The morning of her 2012 professional debut, Heather "The Heat" Hardy wasn't resting at home or warming up at the gym. The 5-foot-5 boxer was busy hustling tickets for that night's event. Her goal? To sell at least $10,000 worth of tickets, one-tenth of her purse.
It was quite a challenge for the first-timer, but showing her promoter-to-be that she was a big draw and could therefore make him money was Hardy's ticket to a second fight. She and manager, trainer and longtime boyfriend Devon Cormack set up a "little lemonade stand" in the heart of Times Square and came back with $13,000.
That's how it all started.
Later that night, Hardy, 32, hit the canvas hard in the first round. "My career is over if I lose this fight," she thought.
And just as quickly as she was knocked down, the former kickboxer stood back up and pummeled her opponent for the remaining rounds, eventually winning by unanimous decision.
That wasn't the first time Hardy had to fight to overcome incredible adversity, though. At age 12, Hardy was raped by a neighborhood acquaintance, the memory of which still keeps her up at night. She had "passed out" after smoking a little too much marijuana, and woke up as she was being sexually abused. She tried to scream and push her attacker away, but she couldn't. In retrospect, Hardy thinks she was drugged.
The rape victim didn't speak up for a decade and never pressed charges. "I felt like it was my fault because I was on drugs," she said.
Hardy had been raised in a tight-knit Irish enclave in Brooklyn, New York, which played a part in her reticence to discuss the incident. "If I say too much and people find out, they will kill him," she said.
It is in this working-class neighborhood called Gerritsen Beach that Hardy learned to take a punch years before stepping into the ring.
"You're 30 and you never got punched in the face?" Hardy once asked a female boxing trainee. "Where did you grow up?"
A divorced single mother, Hardy left her hometown a few months ago to offer her 10-year-old daughter, Annie, a brighter future. In the past few years, Hardy has had to juggle up to six jobs at a time to make ends meet. She married her high school sweetheart in 2004, but as the relationship soured, separation became inevitable. Her ex-husband swiped the family savings when he left, Hardy says. It's around that time that she picked up boxing.
"This was the only thing that I had that was only mine," she said.
Today, the all-around warrior is a full-time boxing trainer, a professional fighter and a mom. In 2012, a month before her pro debut, an apartment fire destroyed most of what she owned. That October, Hurricane Sandy ravaged her parents' home, where Hardy and her 10-year-old, Annie, were temporarily taking shelter.
Fast-forward two years and the tide has begun to turn. Eleven pro fights in, the 122-pound titleholder remains undefeated. Last month, she took on her first 10-rounder to become the WBC International female super bantamweight champion. While most female boxers get one or two fights a year, this up-and-coming star will glove up for her fifth match this year on Dec. 3.
Hardy admits that she isn't the best or smartest fighter out there, but she does have a promoter, which most other U.S. female boxers lack. She's built a strong following in New York, and last year, she became the first and only woman to sign a full-time contract with famed boxing impresario Lou DiBella. It wasn't long before she started reaping the rewards.
"Hardy," a student project-turned-documentary on the boxer's life, will screen at a New York festival on Dec. 5. In June, Hardy fought the first and only professional female fight at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, for which she personally sold $24,000 in tickets. Profit-wise, this doesn't translate to much (female boxers earn a tiny fraction of what their male counterparts cash in). But in her short boxing career, she is earning as much or even more than her more experienced ring mates.
"She has the ability, the story and the intangibles to be a legitimate star in the biggest media market in the world," said DiBella when announcing his new recruit. "I believe that Heather can be New York City's breakthrough female fighter."
How does she do it? Fifty percent is fighting and training, Hardy says, and the other half is doing business.
Promoters base their fighters' worth on their chances of eventually getting on ESPN, HBO or Showtime and making the big bucks. The problem, says Hardy, is that women are never picked up by the networks, so it's only the men who are seen as long-term investments.
"What good am I to this guy if I'm not making him money right now?" Hardy said. "I am selling tickets so I can make my case because fighting and winning isn't gonna make my case. There are great fights happening all the time in women's boxing that are forever gonna be missed by the public because they are not networked."
Hardy's plan has been to present herself as a short-term investment while slowly making her case for the bigger fights. She says DiBella was "inches" from negotiating an all-female card on Showtime last month.
Her chance to be on TV may never come, but that doesn't mean Hardy will stop trying. Asked how she's managed to become the rising champ she is today, she says she "never, ever" turns anything down. When a student asked if she could follow her around for a project, the boxer agreed. That project dragged on for months, but it's now a documentary making film festival rounds in New York and Austin.
To ensure that 2015 doesn't disappoint, Hardy already knows where she'll be the morning of her upcoming bout.
"I don't see anyone here selling tickets the morning of the fight, but I also don't see anyone here fighting five fights a year," she said. "When you wanna be better than anybody else you have to be willing to do all the things they're not willing to do."