Back in boxing, Heather Hardy wants to focus on big fights and nothing less
NEW YORK – Three days before fight night, Heather Hardy is hard at work in the evening hours at Gleason’s Gym. She wasn’t getting in a late workout for herself ahead of her return to the boxing ring on Saturday at Barclays Center; she was training a client. Fame and respect alone don’t pay the bills, a reality which has left her torn between two passions: boxing, with its history and traditions, and mixed martial arts, with its marketing machine and greater paychecks.
Hardy had built her 20-0 (4 knockouts) career over five years since turning pro in 2012 before strapping on smaller gloves for the Bellator MMA promotion, going 2-1 over a nine-month stretch. She immediately noticed a difference in how she was received: her MMA debut was televised, her purses shot up, her social media following tripled, and companies began calling to offer her sponsorships.
Sure, she had her face busted open by a head kick from Kristina Williams, but it was all worth it, she says.
“The reception I got in MMA is sort of like when you have this job that you love, you love your coworkers, but the pay sucks, it takes a long time to get there, it’s really a hassle. And then you get this new job that you didn’t think you wanted, and everyone is so nice to you, and they pay you great, and it’s super convenient. That’s kind of like what MMA was,” said the featherweight Hardy, who will face Iranda Paola Torres (12-2-1, 5 KOs) in an eight-rounder on the Jessie Vargas-Adrien Broner undercard.
She loves boxing, but she also loves her 13-year-old daughter who has private school tuition to pay.
At age 36, Hardy finds herself between two generations of female boxers: the trailblazers like Belinda Laracuente and Christy Martin who laid down asphalt taking any opportunities they could find, and the new school which has emerged since women’s boxing was added to the Olympics in 2012, like Claressa Shields and Katie Taylor, with greater visibility on TV as a result.
The gap between the men’s and women’s game may be closing ever incrementally, but in MMA, where Ronda Rousey had become a major household superstar, and Holly Holm received far more appreciation than she ever did as a boxer, women are already being treated as marketable attractions worth more than just the amount of ticket money they turn in at the weigh-in.
“I think it’s a two-string problem: First of all boxing isn’t as popular as MMA. That’s a really controversial thing to say because people argue one way or the other, but the truth of the matter is, I think it was [Vasyl] Lomachenko or Terence Crawford who said, one of the pound for pound ranked guys, ‘I walk into a crowded room, nobody knows who I am. If you don’t know boxing, you don’t know who I am.’ That’s boxing’s fault, that’s the promoters’ fault,” said Hardy.
“As big as a female boxing star can be, it’ll never rise to that of an MMA star. The money stays in the same 10 or 15 hands, and the rest of us are slumming around, filling up the rest of the shows.”
Hardy never saw herself as leaving boxing behind, and is intent on competing as a two-sport athlete. With no MMA dates lined up for the next few months, figured there was no better place than her native Brooklyn to get back in the ring. Hardy had originally been scheduled to box Ana Julaton in a rematch of their MMA fight in February which Hardy won on points, but Julaton announced her retirement from competition the day contracts were to be signed.
A switch to the lesser-known Torres wasn’t a big adjustment for Hardy, she says, because unlike her MMA opponents, she doesn’t have to worry about Torres being a secret Brazilian jiu-jitsu or submission specialist.
“She only has two hands coming at me and I’m not really worried about either one of them,” said Hardy. The fight does offer her a chance to shake off ring rust, which may surprise some who have seen how active she had been in the cage.
“When I talk about shaking off the ring rust, people say ‘you’ve been so active, you fought three times.’ That’s like saying that baseball and basketball are the same because you have a ball,” said Hardy.
Promoter Lou DiBella, who books her boxing matches and has been one of the primary allies for female boxing, envisions an all-women’s card at Barclays Center, with Amanda Serrano, another boxer now campaigning in MMA, competing for her sixth boxing title, and Hardy in a separate “big fight.” He says a rematch with Shelly Vincent, whom Hardy defeated by majority decision in a PBC on NBC card in 2016, “is also great TV. In women’s boxing, it’s like a rematch of a Gatti-Ward kinda fight.”
Hardy sees herself in the “home stretch” of her career, and says she wants to make each of her fights count, underlining two opponents she would most want to face: WBC titleholder Jelena Mrdjenovich and IBF titleholder Jennifer Han.
Both are the only two fighters ranked ahead of her at 126 pounds on Boxrec, which, in the absence of meaningful ratings from news organizations, accounts for something. Mrdjenovich (37-10-2, 19 KOs) of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has fought just about everyone there was to fight in and around her weight class, while Han (17-3-1, 1 KO) has built a following for herself in El Paso, Texas, and has made four defenses of the belt she currently holds.
“Moving forward I’m really only interested in looking at world title fights, otherwise I need to focus on where the revenue comes from, and my income comes more from MMA than it does from boxing,” said Hardy.
“My dream from the start of my boxing when I was still trying out to get in the Golden Gloves is to hold the WBC belt at 126. Now Jelena has it, one of the greatest female fighters of all-time, and I’ve earned my shot against her. Jennifer Han is number one in America, number two in the world, she has the IBF world title, I’d love a chance to put on a great show with Jennifer.”
DiBella says a Han-Hardy fight “would be great domestically,” and says a Mrdjenovich matchup “would be a great fight, but we’d need a bigger license fee.”
It’s premature to say that Hardy sees the finish line to her fighting career, but she’s operating like someone who knows what she wants and isn’t interested in anything else.
“I have all these girls Twitter calling me out because they’re trying to get themselves in the spotlight for a little bit. It’s like, all respect, love you girls, but at this stage in my career I only want fights that are relevant, that make sense. If you’ve got something I want, I’ll fight you for it,” said Hardy.
“I’ve made my name, I’ve done my fights, I’ve proved myself. Now I want to go in there, take a couple belts, sit on my throne for a little bit and then pass it on to the girls coming up.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].