“Baby, you are beautiful, but to stay beautiful, you have to be happy. And to be happy you have to be strong,” Hector Roca would say to Heather Hardy, once a day, before, during or after a training session at Gleason's Gym.
“In the beginning I would look over to his corner of the ring and just cry,” says Hardy, the 41 year old prizefighter who gloves up Thursday night in New York City, topping a Boxing Insider card at Sony Hall. “But as time often does, it heals all wounds. I turned my grief into passion again, and really turned it up this camp.”
Heather Hardy got felled by the development she didn’t see coming, when her coach, Hector Roca, passed away hours before he was due for surgery. The Panamanian fixture at Gleason’s Gym in Dumbo, Brooklyn, NY had battled health woes, including kidney issues, and docs were to attend to an abdominal aneurysm. The 82 year old tutor died the morning of Jan. 3, though, of a heart attack, and that left Hardy adrift. If you know her story, though, you understand she’s handled that state a few times, wrestled her way through the emotional morass.
“I know Roca is with me–every day, every sparring, every run, every session. His lessons are all still here and his voice is always in my head,” said the 23-2 fighting pride of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, residing in Dumbo, who meets 5-1 Brazilian Taynna Cardoso Thursday.
What are some of his greatest hits you replay in your head, I asked? The “baby, you are beautiful” one sticks strongest in her mind.
So, how hard was it to bounce back from the shocker passing of the father/grandpa figure?
“I was able to use the fight to switch my focus,” said Heather Hardy, who headlined a Boxing Insider show back in October 2022.
“It took me a few days of drinking myself to sleep, waking up with my eyes swollen shut from crying to realize Hector wouldn’t have wanted that.”
She recalls a moment before his passing which stays with her, nourishes her.
“Two days before he died I was sitting on his hospital bed and we were watching golf. And he said, “Baby, they all think you are past your prime. But you didn’t hit it yet, this is your year. And that made me think- what would Hector want to see me doing right now. What would he say? So I dove into training for this fight, and the journey begins here. 2023 is my prime, my year to shine. My year to make some money and have my arm raised a few more times. Maybe get that world title shot after all.”
OK, so who will be in the corner on fight night?
“Hector was scheduled for surgery the morning he passed away, so the day before he died Martin Gonzalez came to wish him well in the hospital and Roca told him he had to make sure I was OK for my next fight. Hector asked Martin to mentor Henry Deleon and help him mature into a professional coach, and give him all the tools he needed to make sure I was taken care of. Martin just shook it off: ‘Roca, you’ll be there, it’s minor surgery.’ But Papa made him promise. So now this team is 4L. For life. On Papa. Even on his last day, he was making sure I was going to be okay.”
Heather Hardy may have teared up, I couldn’t see, the interview was conducted via text messaging…
“With Martin comes his son Joselito who has been amazing helping me ringside with all my sparring so he may hop in the corner,” she continued.
No, she’s not moping, stuck in sadness. “Happy,” she described herself. “Just what Roca wanted. He used to say “you know how to fight baby, you just have to be strong to stay happy. And we have to fix that left hook.”
It’s improbable, to get better at 41, in this milieu, isn’t it? “I’ve been breaking down doors my whole life,” Hardy said. “41 isn’t the hardest hurdle I’ve had to get to the other side of. My mind is young. And determined. That’s all you really need.”
OK, what sort of test will stand across from Hardy on fight night?
Heather Hardy: “Cardoso is a Brazilian champion, just turned pro. Lots of amateur experience, technically sound I was told.”
And, I probed, what might be the plan should she get that win, be it a windfall bout and/or a title shot.
Hardy didn’t want to get ahead of herself, wisely. But I did see this floating about. A message from ex foe Amanda Serrano, another Brooklyn pugilist.