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George Hardwick: The champ is here… in an unassuming Linthorpe gym

Cage Warriors champion George Hardwick is taking on all comers

From an unassuming gym in Linthorpe village, a fighter is taking on the world.

If you haven’t already heard of George Hardwick, chances are you will do soon – the mixed martial artist is the Cage Warriors lightweight champion and it looks like global combat behemoth UFC will come calling soon.

Polite, open and engaging, the 26-year-old welcomed Middlesbrough News into the Middlesbrough Fight Academy, the gym above the now-empty Co-op supermarket on Linthorpe Road where he spends most of his days.

“I beat Kyle Driscoll for the lightweight championship and he trains with the American Kickboxing Academy in California, which is probably the biggest MMA gym in the world,” says George.

“For me to go into Cage Warriors and beat him, representing this tiny little gym in Middlesbrough – which is held together with duct tape – that made me more proud than winning the belt.”

George Hardwick at the Middlesbrough Fight Academy

George Hardwick at the Middlesbrough Fight Academy

The gym is a testament to the ultra-focused intensity which exudes from George as he speaks.

Shoes off at the door, it’s filled with bags and mats, with an octagon cage in one corner.

One man goes through a prolonged workout behind us, the rhythmic pounding noise getting louder as he kicks and punches pads held by George’s older brother Harry.

Harry is one of a host of professional fighters representing the gym, and the brothers also coach at the Fight Academy, putting on MMA and Muay Thai classes to ever-increasing numbers of people, alongside George’s head coach and the gym’s owner, Abdul Mohammed, himself a successful MMA fighter.

George only recently defended his Cage Warriors belt against Luxembourg’s Yann Liasse at a sold out event in Manchester.

George Hardwick during a fight

George Hardwick during a fight

“I started MMA when I was about 15, I came over to the gym and I’ve been here ever since,” said George.

“When I look at some of the talent that is coming through now, well honestly my mind absolutely boggles. There’s more champions coming through here.”

For those who don’t follow it, mixed martial arts – or MMA – is a combat sport based on striking, grappling and other traditional fighting techniques from disciplines across the world.

The term was first coined as the UFC – the Ultimate Fighting Championship – started out in the early 1990s, but the sport has grown massively in prominence and exposure ever since.

It’s now one of the biggest sports in the world, with star names like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey and the massive growth of UFC, led by its president Dana White, bringing it into the mainstream in the past decade.

But it wasn’t the glitz and glamour that brought George and his brother to MMA.

“Normally people have an inspirational story about how they got into fighting – it might have been that they were bullied or something,” explains George, who grew up in Normanby.

“But our problem was that we just played on video games too much. We were on the PS2 about eight hours a day and had to find something to do.

“We loved playing the UFC Undisputed game so I guess that’s how we came into it.

“I started doing Muay Thai (also known as Thai boxing) when I was 12, and then came into MMA at 15.”

As a non-fighter, it can be hard to understand why someone voluntarily gets into a sport which sees them getting hit, regularly.

Did George and Harry stick at it, because they had a natural talent?

“I wouldn’t say we were the most physically talented people, but we just got completely obsessed by it,” continues George.

“We started training Muay Thai in Teesville with a really experienced coach who’d had more than 300 fights, and then when we came here we had Abdul. I’ve been really lucky with the coaches I’ve had, we train and learn the right way.”

Obsession seems the right word. George trains at least twice a day Monday to Friday and on Saturdays on top of the classes he runs.

It keeps him constantly in shape and ready to answer calls for a fight at short notice.

“Luckily, there’s so many different fighting styles and techniques that you can learn in MMA, it keeps me interested I think.

“It’s not nice being held down on the floor, for example, but it develops mental characteristics as well as physical. You know how to deal with situations.”

George Hardwick with his brother Harry (left) and coaches after winning the Cage Warriors title

George Hardwick with his brother Harry (left) and coaches after winning the Cage Warriors title

He continues with a smile: “And then I still get a little weekly trip to Manjaros for a parmo, which is good.”

George has earned a reputation as a ‘Body Snatcher’ – someone who is adept at scoring knockouts through strikes to the body.

“My style is pressure heavy, that’s what our gym is known for. We always work even harder in the last round and target the body and legs.

“When I fight I feel like I represent the gym, and I’m proud to represent Middlesbrough as well. I’m a product of my environment.”

Another young English MMA fighter Paddy Pimblett – coincidentally also a lightweight, which is seen as the toughest and most competitive division in the sport – has made waves at recent UK events.

Known as ‘Paddy the Baddy’, the Liverpudlian has become a celebrity and George has appeared on his podcast, counting him as a friend.

While it’s unlikely they’d face off in the UFC as it usually prefers to split up UK fighters, George hopes he might see more of him soon.

“I’m a fighting champion – people who come into Cage Warriors sometimes win the belt, and it’s seen as the next step on to UFC but I’ve already defended my belt twice,” he said.

“Opportunities come quickly. It’s not like a normal job with promotions etc – if I get a chance at the UFC, I’d love to give it a try. It’s the premier competition in the sport.

“But if it comes I’ll have to be ready to grab it.

“And I need to make sure I get Dana a Manjaros parmo. I reckon he’d love one.”

This story featured in our new digital magazine Middlesbrough News. You can sign up to receive it straight to your email inbox by visiting here.