We are a sports-obsessed society that doesn’t take competition lightly, makes “deflategate” a trending topic and has no problem lionizing both athletes who deserve their celebrity (cough, Serena Williams and Muhammad Ali) and those who do not (no comment). We value natural athletic ability and people who fight uphill battles on the daily to make their dreams come true — which is why you should be mad as hell you don’t know Heather Hardy.
Hardy has won 17 out of 17 boxing matches in her featherweight division and has four KOs under her belt. After never having stepped foot into a boxing ring in her life, the single mom took her first kickboxing class at age 28 while going through a divorce and working up to six jobs to keep her family afloat. Three weeks later, she was asked to join a fighting team. The 34-year-old has only been boxing professionally for a few years, and yet, her résumé includes winning the USA Boxing 2011 National Title, the NYC Golden Gloves Featherweight title and — wait for it — possessing punches per round that far exceed the average for her weight class (she averages 83.4 punches for two minutes).
If you know nothing about boxing, keep this last fact in mind: Hardy’s punching stat, if she fought for over three minutes, would be 111.2 and would far exceed those of men’s leaders Roman Gonzalez and Léo Santa Cruz. Allow that to simmer for a minute — we’ll get back to why it’s the most maddening thing you’ll read all day.
The only reason Hardy isn’t widely celebrated (yet) is because her talent lies in women’s boxing and most TV networks are trapped in the 1950s. Boxers and their promoters make money from televised events and most networks aren’t willing to put themselves on the line in the hopes that female boxers will bring in viewers and profits. That’s why Hardy’s upcoming fight against rival Shelly “Shelito’s Way” Vincent in Brooklyn on Sunday, Aug. 21 (9 p.m. ET) is crucial. Not only will it be televised on NBC Sports Network, but Hardy and Vincent are headlining. By all means, take a second to celebrate — but only a second — because the fight to put women’s boxing on the map is far from over.
“The problem with women [boxers] is that we have nowhere to go,” Hardy tells SheKnows, adding that, while she is thankful for this opportunity to fight Vincent while TV cameras roll, she was taught to enjoy this moment, but look ahead and not get too worked up about what’s happening. “It’s a tremendous victory, but this is just one more step on the ladder. I want prime time. I want national exposure where everyone is going to watch. There’s still so much more work to be done.”
Hardy grew up in the tight-knit Brooklyn community of Gerritsen Beach, where she says she identified as a tomboy who dreamed of becoming the first woman to pitch for the New York Yankees during a time when girls weren’t even allowed to play Little League. She always knew her instinct when she was provoked was to stay and fight instead of run, and she credits this and hard work with serving as the basis for why, decades later, she and others quickly realized she had what it took to become a fighter (technique was learned along the way).
Still, her story isn’t typical. She was athletic, but didn’t train in a boxing ring as a teenager (something that was virtually unheard of for women in the ’90s). It wasn’t until after she gave birth to her daughter and struggled to get through her divorce that Hardy’s sister signed her up for kickboxing classes at a local karate school and urged her to pursue an outlet that she might find satisfying.
And satisfying is a understatement when it comes to how Hardy says she felt when she first stepped into the ring to compete.
“I remember feeling so unfulfilled, I didn’t know what to do,” Hardy recalls of her life before boxing. “I grew up one of the shyest people you’d ever meet. But, being in the ring, in front of 2,000 people, it was the first time I felt like I was doing something I was supposed to — and I won that fight.”
It’s easy to write boxing off as a violent sport and to say, well, hey, women aren’t valued for their fighting prowess, so why the shock that women’s boxing isn’t a hit? But, Hardy explains, great boxers aren’t fighting an emotional battle within the ring. They aren’t ferociously aiming at whatever body part they can to draw blood. There’s a Zen quality to boxing, a rhythm and the music of thoughtful, fluid motions. There’s the peaceful emptying of the boxer’s head that Hardy says she experiences, which allows for pure, controlled reactions. It’s dancing and it’s running — with jabs and gloves and heart.
For Hardy, boxing is also proof of her unwavering strength years after a man tried to strip her power from her. At age 12, she was raped by an older man in her neighborhood, but because of the politics of small-town life in which everyone knows everyone else, she chose to keep her sexual assault a secret.
“It’s a life changer and it affects you for a very long time,” Hardy says, “For 10 years I went to bed with it every night. Every time I would close my eyes I would relive it. I would wake up screaming at the top of my lungs. So many women associate that with shame and they hide their story. I’m here to say, for all the women who look up to me, are you ashamed of me? Should I be ashamed of myself? Nine out of 10 times the answer I get is ‘no.'”
Being in the boxing gym made Hardy understand her own strength and how far she could push herself, she says. But boxing, for her, wasn’t about beating the memory of her abuser out of her mind or taking her anger out on her opponent. “It’s not the kind of confidence where I think I could beat up anyone,” she says. “It’s like I can survive anything. If I can survive training eight hours a day on 14 ounces of protein, I can survive anything.”
In a perfect and fair world, Hardy’s talent would speak for itself and sell tickets. In women’s boxing, however, it takes a “village” that includes Hardy’s family members, her trainer Devon Cormack and Hardy herself to promote her boxing matches and drum up enough interest to catch the attention of a major network. While her male peers have the luxury of focusing solely on training, Hardy is training and throwing events to sell tickets, sometimes right before a match.
Interestingly, both Hardy and her opponent Vincent are ultimately fighting for the same thing: more recognition in women’s boxing. Had they put their minds together, Hardy said she and Vincent could have come up with ways to cross-promote the NBC Sport Network event and drum up more interest in it. Unfortunately, their rivalry, brought on by years in which Vincent would actually show up at Hardy’s matches and call her out, has created an honest-to-goodness bitter feud that should, at the very least, make for better ratings, but does little to help the sport.
And speaking of boxing, can we talk salary inequality for a moment? At one recent fight in which Hardy opened for a male boxer who shared similar stats (and got the added benefit of TV time when Hardy did not), her male counterpart walked away from the ring that night $100,000 richer. What did Hardy make? A measly $10,000.
At this point, it would be dishonest not to mention the blond, blue-eyed elephant in the room, the one that could easily bank on her looks and bring more attention to herself and to women’s boxing if she’d suck it up and pose in a bikini for Maxim. To speak about a female athlete’s beauty is to deprive her of the respect she deserves for her accomplishments, but we live in a world in which everyone, including Hardy, knows she could make money and become a name a lot quicker if she agreed to play the role of the pretty girl. As an ambassador for Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay campaign who has appeared in ads for Adidas, it’s clear she plans to promote women’s boxing on her terms.
“People tell me I’m pretty and my face gets red,” Hardy says. “There are some people who own their physical appearance in a way where they can put on a bikini and sell it. I have to be my authentic self — you can’t sell a fake thing. If a photographer said to me, ‘give me a sexy face,’ I’d laugh. Maybe years ago they would have put me on TV had I posed for Playboy. But I’m making it and I’m doing it myself.”
Hardy takes on Vincent on Sunday, Aug. 21 on NBCSN at at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. You can also watch the fight here.