When I first walked into Nottingham’s Liberty Gym to interview mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Dan ‘The Outlaw’ Hardy, I felt the slightest sense of apprehension behind my eagerness to meet the man. Having met fighters before, the majority of them had chosen to let the aggressive qualities they showcase in competition pervade their personal livelihood; often showing a cold or dismissive exterior which didn’t usually make for a great interview.
As I approached the ring where Hardy and his trainer Steve Papp were practicing striking combinations, Steve kindly made a point of introducing me to ‘The Outlaw’ who, after a casual nod of acknowledgement, turned straight back to working the pads. The two would continue to finish their session as I began to wonder if I had I ruined this man’s morning with my intrusive presence and an over-zealous greeting.
Perhaps I was over-thinking things. Nevertheless, my anxieties were swiftly resolved the moment Hardy finished and left the ring, where upon stepping through the ropes I was able to see the man behind the fighter; no famous red Mohawk and no distinctive bandana. Within minutes of speaking to the man with eleven official knockout stoppages to his name it was clear that he was a person who, for all his accomplishments, remained firmly grounded in a reality where he and Steve were kind enough to spare this student twenty minutes of their time to talk about a number of topics. These included Hardy’s reasons for continuing to train in Nottingham, the growth of mixed martial arts in the UK and what he enjoyed about the same city during his time as a student at Trent.
For those unfamiliar with the man, Dan Hardy is a competitor contracted to MMA’s most prestigious promotion, the UFC. Fighting in the organisation’s welterweight division, Nottingham native Hardy has headlined fight cards in front of audiences of nearly 20,000 people at venues including the O2 Arena last October. Combining a career record of 23-8 with a charisma showcased by his signature red mohawk, animated entrances and outspoken nature, Hardy is one of the most popular figures in MMA today.
Hardy’s close ties to the city he still regards as home are best represented by his strong affiliation with Team Rough House; a group of fighters based out of Nottingham and Leicester that he continues to train with. A who’s who collection of top UK martial artists, the team also consists of current and former UFC competitors Andre Winner, Ross Pearson, Paul ‘Semtex’ Daley and Nick Osipczak. When I asked Hardy what made Rough House such a successful outlet of high calibre fighters, he was quick to highlight the strong relationships they shared with each other as significant to each man’s personal progression in the sport:
“I think it’s because we’re a family…it’s very organic, you know, we pick guys up along the way. It started out with Paul [Daley] fighting under Rough House at the amateur events at Nottingham University. I got chatting to him at one of those events and we started training together, it really was just me and Paul to start with…Guys that are good teammates and loyal friends stay in the team, if you don’t have anything to offer or don’t add anything to the team you don’t stay and that’s the way its always worked. Everybody in the team is a brother of mine…we have some great sparring sessions, we pick up injuries at the same time, we’re all going through the same thing and even though it’s an individual sport you’ve got to have a team behind you…that’s what Team Rough House is all about.”
Offering a coach’s perspective on the team’s success, Papp’s insight was similar:
“What makes Rough House so strong is the fact that they share, they’re all individuals but they all come back and pool their knowledge…that allows them to adapt, which makes them a strong team.”
As MMA has cultivated its own identity since being regulated for the first time ten years ago this autumn, its athletes have developed an increasingly well-rounded collection of skills to accommodate the sport’s versatility. Many critics, however, have cited the UK’s distinct lack of wrestling tutelage as detrimental to this process. On the other hand, with fighters including Hardy and the other members of Team Rough House listed above specialising in Muay Thai and other forms of striking, this supposed ‘drawback’ offers an approach to fights that many fans consider more entertaining. Having faced Georges St. Pierre – current UFC Welterweight Champion and arguably the best pound-for-pound competitor and wrestler in MMA history – ‘The Outlaw’ has experienced the neutralising capabilities of a takedown, firsthand and at its most effective. Despite this experience, Hardy remains adamant that a background in wrestling is not necessarily essential to becoming a successful fighter:
“I think there are ways of working around it, obviously wrestling is the thing that controls the fight most of the time – whether it’s on the feet or on the ground. But my opinion is that you can’t win a fight with wrestling unless you want to hold someone down to a [victory by judge’s] decision and that’s not the way I want to win fights. I want to able to knock somebody out on the feet or choke somebody out on the floor; finish them before the final bell rings. I’ll learn wrestling as I go along but because I’m already slightly behind, but even if I invest all my time in it I’m still only going to reach a certain level. I just want to be threatening wherever the fight goes…what I lack in skill I’ll make up for in determination.”
Papp added: “But that’s the beauty of mixed martial arts, if you have a wrestler and a striker, it’s whoever trains more effectively or with more dedication that usually comes out on top.”
Beyond the East Midlands, Hardy’s career has taken him from Eastern Asia, through the heart of Europe and across the Atlantic into the United States. On this journey, ‘The Outlaw’ has amassed a number of notable experiences as he has sought to improve himself in the world of mixed martial arts. From enduring 5 a.m. starts alongside Kung-Fu practitioners in China’s Shaolin Monastery, to enjoying sit down conversations with the likes of Eddie Bravo (pioneering Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor) and Freddie Roach (boxing trainer of Manny Pacquiao), Hardy has recognised and embraced the strong international foundation of mixed martial arts. MMA’s ability to combine many disciplines including Muay Thai kickboxing, Korean Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu into one sport has created an engaging spectacle that showcases both physical athleticism and technical precision. Evidently, its success is captured in the sport’s exposure to over 500 million homes worldwide; with this figure projected to double within the next 5-10 years. When I asked Hardy if encounters with such high-profile personalities justified the number of air miles he had collected over the years, his response was positive, yet also balanced; eager to credit Steve and his other coaches for their own part in the stand-up striker’s development:
“These guys are some of leading coaches in the world, you know, and I just think it’s important to go and see how they do things, how they structure their training. For me, its more of a learning experience than anything, obviously it’s an honour to train with these guys and be in their company, but I want to see what makes them so successful; what they do with their fighters that works. I’m always going to come back home and train with Rough House, with Steve and my BJJ coach Victor because these are the guys I trust and I know have my best interests at heart. These are the ones that dedicate their time to me, invest their knowledge in me and for me, that’s what’s important. These training excursions back and forth to the US, it’s just to keep my eyes open really… There’s always a benefit, whether it’s just a five minute conversation with one of the coaches, you always pick something up.”
With Dan Hardy and fellow Brit and UFC veteran Michael Bisping being two of this country’s most successful MMA exports, I was intrigued to hear Hardy’s outlook on the sport’s media coverage in the UK:
“I think we’re getting there, Gareth Davies [The Telegraph’s MMA Journalist] and Matt Freeman from the Mirror are doing a great job. There are also a lot of MMA magazines that are really pushing the sport into the mainstream. It’s going to be a slow process because with any combat sport there’s always going to be some kind of resistance to it; obviously I don’t agree with that. I think the UFC have stumbled on that kind of attitude multiple times as they’ve expanded across the world, but it’s become a lot more accepted in the UK now with the added T.V. time we’re getting. I just don’t want to see MMA fighters on the front of The Daily Sport with some horrible story like the footballers do; that’s when it has reached too far into the mainstream. I kind of like it where it is now, it’s a little bit tucked away and the fans that like it have to search for it a little bit, but the information is there.”
As MMA is expanding in popularity, I asked Dan and Steve if individuals Alex Reid – fellow mixed martial artist and spouse of Katie ‘Jordan’ Price – were detrimental to attempts to enhance the sport’s reputation through their questionable behaviour outside of the cage:
“You can keep it on record; he’s done a lot more harm than good to be honest. I actually respected him as a fighter…but it’s the way he conducts himself outside the cage that’s the problem. If you’re a professional athlete, you’re at work 24 hours a day, especially when you’ve got cameras around you. Unfortunately I’ve been grouped in that same category as him in some respects and we’re very very different. I’m a professional athlete and my life is dedicated to fighting…he just wants attention.”
“If anyone is going to get that kind of exposure then it should be because of your skills and your talent, not who you’re with, not because you’ve been catapulted into the limelight because of somebody else’s celebrity status.”
Although Hardy’s attitude towards media coverage of MMA in relation to other sports was relaxed, ‘The Outlaw’ has made his own contributions towards the world of journalism through some of his projects outside of the UFC:
“I write for The Nottingham Post, I have a column every week during training camps. I write another column for Fighters Only magazine about where my head is at and what lessons I’ve learnt in life that week that I can pass on to other people up and coming in the sport. I write a blog for Metal Army as well, which is about music, I collect records and everything in my life revolves around music aside from MMA so that’s an outlet I guess.”
Steve himself has opted to follow a more academic route in his spare time, going back to university and completing a degree in Conservation that aligns with his passions for hiking and climbing. Both men disprove any unfounded notion that a fighter cannot be an intellectual in their own right.
Looking beyond Hardy’s occupation as a professional mixed martial artist, our conversation turned to his time as student here in the city of Nottingham. Whilst the former undergraduate of Trent will be the first to tell you that he was not the epitome of Karni LAD, he was more than happy to talk frankly about his experiences:
“I was never a great student to be honest…I was always too occupied with my training. I’m sure if one day the universities decide to add mixed martial arts to [their Varsity Series] I would definitely pay attention to that…I used to go to Rock City all the time and I come back now and again just to have a look at the place. I used to have a great time at Rock City but other than that I like to go and see Nottingham Panthers whenever they play.”
The interview with Dan and Steve was a great experience. No generic clichés, no reservations about being ‘media-friendly’, here were two people with credible and intriguing outlooks that were as genuine as their affiliation with Nottingham. Hardy is currently training for his next fight, which takes place March 26th, when he will face Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson in an attempt to return to UFC Welterweight Championship contention. The event is expected to be shown on ESPN, where all UFC coverage is provided for fans in the UK.
(Listen to the whole interview at http://urn1350.net/ from March 17th in URN Sport’s blog section.)