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Pound for Pound

On Aug. 21, undefeated rivals Shelly Vincent and Heather Hardy entered the ring for a 10-round title bout in Coney Island. But beyond a belt, both fighters wanted to show that women's boxing could be prime-time entertainment.

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ince its brief heyday, when fighters like Christy Martin and Laila Ali captivated national audiences, women's boxing has largely been absent from the spotlight -- few appearances on major cards, and almost nonexistent on television. The few promoters who decide to buy in to the greatly underestimated sport face an uphill climb when selling television networks on showcasing their fights.

Yet, on the day when amateur middleweight boxer Claressa Shields made history as the first American boxer (male or female) to win gold medals in back-to-back Olympics, professional fighters Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent also made history as the first women to be featured on Premier Boxing Champions' first nationally televised female undercard.

And they did not disappoint.

With the exception of their prematch undefeated records, the two fighters could not seem to be more different. Vincent, an openly gay fighter from New London, Connecticut, is an in-your-face brawler who dons short, tricolored hair and has her upper body covered in tattoos. Hardy, a single mother from Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, is an agile and relentless volume puncher who sports blond hair and braids. But upon taking a closer look at both fighters' stories, the two women share many similarities that their mutual dislike of one another would probably not allow them to accept.

On Sunday, both took to the center ring and fought to elevate the sport of women's boxing, doing their best to showcase the sport's marketability with an electrifying fight.

"Shelly and I both worked really hard to get to this spot here on television. We're both fighting to put on a show," Hardy says. "We're fighting to make our claim to a spot on TV so people go, 'I want to see girls again.'"

"I don't think this fight is really for me or for Heather, it's for women's boxing as a whole," Vincent says. "It's finally a step in the right direction towards where it was. We didn't think we were ever going to get on television."

On Sunday's card, which featured a main event knockout and multiple knockdowns, Hardy and Vincent stole the show in what was a closely contended, back-and-forth dogfight. In the Ford Amphitheater, the two fighters went the distance in a gutsy 10-round match for the WBC international featherweight title against the backdrop of the Coney Island pier.

Heather Hardy, with boyfriend and trainer Devon Cormack, takes her bags back to her apartment from the historic Gleason's Boxing Gym in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, where she trains. Hardy is a single mother to a 12-year-old daughter, Annie. Hardy moved from her hometown of Gerritsen Beach, another neighborhood in Brooklyn, after constant commuting kept her from her away from her family.

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Shelly Vincent, right, rests with her fiancee, fellow boxer Jennifer "The Bolivian Queen" Salinas, at their hotel in Queens the day of the fight. Salinas' tattoo depicts Vincent's trademark Guy Fawkes mask that she wears during her ring walk. Vincent proposed to Salinas inside a boxing ring after winning her last fight against Christina Ruiz on July 21.

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Amidst the sounds of tussling punching bags and trainer chatter, Hardy checks her phone at Gleason's while Cormack sews a patch onto her shorts. Hardy received texts of good luck from fighters like Shawn Porter and Christy Martin. Cormack, who is a three-time world kickboxing champion, trained five-time world boxing champion Alicia Ashley -- his sister. Hardy calls Cormack "rasta," drawing from his Jamaican roots. "I'm her driver, coach, babysitter and seamstress," Cormack says. "I teach boxing on my days off."

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Vincent prepares her mask for the evening fight. She wears the mask, made popular by the movie "V for Vendetta," as a symbol for the monster that was created when she was raped by her late mother's boyfriend at the age of 13. Vincent is now an advocate against sexual assault, and she speaks at schools and says she is in contact with many kids who reach out to her for support. "Everybody sees the mask and they think I'm trying to look crazy," Vincent says. "What they did to me was monstrous and they created a monster. I wear the mask because with the mask on, we are all the same, we're all fighting for something."

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In her Brooklyn apartment, Hardy sits on a suitcase full of T-shirts for her fans. Hardy sells her own tickets, makes her own shirts and posters, and manages press communications and her website. "It's hard that I have to do so many other things because I don't make enough money during the fights. If I was a guy getting ready for my television debut, I'd have it a lot easier than right now," Hardy says. "I'm fighting so I don't have to [sell our own tickets]. I'm fighting so that when I put on a show, my tickets will sell themselves."

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Hardy bursts into tears upon learning that amateur boxer Claressa Shields has become the first American boxer to win two gold medals at the Olympic Games. Hardy and Shields, who box in different weight classes, met as unknown boxers and have kept in touch as both have ascended in the world of boxing. "This just means so much to women's boxing -- they can't ignore us anymore," Hardy says, crying. "I'm just so proud of her."

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Vincent and Salinas make their way to the Ford Amphitheater in Coney Island for the evening's fight. Salinas, who holds the Universal Boxing Federation's world female super featherweight title, will be in Vincent's corner tonight. Salinas acts as a soundboard for Vincent's trainer, Peter Manfredo Sr., and says she gets emotional when watching her fiancee fight. "I feel like I am the one who is going to fight," Salinas says.

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Hardy, alongside boxing coach Delen Parsley, waits for her match to begin. The match has been delayed due to inclement weather, which left the open-air ring with a wet floor and an overhead risk to the television monitors surrounding the ring.

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Hardy applies pink lip color before her fight. "Shelly Vincent talked a lot of s---, called me a Barbie doll, said I needed to get my ass beat," she says. "People think that if you're pretty, if you're feminine, you can't be tough. So how sweet would it be to go out there and whup her ass wearing pink lipstick?"

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Vincent sits inside her dressing room at the Ford Amphitheater before the fight, staring at a picture of her mother, who died after a battle with Leukemia. Vincent keeps the photo in her corner during every fight and kisses the photo in the ring during her fighter introduction. "As long as a picture of my mother is there, I'm good," she says. "I'm usually good."

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Salinas helps Vincent put on her prefight masks inside her dressing room at the Ford Amphitheater. Vincent wears one mask with colors of the Italian flag to symbolize her heritage, and a mask with the colors of the Bolivian flag to represent Salinas'. Vincent says her tattoos and personality have led to the depiction of a "bad guy" image: "They try to make me be the bad guy because I've got my tattoos and I'm loud and I'm funny. I don't really care. I don't like Heather, so I'll be the bad guy."

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"I don't really care about Shelly's style," Hardy says. "I don't really care about her. This is my show, she's just part of it."

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Annabelle Woods, 9, cheers and claps as Hardy enters the ring. Annabelle is one of Heather's young boxing students, and came with her mother and little sister to watch Heather fight. In addition to coaching, Hardy is also a personal trainer and works at Gleason's Gym.

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Vincent listens to trainer Manfredo in between rounds during her fight against Hardy. "She listens, she wants it, she's willing to do whatever it takes to get to that level no matter what," Manfredo says. "She wants to be a perfectionist, she wants to be a winner. She is a winner, regardless of this outcome today."

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"From the first time I got in the ring when I was 28, it was like there was nothing else on the planet that I was meant to do. I was meant to fight, I was meant to box," Hardy says. "There's so many times in your life when you fight as hard as you can, but you can't win. Times when I couldn't feed my kids, working around the clock. S--- happened to me as a kid that I just couldn't get out of. In boxing I got two minutes, and all you've got is two hands. I think I always have a chance to win in the ring."

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Hardy connects with a right hook against Vincent during their title bout at the Ford Amphitheater. Hardy landed 251 out of 752 total punches while Vincent landed 194 of 678. The fight went the full 10 rounds and had the audience of 3,723 on its feet for much of the match. Opposing chants of "Hardy" and "Shelly" persisted throughout the fight.

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"It's like I turn into a different person on fight night. I'm fighting the guy that sexually assaulted me, my stepfather who was beating on me," Vincent says. "I'm fighting for a voice. I'm fighting back."

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Hardy is announced as the winner of the fight by a majority decision. She cries as Cormack wraps the WBC international women's featherweight title around her waist. After the fight, she is asked how she would rate her performance Sunday night; glancing down at her belt, Hardy says, "This [belt] tells me I got a 10."

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Vincent hugs her stepdaughter, Gigi Morales, 9, after the loss to Hardy. Vincent, who disagrees with the point breakdown by the judges, believes she should have been declared the winner of the match (and has since contested the result). "I thought I won the fight, I thought I was the aggressor," Vincent says, turning to scan the circle of reporters, looking for affirmation. "Do any of you guys agree with that decision? So you guys think I lost?"

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Hardy dissolves into tears in her dressing room after winning the fight against Vincent. "She works harder than anybody I've ever worked with. She pushes every day," Cormack says of Hardy.

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In the dressing room, after the loss to Hardy, Vincent looks at the bandaged cut on her face. She admits boxing saved her life. "Dead," says Vincent, who used boxing to escape drugs and depression, of where she'd be without the sport. "Just to be completely honest, I was trying to kill myself. I couldn't take it anymore."

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Vincent enjoys a walk down the Coney Island boardwalk with stepdaughter Gigi, who stood next to Vincent during her ring walk. "[Gigi] loves to watch me fight. She gets nervous, but she loves it," Vincent says.

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Hardy congregates with family, friends and fans at The Gather Inn, a local pub in Gerritsen Beach -- which was one of a number of local communities that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. They watch Hardy's fight together as it is broadcast with a delay of several hours.

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Vincent watches the fight at an Applebee's with Salinas and Gigi.

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