Four Top Inspirational Combat Sports Athletes

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Four Top Inspirational Combat Sports Athletes

Whether it’s boxing, mixed martial arts or another fighting pursuit, there’s no denying that, in order to compete in the bloodlust world of combat sports, you need plenty of fire, guts and gumption, along with ample athletic talent.

But when you factor in out-of-the-ring adversity, that’s when you get to see what an athlete’s really made of as their real-life mettle gets tested to the max.

I have compiled a list of inspirational combat sports athletes who have thrived in the ring despite their out-of-ring obstacles.


Danny Jacobs poses for boxing photo.

Danny Jacobs

When professional boxer Danny Jacobs beat Jarrod Fletcher for the vacant WBA World Middleweight Championship on Saturday, August 9 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, he became the first cancer survivor to capture a world title.

In May of 2011, doctors diagnosed the then-24-year-old Brownsville, Brooklyn native with osteosarcoma, a life-threatening form of bone cancer.

Jacobs’ road to the Championship wasn’t easy, however, as he recalled bleaker times during which the feeling of helplessness and self-doubt crept in while in the hospital. In addition, a piece of cracked spine resulted in partial lower body paralysis and a great deal of pain, not to mention an arduous rehab process.

“There was a time when I was laying in a hospital bed, and I didn’t think I could do it,” the 27-year-old admitted. “I cried in the dark.”

In 2012, Jacobs used his life experiences and growing celebrity status to help form the Get in the Ring Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to help families who are struggling financially with medical expenses for their cancer stricken children, and to combat childhood obesity and bullying in schools.

Nick Newell

It’s hard to believe Nick Newell, a congenital amputee who’s missing his left hand and most of his left forearm, wanted to quit his high school wrestling team after the first practice. But his mother wouldn’t allow it.

“I wasn’t very good,” Newell admitted. “After my first practice, I wanted to quit, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She said I made commitment, and I had to finish out the season.”

So he did. Newell lost his first 15 matches via pins, and went 8-22 for the year. After the season concluded, instead of throwing in the towel, Newell wholeheartedly dedicated himself to becoming better at the sport.

Newell’s hard work paid dividends as he posted a winning record as a sophomore, and went on to become an All-State Connecticut wrestler, establishing a single-season state record with 53 victories. He aslo set an all-time career mark of 153 triumphs at Jonathan Law HighSchool.

He eventually found MMA, and won the XFC lightweight title in December 2012.

The WSOF fighter currently holds an impressive 10-1 mark despite the naysayers saying he wasn’t fit to compete in the sport because of his so-called disability.

Heather Hardy

There’s no denying that Heather “the Heat” Hardy is one tough pugilist and overall woman. She used to jump in the middle of her ex-husband’s bar brawls. Hardy’s competitive attitude guided her to kickboxing, which eventually led her to a regular boxing ring.

She juggled multiple jobs and the duties of being a single mother while pursuing a shot of becoming a pro boxer. But it wasn’t trouble-free, though.

Just a month before she turned pro in August of 2012, a fire destroyed her apartment and all of her worldly possessions.

The fire forced Hardy to move back to her childhood home. But devastation would strike again. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy paid an unwelcomed visit to her family’s home, leaving destruction in its wake.

Hardy lacked a permanent residence for a little under a year, but continued to train through all the turmoil.

The Brooklyn-born prizefighter finally found a place in September, near her training grounds, the legendary Gleason’s Gym, where she worked tirelessly in order to perfect the craft of the sweet science.

On October 15, the time and effort paid off as Hardy (11-0, 2 TKOs) won the WBC International female super bantamweight title.


Frank Galarza while training at Starrett City Boxing Club in Brooklyn.

Frank Galarza 

Professional boxer Frank “Notorious” Galarza knows what it’s like to buck the odds as a youngster. Galarza’s father died when he was seven years old after a gunshot wound to the leg caused health-related complications. Two years later, at the age of nine, his mother lost her life due to a drug overdose.

His aunt and uncle took him in prior to their deaths and managed to keep him focused enough to graduate high school, with the help of boxing, which he took up at 17, he noted. But Galarza couldn’t escape the pitfalls of the mean streets, admittedly battling with his inner demons throughout his youth.

“It was a struggle because I was confused. I was really lost,” the junior middleweight recollected. “I found myself heavy in the streets, and being involved in drugs—selling drugs. And being involved in crimes and violence.”

Though Galarza realized the street life wasn’t for him, getting arrested at 15 and 17 for robbery, he didn’t have a clear plan mapped out for himself at the time, causing him to fall back into his old ways.

Unfortunately, Galarza’s watershed moment came at the expense of a near-tragic incident while engaging in an illegal, precarious activity.

“I was trying to make a sale, and I got robbed,” he candidly said of a drug deal gone wrong. “Right there, I knew I needed to change my life.”

After giving up boxing at 18, the Brooklyn native returned to the sport at 24. His trainer didn’t take him seriously at first, but he won the 2010 Golden Gloves tournament in the 165-pound novice division. It helped cement his decisions to live clean and turn pro.

The 29-year-old highly-touted prospect is now 15-0-2 (9 KOs), and poised for stardom.

Wanting to give back, Galarza has developed the Youth Fighting Forward program, a fledgling non-profit that combines boxing, education and youth services for at-risk Brooklyn children.

About the author

Jerry Del Priore is a veteran freelance sports writer from Brooklyn, New York, who covers a variety of professional, college and high school sports for a number of print and digital publications. In addition, Del Priore is the author of Running Through Roadblocks: Inspirational Stories of Twenty Courageous Athletic Warriors, available on and

View all articles by Jerry Del Priore

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