Heather Hardy walked to a microphone after her bout at Bellator 180 in New York in June. Dried blood covered her white top. Her left eye was swollen. A large welt was on top of her forehead. She had a cut on her eyebrow.
And then she beamed broadly and conceded she was hooked by her new sport.
“I think I fell in love,” said Hardy, who was 20-0 as a boxer but made her MMA debut at Madison Square Garden that night by stopping Alice Yauger in the third round.
At a time when many MMA fighters are looking to box after UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor earned a nine-figure payday by boxing Floyd Mayweather, Hardy went in the other direction in search of riches.
There is, she said, a lot more money to be made in women’s MMA than in women’s boxing.
“If I’m being honest, it started out because of money,” said Hardy, who fights Kristina Williams on Friday at Bellator 185 at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. “There aren’t as many opportunities for females in boxing as there are in MMA. My very first [MMA] fight was televised on Spike TV. I have 20 pro boxing fights and only one of them was shown, on a third-rate sports network. It was tape delayed and I was paid a fraction of what I should have been.
“The networks aren’t really open to televising female [boxing] fights and that means that the promoters aren’t getting the money for the girls. Initially, I jumped over for the money. I’m doing this to put food on the table for my kid.”
Hardy is one of the most high-profile boxers to turn to MMA. On the same card on Friday, another of those high-profile boxers to go the MMA route, ex-world champion Ana Julaton, will fight on the main card of Bellator 185.
Hardy will fight in MMA a second time for the money, yes, but also because she had the time of her life the first time out. MMA, she discovered, is fun.
“I actually fell in love with it,” Hardy said. “It was everything I expected and more. I just loved everything about it.”
She noted that women’s MMA has become hugely popular in the U.S. While the explosion began with ex-UFC champion Ronda Rousey, Hardy said women’s MMA has become a staple of fight cards and that they’re given the same respect as male fighters.
She blamed the boxing establishment for the failure of women’s boxing to take a similar upward path.
“Women’s MMA has exploded but boxing hasn’t followed suit,” she said. “The same five or 10 guys have been in charge of boxing since the 1980s. They have their own way of thinking. These are the same guys who were watching Laila Ali fight when there wasn’t very much competition, and they’re still using that excuse. It’s not accurate. There are a lot of very good girls out there, and up and down the line-up, but that’s how they see it.
“I’ve got on the undercards of some tremendous fights: I fought on [Keith] Thurman-[Danny] Garcia; Thurman-[Shawn] Porter; and some others that I can’t recall, but they were all tremendous cards where there was an opportunity to showcase me as part of the primetime broadcast and I was looked over almost every time.”
Bellator has considered a Hardy-Julaton fight down the road. There is the possibility that the two will fight in both MMA and boxing, which would make it a unique series and draw plenty of attention.
Hardy said she has no problem fighting Julaton, but is reticent to talk about her because she insists she can’t afford to overlook Williams.
She wants to earn her place in MMA and not be given it because of her notoriety or her well-established ability to sell tickets in her native New York.
She doesn’t, she said, want to be given anything.
“I’m starting at the bottom and you know what? I want to be at the bottom,” she said. “I’m not so arrogant to think I’m this great fighter who can come in here and just beat up everyone. I’m kind of learning on the job, but I know what I’m capable of.
“I’m just staying in my lane and working hard trying to learn and get better. I’ll let the folks out there tell me when they think I’m ready to start doing bigger fights as opposed to coming in with my big mouth calling people out.”
And that’s part of the reason why she’s sharing a card with Julaton but not fighting her just yet. Julaton signed with Bellator last month and will make her promotional debut Friday.
Hardy has the kind of high-energy style that could prove to be a big hit once she establishes herself as an MMA fighter. She seemed a bit peeved at the notion that she somehow was ducking Julaton for Friday’s show.
“I’m all for fighting her, boxing, MMA, whatever,” Hardy said. “But let’s be real. I’ve got one [MMA] fight under my belt and who am I to be looking past anyone? It would be disrespectful of me to look past Kristina Williams. That’s why I haven’t commented on anyone else. I’m focused on the girl I’m going to fight.
“And look, it’s not like Bellator planned to sign us and immediately put us in together. It’s total [expletive] if anyone says that or thinks I’m ducking her. I absolutely am not. But not only do I have this fight with Kristina to think about, and I’m taking that very seriously, Bellator wants to build us up and they’re not just going to throw us out there the first time on the show.”
It shouldn’t take long, though. Hardy plans to remain active, both in boxing and in MMA, and she should get enough TV time in the coming months to make the bout with Julaton more than viable.
She’s never going to turn her back on boxing – “I love boxing and it’s what got me to where I am now,” she says – but she’s clearly infatuated with MMA. And she got a huge pop from her fans in her debut at MSG in June.
“It’s such a challenge and there’s so much to know and understand,” she said. “But I couldn’t love it any more than I do. Do you know what it is like to be in the cage at Madison Square Garden and hearing 20,000 people scream your name? That’s every New Yorker’s dream. That’s probably second only to be coming out of the pen at Yankee Stadium and hearing everyone chant your name.
“I’m really into it and really committed to it and I just want to keep learning, keep getting better and eventually make my mark on both of these sports.”
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