January 19th marks the dawn of a new era for the UFC: the beginning of their billion dollar broadcast deal with ESPN. Those who remember when the UFC had to pay to get The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV know what this means. ESPN has long been the gold standard of sports legitimacy, and now our scrappy little fight league will be a cornerstone of their ESPN+ streaming service, while it looks like ESPN is going all in on endless replays and shoulder programming.
And what better way to kick off that deal than with a champion vs. champion fight between TJ Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo? These guys are at the very top of their games. They’re not just great fighters, they’re great athletes. Cejudo even has an Olympic gold medal! As far as representing the sport goes, it doesn’t get much better than that.
But also on the card is heavyweight Greg Hardy, a former NFL defensive end whose football career was marred with controversy. The Carolina Panthers dropped him after he was involved in a disturbing domestic abuse case in 2014. The Dallas Cowboys picked him up for a season but didn’t re-sign him, citing “inappropriate tweets, frequent tardiness as well as being a bad influence to the younger players on the team.”
There’s other dirt, like a cocaine arrest in 2017. But most MMA fans take issue with Hardy’s domestic violence case. Hardy was found guilty of assaulting Nicole Holder in 2015, but the charges were dropped on appeal when Holder didn’t show up for the re-trial. Prosecutors suggested she accepted a settlement, and without her testimony Hardy not only got off on the charges, he eventually had them completely expunged from his record.
That wasn’t the end of it for Hardy, though. Soon after, dark details from the case were revealed by Deadspin. Photos of Holder’s bruises from moments after the attack were included. Transcripts from multiple 911 calls as well. The police interviews with those in the apartment at the time of the incident are not pleasant to read.
”I overheard a friend yell, ‘What are you going to do, break my arm?!’” witness Kristina Laurence told law enforcement. “She was screaming and crying. I don’t recall what he said but it sounded like a body being pushed around/body slamming. The body slamming went from the hallway to the kitchen to the living room.”
UFC president Dana White has pushed Greg Hardy’s UFC run as a tale of redemption after Hardy lost everything over his past behavior. And while it’s totally possible that Hardy is a changed man, it’s hard to see past that guilty verdict being turned into an expungement, which was followed by Hardy getting a one-year, $11.3 million contract from the Cowboys. Some punishment. It’s like a textbook example of everything the #MeToo community is pissed off about, and rightfully so.
And it’s not like Hardy has climbed his way to the top of the MMA heavyweight rankings, forcing the UFC to take notice of him. Hardy was groomed for the major leagues after just three amateur wins, getting picked up for Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. After he won two fights there, the UFC signed him to a special developmental deal where he fought once for a minor league before getting the call to be co-main for the debut UFC on ESPN card.
That’s right, Greg Hardy is making his UFC debut in the co-main event leading into the card’s champion vs. champion main event. Why all the special treatment? It’s clear that the UFC is hoping to turn Hardy into another pay-per-view draw, and we can only hope they’re trying to tap into his NFL connection rather than the controversy.
But the controversy isn’t about to go away. A general disapproval from the MMA community exploded into outright hostility when people realized Hardy was going to share the card with domestic abuse survivor Rachel Ostovich, whose husband allegedly attacked her in November and broke her orbital bone. In video footage captured by neighbors, you can hear him yelling “I’m going to murder you. I’m going to f**king murder you.”
Ostovich turned the story into one of perseverance by getting cleared by doctors to stay on the card. It’s a historic event, after all. The first ESPN event, and her bout was against Paige VanZant, one of the highest profile fighters in the UFC. But the dichotomy of Ostovich and Hardy fighting on the same card was too much for many in the MMA media, who hounded Dana White about the decision.
”I’m not going to talk about Greg Hardy any more,” White said at the start of December. “I already covered this. I’m not playing this bulls**t with you guys. He’s on the UFC roster. Period. End of story.”
”You know what she said yesterday in her statement?” he continued. “‘Please stop asking me about this. I want to focus on training. I don’t want this to be an issue for me. I don’t know this guy, this guy has nothing to do with me. I have nothing to do with this guy, this guy has never done anything to me. This isn’t an issue.’ You, you, you, and a lot of other people are making this an issue.”
With the card a week away, it’s unclear whether that issue will pop back up, but it seems like the UFC is taking steps to avoid the subject all together. Posters and advertisements for the event are completely Hardy-free, including one video (watch it above) that features several other fights across the card. A press conference being held on Wednesday features just White, Henry Cejudo, TJ Dillashaw, Donald Cerrone and Alex Hernandez.
Hardy’s inclusion in the event was a tone deaf decision from the UFC to start, even before we factor in his gift of a position at the top of the card or the optics of him fighting alongside Ostovich. And while the organization seems dead set on pushing the 30 year old heavyweight so long as he continues to knock people out, the promotion for UFC Fight Night: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw leading into fight week implies they realize they’re playing with fire. Now we wait and see if they end up getting burned.