It's a matchup that makes Matt Serra-Matt Hughes look like a love-in. English welterweight Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy has managed to conjure up a river of bad blood en route to his UFC 99 showdown with Marcus "The Irish Hand Grenade" Davis in Germany.
Hardy (21-6, 1 NC) has been pushing Davis' buttons mercilessly since defeating Rory Markham at UFC 95 in February.
And while Hardy talks trash -- dubbing Davis a "fake Irishman" and "plastic Paddy" -- he has had fans help elevate the American's blood pressure by creating Photoshopped pictures that range from childish (Davis as a leprechaun) to crude (Davis surrounded by naked men).
Hardy said he started baiting Davis because he was tired of the American's coming over and beating up Brits -- Davis (21-5 overall) is 5-1 in UFC action in Europe, having defeated three English fighters and a London-based Frenchman.
"He's not English, you know, he's not Irish. I was born here and I've been bred here," Hardy told the UFC 95 postfight news conference in throwing down the gauntlet. "I don't mind taking on that challenge and showing him that this is my home and not his."
Hardy, 27, warmed to the task in the days that followed, expanding the challenge beyond borders.
"It started with that and that's why I originally wanted to fight him, but now it's kind of got to the stage where he's getting so upset over some of the stuff that I've been saying that it's just ridiculous -- so I just keep doing it just for entertainment really," Hardy said in an interview.
Davis, who wears his heart on his sleeve, concedes he was quick to react.
"He got me to jump in and start camp early. … I jumped in and I was brutally beating everybody I was sparring with into a pulp," Davis said. "I was watching videos of Dan Hardy, I was looking at his picture, literally, in my office, and then running out to my cage [to train]."
Said trainer Mark DellaGrotte of Davis: "He was out of control.
He's not English, you know, he's not Irish. I was born here and I've been bred here. I don't mind taking on that challenge and showing him that this is my home and not his.
”-- Dan Hardy on Marcus Davis' fighting overseas
"I was telling him, 'Hey, listen man, don't let this little kid's tricks work.' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'You're coming in, you're all worked up. Don't make mistakes, don't fight emotionally. You have a lot of experience, you know better than that.' And kind of reminded him [to think], 'Hey, this kid is pissing me off, but I can't fight reckless, I can't fight stupid.'"
Having Davis surrender to rage in the cage would suit Hardy nicely. But he says he wins either way.
"If he comes in firing off emotion, he's going to make some silly mistakes and open himself up," Hardy said. "Whereas if he tries not to do that, he's going to overcompensate and be more passive, and basically that means I'm just going to be able to bully him.
"Because he's such an emotional guy, I really think he's going to struggle to stick to a game plan when he sees me in there with a big smile on my face. I really think he's going to struggle to contain himself."
Come fight night, Davis insists, his mind will be clear.
"I'm going to fight this fight intelligently. I'm not going to fight it with, like, blind rage. And any time I've ever fought before and I've fought someone that I didn't like, I've dealt with them quickly. So that's the same plan. I'm going to get rid of him quickly, but I'm going to do it efficiently. But I'm going to try to beat him in every facet of the game."
Said DellaGrotte: "Marcus is a sniper that's going to be patient for the kill, and when it's time and it presents itself, he's going to take the shot."
Just don't expect the two fighters to touch gloves before the opening bell.
"If he wants to try to touch my glove, he can go ahead and try," warns Davis. "That's like poking a bear with a stick. A very short stick."
Said Hardy: "I won't be offering my glove and I'll be very, very surprised if he offers his."
Davis, 35, has worked on keeping his emotions in check. Austin Powers-themed shots at Hardy's teeth have been largely left by the wayside, although Davis can't resist calling his opponent "an attention whore," among other choice monikers, while ripping Hardy's trademark red Mohawk and outlaw bandana.
"I wasted the first two weeks of camp trying to figure it out," he said of Hardy's antagonism. "Now I don't have to figure it out. Now I realize he's just an a------, that's who he is."
Jess Liaudin tried the same tack as Hardy, questioning Davis' Irish roots. Davis knocked him senseless in 64 seconds at UFC 80.
But Hardy is a vastly superior fighter to Liaudin. He showed great composure in his UFC debut win over veteran Akihiro Gono at UFC 89, and turned heads by knocking out Markham.
Hardy has smarts outside the cage, too. He turned down an initial contract to fight in the UFC, reasoning he was not yet ready. And his skillful handling of the media ahead of Davis has won him attention above and beyond that of more-experienced, talented UFC fighters.
Just two bouts into his UFC career, Hardy had veterans Mike Swick and Jon Fitch thinking about him in advance of their meeting up for a recent tour of German military bases.
"When me and Fitch went over to Germany, we were kind of worried, like 'Oh man, Dan Hardy's coming.' He's had a couple of fights in the UFC and he's already talking smack to Davis. He's probably going to be an a--," Swick recalled thinking.
"We met him, and he was really cool. We got along the whole trip. He was humble, he was just really cool and down-to-earth. I think he's just trying to get under Davis' skin, and apparently it's working. Whether it'll be an advantage in the fight, I guess we'll see June 13. But it definitely makes it more interesting."
Neil Davidson is general sports editor of The Canadian Press.