Standing in front of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, FIGHT! photographer Paul Thatcher wants to have the Elvis estate photographer take a shot of me, him, and the brown-eyed bloke we dragged to pay homage to the King of Rock and Roll bright and early, well before the public tours begin.
On this chilly December morning, everything is decorated for the holidays, with Elvis’s own ornaments, garlands, and tinsels. The estate’s photographer, Robert Dye—whose father photographed Elvis back in the day—snaps two pictures before very nicely (yet very bluntly) signaling with his hands, making a sort of parting wave motion. We understand. He likes our centerpiece with the fading red mohawk alone, the iconoclastic Dan Hardy, The Outlaw, and he wants to peel off the distractions. He shoots Hardy in front of the long white Corinthian columns of Graceland to post on the Elvis Web site. “Look who visited Graceland: UFC welterweight contender Dan Hardy!” is the idea. The last big name to happen through was Gene Simmons.
It goes down as a monument of historical fact that, five minutes later, Hardy pukes on Elvis’s lawn. Several times, actually, and once on the King’s driveway.
But as great a story as it would make, this isn’t a timely metaphor for how the Nottingham-native Hardy feels about American icons. It’s not Ozzy pissing on the Alamo. “I think I got a bad salad last night is all,” he says.
A few hours later Hardy does a Q&A in front of a lively audience as part of the festivities for UFC 107. During the session, he says he won’t only have to prove himself by beating the champion Georges St- Pierre at UFC 111, but he’ll have to defend the belt four or five times to catch people up to where he is as a fighter.
Dan Hardy is a man you love to hate. Why? Because he picked on Marcus Davis? He did it first to get Davis to sign the contract and later to get Davis’s Irish dander up. “I was just avving foon,” Hardy says.
Is it because he’s British? He lives part time in Van Nuys now, and he loves the NFL enough to put the numbers of Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu on his wrists when he was knocking out Rory Markham. He owns a muscular 1971 Chevy Nova with sections of the exhaust cut out to make it stupidly loud. He idolizes Quentin Tarantino—the inspiration behind the Nova is the movie Death Proof—and has a goal of being in a Tarantino film, even if he’s just an extra walking across the street.
Then why is he so hated? Because he comes off as a dick, or gets in people’s heads? Because he carries his nose like Ichabod Crane and laughs like a jackal? “That’s just what’s in my head going through my facial expressions to be honest,” he says.
Whatever the case, when Hardy tells you time and again that he loves the fans, he means even the haters—the ones who write “RIP Hardy” and “Curtains” and “I hate Dan Hardy’s guts, I hope GSP smashes his face in.” He scours the forums fiendishly every day, and the first thing that comes to his mind when he reads he’s going to be “out-wrestled,” that “GSP will out-grapple” him, that “GSP will outstrike” him, Hardy thinks “bless their hearts—they have no idea.” Call him what you want, but he won’t find fault in innocence. And his love for you doesn’t need to be requited.
“I’m not in the business to upset people, apart from my opponents,” The Outlaw says. “It’s important to me to know how I’m being perceived by MMA fans. If I took everything to heart, it’d be a bit different.”
And when it comes to fighting Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight belt—Hardy is the first Brit to have earned a shot at a UFC title—he understands that popular opinion, when stacked together, will read like an executioner’s song. So be it. Like all fighting-out-of-the-blue-corner underdogs, Hardy will tell you he likes a good dirge. After all, people attached the words “invincible” and “indestructible” to Matt Hughes, too, he reminds you, until GSP came along. Ditto on Wanderlai Silva, the most deadly man on the planet. “It’s the same with this fight. Of course GSP is going to win because GSP wins,” Hardy says. “But at some point they stop winning.”
On an escalating scale, it has been the same for Hardy through all his UFC bouts: first with Akihiro Gono, then Rory Markham, then the gatekeeper Marcus Davis, then Mike Swick. And yet he has a left hook. He has a good chin. He can fence-walk and defend takedowns and has ways to get back up. Give him eight weeks, and his game plan is exceptional. He has chokes, strength, and loads of heart. He knows GSP will not want a boring fight, and Hardy sees a window there. GSP may have beaten Fitch, Penn, and Alves to within an inch of meeting their Maker, but Hardy has a left hook. He has a left hook. If you’re in earshot, you’ll know. He took Swick across hell’s half acre. “Did you see his face after? It was a bit of a mess, wasn’t it?” Hardy says. “But I should have finished him.”
Tucked neatly behind the hooligan theatrics and all the pluck Hardy brings to the game, he is somewhat of a gentleman. It may sound like a yearbook entry, but he is a nice guy. Eddie Bravo, who trains Hardy in jiu-jitsu at 10th Planet Jiu- Jitsu in Hollywood and recently awarded Hardy a purple belt, sums it up best. “Anybody who can have his ego in check like he does and allow himself to train and progress and not worry about getting tapped and all that kind of stuff, well … that’s just a sign of a really intelligent non-douchebag.”
The intelligent non-douchebag’s dad is an engineer who doubles as Hardy’s comanager, his mom runs a nursery looking after children, and his younger sister is training to be a teacher. So how did The Outlaw end up fighting? Having come from a town known in part for its connections to Robin Hood, the original outlaw, Hardy’s back-story is full of interesting things.
Hardy’s interest in fighting began with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at 6 years of age. That led to tae kwon do, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee, which led to devouring the texts on Jeet Kune Do and internalizing all he read and saw. This part of Hardy’s story is not all that uncommon. In fact, Ben Saunders has nearly the exact same trajectory. But Hardy is different.
How many fighters stop drinking when they’re 17 years old? How many fighters are so committed to shutting the world out that they board planes wearing headphones with the jack in their pocket instead of in their iPod? How many fighters spend their time video blogging, openly wondering why Josh Koscheck just won’t flush, or reading The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill.
“I need something to look forward to,” Hardy says sincerely. “Dangle a carrot, chase after it, and as soon as you get to it, get another one out there. That’s my motivation. It’s the fact that I know one day this is all going to come to an end, and I’m not going to exist anymore.”
The 27-year-old Hardy is an all-ornothing guy, an obsessionist. He claims to have a one-track mind and is very good on focusing on a particular thing. It’s something that began when he was very young, and he attributes this single-mindedness to why he’s done well at martial arts.
One of Hardy’s obsessions is art. Not seeing a way to pursue fighting as a career outside of boxing, he enrolled at art college and later Nottingham Trent University, where he dabbled in a wide range of contemporary platforms—large paintings, collages, drawings, and sketchings; mixed-media usin
g acrylic paints, scraps, and other found material; photography; and the list goes on. “I always thought that martial arts would be my thing, but that art would pay the bills,” he says. “I was to be a designer, or a tattoo artist. That was another thing that I really wanted to do at the time.”
In college, The Outlaw fronted a Rage Against the Machine cover band. Though he calls himself the weak link in the group, Hardy says, “We were pretty good.” His girlfriend, Elizabeth, uses a different word: “Shitty.” And she has a tape as evidence. Eventually, all of Hardy’s artistic leanings built to a performance art crescendo, which found Hardy discovering things about himself and taking a proverbial piss.
“Some of the artwork I was doing was just stupid stuff,” he says. “I had a piece where I smashed a big wooden door with an ax to the music of Jeopardy. There was no real thinking behind it, it was just ‘I kind of want to do it’, and it got a laugh.” Occasionally, he incorporated martial arts into these pieces.
But the urge never waned to fight, to participate in the unique art form of connecting the body and the mind in what Hardy calls “expressing yourself in the most physical way you can.” In 2002, The Outlaw’s Bruce Lee obsession prompted him to leave home for the first time on his own and spend a couple of months with Shaolin monks in the northeast of China. At 20 years old, Hardy was living at the Yee Hee Castle in the Jilin province of Changchun. It was on that green hillside, surrounded by meditative quiet, Chinese kickboxing, and assorted weaponsplay, that Hardy decided martial arts would be his path.
However, Hardy’s path would not be one of peace. He yearned to focus on the competitive side of martial arts. To feed his desire, he returned to England and began getting involved in MMA.
Foregoing his final year at university, Hardy devoted his time to mixed martial arts, beginning with Muay Thai and working his way through the other disciplines. He fought his first professional bout in June 2004, getting choked out by Lee Doski in Bracknell, England. He fought four more times that year, including his first bout in the United States against Pat Healy, whom he lost to via a guillotine choke after taking it on a day’s notice. “I still broke his nose,” Hardy says, “and I should never have taken it. The doctors had told me I had an irregular heartbeat, and we spent the day trying to get a doctor to do an EKG. That and the weight cut … I had nothing left.”
Then there’s his second stateside loss, the dubious Forrest Petz fight in Ohio. “I beat the shit out of him for five rounds, cut him up and beat him,” Hardy says.
The proof was in the pudding. With his artistic touches, Hardy turned Petz into a Picasso. “His nose was all over the place,” Hardy recalls. “But the Ohio commission thought he won the fight. I found out later that the promoter was actually Forrest Petz’s manager, and a couple of fights later he lost his license.”
And don’t get Hardy started on his last professional loss. You know, the one in 2007 when he kicked Yoshiyuki Yoshida in the pearls and was unceremoniously disqualified. His Adam’s apple moves up the length of his neck at the memory of it. “That’s why we wear a cup,” Hardy says. “It hurts a little bit, but you get on with it.”
Since dropping Yoshida and the match in one quick kick, Hardy has won seven straight, putting his total wins at 23. According to Bravo, one reason Hardy keeps winning is his sponge-like characteristics. Bravo says Hardy comes in “looking to learn something, unlike many guys who have come in just looking to roll.” Hardy has always had a showman’s sense of appearance, with OUTLAW in flames cut into his head for his fight with Sami Berik. He introduced the mohawk against Alexandre Izidro in 2006.
Brought up in a Christian home, Hardy now holds more encompassing pantheist views. “At school they’d teach you about the Bible,” he says. “A 600-year-old man building a big boat with animals? Something didn’t ring true about that to me. Sorry, I’m not buying it.” The tattoo he got two years ago that stretches across his midsection reads, “Om mani padme hum,” a Sanskrit phrase that translates to “Hail the jewel in the lotus.”
“Basically, the jewel is the enlightenment within the lotus, the lotus being the mind,” Hardy explains. “It’s a Tibetan Buddhist prayer for ‘Stay focused, keep walking the path you’re supposed to be walking on, and eventually you’ll achieve the enlightenment within your mind.’ It was kind of that and kind of the fact that I’ve never had abs, so I thought I could just cover that area with ink.”
After training with England’s most popular fighter, Michael Bisping, Hardy started Team Rough House with Paul Daley, Andre Winner, “Slick” Nick Osipczak, and company. Guys like the Rough House strength and conditioning coach Ollie Richardson, former striking coach Owen Comrie, and current striking coach Steve Patt helped Hardy evolve in ways that The Outlaw says few understand.
Yet Bisping was supposed to become the first British fighter to get a title shot in the UFC. Bisping was supposed to carry the flag of Mother England to the top. But it’s Hardy who will be met with massive boos in New Jersey as he walks out to England Belongs to Me by Cock Sparrer, wearing a bandana over his nose on his way to trade punches with the man many believe to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. While the place will be unified with one thing in mind—Screw You, Dan Hardy!—The Outlaw isn’t concerned.
“If I’m laying in bed listening to Cypress Hill or something and visualizing how things will go, and something negative starts happening in the visualization, here’s what I do,” he says. “I step out of it, take the scene as I see it in my head, crumple it up, and throw it in the fire. I burn it up. Then I go back to the positive stuff. It’s weird, but it works for me, which is why I am so confident.”
What’s to hate about that?
A mere 24 hours after puking all over the King’s 13 acres, we’re back in California, and Hardy has his trademark Elvis sunglasses on. Tonight the guys from TapouT are showing UFC 107 at their new on-premises theater in Grand Terrace, and there’s a devil’s den of partygoers hanging out in the compound beforehand. Jens Pulver, Anthony Johnson, Kendall Grove, Justin McCully, Ryan Loco—they’re all there. And of course, Dan Hardy and Elizabeth. It’s a funhouse atmosphere. People are serving shrimp hors d’oeuvres, others are at the panini buffet, more are trying on clothes and shoes. The world’s largest jack-in-the-box sits in the corner, surrounded by skulls, mirrors, throne chairs, huge bowls of candy, graffiti, and every manner of artistic diabolica. Dan Hardy is right at home. Stephen Quandros gets on a drum kit and let’s shit fly, ending with a story about the time he tried out for KISS. “Maybe some of you have heard of them,” he says.
In the theater, as the lights go down and the UFC’s symbolic gladiator appears on the screen, it’s something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hardy is eating it up. He is willingly reduced to nothing more than a fight fan. Yesterday, BJ Penn ran into Hardy in Memphis and told him to beat GSP. Tonight, Hardy is telling the screen, “Come on BJ, beat Diego Sanchez.”
One thing that’s clear is how much he loves the game. When Clay Guida is having his cut checked during the Florian bout and lets out the most surrealistic burp ever caught on camera, Hardy
throws back his head. “That was awesome!” he laughs. When Paul Buentello and Stephen Struve simultaneously hit each other and Buentello’s head hits the fence and Struve falls backward, it’s like somebody is tickling Hardy’s feet. When they fish out Struve’s tooth from his mouthpiece, Hardy says in complete reverence, “Best sport in the world.”
Though he’s beaten Mike Swick and says Josh Koscheck is “a natural fucking asshole” in lieu of the more common consensus of a “natural athlete,” Hardy pulls for TapouT’s teammate Jon Fitch with devotion. He likes Fitch. He wants to see Fitch fight Anthony Johnson, and would love to see Clay Guida “with his tiny little arms” fight Sean Sherk “with his tiny little arms.”
As Penn makes his way to the cage, Hardy is absorbed in the moment. “When I’m standing behind the curtain just before I walk out is when I think, ‘We’re here,’” he says. “Eight weeks of training, and we’ve arrived. It’s the greatest feeling.” And when Bruce Buffer starts getting into his evangelism, spinning around to introduce Sanchez in the blue corner, the Hardy smile appears—the one he taunted Davis with, and presented to Swick. Suddently, the renegade in Hardy comes crashing over his features. The belt is on the line. The hype and build-up have made it to the moment.
“Yuss!” he shouts, doing his Diego Sanchez impression. After the first round he keeps it up, only his “Yuss!” has become “Maybe!” Then after the third, with Sanchez battered, it has morphed into “Probably Not!” and in the fourth, “Actually No!” Hardy is coaching Penn from his seat, shifting around, talking to the screen. “Reverse … hands up … underhooks.” This is the real Dan Hardy, the one who loves this racket to his core, the one who says more than once that he thinks American fans are warming up to him. When Penn opens Sanchez’s forehead in the fifth round, Hardy is beside himself with delight. “Oh! Look at the size of that gash! Jesus,” Hardy says, “it’s so big you can see his thoughts!”
And it’s funny. As Dana White wraps the belt around Penn’s waist a few moments later, it’s almost like you can see one around Hardy.