In a different context, it would be hilarious.
A week ago tonight, the former NFL pass rusher and convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy entered the octagon for his fourth UFC fight, seventh professional MMA bout, and tenth MMA fight including his amateur stint. This one was notably different from all the ones that had come before. In those fights, Hardy had been a bull in a china shop, but in Boston he fought with a much more measured and cautious approach; it was, he later admitted, a gambit designed to help him accumulate some cage time after his string of quick knockouts. Hardy saw the end of the second round for the first time in his career, at which point he slowed down en route to completing (and seemingly losing) the third while going the distance. But, as was noted here the next day, it was the interval between the second and third rounds when things got weird.
“Can I take my inhaler?” Hardy asked the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission inspector assigned to his corner. Asked where it was, Hardy’s head coach Din Thomas replied that the Ventolin-branded albuterol inhaler was in his pocket. “Is it medical...is it medical [unintelligible]?” asked the inspector, at which point Hardy responded, “Yes, USADA-approved.” At least on the broadcast audio, there was no noticeable response, but the inspector seemingly gave some sort of approval. Hardy took the inhaler from Thomas and took a relatively weak puff as the whistle signifying the end of the interval was blown.
So what happened here?
This moment didn’t air live in the United States—the fight, on ESPN2, was in a commercial break—but the announcers quickly brought domestic viewers up to speed. The fight to that point had been incredibly tepid, which gave the entire broadcasting team—longtime play by play man Jon Anik, former UFC champions Daniel Cormier and Dominick Cruz, veteran boxing and MMA coach Trevor Wittman, and UFC VP of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner—plenty of space to spend the majority of the final frame expressing incredulity at what they witnessed. Highlights included Cruz asking for an oxygen tank, Wittman being rendered almost speechless, an audibly disgusted Ratner having similar difficulty finding the right words before shouting out “COMPLETELY ILLEGAL,” and Anik dubbing the bout “Inhalergate” at the final horn. Wittman and Ratner have so much combined experience around combat sports, as a coach/corner and regulator, respectively, that it says a lot that they were so aghast at what they had just witnessed.
Hardy won by unanimous decision, dropping one round on each of the three judges’ scorecards. We don’t know which rounds, though, because the decision was overturned by the commission and flipped to a no-contest before the UFC could send the traditional scorecard photos out to media. (The inspector’s action/inaction appears to have saved Hardy from a disqualification.) It is one of the oldest rules in combat sports that the only thing that a fighter can ingest between rounds is water, or Gatorade in some states, a rule that exists precisely because of things like this. (Fighters can get special approval to bring otherwise unapproved items into the cage in Massachusetts, but neither Hardy nor his team did so.)
As revealed in the documentary Assault In The Ring, the famously corrupt boxing coach Panama Lewis made a practice of crushing up asthma medication into his fighters’ water bottles to give them an advantage. It’s why there was an uproar nine years ago when fighters used compressed oxygen canisters between rounds during a Strike Force card in Houston. That the substance ingested in this case is otherwise allowed by anti-doping authorities is immaterial; the issue is taking it during the fight. (To get it on the record: Yes, of course the inspector clearly fucked up, too.) This, along with some other reasons we’ll touch on in a moment, is why it matters when in the fight this happened.
Recall that this was the first time Hardy had even come close to seeing the third round. All but one of his previous fights ended in the early part of the first round; the one exception, his UFC debut, ended just before the halfway mark of round two. For his entire fighting career, Hardy had only clocked 12 minutes and 35 seconds of professional cage time before he and Ben Sosoli did battle in Boston. So it’s not unreasonable to infer that perhaps Hardy went for the inhaler not because of his asthma, but because he was in the longest fight of his career to date and had been slowing notably late in the second round. Even if it weren’t Sports Pariah And Confirmed Jerk Greg Hardy doing this, the act itself was so unprecedented and weird and brazen as to invite suspicion. But that it was Greg Hardy doing all this is what takes that argument from “reasonable” to “borderline obvious.”
In Hardy’s UFC debut, on January 19 against Allen Crowder in Brooklyn, he also slowed obviously while swinging hard for a knockout that he didn’t get. Crowder was just competent enough to take over the fight completely, even taunting and trash-talking Hardy down the stretch. A Crowder takedown attempt was stuffed by Hardy, who jockeyed for position and then hit a knee to the head. Leg strikes to the head of a downed opponent are illegal, and Crowder was very downed at the time, having just struggled up to one knee as Hardy tagged him. It was clearly deliberate, Crowder couldn’t continue, and Hardy was disqualified. In fact, it was all so obviously deliberate, with Hardy framing up the shot for a good five seconds beforehand, that veteran referee Dan Miragliotta looked, in Anik’s words, “about as disgusted as I’ve ever seen him.” Fighters get a ridiculous amount of leeway for fouls in MMA, with referees, announcers, and fans alike often willing to chalk them up to accidents. This one, though, was so clearly premeditated that there was no debate.
So, to review, the two MMA fights to date that Hardy hasn’t won are also the only fights of his to go past the halfway mark of the first round. Both times, when Hardy started to face adversity, through his cardio starting to fail him, his opponent finding success or both, Hardy immediately cheated in the most flagrant ways possible. Both times, it was that decision that cost him the fight. The only difference between the two is that the latest such incident doesn’t present as obvious a straight line to his public personal failings in the way that “throwing the most flagrant possible illegal knee because his opponent dared to start winning and taunt him” did. Is there really any reason to doubt that Inhalergate was a more calculated version of the illegal knee from nine months ago?
None of this is terribly difficult to spot, and it certainly seems like something that MMA pundits would be able to call by its name. Hardy’s “I’m just a simple rookie, I had no idea!” shtick isn’t very convincing, but he really is still green as a fighter and it’s possible, with a decent amount of stretching, to write his in-cage acts off as more the product of inexperience than panic and malice. But even that isn’t what’s happening, here.
SiriusXM’s Luke Thomas, for example, tweeted that “people are missing the boat” on the inhaler story because “it raises questions about which genetic advantages we tolerate and don’t.” While Thomas has an understandable and increasingly pessimistic view of anti-doping efforts grounded in how unscientific they can be, this particular story has nothing to do with anti-doping in the way we normally think of it. Hardy was after all free to inhale albuterol before the fight, even during USADA’s “in-competition” window. The in-cage use was the issue, and that issue isn’t complicated.
Thomas was far from the only one in this lane, though. MMAFighting’s Mike Chiappetta column “In latest Greg Hardy controversy, he may actually be a victim” is the most egregious in a surprisingly crowded field; the headline aside, Chiapetta bookends his story with an odious comparison to Hardy beating the shit out of his then-girlfriend. After numerous peers and readers complained about the column, Chiappetta doubled down in a follow-up tweet. Here as throughout Hardy’s MMA career, his present mediocrity and persistent refusal to play by the same rules as everyone else becomes a secondary element in stories that are reliably about something else, even if that “something else” is his past fame and infamy in the NFL.
I don’t necessarily think anyone did this on purpose, but all this topic-changing and misunderstanding served to distort what actually happened in the ring in Boston. Viewed through the lens of a simple miscommunication made in navigating a labyrinthian anti-doping system, Hardy’s action seems both more understandable and part of a more complicated whole. But that’s not what this was. If you include his amateur fights, Hardy is now 10 bouts into his career. He trains at the best MMA gym in the country, American Top Team, and has a bunch of very experienced coaches. That you can’t legally use a fucking asthma inhaler in the corner between rounds is self-evident to everyone else in and around MMA. Context and lurid backstory aside, it really is as simple as that.
That is, it’s that simple unless you’re Greg Hardy, who has since said that he’s going to appeal the ruling in hopes of restoring his win, while also claiming that he doesn’t need the inhaler. This isn’t complicated or interesting enough to rise to the level of controversy, and Hardy hasn’t done much as a fighter to warrant even a modicum of the attention he’s received. But UFC is committed to him, and dedicated to making him a topic of debate. At the post-fight press conference, Hardy said, “I’m not taking steroids, I’m just naturally a monster.” At least everyone can agree on that last part.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.