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Five Rounds: Is Greg Hardy underrated? Israel Adesanya, MMA insiders disagree

Greg Hardy's UFC career hasn't been a smooth ride, with one fight ending because of an illegal knee strike and one win being overturned because he used an inhaler between rounds, but he can change things in a big way vs. Alexander Volkov. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

We asked UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya to name the most underrated fighters in the UFC. Not surprisingly, the first one he mentioned was Dan Hooker, who is a teammate of Adesanya's at City Kickboxing in New Zealand.

Adesanya said it was not a biased choice, and it's easy to believe him, considering that Hooker is ranked No. 8 among lightweights by ESPN but has won six of his past seven in the UFC, including a unanimous decision over Al Iaquinta on Oct. 5.

When asked to name another underrated fighter, Adesanya thought for a moment and then made a surprising choice. "Greg Hardy," Adesanya said. Hardy will fight Alexander Volkov in Saturday's co-main event in UFC Moscow. Conventional wisdom suggests that it's impossible to know how good Hardy is because of the level of opposition he has faced in four UFC fights (3-1). Hardy lost his UFC debut on Jan. 19 to Allen Crowder for using an illegal knee strike, and his Oct 18. win over Ben Sosoli was oveturned because he used an inhaler for asthma between rounds. He's appealing that decision. Hardy's litmus test is supposed to be Saturday against ESPN's No. 7 heavyweight.

ESPN experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discussed whether they believe Hardy is underrated and offered predictions and analysis of where a win would put Hardy in the heavyweight discussion.

Do you think Greg Hardy is underrated?

Israel Adesanya: He's new to the game, so he makes a lot of mistakes, like the asthma thing. If he was more experienced, he would have known. But he's very talented. And one thing is he's getting better every single fight. I see it. The last guy he fought, he's not the greatest, world-class opponent like his next test is a world-class opponent, but Hardy's lead rear hand was really snappy. That was the first thing I noticed, and his foot placement I was really impressed with. So yeah, he's getting better, and I think even the fact that he picked to fight Volkov on such short notice, I'm impressed. I saw him fight a few months ago and saw this and thought he has gotten better.

Ariel Helwani: Not at all. I think he is exactly who we think he is. He is an athletic former football player who is very raw but also possesses the kind of power and speed one would expect from a former NFL Pro Bowler. I don't think people are underrating him or under-hyping him. In fact, I think you can make a case that he is overrated. Fighters with his experience, or lack thereof, and skills aren't continuously featured in main and co-main event spots in their first years as UFC fighters.

Brett Okamoto: I don't think so. Look, a lot of people don't like him, so of course, there's the possibility that dislike will blind them to his talent. But I believe even if you don't like Hardy, you're probably able to see his potential as a martial artist. If anything, I think some have been guilty of overrating Hardy. The people who have been saying, "When is Hardy going to face real opposition?" I mean, he shouldn't be facing real opposition. He's too early in his career to be fighting top-10 guys, which is what some people have been calling for since his second fight in the UFC. Hardy is who he is. He's a guy with a name, who has a ton of raw potential, who is about to get thrown into the very deep end of the pool on Saturday. He's not underrated.

Marc Raimondi: It's hard to say what exactly the perception is of Hardy. The public opinion on him runs the gamut and will always be tied to his 2014 domestic violence conviction, which was overturned on appeal when the victim didn't appear in court for a jury trial. Hardy is certainly an otherworldly athlete with a ton of potential in MMA. So maybe you can say he's underrated because some won't give him credit for that, given his past.

Jeff Wagenheim: You must be joking. Hardy has competed four times in the UFC, and two of those fights ended in utter embarrassment for him and the promotion. If anything, the UFC is overrating Hardy by twice flaunting him under the co-main event spotlight and by having him on a main card every time, all while booking him against heavyweights who, at best, are worthy of the early prelims. Sure, he has proven himself in a different sports arena to be an elite athlete, but let's wait until he does something against high-level competition in MMA before we decide where he rates.

Where would a win put Hardy in the discussion about heavyweight contenders?

Helwani: Top 15. I don't think one win will be enough for him to enter the top 10, but crazier things have happened. What it will really mean is there will be no going back. Now he's on the fast track. No more tune-ups. No more gimme fights. He'll have to fight name opponents for a considerable amount of time after a win such as that.

Okamoto: Believe me when I say this. No exaggeration, Hardy winning on Saturday would completely upend the heavyweight division. This isn't just a "step up" in competition for Hardy. This is a legitimate title contender he's up against in Volkov. When Volkov fought Derrick Lewis in October 2018, he was likely one win away from a title shot. And he was beating Lewis in that fight before he got knocked out in the third round. Volkov is legit. He's highly ranked. If Hardy wins, he's a title contender, and anyone in that heavyweight division would be on the table in terms of his next opponent.

Raimondi: As crazy as it might seem, Hardy with just six career wins would probably be about two victories or so from a title shot -- maybe one. It's clear that the UFC is invested in pushing him because of his notoriety, and there's little doubt that Hardy has moved the needle when he competes, for better or worse.

Wagenheim: It depends what the fight looks like. A Hardy victory that's anything but lackluster or fluky should propel him into the top-10 neighborhood. He would leapfrog an awful lot of hefty fellows and set himself up for career-defining tests on the top rungs of the ladder. Even if Hardy gets his hand raised under less-than-definitive circumstances, he'd at least be showing that he can hang with the big boys. Any way he can dissipate the cloud of mystery that shrouds his discomforting presence would amount to a step forward.

What's your prediction for Hardy-Volkov?

Adesanya: It's going to be Hardy's biggest test yet. Everyone has a chance.

Okamoto: That Volkov will be way, waaaaaay too much for Hardy. There is no way Hardy, with just more than one year of pro experience, should have any chance to be competitive here. It's no secret that there are a lot of people out there who have been waiting to see Hardy get humiliated, and this, on paper, looks like the fight in which it happens. But this is heavyweight MMA, in which strange things happen all the time, and upsets are a single haymaker away.

Raimondi: Volkov is about a -260 favorite, but if Derrick Lewis taught us anything last year, Volkov can absolutely be caught by a big punch. And Hardy has a big, big right hand. Hardy can certainly win by knockout. But it's hard to pick against Volkov, given his résumé. He has a win over former UFC champion Fabricio Werdum. Volkov should beat Hardy.

Wagenheim: After being stashed in the basement level of the UFC infrastructure, Hardy is being asked to leap up to one of the top floors, no staircase provided, gradual career buildup be damned. Having said that, would I be shocked if Hardy, whose NFL pedigree makes him the most athletically gifted heavyweight in MMA, pulls off an upset? No, I would not be shocked. We simply don't know where this guy's ceiling is.