Heather Hardy Talks Making Her MMA Debut This January


The days have always been long for Heather Hardy. Adding mixed martial artist to her job description has made them longer.

Already an unbeaten professional boxer, perhaps the most popular one in the United States at the moment, Brooklyn’s Heather Hardy announced in November that she was going to make her MMA debut for the Invicta FC promotion on January 14.

That’s not a long time to start an entirely new sport, one that adds wrestling, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing to the one where she’s already made her name. When I spoke to her this month, she was six weeks away from entering the cage for the first time. I asked if this felt like it was right around the corner.

“It didn’t when I said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Hardy laughed. “But it’s like my mom reminds me, ‘Heather, I told you this when you had your first fight; if you were out on the street, would you care?’ It always grounds me. (Laughs) You’re right, mom.”

(Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

At 34, Hardy has built her name on being fearless in the ring and in life. She’s described her style as being the equivalent of having two minutes to get her wallet back from a mugger, but over her last few fights she’s added some slicker defensive moves while keeping her aggressive offensive attack. That’s good for longevity in the sport, and when she was put in a position to step up and be one-half of the first women’s fight to air on national network (NBCSN) television in over two decades, she not only did it, but she and opponent Shelly Vincent put on a Fight of the Year candidate in Brooklyn on August 21.

It was the rare fight that lived up to the hype, and that’s a testament to both Hardy and Vincent, who knew that putting on a lousy fight on national television would be the quickest way to keep women’s boxing in the darkness. Add in that Claressa Shields became the first fighter – male or female – to win two Olympic boxing gold medals on the same Sunday, and the pressure was at its highest to deliver.

“There was nothing left in that ring,” Hardy said. “I remember between rounds sitting on the stool and looking up at (coach) Devon (Cormack) and I can see his mouth moving, but inside my head, I’m going, ‘Man, Claressa Shields won gold today for the second time, I gotta be that name in the paper with her. I gotta be that name.’ And that fueled me through every single one of those rounds. I gotta be the girl they talk about after the fight.”

“I gotta be the girl they talk about after the fight.”

They did. But what was hoped to be a new day for women’s boxing was just another day for a sport struggling for acceptance in the United States.

“To all the people who think, ‘Congratulations, you made it,’ I didn’t make it,” she said. “As great as it was to be on the first female televised on a PBC (Premier Boxing Champions) show and the first female televised in over 25 years on national TV, it’s not enough. It’s not enough that we had to fight after the main event. And we hardly made any money for it. We had a little over three weeks’ notice to get ready for the fight, and we weren’t shown live. We were shown on tape delay. So here I am complaining about all the things that it wasn’t, only to say we still have so much more to go. So all the lobbying and talking and things that I did to get that far, don’t think I’m sitting home satisfied with my feet up on the table, because I don’t feel I did it yet. There’s still a long way to go.”

It’s not this way everywhere. In Europe and Mexico, women headline arena shows and are regularly featured on television. In the U.S., that’s not the case and it hasn’t been for years. If you’re a female fighter, MMA is the way to go, as the UFC has produced megastars like Ronda Rousey and (former boxing champion) Holly Holm while featuring the ladies on nearly every show.

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There are signs of life, though. Shields’ pro debut last month was televised under the auspices of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports. Hardy’s friend and junior featherweight champion Amanda Serrano will see her title defense against Yazmin Rivas air on Showtime, and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions recently signed their first female fighter, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza.

But those baby steps aren’t happening fast enough for Hardy who, despite her success and notoriety, is still a single mother raising a child in Brooklyn in a sport that doesn’t receive the attention – and money – that the men do. And when newly instituted insurance requirements in New York prompted promoters to cancel shows until a new deal was put in place (which is expected in 2017), Hardy was left without a December fight – and paycheck.

“This insurance thing put a stick in my spoke,” Hardy said. “It stopped everything. The chance of me having another big fight this year was kind of ended because of that. So it totally slowed my roll. I’m really happy to hear that Showtime is going to air Amanda’s fight and I think things are going in the right direction for female boxing. But we’re nowhere in the vicinity of MMA yet.”

So Hardy made her move, one that she wants to make clear isn’t an abandonment of boxing, but “My side job.” Already, before she’s even stepped into the Invicta FC cage, there’s a buzz about Hardy’s migration to MMA.

“It’s been awesome,” she said of her early days in her new sport. “I’ve been getting so many interesting requests, and every single person has started off the conversation with, ‘I’m very sorry to say this, but I don’t really follow female boxing.’ Well, and that’s why we’re here. That’s kind of the problem. There are so many of us who box who nobody knows about. And there’s more interest about me making my debut in a new sport than me going for my 19th win and my first world title shot in March in the sport that I’ve already given so much to.”

(Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Hardy isn’t the bitter type. Never has been. So instead of crying about her situation, she finds a way to improve it. At the same time, she won’t hide in the back of the room and stay quiet about the good and the bad in her life, and it’s this honesty that has made her as much of a role model as a pro athlete. And that’s precisely why she tells her tale with such candor.

“People hear the words professional athlete and they have this glamorous, glorified visions of life,” Hardy said. “Like I got driven to the event in a car and got escorted in and out, and meanwhile, I was told about the press conference the day before and I had to call my mom. ‘Mom, can you buy me a pair of boots because I’m gonna be on camera?’ (Laughs) That’s the truest story in the world. The equivalent of me not fighting in December would be like if you went to your job tomorrow and the boss said, ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t give you any paychecks for the next four months.’”

In 2014, Hardy, one of the top ticket sellers in the New York area, fought five times. In 2015, she stepped into the ring four times. In 2016, only three, with a proposed December bout falling by the wayside.

“I’ve been very vocal about being sexually abused. I’ve been poor, I’ve been homeless at times, and somebody had said to me, ‘You have to feel okay saying those things because people look up to you. And what you’re doing is you’re telling them that they can still succeed despite things that are happening.'”

“Usually by the time I have a boxing match, the day after the match all my money’s gone – paying late bills, paying my coaches, paying my corner, back rent, Con Ed. So now I’m having an excess of debt and no big check to cover it. I’m not glamorous. (Laughs) I have to borrow money for shoes.”

Most say that stepping into a boxing ring to fight someone trained to beat you up is the bravest act in sports. Hardy’s honesty may top that. And she’s not about to back down.

“I think earlier in my career, when I learned that I had a voice and I could reach out to people, it’s when I stopped feeling so ashamed to say things about myself,” she said. “I’ve been very vocal about being sexually abused. I’ve been poor, I’ve been homeless at times, and somebody had said to me, ‘You have to feel okay saying those things because people look up to you. And what you’re doing is you’re telling them that they can still succeed despite things that are happening.’

“So whenever there comes a time when I feel really embarrassed or ashamed about something, or something is hurting me, I am vocal about it, because it’s important for people to know that I’m human,” Hardy continues. “All those people who look at me and say, ‘I want to be like Heather Hardy; I want to do what Heather Hardy does,’ they should know that Heather Hardy struggles to do this, but I do it anyway. I think that’s part of being any kind of a role model. We’re still working and trying and fighting, and you should fight too.”

On January 14, the rules are different, the gloves are smaller, and she’ll be in a cage instead of a ring, but Heather Hardy will still be fighting the way she always has when she meets Brieta Carpenter.

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“I’m confident,” she said. “If I was out on the street, you could give me ten opponents, I’m not gonna lose. They ain’t taking my wallet.”

I point out to her that in MMA, she won’t have two minutes to get that wallet back. She’ll get five this time.

“Even longer,” Hardy laughs. “So maybe I’m out there looking to take hers.”