Heather Hardy would be the first to tell you that she is not a boxer; she is a fighter.
Boxing as a sport is replete with contrasts: the counterpuncher versus the pressure fighter, the tactician versus the brawler, the in-fighter versus the outside fighter. Yet ultimately, what matters is the fighter’s ability to not just prevail against her opponent, but to win over the audience. Hardy’s victory in her professional MMA debut on June 24 was testament to Hardy’s fighting prowess. Some have cast doubt on her boxing technique; some have even derided her fighting style; but there is no doubt after last month’s MMA event, the lady can fight.
Hardy’s win over Alice Yauger was a brutal and bloody affair. She struggled to gain her footing in the first round, yet her hunger for the win and the chance to prove herself in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd was evident to all. Her fans, some of whom trooped to the Garden for their first MMA event ever, cringed at the sight of blood all over Hardy’s chest, but they also went wild after she punched her way to a TKO victory. Heather “The Heat” Hardy’s arms raised in triumph as the New York crowd erupted was a sight to behold.
To understand why Heather Hardy thinks of herself as a fighter is to know her life story, which is well documented. Raped by a drug dealer in her neighborhood in Brooklyn before she hit her teens. Married and divorced before she finished college. A single mom working multiple jobs because she had no child support. Hurricane Sandy destroying her home and forcing her to crash with her sister. Running nine miles a day to train at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn’s Dumbo district.
Today, she is one of the most recognizable faces in combat sports, her life battles serving as a backdrop to a perfect 20–0 record in her five years as a professional boxer.
When you follow Hardy for a story, you become acutely aware of how much her life struggles fueled her hunger to succeed. Yet you also begin to understand that she has risen above these hardships and uses her experience to empower other women. “I’m very outspoken about obstacles in my path not because I want people to feel sorry for me,” says Hardy, “but I want to say to every person, ‘Hey, this happened to me but I’m not using it as an excuse, so get up and do what you need to do.’”
These adversities, though not forgotten, are behind her, and now she fights battles bigger than her own. Equity for female boxers is one such battle because the business of boxing has not been as kind to women as it has been to men. Opportunities have been limited even for the most successful American female boxers and purses continue to be woefully inadequate to make a living from. Knowing this harsh reality when she turned pro in 2012, Hardy has managed her own career since the beginning.
“I realized that nobody had a good track record with females and I didn’t trust anyone,” says Hardy. “Show me you can do it and I’ll sign on. But don’t show me you have ten girls you haven’t done anything for except rob them blind. Christy Martin once said that as soon as one ticket gets sold, boxing becomes a business, it’s not a sport anymore. And I think being older and not so naive and gullible when I turned pro helped, because I already knew that this had to be managed as a business. This is my life, my career. This is my own business.”
As a manager representing herself in a male-dominated industry, Hardy has to struggle against the persistent gender bias and stereotypes. “There’s a saying that you wanna have a manager because they’re the ones who’ll step in the shit and you get to sit back and not smell like it,” she said. “That’s what’s hard. You have to fight for what you deserve. And when you’re a woman, fighting for what you deserve, you’re automatically stereotyped as being a pushy, obnoxious bitch.”
But thanks to generations of women boxers before her, boxing is no longer the old boys’ club that it used to be. Women’s boxing has grown in popularity and females are, arguably, getting more respect among boxing fans. But whatever success gained for women’s boxing has not in turn translated into a livable income for most female boxers, and Hardy has made it her personal mission to push even further for equity.
“I walk a really fine line and I know that more times than not, I sacrifice money for position. I sacrifice money all the time for positioning because at the end of the day, what’s more important? That I make money? Or that I change the way things are? As much as I want to have money to provide my daughter with different things and to have a more comfortable life, if someone asks what was my goal is, it’s to take women’s boxing to a different place.”
Hardy’s campaign for equity has not been lost on other women athletes. In her pre-fight Facebook posts, Yauger, herself a former professional boxer, urged her own supporters to be respectful of Hardy, noting that the New York fighter has done much to promote women’s boxing. “The combat world needs more women like her instead of always being about themselves,” Yauger wrote.
Hardy’s crossover to MMA to become a two-sport athlete may have been driven by the need to make more money, but ultimately, it was also about pushing the envelope further for women boxers. “I’m always thinking about the end goal. For women’s boxing, it’s about being noticed, being known, to become more mainstream.”
Hardy is her own publicist and her story pitch is always not just about her fights or her record, but about getting more people to understand the situation of American female boxers. “I try to always be available to make one more person know that women are boxing, women are doing this professionally, while they’re working two other jobs.”
It is Hardy’s fighting spirit that attracted a luxury handbag maker to her fold. New York-based JLEW Bags began to sponsor Hardy in January 2017 and JLEW clearly stands out as having little connection to sports, much less boxing. That is until you find out that its founder, Jamie Lewis, has been boxing in amateur and charity bouts for the last ten years and that in fact, her signature handbags were designed to fit boxing gloves. JLEW’s first sponsored athlete was Olympian boxer Mikaela Mayer.
The question, however, remains: what made a luxury handbag maker, whose main clientele are unlikely to be found anywhere near a fighting gym, much less seen punching someone else’s face, support Heather Hardy?
“She’s a single mom. She’s a rape survivor. She changed the course of her life on her own hard work and determination at a very late age. She’s even been homeless,” says Lewis. “Any story line, she’s been there. And she’s persevered. Who can’t relate to that?” For Lewis, JLEW bags are all about the different facets of a busy woman’s life and Hardy, who is a mother, a personal trainer, a fighter, and a businesswoman, represents all that.
But Lewis is aware she is taking a risk in supporting boxers, even one as popular as Heather Hardy. Using Hardy as one of the faces of a handbag that retails for $600 is a road less taken for brands like hers, but Lewis is determined to get the message out.
“I know I’m not conforming with that choice and I’m owning what that means. There are absolutely repercussions for using these women as the face of a brand other than someone who’s more traditional,” she admits. “People are like, ‘Oh, they’re boxing bags? Why am I gonna spend $600 for a boxing bag?’ So I have to fight to tell that story and articulate it.”
Boxing is a tough sell for JLEW’s target customers, but Lewis believes Hardy, and women athletes in general, are worth the risk. She sees in Hardy somebody who represents not just her brand, but all women who rise above seemingly insurmountable adversity.
“I’m all in with Heather Hardy,” she says. “People weren’t ready to take a risk on her on MMA because she was not yet proven, which is exactly why I raised my hand. I know she’s gonna be great. She doesn’t have to prove it to me. I know she’s a fighter. She fights daily, she’s gonna do her best. That’s the thing about Heather Hardy: she’s a warrior.”
Hardy herself could have chosen the path well traveled. With a forensic science degree from John Jay College in New York, she could have landed a job at the police force. Or she could have chosen to pursue a career in internet marketing, which she had started to do after college. Yet she chose a path that many tend to view as having more drawbacks than benefits for a woman.
“I’m a very passionate person and I didn’t feel passionate about anything I was doing,” she said of her life prior to boxing. “It sounds so horrible coming from me, saying this as a mother. I was a mother and I love my daughter but I didn’t feel like it was what defined me. I’m her mom but I didn’t want to die just being her mom. I needed something where I wasn’t a mother, I wasn’t someone’s ex-wife, where I wasn’t just someone’s friend or someone’s employee. I needed something that made me.” And Heather Hardy found that boxing, and especially winning, gave her that sense of having achieved something for herself.
At 35, Hardy is aware that the clock is ticking. While women boxers tend to fight longer than their male counterparts, many also hang up their gloves before they turn 40. Very few stay on to fight professionally in their middle age. Hardy, who teaches private boxing lessons for a living, would like to open gym to teach young girls the discipline of boxing. In addition, she would like to continue speaking and inspiring others; she is determined that she will not let everything she has worked for slip away when she retires.
“I don’t see this dying out and me ending up as a hotdog vendor or something,” she laughed. “I’m smart. I didn’t get this far without knowing how to get this far.”
In the meantime, she has other shorter-term goals in mind. She hopes that her success in MMA will open more opportunities in boxing because there are still boxers she would like to fight and titles she wants to win. Hardy has a one-year contract with DiBella Entertainment and owner Lou DiBella himself assured her fans in May that she would return to the boxing ring after her MMA debut. A shot at another world title is not impossible, but so far, there is no word yet on her next bout. Like all professional prizefighters, Hardy wants that shot at stardom before the window of opportunity closes.
“I wanna be the fighter from Brooklyn who gets people excited because I’m the hometown girl,” she says. Judging from the crowd reception of her MMA debut last month, it looks like Heather Hardy already is. — Sheila Oviedo