Just 42 seconds into her first professional fight, Heather Hardy was in trouble. Stunned by a right hand from Mikayla Nebel, she found herself butt first on the canvas, standing quickly to watch helplessly as referee Benjy Esteves counted methodically to eight.
But Hardy, a rising boxing star who makes her MMA debut Saturday for Bellator at Madison Square Garden, wasn't born to quit. Her great-grandmother came to America from Ireland, caring for 14 brothers and sisters. Her grandmother was the first female gym teacher in her Brooklyn neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach. Her mom?
"Bad ass tough," Hardy remembered, her heavy New York accent bordering on caricature. "She didn't take s--t from anyone."
With those women providing both nature and nurture, Hardy wasn't about to give up without a fight. She'd survived sexual assault, a divorce and an electrical fire that had recently forced her to return home with her parents. She was 30 years old and running out of time. Her life was hard. Fighting? Fighting came easy.
"I remember thinking 'Holy s--t, Heather. You sold all those tickets. Your whole career is on the line right now.' I decided to hit that girl like she was standing in the way," Hardy said. "And I just went off. I got up and beat her up so bad."
By the end of four rounds, announcers were openly wondering if the fight should be stopped. Hardy was unyielding, skinny arms and blonde braid whirling non-stop, a force of nature that poured over Nebel, enveloping her in punches that felt anything like love.
"That moment in the ring when I won, I just felt like 'Wow, I could do this forever. This is what I'm here for.' I knew it was in there," Hardy said. "Imposing my will on another person. Saying 'Not only am I better than you, I'm stronger than you, I'm faster than you.' And I am the champion inside this ring."
She'd discovered fighting two years earlier when her sister, Kaitlyn, with whom she shared an illegal apartment, gave her a gift certificate to try cardio kickboxing at a karate school that had opened in the neighborhood. Busy working multiple jobs to support their two kids, Heather needed some way to release stress and tension.
"I was kind of like the dad, going off to work. She was kind of like the mom, taking care of everyone, including me," Hardy said. "She said, 'You need to get your ass out of the house. All you do is work and b--ch.' So, I started kickboxing. And within three weeks of taking cardio classes, I actually had an amateur fight and I won."
What followed was a love affair with boxing. Her first attempt at love hadn't gone so well. Her husband, she says, ran off on her and her daughter, Annie, taking their small savings with him. As with so many others, the distinction between working class and poor was often tenuous. In the ring, however, Hardy was in control of her life in ways that were simply impossible outside the confines of the squared circle.
"Most people are wrong when they think martial arts and boxing empowers women by allowing them to impose their strength on another," Hardy said. "It empowers women by making them know how strong they are. I can take what you give me and I'll be fine. I feel in control of myself. It means not letting someone else impose their will on me. It's not so much what I'm doing to you, it's what I'm not letting you do to me. It's very powerful."
Two months after her first pro win, a second fight followed, another taste of victory. And then, five days later, Hurricane Sandy landed a blow that wasn't so easily shaken off. The Hardy sisters had already been forced back to their parent's home when their apartment was destroyed. The storm took even that away, as Gerritsen Beach was ravaged and left without power for more than a month.
"I lived at Gleason's Gym where I worked as a physical trainer and saw as many clients as I could," Hardy said. "The owner Bruce Silverglade and his wife helped so much I could never repay them. My daughter stayed with family. My mom taught me when I was young, 'Sometimes you do what you've got to do.' We just figured it out."
Hardy won three fights while homeless, then 16 more, along the way becoming a bit of a local sensation. But life for a woman in boxing isn't easy. Hardy had to hustle for everything she had. Everything was grassroots and nothing came easy. In a sport that often pays women just $100 a round for brutal fights, she earned her place on fight cards by selling tickets—literally.
Between training sessions and after work, Hardy would pick up stacks of tickets and sell them on the street. She'd organize parties in the neighborhood to sell tickets, tend bar at local joints just to get the fight buzzing and pack dozens of T-shirts in a suitcase to take with her to the bouts, all while working multiple jobs to keep the lights on and her family fed.
"In boxing, promoters rarely make money off their female fighters. So they don't like to invest in them," Hardy said. "The television networks don't air our fights or pay for them, so the promoter has no way to make back their investment. Selling tickets is the only way we can get on cards. Essentially buying our spots. I have a promoter, Lou DiBella, and he takes care of me. But even with a promoter, I go out and sell those tickets to give him a reason to want to take care of me."
The growth of women's boxing has been a slow but steady. A revolution in mixed martial arts has made women an integral part of boxing's sister sport, including launching Ronda Rousey as a mainstream celebrity. A rising tide raises all ships, and Hardy herself made national television for a fight with Shelly Vincent. She broke down in tears when her friend, Claressa Shields, won a second Olympic gold medal and became a national figure. Women were on their way—but they hadn't arrived just yet.
"I'd like to see money follow," Hardy, who still has to work at Gleason's Gym between fights, said. "We're still in that area where they're kind of telling us, 'You're lucky to have the spot. Let's see where this goes.' We're still proving ourselves...I had so many fights and wasn't really getting anywhere. Boxing isn't a fulltime job. It would be nice. But the same men who were in charge back when Christy Martin was fighting are still in charge. They're stuck in their ways and boxing is just not evolving."
This growing frustration with the sweet science led Hardy to train MMA, first with an eye toward a backup plan in case boxing never paid off. She stuck with it later because she found herself enjoying the challenge of learning wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu and the myriad of techniques required to master fighting in a cage. Working primarily at Renzo Gracie's Brooklyn academy under the guidance of Daniel Gracie and Jamal Patterson, she's quickly discovered a primal side even boxing didn't bring out.
"I've always been tough. Now I'm getting mean," Hardy said. "Boxing is beautiful. If you watch two people who know what they are doing, it can be like watching a dance. In MMA, it's like only one of us is getting out of this cage alive. It's either me or you."
Already 35, with five years invested in the game, she knows time is running out on her chances to break big. While Shields, Cecilia Braekhaus, Amanda Serrano and a handful of others attempt to provide promoters proof of concept for women's boxing, Hardy is taking a different path—attempting to prove the Heather Hardy brand can attract a crowd. She is hoping MMA success might lead to bigger fights in boxing and vice versa.
"I'm not leaving boxing. There's still girls I want to fight," Hardy said. "The problem is, the girls I want to fight are the titleholders from other countries who don't want to come here because promoters don't pay money in America like they do in Canada or Argentina. I want to bring boxing to America. Where it should be."
But while MMA may have started as yet another side hustle to sell herself in boxing, it's grown into something more. She's not willing to discuss her future in the sport too extensively. After all, she is quick to point out, she's a novice without a single fight under her belt. But she's also quick to point out she's making more money for her MMA debut against Alice Yauger than she's ever made in a professional boxing ring.
"They tell me to do what comes natural. And it's worked for me. Like, if someone stole my wallet on the street, that's what comes out in the cage," Hardy said. "I'm really, really loving MMA. More than I thought I would. I'm really excited for this fight and what's going to come after it."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.