That’s one of the more talked-about reasons Brooklynite Heather Hardy, a two-division champion boxer with an undefeated record, makes her mixed martial arts debut Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
“I don’t want to say it’s about the money,” Hardy said Wednesday at Bellator NYC media day. “But I’m 35, I’m a single mom. I have a 13-year-old daughter who likes iPhones, wants cable in her room. Why not maximize my fighting years?”
She’ll earn that first MMA paycheck — and it’s bigger than her boxing paydays, she said — Saturday when she fights Alice Yauger (4-5) in a flyweight bout on the Bellator NYC prelims at Madison Square Garden. Her fight airs on Spike TV at 8 p.m.
Longtime followers of the sport may find the juxtaposition of MMA and lucrative payouts for newcomers alarming. MMA has a reputation for being very top heavy in its purses, with fighters lower on the card literally fighting to get by.
“For Heather, I think this is going to be potentially really beneficial,” said Lou DiBella, Hardy’s boxing promoter who Bellator needed to negotiate with to make this fight happen. “I want to see this lady make some money, in boxing and in MMA. I’d like to see her succeed in both sports. She’s going to be on Spike TV, national TV. That’s great. And if she looks good and she wins, that’s going to help when she gets back in to boxing. It’s going to help get her attention. This could be really a win-win for her and it could be a win-win for my company, too.”
Female fighters have become more mainstream and marketable to the fan base and promoters alike. Scott Coker, the head of Bellator, was the first to have female fighters headline a fight card back when he ran Strikeforce. In 2009, Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg Justino fought in the main event on Showtime for the inaugural Strikeforce title at 145 pounds. Viewership peaked at 856,000 for that fight, and the event averaged 576,000 viewers, a Showtime record for MMA.
UFC president Dana White added a women’s bantamweight division built around Ronda Rousey at the end of 2012. Through marketing and — more importantly — her dominance in the octagon, Rousey became a crossover star. Her celebrity reach extended far beyond the MMA fan. Miesha Tate, Holly Holm, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Paige VanZant all have parlayed their MMA exposure into big paydays in the sport and opportunities outside. Rousey landed roles in the “Fast and the Furious” and “The Expendables” movie franchises, among other acting and sponsorship deals. VanZant was the runner-up on “Dancing With The Stars” a year ago.
That didn’t go unnoticed by Hardy, who two boxing matches ago fought inside an empty Barclays Center before the doors opened. And she was already a two-division WBC champion.
“He took a chance,” Hardy said of White and the UFC. “He had a tremendous pay-per-view card and he said, you know what, I’m going to put her on it and let’s see what happens. People loved it. They wanted more. To me, that’s what needed to be done in boxing. Tell me right now, if you thought if I was the co-main event on Channel 5 for Thurman-Garcia that people would have turned off their television sets? No.”
Instead, Hardy was the first fight that night at Barclays Center. The one that happened before the arena opened its doors for fans to come in.
Hardy didn’t appreciate that. It helped push her toward MMA, a sport with a much higher ceiling for female athletes.
“Women aren’t going to make it in the traditional paradigm of how boxing is being handled right now,” DiBella said. “But they deserve the opportunity. They make great fights. They work just as hard and people do want to see them.”
Hardy originally was set to make her MMA debut for Invicta FC last January but her opponent withdrew late because of an injury. She signed with Bellator last month.
Hardy’s move to MMA for this fight is not without risk.
“The possibility for injury is so much greater in MMA,” Hardy said. “[DiBella] almost didn’t want to let me do it. And I had to be like, ‘Please, dad, please just one time, please’ until he finally said yes.”
But there’s also the calculated risk of changing sports and hoping to increase exposure and finances.
“I’m walking in here claiming to be an undefeated champion getting ready to do something for the very first time, it makes me kind of vulnerable,” Hardy said. “I’m a fighter. It might not go as pretty as we want it to, but it’s going to go my way. I’ll die in there before it doesn’t.”
Among the firsts for Hardy will be fighting at the Garden. Her 20 professional boxing matches all took place in one of the five boroughs, but never at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” The closest she came was winning the Golden Gloves, an amateur boxing event, inside The Theater at MSG. So, yes, the girl from the Gerritsen Beach section of Brooklyn sounded rather excited to compete inside MSG.
“Are you kidding me?” Hardy said. “They could have offered me a sword fight, a thumb wrestling match and I’d have said yes.”