(Dan Hardy attempts to illustrate how much he learned while training in China.)
In 2002, before he became a standout in the UK’s MMA scene and earned his ticket to the UFC, the then-20-year-old Dan Hardy hopped a plane to China. For two months, he lived and trained amid the esoteric kung fu culture of the storied Shaolin monks. Today, after compiling a 22-6 record and awaiting his fight with Mike Swick at UFC 105, Hardy talks about the experience which, he says, led to his MMA aspirations.
I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the main Shaolin temple in the center of China. It was about these two Chinese guys that went in and spent three years there. At the time, I was really into my old-school kung-fu movies and Bruce Lee, and I just wanted to get over there and experience it for myself. Unfortunately, the temple (featured in the documentary) was closed to foreign people, so I did a bit more research and found a temple in the north of China that was the same set-up but was open to foreign students. I made contact with them through the Internet and I went over and spent two months training with them.
I wasn’t really sure (what to expect) to be honest. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna get my ass kicked for the entire two months or if I was gonna come back with some kind of supernatural Shaolin powers or something. It was just an experience: I needed to go there and see what it was all about. And it didn’t disappoint. It was a real crazy experience, completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. It gave me some time to learn more about myself and my physical capabilities and how much I could push myself mentally. It really gave me a lot of strength and a good work ethic for where I’m at now.
The temple was in a castle up on a hill in the north of China, right on the border near the Mongolian desert. The weather could be quite harsh in the morning. We always started with a run—we had to be outside, lined up at five o’clock in the morning, ready to start. And (we went) right down the side of the hill and around a lake on the bottom, then up 360 stone steps back to the castle. That was the regular morning run. That was followed by like an hour and a half of Tai Chi and Chi-Gong, like breathing exercises. Next, we had breakfast, which was usually eggs and rice and not a lot else. Then we’d go back to our rooms and grab our stuff.
The rooms were basically rooms in the castle that had been converted. I was in a small building with a courtyard in the center—there were four buildings all together. It was just a basic room: stone floor, no glass in the windows, and just a steel frame bed with wooden slats and a bag of rice as a pillow. It was basically what you would expect in the middle of nowhere in China.
After the first session of the day, we’d start with traditional kung fu training, which was basically forms, stance work, and flexibility (exercises). After we had lunch, which was rice with some kind of meat, which surprised me. It was usually pork or chicken—and we usually knew which one it was because you could hear them slaughtering the animals right in the yard. And there were several plates of different vegetables and stuff. After that, we had like an hour break to go relax a bit—most people went to sleep. In the afternoon, training varied between weapons and Chinese kickboxing, like Sanshou. The evening meal was the same as lunch. And then the time after dinner was our own. Normally, the students got together and we’d do some boxing sparring—we did a lot of boxing sparring while I was there.
The stone steps were pretty miserable. We’d climb up them and then we’d have to go back down the steps head first, so we kind of crawled back down for arm and shoulder strength. And then when we got to the bottom we’d do jump-ups, jumps of two steps or three steps at a time to build plyometric power in the legs for all the jumping techniques and flying kicks and stuff. Other than that, it was a lot of body strength exercises and conditioning, like hitting wooden posts and holding rocks with small indentations—it was like a bowling ball that hadn’t been carved out properly—for grip strength. And then there was a lot of holding stances, like holding a real low horse stance while having bamboo staffs across your legs and across your arms—you couldn’t move because you’d drop the staffs. It was a lot of basic stuff that was quite primitive, but you know it did the job. The flexibility stuff was pretty painful—there would be like three people stretching one person. They’d pull your legs apart and then someone would press down on your shoulders or your hips and force you to the ground. That was one of the most miserable parts of it.
We trained hard, doing like 10 or 12 hours a day, and a lot of it was forms and stance work and weapons training. I learned a lot while I was out there. But when I got back, I realized the most important thing I took from the experience was the conditioning, the mental side of it. The rest of it was great, going through the forms and stuff, but there wasn’t a lot of other point to it as far as combat goes. So it kind of turned me more toward the competitive side of martial arts, and I wanted to pursue that a little more.
When I was over there, the UFC was still quite unknown even in the UK. I had heard of the UFC right before I left; I watched a few of the videos and was real interested in it. But when I went out there, there were a few guys that liked to do grappling and stuff like that. A lot of the technical stuff we did, I was very surprised, was a lot like Thai boxing with takedowns. A lot of throws—not necessarily like freestyle wrestling, shooting for double legs or things like that, but it was clinching and takedowns and throwing. And that was something that the monks practiced and competed with against other temples, and I was quite surprised by how competitive it was with them and how hard they worked at the actual combat side of that. I thought it would be all jumping in the air and throwing weapons around, but they focused a lot on the combat stuff. So I think they would like MMA.