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Sporting Heroes: Dan Hardy

Mixed marital arts trailblazer, peerless analyst and the first Briton to fight for a UFC world title – we talk to the legendary Dan Hardy

Since his first mixed martial arts fight in 2004, Dan Hardy has established a reputation as one of the most eloquent and exciting fighters in the sport. After joining the UFC in 2008, Hardy went on to earn a championship shot against the legendary Georges St-Pierre, the first British fighter to compete for a UFC world title. Although a heart condition forced Hardy to step away from the Octagon in recent years, he continues to raise the profile of MMA with his meticulous analysis and tireless promotion of the sport he loves. As Hardy prepares to release his autobiography Part Reptile, we talk to a true legend of the game...

How did you get into MMA?

I started with martial arts really early on, five or six years old. It's the old story: Teenage Ninja Turtles were the inspiration! I had a couple of friends who were training in taekondo so I joined in, and it was just kind of a natural progression. I never stopped training. I trained in taekondo through to my early teens, and then started to look at kickboxing, Muai Thai and whatever else I could find to test my martial arts. While I was at collage the UFC had just been purchased by Zuffa, and that became a new focus for me around probably nineteen or twenty years old.

You trained with Shaolin Monks as a teenager – what was that like?

It was pretty wild! At the time I was so obsessed with martial arts I wanted to go to the source of the really interesting stuff, which was obviously kung fu at the time. Crouching Tiger and just come out, and the Shaolin Monks were touring Europe, smashing bars over their head and stuff. There was something really mystical about the whole kung fu vibe for me. So instead of learning off some guy at the local community centre in Nottingham, I decided I wanted to go out to the temple and learn from the monks themselves. It was a very eye-opening experience for me. It was just a fascinating trip: it made me realise I liked fighting over the technical stuff, the fancy flying through the air and looking wonderful with swords – which I love but it's just not for me.

Who were your sporting heroes growing up?

Bit strange really. I didn't really get into sports as such. My dad was hugely into football, and when I was born I was destined to play for Nottingham Forest. The one I always remember was Stuart Pearce: when we watched him play live he used to tear around the field like a lunatic. There was something about that attitude I connected with – same with Vinnie Jones as well. They just found a way to win. On Saturday mornings we always used to get The Raiders games from the US, and the old Raiders mentality was 'if you're not cheating, you're not trying.' Find a way to make it work. So it was always that fighting mentality that I liked, even if it wasn't in a fighting context. But as a kid I wasn't really into sports that much – when I look at the human beings who influenced me, outside the Ninja Turtles it was really Bruce Lee straight away.

What did you sacrifice for a career in MMA?

A lot. I didn't do the regular university thing. I stayed in Nottingham and saved my student loan to pay for my trip to China. I lived with my parents throughout university so no partying: I quit drinking at 17. I've had a multitude of failed relationships because the gym was always the first choice in what to do with my time. I was even in a band one time, we were touring and doing shows, and I had to step away because it wasn't fair on the other guys on the band. There were a lot of things that fell by the wayside. I wasn't sad about it, and I wouldn't change a single thing, but I can certainly see areas of my life that I haven't experienced as much as other people.

Did you have any pre-fight rituals?

I had a couple of things. I always used to draw a skull and crossbones on my hand wraps. When my wraps were checked and signed pre-fight, I always used to borrow the pen and draw on a skull and crossbones. That was a tradition of mine, I'm not exactly sure why. Things came and went from one fight to another. I would find a certain shirt on the way to training would switch my brain on: I had one shirt which just said 'Six Minute War' and I used to wear it all the time. When I used to put it on, it was like switching on a certain part of my brain. I also used to anchor emotions to music a lot to help switch my brain on at the right time.

What's your finest moment in the Octagon?

There are a couple that stand out. My first knockout in the UFC was at the O2 Arena, over a very tough Rory Markham, a knockout artist in his own right – and I knocked him out in 69 seconds. That was a pretty amazing one. It was only my second fight in the UFC, I was co-main event in London. Another one is when I beat Mike Swick in Manchester to win a shot at Georges St-Pierre for the world title. I was the first British fighter to fight for a world title so that was a huge honour. Then I'd probably say the GSP fight itself, because I came through a lot of adversity, a lot of people didn't think I'd get out of the first round. I lost my grandfather a couple of weeks before the fight... I was up against it on that one. Even though I didn't win the fight I gave it everything I had, and I'm proud of the work I put into the fight.

Against GSP you refused to tap out despite being caught in an arm bar. How do you gain that mentality?

Before the fight, before I walk into the Octagon, it's making a conscious decision that this is the last 25 minutes of my life, I'm going to give it everything I've got. For me, in order to get the best out of myself, I had to enter the Octagon with that mentality. This was the last 15 or 25 minutes of my life and I was going to give it everything I got, whether it broke me or not. Flight was never an option. I'm choosing to be in this so I'm never going to choose to be out of there. In my first fight I lost by submission, and I always said to myself, 'if I can tap, I can still hit the guy.' So why would I think about tapping when I could hit him with the same arm? I've got another arm, and I've got two legs, and I can still fight this guy even if he breaks this one. I don't whether that mentality is something you're able to teach somebody, or whether that's something that they're born with, but I have it and I'm able to tune into it. I'm very fortunate.

Who was your toughest opponent?

There are two that come to mind. Obviously one is Georges St-Pierre. He's a better athlete than me, there's no doubt about that. He's a better athlete: faster, stronger, more powerful. And technically, he was a few steps ahead of me with wrestling – which completely shook me and took me out of my game. In a kickboxing match I felt like I could've beaten him up pretty good, and in a pure ju-jitsu match I felt like I could have at least held my own, but the deciding factor was the wrestling. I couldn't keep him off me. To be technically outclassed was as frustrating as it was beautiful, because it gave me a lot to think about. The next toughest one was Anthony Johnson, purely because of the size of the man. He's fighting at light heavyweight now, and he was 44lb heavier than he weighed in on the night. He was such a behemoth of a man, I couldn't do anything with him. All I could I do in that fight was put up as much offensive as I can against a man who was really too big for the weight class.

Best thing about being an MMA fighter?

Life experience. The respect you getting from people as you travel around, the opportunities that open up to you. We're the athletes that other athletes look up to and respect. Look how many athletes are investing in the UFC: Venus and Serena Williams have invested millions. Look at the front row of a UFC event and you see football players, basketball players, baseball players. It's the one sport that overrides every other sport, because ultimately winning is fighting. You fight to win. All other athletes look up to mixed martial arts because it's the purest form of one-on-one competition between two human beings. There's not a single culture in the world that doesn't respect someone who's willing to fight.

And the worst?

I've realised post-career the strain that it puts on my loved ones. That's become the most difficult thing for me, and if I were to fight again that would be the most difficult thing for me to do: to come to terms with the stress I put my family and loved ones under. My mum was there live when I got knocked out at the O2 Arena. It wasn't a pleasant experience for me, or any of my family, but my mum in particular struggles even when I've won in a fight. It almost feels like a selfish drive for me to fight, because I'm not fighting on my own, I'm taking my family with me, and they're feeling all those punches. Other than that, it's just the general lifestyle: you never, ever switch off. You're watching the rankings, your potential future opponents, trying to work out how you'd beat them. There's not a single day off.

Any misconceptions about being an MMA fighter?

The one that always gets me is the preconception 'this guy's going to be a lunatic, he's going to be aggressive, he'll to try and fight everybody all the time.' There's this preconception that people who want to learn how fight as a sport are just these crazy berserkers who want to beat everybody up. It couldn't be further from the truth. MMA fighters are some of the most mellow, friendly, relaxed people you'll ever meet. We don't have anything to prove. We have a ground in which we can prove ourselves, so we don't need to do it on a daily basis. When I meet people they're always like, "wow, you're far more chilled than I thought you were going to be."

How difficult was it to step away from MMA?

It's still not easy today. When they did the New York show in Madison Square Garden or UFC 200, or the London card coming up now – as much as I love being part of it as pundit, an analyst and a commentator there's nothing that gives me more of a rush than being part of a big event as an athlete. To have my knowledge growing so quickly in and around the sport because of my job now, it's frustrating not being able to get in there and test it, try it out. I don't think any athlete finds it easy to transition into normal life. I've had a lot of conversations with retired athletes and Olympians, and they all said the same thing: it's like learning about you as a person. Learning what life's like without training camp – and that's very difficult. But I'm very fortunate the UFC gave me this opportunity. I'm certainly not out of the sport, and I may even have a couple fights in me so we'll see what happens in the future.

Can a non-fighter ever understand MMA as well as someone who's fought in the Octagon?

I think they can, I just think it would be hours and hours of watching. My boxing coach Jimmy Gifford has never fought, neither boxing or MMA. But he's been coaching, cornering, since he was 12 or 13. He's watched hours and hours of mixed martial arts, more than most fighters ever have. His understanding of the sport from an outsider's perspective is fascinating and he's very good at coaching people. Now understanding how a move feels is very different to being a coach. When you're watching a fight and you see someone caught in a submission, it may be very difficult to understand that submission unless you've felt it yourself. I don't think you necessarily have to fight to understand it, but I certainly think a level of training and understanding of martial arts of a personal level would help.

How much has your role as a pundit improved your knowledge of MMA?

It's amazing how much my knowledge of the sport has grown since I stepped away. My boxing coach said it. When he first moved to Vegas – he's Dana White's boxing coach as well – they sat him in a hotel room with UFCs 1 to 58, whatever it was at the time, and he just watched them all. He said, "within a year of doing this job, you'll realised how much more you see of the sport" – and he's dead right. I watch my old fights back now and I get so frustrated. Even my last fight, I watch that and think, "God, I was so amateurish!" There were so many ways that I could have done it better. That's one of the reasons I would like to get back in there, because I know I can give a better representation of myself.

You've got three fights left on your UFC contract... If you were able to come back, who would be your hypothetical dream match-ups?

It's a big one, and not one I can answer easily. My standpoint on it is this: I don't want to fight anybody that's chasing after a belt, I don't want to fight anybody that I'm going to affect their ranking by beating them. I'm not interested in the belts anymore. If I'm going to fight again, there are going to be fun fights for me against people I respect, veterans of the game that have fought a lot. Guys like Diego Sanchez, Donald Cerrone, Joe Lauzon. People that have had a lot of fights, that know the game, know their skills, and have no hesitation about getting in there and throwing down.

...A GSP rematch?

I'd take a GSP rematch if he wants to come out of retirement. I'm a lot different a fighter than what I was when I fought him the first time, that's for sure.

You've accomplished a fair amount outside the sport...

Last year I sailed to Brazil, I was asked to be part of a Team Great Britain sailing team for a clipper round-the-world yacht race. They wanted me to take part in the first leg. It was one of the best experiences of my life. It was a hellish month – we were at sea for 29 days and there were 24 of us on a 70ft boat, sleeping in four-hour shifts and sailing around the clock. It was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done. In an MMA fight, if it's 15 or 25 minutes I know that's all it's going to last, and even if I get injured during that time there's going to be a doctor there, someone who can help me out immediately. The realisation of how venerable we were out in the middle of the sea, a thousand miles from any coast, and we're resetting a guy's forearm because no-one can come and help us. It's intense.

Why is your autobiography called 'Part Reptile?'

Later on in my career I started getting into books about the development of the brain and the different factors as an athlete. What's referred to as the 'chimp' brain is actually the reptilian brain, the fight or flight brain. It's something that becomes very familiar to fighters when the fight's not going well, and your brain has the option of "I've got to find a way out" or "I've got to find a way to make this work." It just became very interesting: I started getting into Carl Sagan and reading about the dragons of Eden, and I started to realise how that affected me and my decision making in fights, right since my teenage years. As soon as you're old enough to start making decisions yourself, we've got this conflict within our brain that is telling us to do different. Just trying to get an understanding of that as really helped me and my fighting career.

Sorry to ask – but Mayweather vs McGregor. Who wins?

Mayweather doesn't beat anybody in the top 50 in mixed martial arts, in any weight class. In a boxing match, Mayweather is probably the best technical boxer in the world, and I don't see any boxer being able to hang with him under boxing rules. But if we're talking about fighting, actual knuckles banging, and we're talking about who's going to win a fight, Mayweather loses to every fighter in the UFC roster.

Ambitions for the future?

Obviously I have this book that's coming out, and I certainly have a couple more in me. I'd like to do my writing, more travelling, in and around the sport of mixed martial arts. Help spread the word of mixed martial arts around the world, teach more seminars. I'd be disappointed if I wasn't involved in the UFC in five or 10 years time, because I think it's going to grow exponentially with the new owners. With the new talent coming through, it's going to be a really exciting time to be involved in the sport. My main focus really is to try and raise the level of commentary and analysis around mixed martial arts. Robin Black and Brian Stann are the only guys I can think of who go into the level of detail that I do. I'm in a very fortunate position where I can find against the misconception attached to mixed martial arts, and that's going to be my focus.

Favourite piece of gear?

The one thing I'm absolutely addicted to at the moment is my new Garmin watch. I love a gadget: it's got the heart rate monitor on it and everything so I've been using that a lot. It's the Garmin Sapphire, the real fancy, lovely-looking one [fēnix® 3 Sapphire]. I had nothing like this when I was training for a fight so I'm making the most of playing about with them.

Pre-order a copy of Part Reptile here. Follow Hardy on Twitter @danhardymma. UFC London returns to The O2 on Saturday 18 March 2017