Heather Hardy Doesn't Back Down from Any Fight
Heather Hardy is the women's super bantamweight champion, and a daughter of one of Brooklyn's most insular neighborhoods. In every way, she's a fighter.
Photo by Patrick Sauer
New York City is huge and still growing—the 2014 Census showed the population at an all-time high of 8.5 million—but at its core, and at its best, it is still a city of neighborhoods.
One of those neighborhoods, little known outside of South Brooklyn, and even then not really understood by anyone except those "born and raised," is Gerritsen Beach, a working-class community of around 5,000, primarily Irish and Italians. It's a small town in a sprawling city, where kids roam free and everyone knows everyone (and their business). Neighbors supposedly look out for one another and, as native daughter Heather "The Heat" Hardy says, "nobody leaves and nobody new comes in."
Hardy, 33, was born and raised New York City Irish, surrounded by nurses, firefighters, teachers, and sanitation. "If you're from Gerritsen, you're a garbage man," she says; her ex-husband was one. Hardy, the oldest of three siblings in a tight-knit clan—they all sport Celtic tattoos— grew up running around blocks where seemingly everyone was related. Prayers were shared at Resurrection, and gossip flowed with the pints at the Gather Inn Again. "I could send my ten-year-old to get groceries and she'd bump into two cousins," she says. "It's still that way."
Even in a literal sense, Gerritsen Beach isn't open to outsiders. Surrounded by water on three sides, the peninsula has only one road in and out, Gerritsen Avenue. In city where lives are constructed around mass transit, as noted by the New York Times real estate section in 2002, there is "no bridge, no subway, no tunnel, no train"; despite what locals may tell you, there's no ferry, either.
The neighborhood was originally erected in the 1920s around summer bungalows. Those are long gone, but the houses that replaced them are all still right next to one another, generally without yards, set right on narrow side streets. Even the neighborhood's epicenter, a small beach along Shell Bank Creek at the end of Gerritsen Avenue called the Point, is set apart. Jamaica Bay is bisected by a concrete Belt Parkway bridge, which provides an important local rite of passage. Jumping off it gives kids one of their first adult-sized kicks.
The trails back among the dunes, shoreline, and thick reeds are also where kids can be kids—there are plenty of trails for Scout troops to explore, a model airplane field, a brand new skate park—but they also provide a hidden world where they grow up, fast. "There's a lot of drinking in Gerritsen Beach; kids start going to keg parties young," said Kaitlyn Hardy, 27. "It's where we've all cut school to smoke. Cops never go back there." In an already insular community, it's the place where anything goes, for better or worse.
Gerritsen Beach is also where Heather Hardy first threw punches. She was fighting for her salvation in and out of the ring. Even as the defending WBC International Super Bantamweight champion, she still is.
On a hot August night in Brooklyn, Hardy defended her title with a TKO over Hungarian fighter Renata Domsodi. In the rematch, Hardy hammered Domsodi, bloodying her nose, and opening a cut over her left eye that swelled up and led to the fight being called one second into the seventh round. Hardy was fighting on a Premiere Boxing Champions showcase, but as is typical with the respect shown women's boxing, her bout was an undercard's undercard, held hours before the main event. It didn't make the ESPN livestream, and was an afterthought by the time boxing-friendly semi-celebrities like Paulie Walnuts and Rosie Perez got to Barclays Center to see Brooklyn favorite Paulie Malignaggi go down in defeat to Danny Garcia.
Two days after the fight, in her office at the legendary Gleason's Gym—the joint where guys named LaMotta, Duran, Tyson, and Ali trained—Hardy was mildly ruffled about getting moved up before the boxing hordes showed, but sanguine about the outcome nonetheless. "I was comfortable, relaxed, it was fun," she said. "I had a good night. She didn't."
In the ring, these are heady times for the Heat. Since her debut at Roseland Ballroom in August 2012, Hardy has accrued a record of 14-0 with three knockouts, and become a cult favorite among New York City's boxing aficionados.
This Saturday, Hardy will be back in the Barclays Center spotlight in a super bantamweight rematch with Noemi Bosques, whom she beat in a split decision last May. Their previous bout was competitive, with a lot of action and plenty of punches thrown, although because this is professional boxing, the outcome seemed questionable. "When the first judge called it for Bosques, I was like, 'Were you in the bathroom during the fight?'" Hardy said.
Hardy's grandfather Artie Corr was a firefighter and an amateur sports photographer who took Heisman pictures for the Downtown Athletic Club and shot famous events like the Thrilla in Manila. She herself was a tomboy who played soccer and softball, hoping to be the first woman to pitch for the New York Yankees. Her love for the Bronx Bombers was an early sign of her rebellious spirit—her dad is a diehard Mets guy. Hardy says she grew up in typical Irish Catholic fashion, but her father, John—who is the type of guy with a "If You Can't Stand Behind Our Troops, Feel Free to Stand in Front of Them" window sticker on his truck—used to be a clerk at the New York Stock Exchange, so her world view was a bit bigger.
After graduating from John Jay College, Hardy lived in a small illegal apartment with her daughter Annie, her sister, and her sister's son. "Kaitlyn was like the mom and I was the dad, working all the time," she says. Heather held down multiple jobs like selling lights on Bowery, delivering books for New York public schools, internet marketing, and teaching exercise classes in a friend's basement. It was never enough—her ex-husband provided her no child support—so Hardy was perpetually at the end of her rope. "Kaitlyn told me to go take a class at the new neighborhood kickboxing gym," she says. "She talked me off the bridge."
Three weeks later, at age 28, Hardy won her first kickboxing match in front of a couple thousand people at a venue on Long Island. "I'm shy by nature, so walking to the ring was like heading to the gas chamber. I'm probably exaggerating the crowd size, but it felt like I was in the Macy's Parade," she says. "When I got to my corner, a cousin told me to pretend a tiger was dropped in the ring and only one of us was getting out alive. I pummeled that girl so bad. And for the first for the first time in my life, I felt like something was all mine. Ever since, I've had the passion to beat up the world. I still fight that way."
An electrical fire (and the ensuing water damage) gutted the apartment she shared with Kaitlyn; since it was illegal, there was no insurance money to be had. For a few weeks, they all ended up in her parent's two-bedroom house. Hardy and her sister slept on the couch, but then Hurricane Sandy hit and laid waste to Gerritsen Beach. Almost all of the neighborhood's 2,500 homes lost power for weeks on end. "Our house took on seven to eight feet of water," says Hardy. "My parents basically spent a year living in the church rectory." It would take two years for the Hardys to get their houses rebuilt. Gerritsen Beach still isn't the same, and abandoned properties wrecked by the storm surge still dot the neighborhood.
"A number of older folks left and never returned," says Heather's mother, Linda. "We never fully recovered."
Annie was sent to stay with family on Long Island, and Heather decamped to her safe place, Gleason's Gym. The Dumbo neighborhood was also dark and waterlogged in those days after the storm, but Gleason's is upstairs and so Hardy trained and saw clients by daylight and crashed in a candlelit office at night. It was an oasis.
"For four years, from separation through the divorce, I'd been dealing with all this shit, and then Sandy... Being alone with boxing ended up being a welcome distraction," she says. Hardy isn't a wide-eyed optimist—she has Irish heritage, after all—and she's not disposed toward life-affirming platitudes. She's proud of her fortitude, of battling through whatever the fuck life throws at her, at overcoming all that would have waylaid the weak-willed. There remains, however, one fight she knows she cannot win, but she is determined not to let it beat her.
"Rape is a life sentence," Hardy says. "I'll never get over it; I'll just keeping trying to live with it."
Until recently, the only person Hardy had ever told about her rape was her ex-husband. She has since shared it with other family members; last year she talked about it with espnW. Hardy isn't exactly sure how old she was—she guesses twelve—but she was already running with the proverbial wrong crowd. Her rapist was 29. "I never breathed a word about being raped because I knew my aunt went to church with his mother, or if I go to the grocery store, I'll run into his cousin," she says now. "Women from my neighborhood stay quiet because they're too concerned about how it will affect everyone else."
Hardy had another, all too common reason for burying her attack. "I thought it was my fault for smoking pot and hanging out with these people, because I was the one who bought the papers," she says. "When in reality, a 29-year-old man should not be giving a young girl drugs. As an adult, with a daughter that age, I now realize how I was raped. It was planned from the beginning of the evening. But as a girl, I thought I was the one who was to blame."
The Hardys aren't huggers—they all made note of that. So Heather didn't even turn to her family. The attack still haunts her mother. "I have tremendous guilt and pain knowing I failed her as a parent," Linda says. "I know for Heather it's always right below the surface. It's something I'll live with forever."
Hardy has wondered if her rapist ever attacked anyone else—and yes, she knows about the research that says it's likely he has—but after two decades, reporting it is something she isn't prepared to do. (New York State does not have a statute of limitations for rape.) She's not even equipped to confront him. Instead, she went to the place she finds the most solace: the gym. Ignoring the "you think you're better than us?" concerns of friends and neighbors, Hardy relocated herself and Annie to Dumbo. The two neighborhoods are in the same borough, and less than twelve miles apart, but Heather doesn't drive, and she works from 5 AM until whenever she finally passes out, so...
"Gerritsen Beach is like an Amish community, so I joke that Heather might as well have moved to Tennessee," says Linda. "We're a close family and our son Colin is in the Navy, a 'sand sailor' in construction and engineering in Africa, so it's hard not having everyone around for all the birthdays and holidays. It feels like Heather is so far away, but I'm glad Annie is getting exposed to all kinds of different people and ideas."
Heather goes back to Gerritsen Beach often enough, but there is always the chance her past becomes present. "I've seen my rapist back in the neighborhood multiple times, and even as an undefeated titleholder, I'm scared to death," says Hardy. "I've never been afraid in the ring for even a moment. I love to think I could totally beat the shit out of him, but I'm terrified."
Heather's boxing career has blossomed quickly, but she's still learning the fight game. Tenacity has been her signature, and it's an unmistakable one. The Heat brings it, which is why, locally, she's becoming a fan favorite. "As an amateur, before people knew my name, it was like, 'Yeah right, who's this little blonde white girl with the braids?' They knew me quick because I started tearin' ass," she says.
Hardy isn't a ballerina, but she is a fighter that people would want to watch. Her biggest problem has nothing to do with her: women's boxing just isn't in good shape at the moment. Two decades ago, Christy Martin was on the cover of Sports Illustrated—with the as-obvious-as-it-gets " Lady is a Champ" rubric—back when that meant something to the sports world at-large. Laila Ali starred in a national Adidas commercial alongside some other unnamed fighter featuring the much cooler voice-over, "Rumble, young girl, rumble."
Two weeks ago, Heather's internet and cable got cut off for a couple days. Hardy is not living hand-to-mouth, but she's not missing it by much. She didn't give a figure, but someone close to her reported her yearly take to be around $40,000. The bulk of her income comes from working out private clients at Gleason's, not boxing itself. Out of that, she pays her coaches, corner people, and trainer Devon Cormack. "I always tell her, 'You're famous, you just haven't been paid like it yet,'" says Kaitlyn.
According to The Sweet Science, not one American woman has been featured on a televised fight card in the past five years. As a result, the purses are minuscule, which generally means promoters won't lay out the capital to take on female fighters; sponsorship opportunities are slim to none. In 2013, renowned promoter Lou DiBella signed Hardy to a long-term contract, taking on his first woman fighter with the aim of making her New York City's first breakthrough star. There's really no reason she couldn't be. All it would take is a little foresight on the part of HBO, Showtime, NBC, ESPN, etc. Women's boxing is televised in Mexico and does very well; WBA/WBC super bantamweight Jackie "La Princesa Azteca" Nava is a national celebrity.
"It's as simple as this: if women aren't on fight cards, especially in the U.S., it's impossible to develop a fan base," says Sue "Tiger Lilly" Fox, the historian and proprietor of the authoritative Women Boxing Archive Network. "I don't know how we get anyone to the superstar level without the opportunity to be seen." If anyone would know, it would be Fox; she was the No. 1 ranked super welterweight in 1979, and later fought at middleweight, when "they put coins in my bra."
"I launched WBAN in 1998, but originally the website wasn't going to cover current fighters like Heather Hardy, because there was TV coverage, pay-per-view, and ESPN would report on fights on SportsCenter," Fox says. "Women's boxing never got enormous coverage, but it's completely dwindled in the last ten years, so I try to pick up the slack. I've covered the sport long enough to know there are highs and lows. Things picked up during the 2012 Olympics, but right now we are in a major lull." Today, televised women's boxing is a non-entity. It's impossible to get traction without tradition, and vice versa.
"We welcome women's boxing, but if you look at the men's side, there's a hundred-year history and current growth pattern within the sport," says Ray Stallone, a spokesman for HBO Sports. "We televise one or two fights on a card, not four or five, so it's not like HBO shows hundreds of fights a year. It's not a volume sport, it's a prestige [sport], so we try to showcase high-end fights. For women, where are the grassroot programs and the infrastructure? Where are the fighters being developed? Where are the premium women's boxing match-ups right now? Even if there was a superstar, you need credible opposition. Fight fans recognize talent and they will get behind it, but you need a competitive landscape. HBO is keeping an eye out, but right now, we're not active in the women's boxing arena."
DiBella taking on Hardy is a step toward the limelight, but the Queen of Gotham Pugilism will have to wait. She has become a familiar face at Barclays Center weigh-ins, and she recently had a cameo in a Visa/Under Armour "Break It" commercial—for "like an eighth of a second" she says ruefully—but the hustle basically remains Hardy's alone.
One of Hardy's primary pre-fight responsibilities is rustling up a crowd of family, friends, clients, and barflies. "I have a Midtown pub circuit," she says. "I'm literally out there hitting up drunk people to buy tickets from me." For her three 2015 fights at Barclays, she estimates she's sold roughly $80,000 worth of tickets, and that figure should get to $100,000 this weekend. Still, it's a lot of work just to end up in front of a sparse crowd, hours before the main event, a Catch-22 keeping female bouts off your TV.
"If anyone can build a big fan base, it's Heather. She really has the 'It' factor," Fox says. "She's got a positive vibe about her, and can be a great role model for other fighters."
Hardy believes Ronda Rousey's popularity can only be a good thing for female fighters, but even there, she is incensed that so many sports media pundits made it sound like Holly Holm was unknown. "Holly didn't come out of nowhere. She wasn't untested or unprepared. She's a damn world champion," she says. "Rousey is legit, but none of us were surprised when Holm knocked her out. It's not about one girl. There's a lot of good fighters in our sport. I wish they would open the gender door a little wider."
Hardy will continue to do whatever it takes to get noticed and encourages her fellow fighters to do likewise. Although the Heat's persona is more "nice Irish lass next door," she has no compunction about women using sex appeal to sell the sport.
"Diehard boxing fans appreciate the art of a fight, but casual fans need personalities. It doesn't bother me if someone poses in a bikini, you have to use what you can," she says. "But it's just not me. At the gym, I'm like everyone's little sister. If they catch me flirting it's like, 'Ewww what are you doing?'" she says with a laugh.
Still, Hardy is a woman playing a man's game, which means that it's not always about her skill in the ring for all the usual terrible, dreary reasons. "Not naming names," she says, "but an important guy took me out to a nice dinner. When he realized I wasn't going to fuck him, he got the check and left. Fine, whatever. I didn't want your shitty equipment anyway."
In the past year or so, Hardy's been able to let a lot of her anger go, but she knows she'll never be completely free of her rapist. "I never told anyone this but even at 33, I still wake up screaming. 'Get off, me! Get off, me!' I can still feel his weight."
The reason Hardy is opening up now is because she wants to reach out to young people, to share her story and try to help those who find insurmountable challenges in their own lives. For young women, it would be a story of empowerment, of self-defense—of pursuing boxing, if that's what they want—but ultimately one about not backing down. The message would be the same for young men, with an additional bit of awareness. Hardy wants men to know what rape does to a woman. "I think for a guy to take advantage of a woman, he has to dehumanize her, to make her a vessel for whatever he wants," she says. "I want them to know what it feels like to fear for your life, to have a hand around your throat, trying to speak when you can't even breathe, and the psychological pain that's there for the rest of your life."
Public speaking and being a victim's advocate is one of Hardy's long-term plans, and part of her goal to give Annie whatever opportunities life has to offer. Irish Catholic guilt being what it is, Hardy was down about the fact she couldn't send her daughter to camp; maybe next summer, if the purses grow. Whatever happens, Hardy takes pride in being Annie's mother, even if her daughter is somewhere between apathetic and embarrassed about Ma's line of work.
Saturday evening, Hardy will be back in her refuge, the boxing ring. Unsurprisingly, her bouts are a family affair. Gerritsen Beach comes strong to the cheap seats, decked out in matching shirts and well lubricated to cheer their Gaelic homegirl on. It isn't just the old neighborhood, though. Hardy has a solid following from Gleason's, as well as the fans she's picked up in New York's finest public houses along the way. Heather's fights are celebrations, a jab to the face of all the hell she's been through.
"I can't describe how happy John and I are," says Linda. "You would think as her mother, I'd be worried that she's going to get hurt. Before the fight, I might be a little nervous, but once the bell dings, I am so thrilled for her. We raised the best we could, I love her so much, and it's such a great feeling—that's my kid in there."
This doesn't mean the Hardys have gone soft. Heather's burgeoning career provides a lot more than warm fuzzy feelings. There are also the stories to be rehashed at Tamaqua, the main Gerritsen Beach watering hole since the shuttering of Sandy's Bar, the floating tavern that washed ashore during the hurricane. Kaitlyn's favorite story about her ass-kicking big sis is when she "took it to the streets" in her second fight against Unique Harris and knocked her chest protector off. "I ran up to Heather after the fight and screamed, 'Holy shit, you beat the fucking tits off that broad,'" says Kaitlyn.
Hardy's boxing career is coming together, but she needs exposure. More than anything, she wants to fight on television. "I've earned it," she says. A fight in prime time could easily double the single mom's annual salary and help achieve her goal of a unifying title fight against Nava. And then who knows? Maybe Hardy can fulfill her recalibrated dream of throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Wherever she goes, boxing will lead her there. If the gloves are laced up, the Heat is on.
"Boxing isn't like the real world. It's the opposite of my life, my shitty nightmares. Whatever I put into it, I get out," Hardy says. "I love it. To me, it's a beautiful dance, a brilliant chess match, and the one place where I get to win."