Heather Hardy was a single mother living with her sister, another single mother, about seven years ago in their native Brooklyn. Hardy was the breadwinner, out all day working, while her sister took care of the children. Neither were receiving child support. They were trying to make it together, as a team.
One day, Hardy’s sister got her a gift certificate to a karate gym that opened up a few blocks away. The feeling was that she needed something other than work in her life — an hour a day for just herself.
That’s all it was then. Nothing more than a respite.
But three weeks after putting on boxing gloves for the first time, Hardy was in a ring standing across from another woman for a kickboxing match in front of more than 1,000 people at the now-defunct Sports Plus on Long Island. Chris Algieri, now a famous boxer, was the headliner of the card.
Hardy, 28 at the time, barely knew how she got there. When the bell rung, she found a part of her she didn’t know she had.
“I beat the sh*t out of this girl,” Hardy said. … “It was so great, that feeling of fighting and winning. There are so many times in life when you fight and you can’t win. You don’t have a chance to win. But I won. I was like, ‘Man, I’ll never not do this.’”
Hardy’s journey to combat sports fame started before that. But here’s where she is now: about to make her MMA debut at Bellator 180 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, live on Spike TV. “The Heat,” one of the best known names in female boxing, is trying another fight sport on for size.
None of this happened by accident, Hardy firmly believes. This is what she was meant to do and everything in her life, good and bad, has led her down this path.
“My mom taught me a long time ago, everything happens for a reason,” Hardy said.
It was a few miles south of MSG, in her native Brooklyn, that her youth was scarred forever. Hardy was raped when she was a pre-teen by a drug dealer in her neighborhood. She never reported the assault to police, for the same reason that those crimes go unreported on a regular basis: She thought it was her fault.
Hardy, who describes rape as a “life sentence,” regrets not telling anyone and as a public figure she has become an advocate for victims. She cannot say loudly enough that women — and men — should come forward when these crimes are committed. The Rape, Abuse and National Network (RAINN) estimated in 2014 that two out of every three sexual assaults are not reported to police.
“It’s something you wake up with every morning and you go to bed with every night,” Hardy said. “And people ask why do I talk about it? It’s such an uncomfortable thing. It makes people in the room uncomfortable. It makes people who hear it uncomfortable. But you know who it doesn’t make uncomfortable? The people who it happened to. And that’s why I speak.
“Because one of the most common things [about] people who are assaulted, raped, violated in any kind of way, they feel so alone and ashamed and guilty. You grow up feeling like this happened to me because I’m bad.”
It took years for Hardy to find herself after that. She describes herself as overweight in high school. Hardy jokes that her mother used to call her “The Rock” when she was in swimming — “because I’d go in the pool and f*cking sink,” she said with a laugh. But despite that, Hardy always had visions of athletic achievements.
“I always oddly would dream of being the first girl to run out of the bullpen for the Yankees,” Hardy said. “I f*cking idolized [tennis legend] Billie Jean King. I always gravitated towards being an athlete, but never knew what it was going to be until the very first time I got in a boxing ring.”
Self-defense was not her reason for boxing, Hardy said. She could always scrap. What girl growing up in a low-income part of Brooklyn can’t? Training in kickboxing and boxing had nothing to do with her interactions with other people and everything to do with her relationship with herself.
“I’m very vocal that boxing really changed my life and it gave me a different kind of confidence and a different way to feel strong,” Hardy said. “But not in the physical sense that you think of. For me, it came not because I got physically stronger, but I got mentally stronger. But I learned through boxing, the discipline of kickboxing, martial arts what I can put my body through and what I could withstand. I felt stronger because I knew what I could do myself. Not necessarily that I could defend myself, but I knew what I was capable of enduring.”
Hardy, 34, is known now as one of the most popular female boxers in the country. Her bout with Shelly Vincent last August aired on NBC Sports Network. Women’s boxing is a rarity on national television and Hardy, who is 20-0 boxing, is helping open the door for females in that sport.
“The Heat” is dipping her toe now into MMA and is being supported in that decision by her boxing promoter Lou DiBella. Boxing was hit a stiff blow in New York last year when the state added a $1 million traumatic brain injury insurance policy for promoters as part of the bill legalizing MMA. After Sept. 1, all New York boxing cards in 2016 were canceled. Things are looking a little better in 2017, but the sport is nowhere near as healthy there as it used to be.
Hardy said she’s making more money for this fight against Alice Yauger for Bellator than in any of her boxing matches. Women’s MMA fighters, on average, make far more money than female boxers and women like Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Holly Holm, another boxing convert, have pulled in serious purses.
As a single mother, finances are a major consideration. Hardy’s other source of income is training boxers at the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
While she has taken to the MMA game, training at Renzo Gracie Academy and Longo And Weidman MMA on Long Island, boxing is still her primary sport. Hardy said she has just a one-fight contract with Bellator, though there are discussions to extend it.
“There are some girls in boxing I really want to fight,” Hardy said. “I’m really hoping the MMA world opens more doors for me in boxing.”
Hardy has only been training in wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu for less than a year. But she’s confident — OK, very confident — heading into her mixed martial arts debut.
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I’m a different breed,” Hardy said. “I’m not like everybody else. I’m a different breed. I got fighting in my blood. This sh*t just sticks with me.”
While she stays in the limelight, Hardy plans on continuing to speak out for sexual assault victims.
“As a person who people look up to,” Hardy said, “people idolize me, they want to be like me, they love what I do with my sport, I think it’s important to tell all the girls and all the young boys out there who have been in that situation, look you don’t have to be ashamed. You don’t have to be embarrassed, it happened to me, too. And look what I’m doing with my life. I’ve turned it into something positive. It’s not something that has to drag you down the way that you think.”
Hardy was 28 when she started training. She often thinks back to that first match, still new to training in striking, seven years ago on Long Island. The woman she faced had her own karate school; Hardy won anyway.
“My mother said, ‘If you were on the street and she stole your bag, would you give a sh*t what she did for a living?’” Hardy said. “That changed everything I ever thought about going in the ring.”
The difference in setting — from ring to cage — isn’t likely to alter that feeling.