The cross-section between other pro athletes and mixed martial arts keeps expanding as former Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy will make his professional debut as an MMA fighter on June 12 against former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Austen Lane. The UFC announced the bout on Saturday night during UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro.
The two will face off in Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series (DWTNCS), a series that scouts and showcases talent on the verge of earning a contract with the UFC. It also fills up the insatiable content needs of the UFC Fight Pass subscriber base. The online subscription service has seen the UFC scoop up organizations like Invicta Fighting Championships and Titan FC to keep MMA available all the time even if it's not in the UFC Octagon.
In the first season of DWTNCS, 16 of the 40 winners during the eight-week series earned UFC contracts and another two made their UFC debuts within months of their fight. That means there actually is a real chance that Hardy, Lane or both can move up to MMA’s premier organization.
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This is not the first time a former NFL athlete has made it to the highest annals in MMA. Herbert "Whispers" Goodman was a former running back for the Green Bay Packers who suffered a knee injury while in the CFL. Goodman transitioned into MMA and eventually made it to the big show with Bellator MMA.
Matt Mitrione was a former college football player at Purdue University before playing professionally with the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings. Ultimately he made it into the Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights reality show where he was coached by Rashad Evans. Since then, Mitrione has had a huge career in the UFC and is now a star in Bellator.
For Austen Lane, after three years with the Jaguars, and brief stints with the Chiefs, Lions, and Bears, martial arts was already a part of his life. Before retiring after the 2014 season with 17 career starts and three sacks, Lane was already doing jiu-jitsu tournaments and preparing for a career in MMA.
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After six amateur fights, Lane made his pro debut in April 2017 and has since racked up a 4-0 record with four first-round knockouts.
“It was probably frowned upon because of risk of injury,” Lane told SB Nation. “When I won them I couldn’t accept the cash prizes. I’d just sneak out the back door and say ‘Hey, sorry I can’t accept anything like that.’ So when I was with my last team in Chicago, I kind of knew what I was going to do next and that was MMA for sure.”
His opponent, Hardy, was a more accomplished NFL player, but comes into the June fight much more inexperienced in MMA. The fight will be his professional debut after three amateur fights that all ended with first-round knockout victories for Hardy.
Hardy was a Pro Bowler for the Panthers in 2013 when he set a franchise record with 15 sacks. But in July 2014, he was found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend. He appeared in just one game in 2014 and spent the rest of the year on the commissioner’s exempt list.
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The case was later dismissed during Hardy’s appeal due to the unavailability of the alleged victim. He was released by the Panthers and later signed to a one-year deal with the Cowboys with whom he served a four-game suspension and appeared in 12 games in 2015. It was his last appearance in the NFL and he was arrested in September 2016 for possession of cocaine.
The opportunity for Hardy to potentially earn a spot in the UFC with a victory over Lane has understandably been met with controversy.
“I’m one of those guys too who believes that we’re all human beings and we all make mistakes,” Dana White said in October 2016 when asked about Hardy. “And when you make a mistake, you pay your penance, whatever it might be, and you should be allowed to make a living and move on in your life. Is he good enough to come into the UFC and fight? I highly doubt it.”
The closest the UFC has had to two former NFL players meeting was a 2013 fight between Brendan Schaub, who spent time on the Bills’ practice squad, and Matt Mitrione, who appeared in nine games with the Giants. Schaub also fought former Buccaneers defensive end Marcus Jones in an exhibition fight in 2009.