Heather Hardy is an American boxer and held the WBO featherweight title from October 2018 to September 2019. Fighting out of Gleason’s Gym, Brooklyn, New York, Hardy has a record in boxing of 22 wins to 1 loss over her 10 year career. In 2017 she began MMA, with her debut fight in Madison Square Gardens in June of that year.
Her boxing career started in 2011 at the age of 28. Hardy was going through a divorce and living with her sister. They were both single mums on child support. Hardy went out to work and her sister looked after the kids. She told us her sister wanted her to ‘get out the house’, and gave her a gift certificate for the local martial arts studio. Within three weeks Hardy had her first kickboxing fight. She remembers walking into the ring thinking ‘why are you doing this?’, when her cousin John grabbed her through the ropes and said ‘I want you to act like there’s a tiger in there, and one of you is not getting out.’ She beat the girl and won the fight, and it was the start of everything. Hardy said it was the first time she ever felt like she was good at something and she wanted to get better. Everyday she couldn’t wait to get into the dojo, and 10 years later she still feels the same way.
Our interview was in April of this year, amid the Corona Virus quarantine. She was bubbly and inspiring when she spoke about the importance of resilience and being stubborn about what you want, she told us to never listen to ‘no’ and never give up the fight.
How was the transition from boxing to MMA?
Not easy for an old lady! I was 35 the first time I ever tried on a gi for BJJ, and 35 when I had my pro debut.
You have done so much and everything you do needs prep and resources, diet and training. Do you not feel like you are getting tired?
None of it was easy, I was always fighting an uphill battle. Fighting in the ring as well as out. Women in sports, particularly in boxing, make a fraction of what the men make. I was a world champion working a full time job. I was the second female boxer to ever be on HBO when I won my world title fight as the co-main event at Madison Square Gardens. I was paid $20,000.
The entire journey has been a battle. Most men can go and train for 8 weeks at camp for a fight and they make enough money to support themselves. I would train for 8 weeks for a fight, trying to pay all my coaches, working full time as well as looking after my daughter. At the end of it, I always felt like there was so much more to accomplish. People would ask me when I would be done, but there is still so much work to be done in narrowing the pay gap.
Can you just talk us through how you managed to have a full time job, a child, and manage to train full time?
That’s a popular question, what woman hasn’t heard that at one time?
It might be more challenging for a fighter, but it’s the same for a female attorney trying to start her own practice, or a journalist hustling for interviews; whenever you are trying to build your brand as a female, as a fighter, athlete, musician - doesn’t matter - it’s going to be hard and you are going to have to sacrifice. Bottom line is women have to work twice as hard as men and get half the results, and the hustle is in us, it’s just what you do.
Photos by @everlast
Do you think the pay gap is going to change and what do you think needs to happen for it to change?
I think we’re on the cusp of change. Claressa Shields is on the fast track and is probably going to be the first woman to make a million dollars, Claressa or Katie Taylor. They are Olympians and have international recognition. The pay gap is so big because the interest in female boxing has been small because it’s never been put out on an international level until recently. Women have only been allowed to box in the Olympics since 2012, with only three weight categories, so you have a lot of talent being left out. For the next Olympics the weight classes have increased to 5, so you will have much more competition. This means that women’s boxing will continue to grow.
Have you ever had issues making weight?
I have to cut so much. You have to fight at the weight where your body is the most in shape. I walk around at 140lbs, and I fight at 126lbs. I used to be able to shed 12lbs in a week, but now I’m almost 40 years old and cutting weight is so much harder.
Have you ever manipulated your period with birth control so that it didn’t fall on a fight?
I cannot take birth control because I have a problem retaining water. If I take birth control I gain 15lbs immediately. However, I find that when I go through this intense training period, my period schedule goes out the window anyway.
For one fight, on the morning of weigh in I got my period and I gained almost 6lbs, I almost killed myself in the sauna and went in 2lbs over. I fainted at the gym, had to tell them not to call an ambulance because I was scared they were going to give me an IV drip. It was a mess.
How do you weight cut?
Your diet is one. 6-8 weeks out I have to give up all the starch, sugar, flour etc. This isn’t across the board, people do different things. I’m so bad at eating when I’m not on a diet, I’m living on pizza and wine right now. When I’m cutting for a fight, there are strict greens and protein meals a few times a day, whilst training three times a day - cardio and conditioning, boxing, strength training, with plastic suits in saunas for the last two weeks.
That sounds worse than getting in the ring!
If I make weight it feels like I have already won the fight. I’m just like ‘f*** it’.
It must be so exhausting to do that!
That’s just me. You have two kinds of boxers. You have fighters and you have athletes. I’m not an athlete. People hate when I say that. I hate working out, I hate exercise, I hate running, but I love to fight, I love to compete, to punch people in the face.
From watching your fights, it’s very obvious that you are there to kill. What do you do to prep your mindset?
Every fight is different. When I’m training I don’t think of anything. I just think about getting the weight off and in shape for the fight. The only time I ever think about the other girl is in those minutes in the locker room before the fight. Sometimes I have an attitude and go out mean. Sometimes I get nervous. Sometimes it’s like a job that I have to get done to go on to the next one.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Never stop fighting. I want that on my gravestone. My grandmother used to say, God brings you to it, to bring you to it. If you want to get from here to there, you’ve got to cross every single piece on the way. You could get three quarters of the way there and think, ‘nah f*** it, it’s too hard, I’m going back’, so you don’t deserve to get to the other side. But if you fight, you will get there. I proved that. I didn’t come from money. I was working 6 jobs supporting my sister and two kids with nothing. And I was so stubborn. When I started boxing in 2011, if I had said to my friends, I’m going to win my first world title at Madison Square Garden on HBO they would have laughed at me. You’ve got to be stubborn and don’t listen to ‘no’.
Also, some shit just ain’t fair. You’ve got to find the balance between taking shit to move forward and deciding that they aren’t going to take advantage of you anymore. There’s a fine line between it. Am I going to be stubborn here or use it as a platform for something bigger? And I think that goes for everything in life. You’ve got to pick your battles.
Coaching has to provide a level of education, learning the principles and how things work. You have to be humble with your coach and completely trust them, which is why it is so important to find a good one. All martial arts are a science and there are levels you can go to.
Have you ever felt sexism?
In the gym?
No. I work at the gym, they are all my brothers. Gleason's is different to other gyms. There are seven world champions training at the moment, all female. It’s owned by a guy called Bruce. In the 80’s, when women weren’t allowed to get in the ring, he used to close the doors at night and have women training there. His partner would say, what are you doing? They don’t belong here, and he said ‘when I go to the bank they don’t ask me what's girl money and what’s boy money’, so he kept the women in the gym. So there was never that feeling of segregation, because the guys always took us seriously. Any trainer at that gym would always say, give me five girls over one guy. We work harder, we are more diligent, we know how to multitask. You don’t have to make a girl go running, get us on weight or ask what we ate for dinner.
Do you think that women are less likely to stand up for themselves in terms of asking for more money?
I agree with that. There have been a lot of times when I have thought ‘I should just be thankful that I am here.’ I remember fighting a 10 round fight for $7,000 selling out $40,000 at the Barclays Centre, and thinking ‘well, you are the only female on the card you should just be thankful.’ It took me a lot of work and building on my resume to be able to turn down low paying fights. Then I went to MMA because they will pay me. But you have to build a good foundation to be able to do that. I had to eat a lot of shit to prove my worth.
Would you go back to boxing?
I’m going where the money is. We are at a bad time right now. Before this pandemic if they wouldn’t pay me six figures I wouldn’t take the fight, but now I’m ready to go fight someone on the street for free! I’m dying here.
You’ve said before that you are self destructive in your relationships, can you tell us about that.
I think that anyone who gets to the level I am at, in any profession, are extremists. We don’t do things lightly. I don’t just want to win the golden gloves, I want to beat up everyone in the world and get a Title for it. I’m like that with my relationships. I don’t just have one glass of wine, I drink until I pass out. I don’t go off my diet for one day, I do it for two months and gain 15lbs. I’m like that with relationships, I’m never satisfied.
When you lose, and you have sacrificed so much, how do you get up and do it again?
That goes two ways. I’ve had wins that feel like losses and losses that feel like wins. I’m always motivated to improve, and have my sights set on beating up that girl because now I qualify for it.
You have felt concussion before. What does it feel like?
I’ve had multiple levels of concussions. In the amateurs I once fought four rounds not knowing where I was. It took me a couple of days to get my head back. That’s probably the most extreme. Then there was the MMA fight where I broke my nose, I walked around for 3 days with a headache, nausea, feeling terrible and on top of that I know that I have been concussed and that a piece of my brain is gone forever.
Some young women look to people like Kim Kardashian as their role model, how can we shift away from that?
You can’t force kids to move away from that, it’s our responsibility as parents and teachers to educate our kids on values so that they make that decision themselves. I’m not knocking anyone but if your kid spends 90% of their day on social media, that is what they are exposed to. There has to be some balance where they are equally inspired by women who are making sacrifices and are doing something different.
Is there anything you miss about boxing?
Our gym is a family and I miss them. There are 82 trainers at Gleason’s. When I train MMA and go to a different gym and miss being around them.
Which part of MMA did you find the most challenging?
The hardest part for me was my boxing position. Boxing you have one foot forward which makes you vulnerable for takedowns, so in MMA you have to be square on. It was so ingrained in me.
I only started training MMA in April 2017 for my first fight in June 2017 at Madison Square Gardens. When I got to the cage I was asking myself what on earth I was doing. I remember during the fight being down on my knees, and 30,000 people chanting ‘Hardy’. It was an amazing feeling.
What would be your advice to people who think it is too late to start?
Never stop fighting, don’t give in, don’t give up, don’t stop trying. I was 28 years old when I started boxing. My parents thought I was crazy, everyone did.