Heather “The Heat” Hardy is a woman who hardly needs any introduction. With a professional boxing record of 18-0, her last fight was the first women’s televised bout on NBCSN. One of the most well-known athletes in NYC, Hardy is based out of the famous Gleason’s Gym in Dumbo, Brooklyn. A plethora of articles have been written about her, either demonstrating her dedication to the art of boxing, highlighting her heart and determination as an incredibly busy single parent, or illustrating her work regarding women’s rights. A 2014 documentary directed by Natasha Verma titled “Hardy” detailed The Heat’s life and struggles, encapsulating the concept that being a fighter is hard, but Hardy is damn good at it. If there’s one woman in New York who can do anything, it’s Heather. And “anything” includes Mixed Martial Arts.
“My goal isn’t to win my next fight. My goal is to be the best in the world. The fights are the steps that I need to take to accomplish that.”
To an outsider, the tall, fit, lean, blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty must have it all. However, Aveen has had a journey that was anything but simple.“I suffered severely from depression and alcoholism,” she states, almost as if saying she had the flu or broke her leg. Grace’s infectious and bubbly personality shines through even as she reflects on her darkest times. The athlete moved to New York City from Ireland five years ago and in her early months of adjusting to America, she made sure to party hard and to party often.
“I didn’t even cut weight for my last fight,” Naomi Cookson says, as she sits cross-legged in the cage where we are conducting our interview. The sounds of coaches yelling and pads being hit on the floor below almost drown out her voice. “Training Muay Thai was supposed to be fun for me, but the whole weight and weight-cutting thing just made it miserable. It was either quit training or just not cut weight. I chose what would make me happier.”
Victor Canales, or “The Butcher“, as he’s affectionately called due to a series of eyebrow-cutting incidents, has only been fighting for the last year. He’s been at Renzo Gracie Academy for the last six or so years, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he began training Muay Thai.
A Muay Thai fighter out of Renzo Gracie Academy, he sits with his coaches comfortably at their home base as they count down the minutes until it’s time to walk across the street to Madison Square Garden. On June 9th, Marrero will fight for two title belts at Triumph Kombat–the very first of this kind of bout to be held for Muay Thai at The Garden. He joins the ranks of illustrious fighters who have accomplished such feats in New York City’s biggest ring–the UFC’s Conor McGregor, who was the first-ever fighter to hold the belt for two weight classes back in November, and boxing extraordinaire Sugar Ray Leonard, who won both the WBC Super Middleweight and Middleweight belts at the same time in 1988. Although Marrero is competing for belts from different promotions rather than weight classes, he is still redefining the legacy of Thai boxing in New York.
Bellator’s Neiman Gracie grapples with his training partner in the basement floor of Renzo Gracie Academy in Midtown Manhattan. Fresh off a win in March at Bellator 151, Gracie throws a few strikes before going for a single-leg takedown. The room is humid and crowded, while the men drip with sweat and alternate between training partners. Gracie is focused on taking his partner down, and it is apparent that nothing is able to deter him–not the hot room, the groups of people lined alongside the padded walls talking and taking photographs, or the those training around him. He is in his zone, and all that is matters in this moment is training to fight.
Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Jen Allen Russell is this week’s #FemaleFighterFriday. The professor and Black Belt under Tom DeBlass at Ocean County Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu recently competed at IBJJF’s Master World Tournament in Las Vegas where she took home a silver medal.
Jasmine Parr is quickly making a name for herself as a Muay Thai champion. The 14-year-old daughter of legendary fighter John Wayne Parr, the teenager currently has a record of 13-4 and is very active in the ring. Thai boxing isn’t the only goal on her mind, however.
Small, wiry, and flexible on the mats. Loosen your grip even slightly, and she’s out of your grasp. Her teammate’s fingers are sore from trying to hang onto her gi, but Faye fights to gain control. A few seconds ago, she was fighting from the bottom, but she’s found her way into side control. Despite a weight difference of likely fifty pounds and the fact that she’s sparring a man old enough to be her father, or at least an uncle–her face is taut and focused. He’s resisting and trying to shrimp out, but somehow this much smaller woman is keeping him in her control. Her arm maneuvers cleverly and she manages the Americano lock. Her partner grimaces and taps to the submission. Faye immediately lets go and disengages. The man sits up, stretches his arm out, and brings her back into his guard. They begin again.
“I struggled a lot with being an outsider and also because of being overweight,” Albers says. “I was always a spiritual person and also interested in philosophy and science. That’s was not exactly what the people liked, but I just stood up for myself and passions and moved on once I was old enough. Muay Thai as a sport taught me to look deep inside myself, to face my fears and to build step-by-step the woman I want to be. The person I see in the mirror now learned to be dedicated, disciplined and resilient, with a clear vision of herself and her future, and with a clear vision how she wants to accomplish things. I want to show people that we can shape our lives the way we want to.”
“I wanted to just do it for fun and learn self-defense. My coaches thought I’d be a good fighter, so a few years later I decided to try it out. They call me so many different nicknames, like Mucho Macho or Gaucho, and we are always joking around. I am happy when I come here, so I knew training for fights would still be fun.”
“I worked on my mindset separate from my ranking that I had,” Maroulis says firmly. “Granted, I was going against Yoshida. I had won Worlds in 2015 but I was still probably the underdog because I had never won before. My mindset was that of a champion, regardless of my results. I told myself I was going to win, so I competed like I knew I would.”
As more women enter the fighting world and look for role models, Southpaw Jess (or her real name, Jessica Ng) is someone that they refer to and can learn from. Training since 2007 with a record of 12-4 under her belt, the experienced fighter is onto her next challenge. She will be representing the United States at the Pan-Ams this weekend, but the born-and-raised Queens girl has all of New York City behind her.
In the local ranks of New York, one such up-and-coming fighter is making a heavy name for herself–even though nearly everything about her goes against what is expected of women. Despite being petite, soft-spoken, and competing at 105 lbs (nearly 90 pounds less than the international representative of fighting, Muhammad Ali), Muay Thai fighter Raquel Harris carries the nickname of the most famous fictitious fighter of all time–”Rocky”. While Harris is ten inches shorter than the “Italian Stallion”, her heart is evident in every fight she has competed in.
As the timers blare and the sounds of gloves hitting pads slam in the background, Pina looks at home sitting next to a heavy punching bag as he drapes himself on the edge of a boxing ring at Ardon’s. Tall and dressed in black, from far away he could appear menacing. As one gets closer to him, the small smile lines around his face become more apparent and it’s clear that he is relaxed in this space. He says it’s because he’s “completely obsessed and engulfed by this sport.” It’d be a hard reach to find anyone who loves Muay Thai and training more than John Pina.
“I love what it I do,” Jimenez says with a laugh. “I love my work and I love training. Muay Thai was my first sport–I never played sports as a kid. I didn’t have time for it or the money. But I grew up watching boxing and always wanted to do it. I didn’t hear about Muay Thai until my twenties and I fell into it because I had my own time, my own car, and wanted to be productive outside of the lab. I fell in love with the sport and fighting came naturally to me. I feel like I’m always thinking, always analyzing–from one lab to the next. Here I am now, seven years later, still not expecting everything that continues to come my way.”
As talented as he is as a student, his skills as a coach are what make him stand out. Patient and reassuring, Elijah is a bringer of light and calm when he teaches. His close relationship with the other coaches and fighters is apparent when he comes to train...
“I just got out of rehab when I started training Muay Thai,” he says bluntly. “I was keeping to myself a lot and a friend of mine was fighting for Friday Night Fights. Another friend invited me to go and said ‘You should come, it’ll be a nice night out for you.’ I watched my friend fight and afterwards, he came up to me and said that I looked the best I did in years. I told him, ‘I want to do what you’re doing–how do I do that?”
Sylvie is an American Muay Thai journalist who at this time of publishing, recently won her 171st fight in Thailand. She originally moved to the country with the intent of training for a year and accumulating about 50 bouts. Several years later, she is still training, writing, and focusing on obtaining 200 fights.