-- FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- Former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy hopes to eventually fight in the UFC, and his mixed martial arts career got off to an impressive start Saturday night.
Hardy (1-0) was victorious in his amateur heavyweight debut, scoring a first-round knockout in 32 seconds over fellow amateur Joe Hawkins (0-1) at "Rise of a Warrior 21." Hardy landed a stiff right hand that floored Hawkins early, then followed with a series of punches before the referee stopped the fight.
"I'm ecstatic. I've been humbled a lot in the last two years," said Hardy, who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and last played in the NFL in 2015 with the Dallas Cowboys. "I'm just super excited to be able to compete. I'm just super excited to be back in the area. I'm super excited to be back to the Greg Hardy everyone knows and remembers and give back to my fans."
Entering the cage sporting a white skeleton mask, Hardy, 29, showed much of the elite athleticism and strength that he used to display on the football field. He slipped early in the fight while backpedaling but otherwise moved around the cage well.
Hardy's debut was a long ways from playing in packed stadiums in front of 50,000 to 70,000 NFL fans. About 1,700 people were in attendance in a converted basketball gym at the Havert L. Fenn Events Center, where Hardy, a former Pro Bowler, was the biggest name on the card but wasn't part of the main event. Hardy's was the ninth of 13 bouts.
Hardy trains at South Florida's American Top Team, which is one of the biggest and most well-respected gyms in MMA. UFC champions Tyron Woodley, Amanda Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk are among the notable stars who also train at ATT. Fellow UFC heavyweights? Junior dos Santos?and Antonio Silva also are gym mates and training partners for Hardy.
"They took me in," Hardy said of ATT. "They gave me the respect that I didn't deserve. They gave me the time that I didn't deserve because I'm a nobody in this field. They have an open heart and open door. So just big shout-out to ATT."
In 2014, Hardy's NFL career took a turn for the worse when he was accused of domestic violence. He was initially suspended 10 games by the NFL in 2015 for "conduct detrimental to the league," but that ruling was reduced to four games while he was a member of the Cowboys. Hardy contends that he never violated the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Hardy's six-year career included 165 tackles and 40 sacks in 75 games. He played one season with Dallas and five seasons with the Carolina Panthers.
Hardy said he hasn't fully ruled out a return to the NFL but that MMA is now his primary focus.
"I'd be a fool to turn away from what I loved doing for so long," Hardy said. "But it's a habit of an athlete, a player and a baller to put his whole heart and soul into what I'm doing. So the UFC has got my heart and soul. That's where I'm going in my mind and my heart. Everything that I do is focused on this MMA career, so I'm coming."