Is Heather Hardy’s Move to MMA the Beginning of the End for Boxing in NY?

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

Photo by Andrew Carpenean-USA TODAY Sports

For fans of women’s boxing, Heather Hardy is a household name. Actually, for fans of boxing in general, Hardy is pretty well regarded. Undefeated in 18 fights, Hardy recently won the WBC International Women’s featherweight title, and has been one of the more widely covered athletes outside of the sport. Inside the sport, she has a dedicated following in her home state of New York, and has been recognized as one of the principal voices advocating for women’s rights in boxing. Now, she takes those attributes into the cage.

At a Showtime press conference this past Wednesday, Hardy announced that she would be crossing over to MMA, making her debut on January 14th with Invicta FC. The transition was not done out of spite towards the boxing establishment or some sort of mission to prove the superiority of the Sweet Science in a different arena. Instead, the decision was purely a financial one.

“I need to make money,” Hardy told the Ring’s Mitch Abramson. According to the magazine, there hasn’t been a boxing show in Coney Island since Hardy last beat Shelly Vincent back in August, and she has since found difficulty in paying for bare necessities, such as rent. “I have no idea how I’m going through the rest of this year without getting paid in the last quarter. So I need to do this,” Hardy continued.

One of the biggest reasons for the downturn in New York boxing shows has to do with the entrance of another combat sport. As most readers know, MMA was legalized to enter the Big Apple earlier this year, and fight organizations wasted little time to bring events to their new found territory, most notably Conor McGregor’s historic win this last weekend. What the legislation also brought, however, were new regulations.

Included in the mandate to allow MMA fights in New York was a clause calling for higher insurance coverage in all combat sports, going from $10,000 to $50,000 for general medical coverage per fighter (a requirement most boxing promoters find little issue with), and a new $1 million minimum requirement to cover each fighter in the case of traumatic brain injury (a requirement most boxing promoters can’t afford). Many boxing shows in the area have been cancelled all together as a result.

"These new insurance restrictions are not just destroying the sport of boxing in New York, they are destroying my livelihood," Hardy told ESPN back in October. "Do you have any idea what life looks like for a professional boxer, especially one who is a female and a single parent?”

Lou DiBella, Hardy’s promoter, has been one of the main figures keeping the sport boxing alive in New York by hosting a series of more frequent and less prestigious cards featuring local talent for the local public. An undeniable lifeline to the sport is having these smaller, lesser-known stages available as an opportunity for up-and-coming fighters to build their name, yet despite the obvious cut in revenue compared to larger events, the new regulations still apply. DiBella has had to cancel the remainder of his shows for the rest of the year, including one that Hardy was originally scheduled to be a part of.

For some boxing promoters, this series of events is proof that the new legislation has an underlying motive to expel boxing from the state of New York in exchange for another. That is, at least, the opinion of Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, who views the UFC as the main culprit.

"Paying the premium on that policy is probably more than the gate receipts you can take in on some cards so if that stands we couldn't do shows there. I don't even know if they can find a company to write a policy for that. If they can't, that's sayonara for New York boxing," Arum said in an interview with ESPN. "UFC, which is a monopoly and instituted the legislation, will absolutely freeze out any MMA competitors and destroy boxing in the state the way this is written. These things don't happen by accident. But if it stays this way we cannot go to New York and promote fights. It's as simple as that.”

In response, the UFC has categorically denied those accusations.

"No, UFC did not advocate for the insurance language in the statute. The organization learned of the proposed policies at the same time as the legislature and the other promoters. We pride ourselves on the initiatives we have put in place to continuously elevate athlete health and safety in the sport of mixed martial arts, and have consistently provided accidental insurance above and beyond any state requirement," a representative from the organization said in a statement to the sports network.

As for myself, it’s a complicated situation. I personally believe that fighters need to be treated better in competitive fighting, and having more comprehensive medical coverage is a good first step. Also, having it applied only to the bigger productions doesn’t really solve the problem either (a traumatic injury is a traumatic injury whether it happens to a UFC champ at MSG or a journeyman at a smoker). At the same time, if operational costs outweigh the projected revenue, there’s likely to be no show at all, meaning no paycheck for the fighters in the first place. Solutions in this scenario aren’t easy.

I will say that it might be a bit extreme to accuse the UFC of pushing out an entire sport since small-time MMA promotions wouldn’t be able to operate either, and when you consider what Top Rank is considered in the boxing world, and the comparative advantages they have over the competition, well, it’s a bit of the pot calling the kettle. At the same time, this legislation did just take away one of women’s boxing’s biggest stars over to the other side, so if there was any truth to the UFC trying to push out boxing, this is what it would look like.

Taking place the same night as the Invicta FC card on January 14th is the super middleweight unification bout between Badou Jack and James DeGale at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Hardy was originally scheduled to appear on the card, but with the insurance fiasco still unclear, she chose the Invicta FC card instead for the guaranteed payday. She plans to return to the squared circle on March 4th where promoters are currently trying to work out a highly anticipated welterweight unification fight between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia. Her decision has not affected her relationship with DiBella.

"As much as I'd like to discourage her as a promoter from [moving to MMA], I'm not going to because she has to do what she has to do to maximize her revenue streams, to take advantage of her popularity and to try to make a living for her and her daughter," DiBella told ESPN. "I can't fault her for needing a supplemental income."

As to how Hardy will do in MMA, it’s hard to tell. According to the New York pugilist, she also has a background in kickboxing and has held amateur titles in Muay Thai leagues. There have been of course success stories of accomplished boxers crossing over into MMA (namely Holly Holm), and Hardy is actively working on her ground game to prepare for the January debut. Her chances will probably also involve the caliber of her opponent (still unnamed), which will likely depend on her trajectory with Invicta and MMA in general (still undetermined). But as likeable of a character Heather Hardy is in the fighting world, how she will perform might not be the biggest focus of her transition on January 14th. Rather, the more pressing issue might be how this move shapes the landscape of combat sports in the state of New York. 


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