Austen Lane knows the exact date and time he promised his head trainer they would make it to the UFC one day.
It was 1:47 a.m. on January 1, 2015.
That night Lane had gone to a bar in his tiny hometown of Iola, Wisconsin, to ring in the new year. As the party stretched into early morning, however, he found himself feeling less and less like celebrating.
After four seasons on four different NFL teams, Lane was staring down the end of his professional football career and—at 27 years old—wondered what he'd do next.
"I kind of had to face reality that I probably wasn't going to get picked up by another team," Lane tells Bleacher Report. "So, sitting in that bar, everything just came full circle."
Lane was in his athletic prime and knew he still had a lot to accomplish. He'd been dabbling in martial arts since 2010 and had already noticed a competition brewing between his budding love for boxing and Brazilian jiu jitsu and his interest in football.
So, 13 minutes before 2 a.m., he sent a "Happy New Year" message to his coach and manager, Matthew Vona, along with a simple mission statement: Together, Vona and Lane were eventually going to take the UFC heavyweight division by storm.
"After that, MMA has been my thing pretty much every day," Lane says. "I went right to work. I haven't really looked back since."
That mission reaches a pivotal crossroads Tuesday as Lane fights fellow former NFL veteran Greg Hardy at Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series in Las Vegas, with a potential UFC contract at stake for the winner.
Since it began in 2017, the UFC president's Contender Series has aired live on the fight company's subscription streaming service and has been a high-profile method for fast-tracking prospects to the Octagon.
Lane's involvement makes perfect sense. Already 4-0 as a professional, he's regarded as an up-and-coming force on Florida's independent MMA scene.
At 6'6", 245 pounds, Lane looks the part, not to mention his bushy beard, long dreadlocks and torso covered in tattoos. He's laid back and funny, a father to three-year-old Ronin and a devoted husband who had to check with his wife before he accepted the fight with Hardy because the couple had plans to attend the Bonnaroo music festival around the same time.
Lane is the kind of guy who, if you ask him about his greatest athletic accomplishment, lists first a walk-off home run he hit in sixth grade to boost his Little League team into the championship. This despite being an All-American at Murray State University, the Ohio Valley Conference defensive player of the year in 2009 and a fifth-round draft pick who finished his NFL career with 66 tackles.
In short, Lane seems like the kind of guy the UFC could make something out of, if that's what it wanted to do.
On the other hand, Hardy's inclusion here is far more controversial.
While the UFC brass likely see Hardy vs. Lane as two athletic, undefeated heavyweights with significant NFL playing experience, many MMA fans will be tuning in hoping to see Lane stop his foe's UFC career before it even starts.
"That's been pretty apparent," Lane says. "I'm not really much on social media, but I've gotten a bunch of people wishing me luck. I've got some new fans."
Hardy's 2014 conviction on domestic violence charges—and the release of photos showing injuries he allegedly inflicted on his former girlfriend, Nicole Holder, in North Carolina—made him an infamous figure in the mainstream sports landscape.
Hardy moved to MMA in late 2017 and has quickly amassed a 3-0 amateur record against low-level competition. The fact he will vie for a UFC contract in his first professional fight is highly unusual. Clearly, his notoriety must have something to do with it, though observers question why the UFC and its parent company of WME-IMG/Endeavor would want Hardy around.
Those critics include ESPN.com's Jeff Wagenheim, who wrote in May it would be a "major mistake" for the UFC to bring Hardy into the fold. Wagenheim notes that Endeavor, the mega-Hollywood talent agency that bought the UFC for more than $4 billion in 2016, has its roots in the entertainment industry, which is at the center of the #MeToo movement. He wonders if Endeavor's goal of boosting the UFC's mainstream marketability would be hurt by adding Hardy.
"I think [signing him] would be appalling at this time in history," Wagenheim tells Bleacher Report. "... I'm all for people having second chances, but I think there has to be some remorse connected to it. The UFC is trying to build its brand, and I just don't think it can broaden its reach when it has a guy like Greg Hardy as part of the show."
Perhaps that's where Lane comes in.
While Hardy's amateur exploits have received far-reaching media coverage, Lane has been plugging away in comparative obscurity since 2014.
Their meeting at the Contender Series will be Lane's 10th overall fight. All his previous bouts have ended in first-round stoppage victories. By contrast, it will be Hardy's fourth bout and his first as a pro.
As both guys work to round-out fully realized MMA arsenals, that difference might be significant.
"The biggest outlier is that I have a lot more experience than he does," Lane says. "You can gain experience from training and sparring, but it's different when you get into the cage. Once you put on the four-ounce gloves, once you're not wearing head gear and shin pads anymore, that's a different level of experience."
In some ways, this fight is a shrewd piece of matchmaking. No matter who wins it, the UFC will gain a promising former NFL player to insert into its 265-pound division. If that winner happens to be Hardy, the fight company can throw up its hands at the criticism and say the man fought his way into the UFC just like any other fighter.
And if it's Lane? The UFC still gains an athletic, marketable heavyweight, and it can shake its head and say Hardy just didn't have the skills to make it to the Octagon.
White himself has indicated he would welcome Hardy into the organization, so long as the 29-year-old Tennessee native proved he was good enough to be there.
"I'm one of those guys who believes we're all human beings and we all make mistakes," White said, when asked about Hardy on an episode of Fox's Speak for Yourself in October 2016. "When you make a mistake you pay your penance, whatever it might be, and you should be allowed to make a living and move on in your life."
UFC Fight Pass @UFCFightPass
UFC matchmaker @Mickmaynard2 speaks about ex @dallascowboys star @GregHardyJr and his recent leaps in improvement since transitioning to MMA. Watch him fight for a @UFC contract LIVE in Week 1 of @DanaWhite's Tuesday Night #ContenderSeries on #UFCFIGHTPASS! https://t.co/H6lff9LJr5
So far, it's hard to gauge what Hardy's MMA ceiling might be. Given that his previous three fights have all ended in under two minutes, there just isn't much tape on him yet.
"It's hard to say much on the basis of what we've seen," says longtime fight analyst Patrick Wyman. "The talent is pretty clear—quickness, power, size, and really insane balance—everything you'd expect from an all-pro defensive lineman. To be honest, I thought he'd be faster than he showed in his first two fights, but the third one was more what I expected in terms of hand speed and explosiveness. He's picking things up quickly."
Fans who are ready to cheer on Lane based on this matchup might be a bit disappointed to learn he won't take any extra pleasure in trying to beat up Hardy.
To hear him tell it, he's approaching this fight the same way he's approached all his others. He maintains he's not thinking about the extra motivation—or pressure—of a nationally televised fight against one of the sports world's most vilified figures.
"That's honestly the last thing I'm thinking about right now," Lane says. "I've been asked that question a ton of times, but when we go into the cage, it doesn't matter what that person has done in the past. The only thing I'm concerned with about Greg Hardy is what he brings to the table in an MMA fight."
To Lane, this fight isn't about Hardy at all.
To him, this fight is about making good on the second act of his athletic career and about living up to the promise he made to himself and his coach close to three-and-a-half years ago.
"I think regardless of who my opponent is, this is a huge opportunity for me," Lane says. "As far as, like, putting it to a bad guy? I don't need any extra incentive. My goal is to be in the UFC. My goal is to fight for the belt one day. Regardless of who my opponent is, my mindset doesn't change."