For two fighters coming from very different places in their careers, Chris Lytle and Dan Hardy had reached some similar conclusions about their respective futures by the time they met on Aug. 14, 2011, in the main event of UFC on Versus 5.
Both of them went into the fight expecting it to be their last, albeit for very different reasons. Time would prove that one of them meant it more than the other, but on that night in Milwaukee they each fought with a similar urgency, two men chasing a feeling that they knew they might never get another taste of.
Lytle was the only one who let people in on his secret. At weigh-ins the day before the fight, he handed out two letters – one to UFC President Dana White and another to longtime UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. The sentiment of the letters was relatively simple, according to Lytle. It said thank you and goodbye. After 12 years as a pro fighter, he’d decided to retire.
“But first I just wanted to thank them for everything they’d done to change my life,” Lytle told MMAjunkie. “People criticize Dana and the UFC, but I fought for the UFC before Zuffa owned it, back when it was (Semiphore Entertainment Group) and I was making $500 to fight.”
Lytle had reached the decision well in advance of the Hardy fight. He was coming off a loss to Brian Ebersole some six months earlier, but more importantly, he’d recently been forced to take a month off from training due to a knee injury. For Lytle, a full-time firefighter and committed gym rat, that was unusual.
“I was one of those guys that was always in the gym, never took time off, and that meant that over the course of my career I missed a lot of family stuff, missed my kids’ basketball games and gymnastic meets and stuff like that,” Lytle said. “I started feeling guilty about that. I realized I’m not as big a part of their lives as I wanted to be.”
When the UFC offered him a fight with Hardy in the late summer, Lytle was initially enthusiastic about starting his training camp. He was a fan of Hardy’s aggressive, striking-heavy fighting style. It seemed to lend itself to exciting fights, which had been Lytle’s main career goal after a disappointing outing against Matt Serra in the finale of season four of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
But when he got back in the gym to gear up for the fight, a strange thing happened.
“I started feeling actually guilty going to the gym, and that had never happened to me before,” Lytle said. “I started realizing, man, you’ve got a basketball game you’re missing today. I realized, I’m getting older, my kids are getting older, and there’s time I’m never going to get back.”
That night, Lytle sat down for a talk with his wife. He told her he’d decided to quit fighting after the bout with Hardy. He wanted to be there for his family more. He wanted to stop missing so many important moments. They agreed that, win or lose, he’d hang up his gloves that August.
“After I said that I felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to win my last fight,’” Lytle said. “I had that extra motivation, and I didn’t feel guilty about going to the gym after that.”
Hardy, meanwhile, was battling some very different emotions. A little over a year earlier he’d been the top welterweight contender, unbeaten in four fights with the UFC and headed into a title fight against champion Georges St-Pierre. He would spend the better part of 25 minutes getting out-wrestled in that fight, having his arm wrenched in multiple submission attempts before ultimately losing a unanimous decision.
There was no shame in the defeat. St-Pierre was already regarded as one of the best all-around fighters in the world, and Hardy had hung tough with him. But then he lost his next fight via knockout at the hands of Carlos Condit that October, and in the spring he was once again wrestled into defeat, this time by future light heavyweight contender Anthony Johnson, who surprised everyone by eschewing his usual headhunting tactics in favor of takedowns and top control.
Losing his third consecutive fight was upsetting enough, but the way he lost it was particularly frustrating for Hardy.
“I remember being backstage after that fight and I was sitting with my hand in a bucket of ice because I’d dislocated my thumb, and in my head I was just like, ‘I’m done,’” Hardy said. “I said that to my coach. I told him, ‘This isn’t fun for me anymore. I’m not enjoying it anymore. I’m ready to do something else.’ I was already looking at going back to university and doing something else with my life. When they came to me with Chris Lytle, I thought it was going to be my last fight regardless. I kind of got in there just to have a good time. I had complete disregard for my own career and my own future in the sport, because I really didn’t think I had one at that point.”
It was something of a surprise for Hardy to even get the opportunity to headline a UFC event by that point. The UFC had made a habit of cutting fighters who hit three losses in a row, and already fans had begun to ask how and why Hardy still had a job.
From the outside, that made the fight with Lytle seemed like do-or-die territory. But in his head, Hardy was mainly after one thing – a brawl.
“That was the first time I didn’t get into a fight thinking too much about winning,” Hardy said. “I just wanted to get what I felt like I hadn’t gotten from my last fight with Anthony Johnson.”
When word circulated the day before the fight that it would be Lytle’s final bout, that complicated things for Hardy, he admitted. He’d been an admirer of Lytle’s style and his penchant for thrilling scraps in recent years. It was a compliment, in a way, to be his last fight. It also added even more pressure to entertain, which was evident in the fight’s early exchanges.
Hardy came marching forward that night with a bright red mohawk to match his shorts, and Lytle met him in the center of the cage, ready to plant his feet and throw. His plan, he said, was to prevent Hardy from developing any offensive momentum as he advanced.
“I was always wanting to come forward,” Lytle said. “I felt like I had a better chance if I was moving forward, and I felt like he wasn’t quite as dangerous if you could get him moving backward.”
That strategy would prove to have some flaws. Lytle managed to back Hardy up often in those first two rounds, mainly by employing body shots that opened up Hardy’s defenses for the big bombs that followed. But as Lytle got too enthusiastic about chasing Hardy down, he also ran directly into some short counter strikes from Hardy that sent him wobbling back early in the fight.
“Usually when you get hit with one like that, it’s usually not the first punch – it’s the second one that gets you,” Lytle said. “Because then you’re a little bit slower and that nice, clean, flush shot is the one that hurts you. I knew I had to to be smart then, and I was usually pretty good at avoiding that follow-up shot.”
Lytle’s ability to recover and survive came as a surprise to Hardy, who saw several openings in the first two rounds vanish as Lytle shook off strikes that seemed like potential fight-enders.
“I remember catching him with an elbow on the temple, and I remember him putting both of his hands down,” Hardy said. “I think that was in the second round. More than anything I was amazed at his durability. Most of the time, when I hit someone with a good shot, they tend to go down.”
By the third round, Lytle seemed to be in control on the scorecards. Hardy’s corner was telling him that he likely needed a finish, and his increased aggression in that final frame showed his willingness to take risks in search of it. No matter how many times Lytle rattled his skull with power punches, Hardy never stopped attacking, in part because of how aware he was of the need to put on a show.
“I was taking a lot of chances in that fight, a lot of risks,” Hardy said. “I took more shots in that fight than the majority of the rest of my career, purely because I wasn’t thinking strategically. I kind of got drawn into Chris Lytle’s style of fighting, although I was more than prepared to do that. I was surprised that he was as durable as he was, but at the same time it was a horrible performance from me.”
With precious time draining away in the final minute, Hardy pressed forward behind a punch combo and then shot in for a takedown, looking to surprise Lytle. While Lytle had long ago decided that he wasn’t interested in going for takedowns of his own, the jiu-jitsu black belt was more than ready to grapple when Hardy initiated it.
“I don’t ever trust going to the judges,” Lytle said. “I’ve thought I won some fights and then lost some split-decisions. You don’t ever know what’s going to happen. To be honest, my thought was keep pouring it on. I was landing some good punches, and I wanted to knock his head off if I could. I wanted to stop him, but honestly the submission wasn’t even a thought until he shot in on me. Then the muscle memory kind of took over.”
Almost in a single motion, Lytle sprawled to defend the takedown and locked up a guillotine choke that he used to roll Hardy onto his back. Lytle moved to mount and torqued it harder, and for a moment it looked as though Hardy may slip into unconsciousness.
“I was surprised with how quickly he got the guillotine,” Hardy said. “It wasn’t really a concern at first.”
Once he saw that he couldn’t escape, and with 45 seconds still to go in the round, Hardy had no choice but to tap. As he did, the crowd erupted for Lytle, the retiring fighter who’d capped off a storybook farewell that summed up the last few years of his career. He’d gotten the slugfest he wanted, but also a chance to show off his underrated submissions game in the end.
Most importantly, he’d gotten the win in an exciting fight, meaning he could exit on a high note.
“That’s the thing, you’re always going to remember that last one,” Lytle said. “That’s going to be how you remember the world of MMA and the UFC in your career. You just don’t know how it’s going to go. Fighters have a lot of pressure on them, and it was just a big release of pressure. I could just tell it was going to bring me a lot of satisfaction for years to come. Because if you go out there in your last one and get knocked out, that’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth for maybe the rest of your life.”
For Hardy, a sense of peace followed the initial disappointment of the loss. Even he had to admit that there was a certain poetic beauty in the way Lytle had capped off his career. Plus, while he hadn’t disclosed his thoughts on his own career, by the time he showed up to the post-fight press conference, Hardy was ready for what would come next. He was almost certain that it would start with getting cut from the UFC. It was social media that told him otherwise.
“I was sitting in the press conference when I saw that tweet from (UFC CEO) Lorenzo (Fertitta) saying, ‘I like guys that war,’” Hardy said. “That was the point when I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is my final chance. This is my opportunity to turn some things around.’ Because I’d almost exorcised some demons in that fight. Even though I lost the fight, I got out of my system a lot of the frustrations that I’d been carrying around from my previous three fights. In my head, I was absolutely accepting of the fact that this was it and I was done.”
Once he realized that his life in the UFC would go on, Hardy decided to take some time off before his next fight. He would return nine months later, ending his four-fight losing streak with a knockout victory over Duane Ludwig at UFC 146. He fought again and won that September before being sidelined by medical issues that have kept him out of the cage to this day, much to his chagrin.
And while he can’t help but thinking of things he might have done differently in that Lytle fight, Hardy said, ultimately he can’t complain. He’s found a new career as a commentator, and he’s happy with where his life has taken him. There’s not much he’d want to change about the journey if it meant changing the current destination.
“The other thing that I keep going back to is that the winner of that fight was supposed to get a Harley-Davidson (via a UFC giveaway through the Harley-Davidson Museum),” Hardy said. “And if I’d won that fight and been given a Harley-Davidson as the winner, I wouldn’t be here today, because I’d have driven that into a wall or something. So there’s a silver lining. I’ve just got to look for it sometimes.”