MMA fans can generally be divided into two groups: Those who believe that, at its romantic best, mixed martial arts is a series of disciplines that speak to the ancient warrior code inside all of us, waiting to be tapped into. And those who laugh out loud at anybody who still thinks that way.
If we’re being real, MMA is a kind of defiant counterculture to the organized sports world. It’s two barefoot people hammering away at each other until one of them can’t fight back. The more we want to see one of the principals get their ass kicked, the better it all works. And the UFC has always been an island of misfit toys, full of sinners, opportunists, bullies, egomaniacs, tortured souls trying to stave off demons, and unsatisfied souls trying to invent them. Most of what we see in fighting can be taken at face value. Greed is as clear a goal in the fight game as the ritualistic parting of wits, and equally celebrated.
Thought of like that, bringing in a highly controversial figure like ex-professional football player Greg Hardy for Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series doesn’t seem as crazy as it should. Hardy is the former Pro Bowl defensive end for the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys who threw away his football career after prosecutors said he assaulted his ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend told police that, among other things, he once threw her onto a pile of assault rifles that had been lying on his couch. He was convicted of assault, only for the charge to be expunged on appeal when the ex-girlfriend stopped communicating with prosecutors. No matter what sport you’re talking about, that kind of behavior is enough to get you banished forever. Unless you’re talking about MMA. What he did wasn’t enough for the UFC to keep him out of the octagon.
In fact, Hardy—who fights out of American Top Team in Florida, and compiled a 3-0 record as an amateur—was an ideal candidate to star for a night in White’s new series, which began airing its second season on UFC’s over-the-top network, Fight Pass, on Tuesday night. At 6-foot-5 and 264 pounds, he’s cut like a prototypical heavyweight, complete with a chiseled torso, tattoos, and an 80-inch reach. He is imposing, recognizable, and universally detested, which for better or worse are all lures to tune in. And he’s asking for the one thing fighting never gets tired of—the great second chance. Leading up to his first pro fight against fellow NFL-turned-UFC wannabe Austen Lane on Tuesday night, UFC president White made it his duty to point out that Hardy deserves as much.
“If you talk to anybody he trains with, male or female, they say that he’s a very good guy. He’s very humble. Everybody deserves a second chance,” White said to MMA Weekly.
“The guy was never charged with anything, he was never sentenced or anything like that,” White said erroneously. “We’re going to give him a shot.”
Whatever Hardy does with it, redemption stories are tailor-made for the new platform. As the UFC begins to phase out the Ultimate Fighter franchise—a staple for the promotion for the past 13 years, which produced more stars that can be tallied—the Contender series is being primed as the new audition platform for burgeoning talent.
In fact, Tuesday Night Contender Series is one of the key programming features in the UFC’s new five-year deal with ESPN, which kicks off in 2019. The show will air on ESPN+. The key difference between TUF and Tuesday Night Contender Series is that all fights are official right off the bat. TUF contestants had to live in a house for six weeks and fight their way through a field of exhibition bouts which for the most part didn’t count toward their official record to land their first real fight on the live finale. Now they just show up and fight. And it’s left to White’s discretion to hand out UFC contracts to those who showcase well on the new show. It’s a cross between TUF and American Idol.
Hardy made the most of his shot by scoring a ridiculous 57-second knockout of Lane, landing a short right hook to set up a powerbomb of a left. It brought both White and UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard out of their seats, shouting variations of “holy shit.” And it was a holy shit moment. As in, holy shit, you know what that means, right? That knockout earned Greg Hardy a UFC contract. Or at least “developmental contract,” as White explained afterward.
“You see he has power and he’s a big heavyweight but he needs to work more and get more fights,” White said. “I have a few ideas on what to do with this guy to let him develop. We’ll try to build him up.”
So what does all that mean? That if the UFC assigns Hardy to a couple of fights on the lesser platforms—such as in the feeder league, the Legacy Fighting Alliance—the wins will add up, the buzz will build, and Hardy will begin to emerge from his checkered past as a prospect instead of a problem? We’ll see. White isn’t afraid to do the slow play on Hardy, nor to ultimately stand by his side, because a freshly struck match set to the PC world at large is still good business. White has always been good at shepherding the fallen and the disenfranchised, and in the UFC there are dozens (upon dozens) of people asking forgiveness.
No? Look around the landscape. Nick Diaz just recently got arrested on domestic violence charges. Jon Jones was stripped of a title after hitting a pregnant woman’s car with his SUV, and fleeing the scene. Alexander Gustafsson did 15 months in a Swedish prison for “grievous bodily harm” before his UFC career. Anthony Johnson was briefly suspended during a domestic abuse investigation, and returned to fight for the title. Hell, Conor McGregor tried to throw a dolly through a bus window at UFC 223, and some fans cheered. And Floyd Mayweather, the great boxer that White is infinitely open-minded about bringing over to the UFC, did his time after domestic battery, too.
If there’s money in it, Dana White doesn’t necessarily scare at mugshots.
Not that there aren’t plenty of good people in MMA, because there are. Lots of them. Discipline and honor remain at the heart of the sport. But MMA is ultimately the fringe, and it’s that fringe that draws people in. Greg Hardy’s no different. Will PR take on a new meaning in the era of UFC’s ongoing mainstreaming and the company’s deal with ESPN? Will SportsCenter anchors flinch at Hardy’s name coming back onto their teleprompters? These are real questions, and we’ll have to wait to see how it plays out. But for now, the UFC isn’t above taking such risks. As a pariah in hope of a second chance, Hardy should feel right at home in the octagon.