Just 12 months ago Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy was supposedly one punch away from becoming the UFC welterweight champion of the world. He met champion Georges St. Pierre in Newark, New Jersey and, in doing so, became the first British mixed martial artist to ever compete for a UFC championship. Though a heavy underdog going into the fight, some felt Hardy's punch power -- in particular, his left-hook -- could do damage should it land anywhere in the vicinity of GSP's chin.
Alas, such a scenario never unfolded, and Hardy was instead thrown and pinned to the ground repeatedly by St. Pierre's unstoppable takedowns and wrestling for an agonizing total of twenty-five minutes.
Rather than being blown away as many expected, however, Hardy bravely fended off multiple submission attempts and displayed an admirable calm under extreme pressure. By the time the final klaxon sounded to end round five, St-Pierre cut a frustrated and rueful victor, while Hardy walked away with a smile and much to be proud of. In fact, amid the post-fight inquisition, GSP could even be heard telling the Englishman that one day he'd follow in his footsteps and win the belt.
However, the 28-year-old Hardy has competed twice since and lost both in convincing fashion. He now sits on a miserable run of three straight defeats, this all in spite of a massively promising start to a UFC career that began in October 2008.
His one-punch knockout loss to Carlos Condit last October was shocking and emphatic, but nothing compared to a three round decision loss to Anthony Johnson on Saturday night. Although less sudden and scary than the Condit reverse, Hardy's latest defeat once again highlighted his wrestling deficiencies and moreover revealed further awareness on the part of his opponent.
GSP established the template and now everybody, even renowned strikers like Johnson, are prepared to cool what they do naturally in favor of dragging Hardy from his comfort zone. After all, Johnson, nicknamed 'Rumble', is ordinarily one of the premier strikers in the welterweight division and a man never averse to an old-fashioned slugfest. Indeed, Johnson himself even implored elite wrestler Josh Koscheck to stand and trade with him when the pair met in November 2009. The barrel-chested American's preference is to strike and, blessed with heavy hands and explosive movement, it's something he does well.
Nevertheless, Johnson, wise to Hardy's foremost danger, decided to call off the striking battle and essentially follow the GSP manual. He took Hardy down at will, stayed grounded for long periods of time and never once allowed Hardy to get up off his back or launch anything resembling a meaningful assault on his feet. It was depressingly one-sided and dull, yet Johnson performed intelligently, efficiently and won the decision. It was no illusion, shortcut or cheat. Johnson dragged the fight into his domain, minimized the risk of his opponent and sacrificed entertainment - and a possible knockout loss -- in favor of some Jon Fitch-lite grind.
Of course, not everybody went home happy that night, least of all Dan Hardy. The suffocated Brit carried a wide-eyed look for much of the contest and shook his head hopelessly in between rounds. Exasperated and disappointed by Johnson's safety-first antics, Hardy searched for help, but found none forthcoming. Only the boos of the Seattle crowd soothed his frustration and told him he wasn't the only one annoyed by Johnson's approach to three rounds of combat.
Now, the real question is, were the 14,000 fans inside the KeyArena that night booing Johnson's refusal to engage in a stand-up confrontation, or were they instead booing Hardy's inability to force the issue? Lest we forget, Johnson, in addition to being a dangerous striker, is also a former NJCAA wrestling champion. So, although less easy on the eyes, Johnson still took the fight into his domain and showed a dominance there that Hardy was unable to match or dispute. Spared the collegiate wrestling background so many of his American peers enjoy, Hardy could only gain success while in an upright position.
Chances are the crowd were booing both Hardy and Johnson that night. They were booing Johnson on the grounds of false advertisement and booing Hardy for not being good enough to give them what they so desperately wanted to see. It's easy to forget that both Johnson and Hardy, having shared a knack of standing and striking in the past, assured everybody that Saturday's bout would follow a similar pattern and would feature plenty of concussive strikes being chucked back and forth.
While Hardy seemed intent on backing up the boasts, Johnson swiftly looked for the trap-door and escaped. Is that considered sneaky and cynical, or the act of a man masterfully fooling his opponent and duping him at the last moment? Either way, Johnson multiplied his chances of winning the fight tenfold by deciding to cross wires with Hardy and leave him locked outside his house with only a tea towel to save his dignity.
Ultimately, one only has to look at Saturday's main event to see the benefits of solid takedown defense. Though eventually defeated, Brazil's Antonio Rogerio Nogueira showcased tremendous takedown defense in the opening five minutes against future American star Phil Davis and had his younger foe frustrated, lost and concerned. Unable to secure his patented takedowns, Davis was forced to stand and strike with the former amateur boxer and, as the round progressed, Nogueira began to score success with arcing right hooks. The former PRIDE veteran knew Davis' stand-up skills were comparatively rudimentary and entry level and realized his own success in the bout would lie in an ability to keep his opponent upright and tentative.
Nogueira gained success in that first round simply by refusing to cower to the demands of his opponent. He realized a ground confrontation wouldn't suit his skill-set that day, and so stuffed multiple takedowns in order to keep the fight where he wanted it.
In the end and to his credit, Davis got his way and found success in both the second and third rounds to win the fight. The aging Nogueira was unable to fend Davis off the way he did in the opener and succumbed to the superior wrestling and ground control of his talented foe. Encouragingly, Davis found a way around the initial conundrum and used his full repertoire to take the power back and shift the momentum in his favor.
Regardless of whether the boos were directed his way or not, Hardy was unable to take the power back and keep Johnson where he wanted and needed him to be. Nobody can ever accuse Hardy of being boring or dull in victory, but he is both in defeat, and that's the way opponents want it. 'Rumble' Johnson won't be the last strong American to follow the GSP blueprint and suck the life from Hardy's limbs, and I'm sure the chirpy Brit is now only too aware of that fact. 'The Outlaw' is stuck in an era of takedowns and game-planning and no longer will a pure desire to please fans cut it at the top level. Many believed Hardy's sternest career test arrived the night he lost to St-Pierre, but I suspect he has far bigger challenges waiting just around the corner.