This Saturday, former NFL star Greg Hardy will look to earn another victory as a professional MMA fighter when he faces power puncher from Cape Verde, Yorgan De Castro, at UFC 249 in Jacksonville Florida. Hardy, who has already accumulated 8 pro fights in his short lived MMA career, is known as much for his Pro Bowl NFL career as he is for the trouble he has caused outside of sports. So how did “The Kraken” get from the gridiron to the octagon, and what does this weekend mean for his career?

For any who aren’t familiar, Hardy was a defensive end in the NFL for 6 seasons, particularly known for his standout seasons in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. With 26 sacks in two seasons, the Carolina Panther had earned pro bowl recognition – and was earning a reputation as one of the deadliest pass rushers in football.

That reputation shifted to a darker one in the 2014 offseason. Hardy was arrested May 13, 2014 for domestic violence against his then girlfriend. Saying that the accounts of his actions were disturbing is putting it WAY too mildly, and a couple months later he was convicted by a judge of assault, only to be appealed and dismissed when the victim failed to appear in court. While the charges were dismissed, he was released by the Panthers and suspended by the NFL for 4 games.

In 2015-16, Hardy signed with the Dallas Cowboys, but lackluster performances and team related issues caused the Cowboys to not re-sign him. In September of 2016, Hardy was arrested for possession of cocaine, seemingly the nail in the coffin for his career as a professional athlete.

A few weeks after the arrest, Hardy had made it public record that he had training in mixed martial arts for several months and would attempt to pursue a career professionally. Training at the world famous American Top Team in Coconut Creek Florida, the hype surrounding Hardy began to build, perking the curiosity of fight fans whether he could translate his NFL caliber athleticism to the cage. Many fans were also displeased that a man with his history with domestic violence would be given a platform to regain fame and profits.

Nevertheless, Hardy took his first amateur fight a year after his announcement and rattled off three easy knockouts over the course of four months. While the UFC, MMA’s premier organization, often waits for fighters to build a strong professional resume before signing them, UFC President Dana White and the organization wanted to be in the Greg Hardy business immediately.

The UFC features a program called “Dana White’s Contender Series” Tuesdays each summer, where up and coming fighters can showcase their skills and potentially earn a contract in the largest MMA organization on the planet. Hardy made his pro debut on the program in 2018, displaying his elite power and speed in 57-second knockout over Austen Lane.

Later that summer, the UFC invited him back, scoring a violent 17-second knockout in similar fashion. Instead of immediately signing Hardy, the UFC announced they were going to sign him to an unprecedented and unclear “developmental deal”, which was short lived. In September following another effortless knockout victory at Xtreme Fight Night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the UFC brought Hardy on as a member of the heavyweight roster.

Hardy made his UFC debut in January of 2019 at their first event with ESPN+ against 9-4 heavyweight Allen Crowder, his second fight in the UFC. Hardy had all eyes on him, and with those expectations weighing heavy, came his first career loss, which occured in a more unconventional way. Hardy, who looked to be winning the fight up until this point, was disqualified in the second round for kneeing Crowder in the head when he was a downed opponent, which is banned by the Unified Rules of MMA.

With Hardy having a strong performance but ultimately handing victory to Crowder, critics wondered how he would fair taking on the best and brightest the UFC had to offer. In April of 2019, Hardy redeemed himself with a knockout victory over Dmitry Smolyakov, earning another knockout win over Juan Adams three months later.

Hardy would appear to have won his third straight fight over Ben Sosoli in Boston via decision in October of 2019, but the victory was overturned by the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission determined via video replay that Hardy illegally used an inhaler in between rounds. One loss and one no-contest to his name, the only person to beat Hardy in his first 7 fights, was ultimately himself.

That was until the following month, when Hardy flew to Moscow to fight top-10 heavyweight Alexander Volkov as a last-minute replacement for injured superstar Junior dos Santos. Volkov, the 6’7 karate specialist who had won 11 of his previous 14 fights, dismantled Hardy in a lopsided decision.

Which brings us to today. Hardy will square up against rising star Yorgan De Castro Saturday, a fighter many are not familiar with but poses a real threat to Hardy. De Castro is 6-0 as a pro, winning 5 of 6 by knockout. His most recent fight, a slugfest in his UFC debut against Justin Tafa, winning via knockout from a step-back right hand cannon at UFC 243. De Castro does not have the experience or reach advantage that Volkov had over Hardy, but he may be the best kept secret that derails the hype train of one of the UFC’s more recognizable names amongst mainstream fans.

What does this fight mean for Hardy? Here is my opinion: Hardy is turning 32 years old this summer, and is already fighting at an unbelievably high level with limited martial arts experience. With Hardy, it is a race against time – how fast can he climb the ladder and learn on the job before his athleticism begins to diminish and a lack of experience is highlighted more boldly in his fights with world class martial artists.

If Hardy wants to be a world champion, he needs to win fights like this. I am not saying that to scoff at the skills De Castro brings, I personally believe De Castro will be a threat in the heavyweight division soon. That said, if Hardy is going to beat top-10 talent, the sooner the better, when he has gifts other top-10 heavyweights don’t, and he is unpredictable in the cage.

Will Hardy rise to the occasion on Pay-Per-View, an event that will be viewed by many in absence of the NBA playoffs, MLB baseball or any other professional sport for that matter, showing that he belongs in the UFC? Or will he be exposed as another crossover athlete who cannot ascend past the prospect level? We will get closer to the answer on May 9th.