Heather Hardy remembers the last time she set foot on center stage at Madison Square Garden. “I was there to pick up my college diploma!” she says. “I haven’t been back since (laughs).” This Saturday, June 24, Hardy will return to The World’s Most Famous Arena to make her mixed martial arts debut on Bellator NYC, the promotion’s biggest card to date in New York City, against MMA veteran Alice Yauger.
Loyal readers of AQ know Hardy’s story well. At age 28, she took up kickboxing. Within a few weeks, she won her first professional fight. After losing a kickboxing match, she went to the legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn to learn how to box. She would enter and win the Golden Gloves. Now at age 35, Hardy is one of the premier names in women’s boxing.
As a boxer, Hardy has been a fan favorite at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Most recently, she defeated Edina Kiss in the main event at Long Island University’s Paramount Theater to raise her record to 20-0. But when Bellator called to invite her to fight at Madison Square Garden, it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“I love boxing more than anything,” Hardy says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always love me back. For my professional debut MMA fight, three rounds, I am going to earn more than I’ve ever made for any of my boxing matches. I’ve fought as the main event. I’ve fought on NBC Sports. But financially, none of those fights can compare to this.”
With more pay, however, comes more expenses. To prepare for this new endeavor, Hardy has had to hire a number of coaches in different disciplines to help her train. “Boxing is one sport,” she says. “For MMA, you have boxing, grappling, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, you’re travelling around training in all of those things; you’re looking for sparring partners. It’s immensely time-consuming and costly.”
For Hardy, the investment is worth it, considering the path it has created for her. “For me, MMA is like a second job. I have a promotional contract with Lou DiBella as a boxer. He was able to call Bellator, and they worked out this fight as a co-promotion. Without Lou, it never happens. I’m excited for this opportunity.”
The other stroke of good fortune was Bellator’s interest in growing a 125 weight class for female fighters—the perfect fighting weight for Hardy. “In the past, MMA has really had greater numbers of female fighters at 115 and 135,” she says. “Well, I don’t think I’ve been 115 since my first Holy Communion (laughs). And 135 is my walking around weight when I’m not fighting. The fact that they wanted to make this 125-pound weight class stronger was perfect for me.”
The long-term vision Bellator is showing toward grooming female fighters made it the optimal place for Hardy to make her mixed martial arts debut. “MMA is the most equal sport you will find for men and women. They consider their female fighters as athletes. They really promote their fighters.”
Despite the upside, Hardy will never give up her unrequited love for boxing. “There are still so many goals I haven’t accomplished yet. I still want to win that WBC Featherweight Championship. I’ll always go back. But right now, my focus is on my second job as an MMA fighter. This Saturday, I’ll be right there in the middle of the Garden ready to kick ass. Right in the same place where Billy Joel puts his piano.”
Heather Hardy makes her MMA debut at Bellator NYC on Saturday, June 24 at Madison Square Garden. For tickets, visit Heather-Hardy.com.