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World champion goes the distance

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Portland’s Molly McConnell spent years honing her craft as an amateur boxer and then in the pro ranks, before capturing two world titles in March.

Molly McConnell is sitting, legs folded, on a couch so big it blocks the front entrance to her Portland home. Wearing green and red hipster glasses, she runs her fingers through her short blonde hair and talks about her latest celebrity obsession, pop superstar Lady Gaga.

'I absolutely adore her,' McConnell says. 'She's one of my favorite people in the whole world. The three people I would have dinner with would be her, Michelle Obama and Oprah.'

McConnell says it is not so much Lady Gaga's music that she loves. It is the message that the singer delivers through the poetry of her music.

'Her point is that 'This is who I am,' ' McConnell says. 'Just her whole mindset of making people feel like they belong in a world where we often feel like we don't.'

At first glance, McConnell doesn't look so different from a lot of other 38-year-old Portlanders. The walls of her home include a painting of Madonna and a poster from the children's book 'Where the Wild Things Are.'

Look closer, though. McConnell is beyond physically fit. She has a striking gleam in her eyes. Around the house are photos of her with boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. In a far corner of her living room, resting on the shelf of a bookcase, are two gold, world championship belts.

'I don't have a good place for them yet,' McConnell says. 'I haven't decided what to do with them except pop them on the shelf.'

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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW • Molly McConnell delivers a right hand to the body of her opponent in a 2004 bout at Lincoln City.

McConnell is a fighter. And while Lady Gaga has said that fame was always her destiny, for the longest time it seemed that McConnell's destiny would be to never to own the WIBF (Women's International Boxing Federation) and GBU (Global Boxing Union) junior welterweight (143 pounds) world championship belts.

'Trying to get things to happen has been the most frustrating and most difficult part of this venture,' says Ron Woodward, McConnell's trainer. 'We've both gotten discouraged to the brink on a couple of occasions.'

The world title fight was originally scheduled to take place last September. McConnell put her entire life on hold for weeks on end to prepare for the opportunity of a lifetime. The day of the weigh-in, the fight was canceled. McConnell describes that as the second worst time of her life, next to her divorce.

'That came a pretty close second -and that includes losing my mother,' she says. 'Just that feeling of being so close and having that (bout) taken away was, I don't even know. I don't think I got off the couch for days.'

The fight was rescheduled -and then canceled again due to promotional controversies.

'If it was all written down, you would think a professional writer came up with this stuff,' Woodward says. 'The nonsense, the lies, the deceit. It's absolutely incredible.'

Finally, the 10-round fight took place March 25 against Kita Watkins in El Paso, Texas. McConnell was allowed only six rounds before destiny again threw a haymaker -a broken hand.

'It was like pulling a boulder up a hill to even get the fight,' she says, 'and then the universe was like, 'We're going to find out how bad you really want this. Let's see how you deal with a broken hand halfway through it.' It was almost poetic, in a way.'

McConnell didn't let on how badly she was hurt. McConnell kept touching Watkins with her injured right hand, while coming hard with her left jab. Four rounds later, McConnell had won a split decision, and the previously vacant title belts were hers.

Fourteen years earlier, Woodward had told McConnell that he would make her the 'toughest chick' in town. Then he amended that to toughest chick in the country.

'Do you remember that?' Woodward asked McConnell in the ring moments after the title bout. 'Well, here we are. World champion belt on your waist, dear.'

Hard work pays off

McConnell stands outside the ring at Curt's Ultimate Fitness, a boxing gym so hidden away on Northeast Halsey Street that even looking for it, a person could drive by a half-dozen times. After wrapping her now healed but still fragile right hand, McConnell and Woodward begin their training for the day.

'You ready to hit something?' Woodward asks, tying McConnell's gloves, as Lady Gaga's 'Born this Way' plays in the background.

McConnell smiles. This is her home. This is the only thing she can imagine herself doing. 'I'd shoot myself if I had to sit behind a desk all day,' she says.

McConnell grew up as an only child in Renton and Bellevue, Wash. Her adopted parents divorced when she was young. She lived with her mother and saw her father every other weekend.

McConnell was always an athlete. Her mother's brother and his two sons all played for a time in the NFL, so McConnell grew up in a sports family. She was a good softball player and went on to play at Lewis and Clark College.

Combat sports weren't a part of McConnell's youth. She doesn't remember watching boxing on TV, and she was not the school yard bully.

'I've never been in a fight outside the ring,' she says. 'As a kid, I was a little bit shy.'

The seeds of who she would become were always planted inside McConnell, though. Her mother taught her how to become a fighter, though not in the physical sense.

'Even from a very young age, I've always been very independent,' McConnell says. 'From my mom I got the determination. She really taught me how to be a fighter.'

McConnell also had a proclivity for adrenaline. She used to race her bicycle as fast as she could down a hill close to her childhood home. One day, McConnell's brakes didn't cooperate. She got to the bottom of the hill and sailed through a white picket fence, flipping her bike and landing on her knees.

'Kids are so stupid, it's a miracle anyone makes it out of childhood alive,' she says, laughing.

That accident came right before her growth spurt. A piece of bone grew on top of a nerve. The result was four knee surgeries, which would eventually end her career as a collegiate softball player.

McConnell spent her first years after college 'doing nothing. Literally.'

In her late 20s, McConnell began searching for something. She didn't want to do a team sport, but when she walked past a sign advertising a women's boxing class at the Grand Avenue Gym, she decided to try it.

After a couple of months, she was hooked. 'Boxing just gets in you,' she says.

Within six months, McConnell was stepping into the ring for a Golden Gloves fight at the old greyhound track in Fairview.

'It was surreal,' she says. 'I had no idea what I was getting into. The bell rang and this girl came screaming across the ring, throwing bombs. I remember freezing for a second like, 'Oh, my God, what did I get myself into?' Then something just clicked. It's almost fight or flight. You either have to do something or not. There' a choice to be made. So I just started punching.'

McConnell lost the fight, but she went the distance. That small victory fueled the growing fire inside of her.

'I wanted to go back to the gym that night,' she says. 'I was ready to go. I was like, 'If I really want to be good at this, I have to learn how to do it right.' '

After beginning her amateur career with a 1-2 record, McConnell approached Woodward, who she had seen training his son.

Woodward has been in boxing for more than 40 years as a fighter, official and trainer. He had no hesitation about training a young female.

'Not this girl,' he says.

Under Woodward's guidance, McConnell became a machine in the gym. 'Nobody works as hard as Molly' became a common phrase.

The hard work paid off. During the next two years, McConnell went 10-0. She finished her amateur career winning four national amateur titles. In 2004, she turned pro.

A title fight?

It's a typical day at Curt's, and McConnell is holding precision mitts for Paige Grider, an amateur mixed martial arts fighter whom McConnell trains in boxing. Grider circles the ring, making sure to strike the mitts and not McConnell.

'She knows that if she hits me we're going to have a problem,' McConnell says.

Grider agrees.

'They would be big problems,' she says. 'They would be 'I got knocked out' problems. And getting knocked out by Molly McConnell really sucks.'

Female boxing is not male boxing, and the paychecks show it. McConnell barely broke even after the expenses of her title fight.

'The glass ceiling is alive and well,' Woodward says. 'Just look above a boxing ring.'

To make ends meet, McConnell trains others between fights. She works with male MMA fighters on their boxing skills. One of her dreams is to own her own gym. She also loves working with children -especially one little girl who has been the victim of bullying.

The two have bonded over messages in Lady Gaga songs.

'We always listen to Lady Gaga when she comes in the gym,' the multi-tattooed McConnell says. 'This little girl likes her a lot. (Lady Gaga) is not afraid to be different, and she's not afraid to say it's OK to not be a carbon copy of everybody else. It's hard to be a kid. I'm glad I don't ever have to do it again.'

Becoming a full-time trainer is still in the future, though. McConnell took a 'stay-busy kind of fight' on July 22 in Austin, Texas, knocking down Tammy Franks a couple of times and winning by unanimous decision. The victory raised her pro record to 12-2-0, with five knockouts.

She hopes to fight in the Portland area for the first time in almost a decade, possibly in October at the Clark County Fairgrounds in a benefit for the Vancouver, Wash., Police Activities League. If all goes well, it would be a title defense, with Leonard on hand as a celebrity guest and signing autographs.

McConnell also hopes that in the next few years she can make more money inside the ring. But making what many men fighters do is a pipe dream.

'I think about it all the time,' she says. 'I'd be rich. Literally. I'd be a millionaire. It would be nice to make even like $200,000 a fight. That's not crazy money, especially for a world title fight.

'But money, endorsements, sponsorship, stuff like that, are hard to come by, especially in this economy. Women's boxing is not a real big seller.'

Although McConnell says she seldom thinks about the damage boxing might do to her body, she does become somber as she talks about the documentary 'Facing Ali,' which touches on the effects the poundings have had on Muhammad Ali and includes memories of Ali through the eyes of his opponents.

'With Leon Spinks, they had (to have) subtitles,' McConnell says. 'You literally cannot understand a word that comes out of his mouth. Ken Norton, same thing. Joe Frazier, you can understand him, but there's definitely some damage.

'I already have things wrong with me permanently. I have arthritis in my hands. Not like super bad. But I can feel it. I have knee problems, obviously. But I don't worry about head injuries too much. I mean, I'm aware of it. It's really important to take good care of yourself physically.'

McConnell still has that gleam in her eye when she talks about the sport.

'Someone who has done this, you know yourself better than other people do,' she says. 'I know what I'm capable of. You have moments during fights where you question things. Everybody has that, goes through that. You can be really confident and still have those moments.

'For me, it's always been the challenge of what can I accomplish? What can I overcome? What obstacles can I get past? There's something very poetic about boxing.'