t understand the critics who don’t want to allow Hardy to make a living.
“We have a justice system in this country and you go through that system when you have a problem,” Lambert said. “You’re held accountable. When that system runs its course, whether somebody goes to jail and gets released; whether someone goes to trial and gets acquitted or somebody has charges dropped, what happens is that at some point, you re-enter society. What the [expletive] are you supposed to do at that point?
“You have to be able to take care of yourself and your family. For people to say, ‘He shouldn’t be allowed to do this,’ or ‘He shouldn’t be allowed to do that,’ who the [expletive] are you to say what this guy should be allowed to do for a living? Is it OK if he becomes a short order cook or a car salesman or a janitor? Or should he stay home on welfare? We said we’d give him a chance, but he’d be on a short leash. There’s some history there. He’s going to be on a short leash, but he’s handled himself unbelievably well. He’s been nothing but polite and decent and humble and respectful to everybody, from the young girl at the front desk to his coaches and teammates and everybody. He’s a good teammate. He keeps his room clean and he does everything he’s asked. Why shouldn’t he get this chance? There is no reason he shouldn’t and he’s been wonderful to deal with.”
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