On any given day, Heather “The Heat” Hardy would be at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, training private clients and then training on her own. Most mornings, she strolls into the gym in her trademark Adidas track suit, a coffee cup in one hand, her phone in the other, a headphone on her head. On Saturdays, she trains a little girl with pretty dark curls, who is young enough to still think of boxing as play. Some days, she works with adults of different age groups in the heavy bags or with mitts.
The last few weeks, Hardy has been doing that and much more. She has been in a training camp for her professional MMA debut on June 24, in one of the most high profile crossovers from boxing. After clients leave, she begins a long stretching routine with her boxing and kickboxing coach, Devon Cormack, and then off to a few rounds of sparring before moving on to two other gyms to train in other MMA disciplines.
The crossover of an undefeated boxer and the reigning WBC International super bantamweight and featherweight title holder to MMA speaks volumes about the state of women’s boxing in America, while highlighting how far MMA has come.
“The potential is different,” Hardy said. MMA has embraced women fighters in a way that boxing has yet to do, giving opportunities to a higher number of women martial artists. While female boxers continue to struggle to get into the undercards of big boxing events, much less a televised undercard, female MMA fighters routinely headline an MMA event. As a result, the sport is attracting more women, Hardy included.
More Opportunities in MMA
Hardy is not shy to say that her crossover is driven in part by financial reasons. “I’d like to go to MMA because I’d like to make enough money where if I’m doing a six-week fight camp, I don’t have to worry about teaching clients, or taking four trains (to go to the other gyms), because I can’t afford a car or a babysitter.”
Despite a perfect 20–0 record and belts in two weight divisions, Hardy says “there is zero room for growth” for her in boxing. Like many professional women boxers in the US, Hardy works a full-time personal training job, and even trains clients all through fight week. “I’m at a stage in my career where I can’t turn down money because I work for myself, so you don’t know when money’s is gonna run out.” Compare this to Cecilia Braekhus, the Norwegian superstar who spent weeks in a training camp in Spain to prepare for a fight earlier in June and who reportedly commands six figures per fight, and the difference is stark.
Hardy’s foray to MMA has long been in the works with her pro debut scheduled on January 14 under the Kansas City-based Invicta FC, an all-female promotions company. The fight was cancelled due to injury by her opponent. Six months later, Hardy makes a second attempt to join the MMA world, this time under California-based Bellator, which placed her in the undercard of light heavyweights Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva at the Madison Square Garden, where she once fought as an amateur but never as a professional. Her bout will be aired on Spike TV, generating more exposure for her first MMA fight.
“Getting ready for this fight, I’m doing what I know how to do and what has worked for me 20 fights before,” she said. Hardy understands that on her first MMA fight, she has to prove to Bellator that she is worth the investment. “I’m getting the press, getting the story out, putting asses on the seats, making people know that I’m cute, I’m fun, I’m funny, I can fight, I can sell tickets, I can do all these things.”
In the two weeks since I chatted with her at Gleason’s, Hardy has been doing her media rounds, appearing in local television and sports podcasts, doing photo shoots, while actively selling tickets. A testament to her marketability is the number of her trademark black “Team Heat” t-shirts being worn around the gym.
“This is my showcase to Bellator to say give me a bigger stage, give me a bigger chance, because it has the ability to do that, where women’s boxing doesn’t and they don’t and they haven’t.”
“Look at me, I have bruises all over,” Hardy said, showing me a bruise on her left leg that had been covered by long white socks. “It hurts. My ankles hurt, everything hurts.” Hardy has had to adjust to a change in training and having to train in three different gyms. MMA consists of multiple disciplines that includes the Western style kickboxing, muay thai, jiu jitsu, wrestling and judo, and each one requires different coaches.
The transition from boxing to MMA has been physically challenging and costly. “I have less time for myself because I have to travel. It’s costing me a lot and lot of money. In my downtime, I have less energy,” she said.
She admits that of all the MMA disciplines, Brazilian jui jitsu is the one that challenges her the most. She trains with Renzo Gracie, of the famed jui jitsu family, shouting expletives every time she’s lifted up in the air for a takedown during sparring sessions. “I don’t like it, but we work on it,” she said. She is taking “baby steps” in MMA by learning the basics, but capitalizing on her boxing skills, her ability to strike and take a punch, and her well-developed “fighting sense”.[mytwitter url=”https://twitter.com/HeatherHardyBox/status/875073381925879810″]
“Boxing is a good foundation for anything that involves boxing,” said Cormack, Hardy’s trainer of seven years. Cormack is himself a boxer and three-time kickboxing world champion. Because MMA requires athletes to be proficient in multiple disciplines, MMA gives a boxer more tools to do combat, Cormack explained, although one is also faced with more tactics to worry about.
Fighting an Ex-Boxer
On June 24, Hardy will step in the cage against Alice “The Soccer Mom” Yauger (MMA record 4–5–0), a former boxer from Texas. Yauger boxed in the amateurs and had a short professional boxing career from 2000 to 2001. Had Yauger pursued a professional boxing career, both women might have crossed paths multiple times in the past.
“Even though I’ve been out of boxing since 2001, I haven’t stopped following female boxers including Hardy,” Yauger wrote in response to my message. “It’s an honor. I couldn’t pass up a chance to fight someone who, under normal circumstances, I would’ve been asking for her autograph.”
At 38, Yauger is also a mother and works a full-time corporate job while training on the side. She started her combat sports career in boxing but retired in 2001 after five professional fights in the super featherweight division to start a family. In 2012, Yauger found herself close to 100 lbs overweight and out of shape. She decided to return to combat sports.
“By the time I started MMA, there were more females entering BJJ (Brazilian jui jitsu) and MMA which is always motivating for other ladies and I was able to make so many female friends to all push each other, which I didn’t have that when I was a boxer,” she said.
“The MMA culture had grown popular fast and I wanted to be apart of it since I had already been down the shady road of boxing,” she added. Promotions today have many female fights on cards year round and I’ve been a co-main and a main event which never would’ve happened with a decent size promotion when I was boxing.”
With a black belt in taekwondo and proficiency in muay thai, in addition to her amateur and professional boxing experience, Yauger also found jui jitsu and wrestling harder on the body. Watching Yauger in previous fights, one immediately notices her boxing background, striking her way to a knockdown, and keeping her distance from a potential takedown.
“I’m not a ground fighter trying to box with a boxer,” Yauger said. Even with a bad boxing record I still have hundreds and hundreds of rounds of boxing sparring so my accuracy will be better than if she (Hardy) was fighting a grappler.”
On Saturday, expect both women to rely on the skills they know the most: boxing and kickboxing. Expect to see more fists and kicks, than grappling on the mat.
The mark of a boxer’s greatness is the willingness to fight the best in the sport. The mark of strength in character is the willingness to take on risks to achieve more success. Hardy, whose life experiences have given rise to a fierce determination to succeed, is putting herself and her boxing titles on the line by entering the MMA at 35 years old.
“I feel so many things,” she said. “I feel excited, I feel nervous. I’m definitely putting myself out there, but I feel confident.” And Hardy says she has not felt anxious about a fight in a long time.
Hardy will inevitably be compared to Holly Holm, a 33–2–3 former boxer who made a complete cross over to MMA in 2013. Holm’s dismantling of UFC star Ronda Rousey in 2015 was one for the history books. “Holm versus Rousey is a good example of what kickboxing can do,” Cormack said. Holm outboxed Rousey through three rounds and a head kick sent the UFC’s biggest female star to the mat. What is now Holm’s trademark left kick also knocked down Bethe Correia in a UFC main event in Singapore on June 17.
The question that inevitably comes up is, will Hardy have a Holly Holm moment and simply quit boxing?
“I don’t want to say no,” she said after a short pause. “Maybe I’ll have my first fight and I’ll love it so much and I’ll never want to do anything else. But I love boxing right now.”
Despite her well-publicized frustrations with the lack of opportunities for women in boxing, Hardy remains committed to the sport and her boxing promoter, Lou DiBella, has been supportive of her two-sport career track. In fact, she made the announcement on her pro MMA debut after winning the main event in DiBella’s Broadway Boxing event on May 17. DiBella himself assured the audience that Hardy would be back in the boxing ring. Hardy effectively becomes the first woman fighter to be co-promoted by an MMA (Bellator) and a boxing promoter (DiBella Entertainment).
Hardy has a one-year contract with DiBella. “So I’m gonna be boxing for the next year whether I like it or not,” she chuckled. Her goal in boxing is to win the WBC featherweight belt, currently held by Canadian Jelena Mrdjenovich. “I wanna win the WBC featherweight world title. I want to bring it home to Brooklyn. I’d like to be a two-sport title holder and remain that way,” Hardy said.
But this week, it’s all about MMA and her goal is to win her debut fight on June 24. “When I go in there, my mentality is to win, no matter what. And I’ve done that 20 times, I’m gonna prove that I can do it again.”
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