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Greg Hardy and Allen Crowder, two men with high-level football backgrounds, will face off in the UFC Fight Night 143 co-main event on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship debuts on ESPN Plus. While they enter the Octagon as mixed martial arts prospects, Crowder has designs on proving himself the superior MMA fighter.
In his path stands Hardy, whose path from Pro Bowl defensive end in the NFL to infamous alleged domestic abuser is well-chronicled. Hardy’s highly publicized past has earned him an uncommon level of attention for a fighter with just three professional appearances to his credit. Crowder has himself felt some of the glare of his counterpart’s spotlight. He had two requests for interviews ahead of his December 2017 promotional debut. In the weeks leading into his showdown with Hardy, Crowder has done almost two interviews per day while enjoying increased notice and unexpected support from fans on social media.
“Like every other day somebody’s hitting me up [on social media] saying some stuff [about beating Hardy],” Crowder told Sherdog.com.
Crowder, 29, traveled a less noteworthy path to MMA. A gifted athlete in his own right, he earned a scholarship to play football at East Carolina University. However, after two years, he lost interest in the sport and ended up bouncing at a night club. With football behind him and in need of a new athletic motivation, it was suggested that Crowder seek out the Fearless Fighting gym in Greenville, North Carolina.
“I ended up going there [and] training,” he said. “The owner there liked me. He told me that if I fought for him, I could train there for free.”
The opportunity proved to good to pass up, and two months later, Crowder was in the cage.
“Won by knockout in 14 seconds,” he said, “and I decided this was awesome and something I really wanted to do.”
Another football player turned MMA fighter had emerged. Crowder went 8-1 as an amateur, won eight of his first 11 bouts as a pro and competed on Season 1 of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. There, a third-round technical knockout of Don’Tale Mayes propelled him into the UFC. However, his organization debut did not go according to plan, as Crowder squared off with Justin Willis -- a fighter who had already competed inside the Octagon once -- at UFC 218 in December 2017. Experience, Crowder admits, was a factor in his losing by first-round knockout.
“I went in there and I kind of got caught up by the bright lights, that first time in the big leagues,” Crowder said. “I feel like it definitely adds some extra stress. Before, only the people who you know knew you were fighting. Now, everybody knows your fighting. If you end up making a mistake and get caught, then the whole world knows it. That’s always playing in the back of your mind. I made a mistake, and he ended up catching me with that hook. He capitalized on it from there.”
The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Willis caught Crowder off-guard with his abilities. Appearances, in his case, were deceiving. Crowder assumed he would enter the cage as the stronger, faster athlete and had recently slimmed down for a potential move to the light heavyweight division.
“I felt like I underestimated him. I was going by his looks,” he said. “I felt really confident I was going to be able to out-quick him. I ended up getting down to 230 [pounds], and in the process of doing that, I lost a lot of strength.”
The loss not only ruined Crowder’s plans for a successful debut but forced him to reassess the idea of downshifting to the 205-pound weight class. He sees positives in the defeat. Willis has since pieced together a 4-0 record under the UFC flag, including a victory over 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix winner and Pride Fighting Championships veteran Mark Hunt. In fact, two of Crowder’s three career setbacks have come to two of the better fighters in the heavyweight division: Willis and Curtis Blaydes.
“I’m happy he’s winning. Now I can say I’ve got two losses from Top 10 guys in the heavyweight division of the UFC, so it doesn’t look too bad,” Crowder said. “There’s really no loss; it’s just learning. Everyone’s going to make a mistake, and it’s how you come back from that mistake. I feel like I’m over that now.”
Just as Willis did for him, Crowder hopes to play spoiler in Hardy’s first appearance in the UFC. Although he believes Hardy has shown growth during his short MMA career, he sees weakness -- specifically, his style of aggressively pushing forward in fights. Crowder at one time adopted the same approach, until he met with resistance on the amateur circuit.
“When I was an amateur, I won my first five fights. I knocked all five guys out very quickly,” he said. “Then I got someone who I couldn’t knock out. I was going in just like him, rushing in [and] throwing punches. He ended up turning the tides and knocking me out, and I feel like that’s what’s going to happen in this fight.”
As the owner of a new business, New Millennium Martial Arts and Conditioning in Mebane, North Carolina, Crowder understands professional fighting has a finite lifespan. As such, he wants to make the most of his run in the top organization in the world, and he believes the path to bigger success starts against Hardy.
“After I beat this guy, it’s going to put me more on the map,” he said. “It’s going to get me a chance to fight better opponents and keep on rising up.”