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NFL exile Greg Hardy on a new path in the UFC

Greg Hardy, right, punches Austen Lane in their

Greg Hardy, right, punches Austen Lane in their heavyweight bout during Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series at the TUF Gym on June 12, 2018 in Las Vegas. Credit: Getty Images/Zuffa, LLC.

Greg Hardy said Tuesday he has no one to blame but himself for the end of his six-year NFL career.

“I gave it away,” Hardy told Newsday. “It’s the truth.”

Hardy was arrested on charges of assault and communicating threats after a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend in North Carolina in May 2014. Two months later, in a bench trial, a judge found him guilty on both counts and sentenced Hardy to 18 months’ probation and a 60-day suspended sentence. Hardy's lawyer appealed the decision and requested a jury trial, which set aside the conviction under North Carolina law. The victim failed to appear in court during the trial, and the charges were dismissed and expunged from Hardy’s record in 2015. Prosecutors said the victim accepted a settlement.

The NFL announced a tougher personal conduct policy in August 2014, three months after Hardy's incident and following widespread criticism over its handling of domestic violence cases. Hardy played in the first game of the 2014 season for the Panthers. He was deactivated by the Panthers for the second game and then chose to be placed of the commissioner's exempt list because of the domestic violence case, which resulted in him sitting out the remainder of the season. He still collected his $13 million salary. 

Hardy was declared a free agent and was signed by the Cowboys in March 2015. The NFL suspended Hardy for 10 games in April, but the suspension was reduced to four games by an arbitrator in July.

After serving his suspension, Hardy played 12 games for the Cowboys in 2015. In November of that season, photos of the victim were published by Deadspin.

The Cowboys did not bring back Hardy and he remained unsigned. In September 2016, he was arrested in a Dallas suburb for cocaine possession.

“I am responsible," Hardy said. "I had every single choice. No matter what we talk about. No matter what topic comes up, I was in control 100 percent. That’s what I like to paint for myself. That’s what I’ve gotten to see as I’ve gone through this MMA journey.”

Hardy is now a mixed martial arts fighter who signed a developmental deal with the UFC last summer after a first-round knockout in 57 seconds on Dana White’s “Tuesday Night Contender Series.” Hardy fought again two months later on the summer series, this time needing only 17 seconds to knock out his opponent. He then fought in Xtreme Fighting League in Oklahoma. Another first-round knockout, this one in 53 seconds. 

“I always tell him, you’re going to run through a couple of these guys, but we’re not training for them,” said Din Thomas, Hardy’s coach at American Top Team in Florida, one of the premier fighting gyms in the sport. “We’re going to train through these guys. We’re training for Francis Ngannou. We’re training for Cain Velasquez. Those are the guys that you’re going to have to beat.”

Hardy, 30, will face Allen Crowder in a heavyweight co-main event at UFC on ESPN+ 1 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this Saturday. Crowder (9-3, 1 no contest), from North Carolina, had won four fights in a row before losing his UFC debut to Justin Willis at the end of 2017. The 6-foot-5 Hardy said he needs to cut weight to get to the 266-pound limit, same as with his previous fights.

Hardy began his MMA training two years ago with Thomas, a UFC veteran with 36 career pro fights. Before that, Hardy’s MMA skill set — aside from playing around in a boxing ring a few times in college — consisted of watching former UFC stars such as Chuck Liddell and Georges St-Pierre.

This sport, one “more grueling” than football, Hardy said, has given him an opportunity to be a competitor again. Competition fueled Hardy’s life, from the high school football fields in Tennessee to the college fields at Ole Miss and the SEC, to the NFL. It’s all he’d known.

“It means everything, honestly,” Hardy said. "This is me, this is what I’ve been. This is what I’ve worked tirelessly for, day in and day out for. So to be back in a place to where I can excel, to where I can challenge myself, where I can have some sense of home or fulfillment means everything to me, other than my children. It’s an incomparable feeling.”

Hardy’s inclusion on the Brooklyn card brought controversy last month. Rachael Ostovich, a victim of an alleged domestic violence assault by her husband Arnold Berdon in November, also is on the card. Despite a broken orbital bone and other injuries, Ostovich was determined to remain on the card to fight Paige VanZant. She has been cleared to fight. Berdon faces trial later this month.

UFC president Dana White said he spoke to Ostovich about including Hardy on the same fight card before booking his bout. Ostovich has said in multiple interviews that she believes in second chances and that she had no idea who Hardy was before she was told about the situation.

“I think he’s on the right path,” Thomas said of Hardy. “I think he’s been doing all the right things. I’m really happy for him and where he’s at. I can honestly say I’m glad to be a part of what he’s been doing so far.”

Hardy came to American Top Team with raw physical ability. He had power, explosiveness and all the other qualities associated with a Pro Bowl defensive end with 40 sacks in 75 career NFL games from 2010 to 2015.

“It was just like raw energy that I’ve just been kind of molding the past two years,” Thomas said.

Hardy lives in a dorm room at American Top Team as he develops his skills. He went home to Texas for the birth of his baby girl two months ago and has been home another time afterward for a week or so, he said. There also are video chats with Mia and mommy.

“She’s big,” Hardy said. “Already turning into a Michelin man. Eating me out of house and home. Suffice to say, I gotta win to feed her. Trust me.”

Hardy said he’s in MMA to help provide a life for his family. He also has a 3-year-old son in North Carolina.

“It is my responsibility to build them a future,” Hardy said. “And as much as I want to be there, me being there isn’t going to advance their life and advance their financial future and their stature and position in life as much as me being where I need to be to advance myself in mixed martial arts.”

Hardy said his family is his motivation. He said he doesn’t offer much attention to comments made by his opponents, comments which often have nothing to do with MMA.

“I feel like if you make something about motivation, it’s fuel,” Hardy said. “When you run out of fuel, your car stops. Don’t ever stop living. I’ll never stop wanting to be better, so my car never stops.”

Hardy has power, evident by his knockouts. Such power is to be expected from a former second-team All-Pro defensive end. But that’s not what impressed Thomas most. The intangibles did.

“He can make decisions in real time and not have to be told what to do because he’s used to doing it,” Thomas said. “You add that in with his power and raw ability, then he’s really going to have a lot of success.”

However far Hardy ascends in MMA, his past will follow along on the journey.

“I was broken,” Hardy said. “Highest of highs, lowest of lows creates something in a person no matter how you got there. The difference and the contrast between the two is something that not a lot of people experience. Some people just lose their regular jobs and still have their dreams. That’s what holds them up. That’s what always keep their eyes on the prize. I accomplished all my dreams, and then it was gone. I had nothing. It does something to you. Like I said, I was broken. I just tried to stay focused enough to where I was able to fix myself.”

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