The Ultimate Fighter
There are no titles on the line when Heather Hardy faces Jessica Camara on Friday in the headliner of DiBella Entertainment’s Broadway Boxing event (which airs live on UFC FIGHT PASS), but it may very well be the most important fight in the career of the Brooklynite, who hasn’t been in the ring since a September 2019 loss to Amanda Serrano.
“This is a really good opportunity for me to see if I'm ready to retire or if I can get back into boxing,” said Hardy, a former WBO featherweight champion making the move up to 135 pounds for this bout.
Some would say talking about retirement is the first step to actually retiring, but in combat sports, one size does not fit all, and Hardy wants to make it clear that her heart is most certainly in this fight.
“The heart never leaves,” said the 39-year-old, who has gone from local New York City favorite to perhaps the most visible boxer in the United States over the course of a nearly nine-year pro career that has also seen her compile a 2-2 record in mixed martial arts. The reasons are simple: She has a great story, a great personality, and a style that can only be described by “The Heat” herself. And since she told me this years ago, I can’t help but use it in every story.
“I remember having my first fight, and I was fighting this kickboxing girl who owned her own karate school and was a black belt,” Hardy told me in 2015. “And I was only training for like three weeks. So the day before the fight, I said to my mom, ‘Mom, I can’t believe I’m taking this fight. This girl owns her own karate school. She’s been in this forever.’ And my mother was like, ‘If somebody stole your wallet on the street, would you care if they owned their own karate school?’ I think that comes out of me every time I’m fighting, because it’s not really like boxing; I’ve got two minutes to get my wallet back.”
Few have done it better in this era, with Hardy compiling a 22-1 record, winning a world title, engaging in one of the best women’s fights of all-time in her first win over Shelly Vincent in 2016, and losing only to one of the best to do it in Serrano. And while that defeat stung, it wasn’t as bad as the commentators that night would have you believe, and as soon as it was over, Hardy was plotting her return.
“Actually, I had wanted to move up to 130-135 right before I was offered the WBO featherweight title fight (in the rematch against Vincent) and I remember getting the offer and being like, 'Well, I can't turn down the featherweight title, so we'll just do this one at 126 and take it from here.' And then I was challenged (by Serrano), and I couldn't turn that down, but 126 has been a really challenging weight for me to make, like spit in a cup challenging to make the weight.”
There were talks of a possible fight between Hardy and Jelena Mrdjenovich, but then the boxing world (and the world in general) halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Hardy got a call from her promoter, Lou DiBella, telling her that there likely wouldn’t be any boxing for the rest of 2020.
“That was understood that I was gonna stay out of the gym and I had to go work full-time and support my family,” Hardy said. “So in 2020, I didn't box. I didn't work out, I didn't train, I didn't work with my coaches. Neither of my coaches were at the gym, so it wouldn't even matter at that point. And as the new year came around, I really started thinking, 'Am I ready to retire?'”
Rewind a bit and realize that women in the boxing world don’t have financial parity with the men like they do in the UFC, and the opportunities, while getting better, also don’t compare to what’s available in the mixed martial arts world. So Hardy, a single mom, worked, supplementing her income with personal training and coaching.
“I have an almost 17-year-old daughter getting ready to take the SATs, picking out colleges,” she said. “It's a huge year for her and I just thought I'm not gonna put any expectations on myself. Right now, I have to be a mom, I have to be a provider, and I have to take care of my family. After the pandemic, I can worry about what I'm gonna do with the rest of my life. But for right now, I have to survive. So I really didn't put too much pressure or too much thought into it. There were those times when I'd see the girls boxing on DAZN or see the fight posters coming up and it pulled at my heart a little bit, like 'Wow, I miss that life, I miss that world,' but I didn't have the luxury of sitting in the gym and I had to take over and worry about my family, so I didn't have too much time to let it fester.”
Yet even without boxing for a year, Hardy did have reminders during 2020.
“I remained in the game in the sense that I'm a boxing coach, and every now and then, I'd put my headgear on and play with them and frustrate them in the backyards of our apartment buildings,” she said. “I'd line them all up, do the ‘smell my glove’ trick and frustrate the s**t out of them. (Laughs) And I'd realize, you still got it, Heat. But beyond the love of boxing, there's the want and that push that brings you over the hump of training. Working a nine to ten-hour day and still getting up at 5 o'clock to train. We're there at 5am for sparring, I'm running at 5:45 when it's still dark out, just so I can have my full day of training and a full day of work. That's the heart, that's the love. Do I love it that much? That's what I'm hoping this fight will tell me.”
This fight, against Montreal’s Camara, isn’t an easy one, but taking easy fights has never been Hardy’s thing, even after a year and a half away from the sport. It’s why people still care and why they’re going to tune in whenever she’s on the card. And who knows, maybe this move to 135 is the start of something that may lead to a long-awaited fight with undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor becoming a reality.
“Of course, I still want that fight; anybody would want that fight, but Katie gets to decide,” said Hardy. “Katie gets to pick the biggest fighters, and I'm coming off a loss, so I'm not the one saying, 'I deserve this fight,' because I kinda lost my standing and position. I can play the Brooklyn-Irish card and hope they call me for a fight out there (Laughs), but it's not a good look for me to be saying, 'I should fight Katie.'”
Maybe that’s the real appeal of Hardy. No nonsense, honest, and fittingly, as she makes her debut on FIGHT PASS, she’s the epitome of the UFC’s tagline, “As real as it gets.” That’s Heather Hardy, who is going to be honest with herself following the Camara fight when it comes to her fistic future.
“This isn't really the kind of sport where you can go in without your heart, and that's why I know that if I'm gonna step up against the big dogs with the titles, the six figures, the expectations, then I gotta really make sure that my heart and my body and my mind are into it,” she said. “That's exactly what this test is for me. In the back of my head, I feel like, what if I already passed my prime and I'm one of those fighters that should have hung it up when they did? That's what this fight is there to show me. Do I still have the dog in me?”
“I think yes. I don't think the dog goes away.”