By Sarah Deming
The last time Heather “The Heat” Hardy and Shelly “Shelito’s Way” Vincent brawled, it was Ring Magazine’s 2016 Women’s Fight of the Year. Hardy won a hard-fought majority decision that night that Vincent still disputes.
Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, they will do it again, this time for the vacant WBO world title. The ten-round featherweight contest kicks off a tripleheader televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing at 10 PM ET/PT.
“We’re gonna steal the show,” Vincent (23-1, 1 KO) said. “I can’t wait. I just want to prove I’m the better fighter. Because I just don’t feel it in my heart that I lost.”
Although the Garden is Hardy’s backyard – she won the New York City Golden Gloves there in 2012 – it will be stocked with New Englanders wearing Vincent’s signature V for Vendetta mask.
“Shelito’s Way” will take her signature ring walk wearing a straightjacket to symbolize the way women athletes are tied down. She will hold up a photo of her late mother, and lead an entourage of little kids who follow her everywhere like the pied piper.
“I walk out with the kids because it symbolizes what I’m fighting for and what really matters to me,” said Vincent. “The boxing, I never even got into it to make money or to even turn pro. I just got into it to channel my depression and my anger. It was an outlet for me to use my voice.”
Hardy (21-0, 4 KOs) is the sole blemish on the 39-year-old Vincent’s record. Their 2016 showdown was one Vincent angled for since her early days as a pro, when she started to hear about a New York featherweight who sold a lot of tickets. Vincent crashed Hardy’s early fights at Roseland Ballroom, calling her out, and laid siege to her online.
“It actually became personal, which it was never meant to be,” says Vincent. “And then we genuinely hated each other.”
The trash talk centered on the difference between their personal styles: Vincent is gay, tattooed, Cape Verdean-Italian, with a technicolor Mohawk and a cultivated chip on her shoulder. Hardy is a blonde Irish single mom who wears lipstick to weigh-ins and smiles for the camera.
Team Shelito suggested Hardy’s success was handed to her because of her looks. The Heat’s fans countered by accusing Vincent of using steroids. The back and forth sold the fight. Promoter Lou Dibella signed Vincent and made the match on just three weeks’ notice.
The two women battled for ten thrilling rounds, the stocky Vincent bobbing her way inside on the 5’4” nonstop brawling Hardy. The fight was rain delayed until after the main event to keep fans in their seats, yet shunted to another TV channel, where it attracted fewer viewers. Hardy and Vincent received inconsequential purses. They were used to it.
Despite their differences, Hardy and Vincent are allies in a common battle. Both are rape survivors who found solace through fighting. Both broke through boxing’s glass ceiling via their ability to generate live gate. Both are humble in the face of the rising generation of women who have had the benefit of inclusion in the Olympics. The same night they slugged it out in Coney Island, Claressa Shields was making history in Rio, becoming the first American boxer – male or female – to win two Olympic golds.
Since then, Vincent has racked up five straight wins. She had eight full weeks to train for this rematch. Her girlfriend has been away filming a reality show for Telemundo, and trainer Pete Manfredo Sr. said, “Shelly has been very focused, no distractions.”
Manfredo is a Rhode Island institution who brought up some of the best fighters in the area: Olympian Jason Estrada; Toka Kahn Clary; and his son Pete Jr., who appeared on the Contender.
When I visited them in Manfredo’s sunny storefront gym in Cranston, his 83-year-old father had just died. In between comforting his mother, feeding his cats, and making funeral arrangements, Manfredo had come in to train Shelly.
“She’s difficult, but I love her,” he said, tearing up. “She’s always there for me. She’d do anything for me. So I gotta give her my full attention now.”
After a few rounds of pads, his mood lifted.
He said, “Shelly’s gonna stay in her face. This time we’re not gonna take our foot off the accelerator.”
“Last time I hurt her like three times,” Vincent added. “Heather knows I hurt her. And I’m gonna hurt her this time, too.”
Hardy laughed when I repeated that.
“Shelly knows that her two little hands ain’t gonna knock me out. My mamma blessed me with one thing, and that’s my tough Irish chin.”
Heather was in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, waiting for her trainer and boyfriend Devon Cormack to finish playing reggae drums in his office and watch her spar.
“I have to ask him the right way,” she said. “Women always have to ask for things the right way.”
It is an art Hardy has perfected.
Frustrated by the business side of women’s boxing, Hardy had switched to MMA, where the money and exposure are better. She is 2-1 in Bellator now and seems unfazed by the brutal first loss she suffered last year, which left her nose broken and brought her career stitches count to forty. She describes the experience as akin to the last scene in Braveheart, where they cut the hero open and pull out his guts.
“I fight like I live my life,” Hardy said. “I’m not technically the best fighter. But when I go in there, I use what I got, and I use it to the max. I use every tool I have in the shed as hard as I can and I never quit.”
She climbs in the ring with Ronica Jeffrey, a stylish featherweight with fast hands, and they spar while Cormack keeps up a steady stream of critique, like a Jamaican mother hen.
“Other people have trainers, but I have a teacher,” Hardy says. “I’m still learning. I’ve only been boxing for eight years.”
She knows she is getting better, because there was a time when Ronica used to toy with her, and now they go eight hard rounds. Hardy soldiers through the fatigue. At 36, cutting weight has been getting harder; she’s been on an all-liquid diet for a week.
When I ask if she still hates Vincent, she sighs.
“When you have a fight like we had, a piece of your soul comes out in the ring. For a little while, she tried to be hard and talk trash, and I was just like, you can’t fool me!”
“You gave me a piece of you that ain’t nobody ever had before, and I ain't never giving it back. We exchanged souls. And you can say whatever you want, but you got no choice but to respect me.”