In New York, Some Legends Still Fight Underground
3:18 PM EST on February 27, 2023
In the little club fights you can really hear the oomph. That BSHHHD sound of a glove smacking a face carries not just to the front row but to the back row, which is not far from the front row. New York City used to have a whole ecosystem of boxing matches held at little venues in every borough, but changing tastes and insurance rates evaporated most of them, leaving only the big stadium fights at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden. Every now and then, though, in some little pocket of Manhattan, the club fights will peek out again.
When you head to the city on an early evening, and the Q train shoots out of the tunnel on the Brooklyn side and starts to rise along the Manhattan Bridge, and the glowing offices of all the Wall Street towers backlight the undulating wires of the Brooklyn Bridge, you can look right out of the window at the warren of buildings near the Dumbo waterfront and see where Gleason’s Gym is. That’s where Heather Hardy works, trains, practically lives. A blonde Irish woman from Gerritsen Beach, a little South Brooklyn neighborhood that sticks out like a splinter from Sheepshead Bay, she gritted her way into a pro boxing career and became the city’s designated stubborn Irish champion for the past decade–a position which must always be filled by someone in New York, in order for the place to function properly. It’s a job that will make you a legend even as it wears you down. Thousands of people follow you into battle, but you’re the only one who gets busted up.
Hardy, “The Heat,” is 41 now, and nearing the end of her career. She took a detour through MMA, with mixed success, because women’s boxing is only a barely sustainable way to make a living, even when your fights are on Showtime. She has never lost the fierce devotion of her fans, who see in her a living testament to the far-reaching possibilities of a You Can’t Fucking Stop Me attitude. She wants one more big championship fight before she hangs it up. To get that, she needed a small fight first.
The fight was on a Thursday evening at Sony Hall, an underground venue on 46th Street. You can see Hamilton and join the Church of Scientology right on the same block. I saw a Gregory Porter show at Sony Hall once. Great place for jazz. Terrible place for a boxing match. The ring sat in the center of the modestly-sized room, with a few rows of tightly packed chairs up on the stage, a few more at ringside, and then a couple of gently rising levels of seating at round banquettes. The rest of us were “standing room,” which in this case meant “just crowd in as tightly as possible by the bar.” The narrow space grew ever more claustrophobic as the night went on. A high wooden rail separated our packed and sweaty mass from the banquettes just in front of us. The contrast in space seemed to increase the lavishness with which those lucky or smarter patrons slurped their drinks, elbows stretched out as wide as they pleased.
Even without the clouds of cigar smoke of earlier eras, these small-venue fights always carry a whiff of a 19th-century New York night out on the town to enjoy a little rat-baiting. Something about the interior humidity and bloodshed. As Lucy Sante wrote in Low Life of the infamous Kit Burns’s Sportsmen’s Hall, “it took the ancient brutal sports of alleys and farmyards and turned them into a steady proposition.” Rat-baiting is now frowned on as a weeknight activity, but boxing remains. We can’t quit it.
The undercards at these shows give the local pros a chance to shine in front of their friends, which is a legitimate redeeming social purpose. Michael Hughes, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and works as a trainer at Church Street Boxing downtown, outhustled a taller opponent with the body (but not the energy) of a Greek god to get a win in front of a bunch of people he trains. “Fuck him up, Mike! Fuck this guy, Mike!” they screamed. I think it was the first fight many of them had attended. Between rounds the DJ played Sinatra singing “Love and Marriage” at a pounding volume, as a ring card girl strutted in black leather short shorts. After that, Terell Bostic, a smooth and polished boxer from Long Island, took on Clay “Third Degree” Burns, a short man with a shaved head whose neon orange and green outfit made him look like he was headed to work on a road crew. Burns kept leaping in with a low jab, a move that practically begs for a right hand to the temple in return. He got it, and was knocked down, but got up to continue leaping in with ill-considered bravery. Bostic won a wide unanimous decision.
Just after that, a girl’s hair caught on fire. She was sitting directly in front of me, down a few shallow steps towards the ring. The back of her head was level with a candle on the table behind her. There was a small flash of orange, and then, for about two excruciatingly long seconds, a full eruption of flames dancing atop her dark curls, enjoying free reign while she was still oblivious to what was happening. Those of us behind her stared in frozen horror, until she at last realized her predicament, and the fire was patted out by several people at once. The vigor and speed with which the flames rose makes me suspect that some of her hair care products may have been flammable. She and her friends filed out and did not return for some time. The party at the next table all remained politely quiet until she left before bursting out with, “YOOOOO, SON!” The sickening smell of burning hair filled the room, but mostly dissipated in time for the main event.
Hardy was fighting Taynna Cardoso, an accomplished Brazilian who walked out to “Deja Vu” by Peter Gunz. It’s a reliable New York City anthem. But then Hardy, in a white gladiator skirt and tightly pulled blond cornrows, came out to “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys, which carries a swelling sense of destiny. You could sense that Cardoso, who was reluctantly bopping her own head to her opponent’s music, regretted not choosing something grander herself.
Last month, Hector Roca, a longtime gruff yet beloved trainer at Gleason’s, died. He was Hardy’s boxing mentor, and he had left her with words of encouragement about her career before he passed away. Memorial t-shirts to Roca dotted the crowd. This fight was for Hector, and Hardy seemed determined to apply enough sheer will to overcome any questions of age and ensure a proper inspirational outcome. She pushed straight in on Cardoso with absolutely no head movement, not a bit, relying completely on the power of her legs, muscled and pale from the relentless winter training. Hardy would wade into Cardoso’s chest and, when she got there, throw hooks with both hands to the body, left right left right left right, never stopping, mostly hitting arms and elbows, but giving an impression of overwhelming aggression nevertheless. She rotated her hips and pounded hooks directly into Cardoso’s hips. A hip-to-hip battle. Cardoso was calm, keeping her arms tightly drawn in and cracking Hardy with uppercuts in between the wide, ceaseless hooks. She was a stronger puncher than Hardy, who got clipped in the face regularly, but never stopped advancing, pounding, pushing, throwing. “OMG she is so fucking intense,” muttered a girl standing next to me.
Hard work can accomplish amazing things. That is the overriding lesson of Heather Hardy’s career, and her appeal to fans, and also the lesson of this fight. She threw more punches. She did not bounce much, or weave much, or target very precisely, but she worked, and won the fight. You can teach head movement, but you can’t teach determination. When the announcer interviewed her in the ring afterwards about Hector, she was emotional. But then she settled down. “I’m tired, guys. I’m old,” Hardy said, as the crowd began to claw its way out towards 46th Street. “I want to go home.”