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Fightin spirit

Tonya Harding is throwing herself into a new passion

VANCOUVER, Wash. Ñ The boombox belts a steady beat from Morris Day and the Time as the fighter shadowboxes.

'Helps rhythm,' trainer Jeff Hargis explains simply.

For the next four hours, the fighter goes through a daily routine, honing the technique and footwork, always moving, graduating to glove-to-mitt work and finally to light sparring.

Six days a week, the fighter prepares for her first professional bout in the relative privacy of the hotel conference room.

Tonya Harding is not just any rookie.

The Milwaukie native and Vancouver resident smoked hapless Paula Jones in a televised celebrity boxing match last year. But this is for real. On Feb. 22, she will meet another pro boxing novice Ñ Samantha Browning, 21, of Mantachie, Miss. Ñ in a four-round bout on the undercard of a Mike Tyson show in Memphis, Tenn.

It's the first of three pro fights scheduled in the near future for the 5-foot-1 Harding, who will compete in the 120-pound bantamweight class.

It's different from the figure-skating universe in which the 32-year-old Harding thrived in the early '90s. That world changed forever in 1994, with the celebrated Nancy Kerrigan incident that led to shame, a $100,000 fine, 500 hours of community service and a lifetime ban from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

In the years since, headlines have trumpeted mostly bad news. There have been two failed marriages, two short jail terms Ñ one for battery on a boyfriend in the famed 'hubcap' incident, the other for a drunken-driving conviction while still on probation for the former offense Ñ and the embarrassment of eviction from her apartment for failure to pay rent.

The latest charge, two months ago, a potential violation of probation when a friend with whom she was riding was stopped with two unopened beer bottles in the back seat of his pickup, was thrown out of court by a Clark County, Wash., judge.

Harding has been fodder for newspaper columnists and comedians across the country, and she doesn't appreciate it.

But the one-time Olympian is nothing if not resilient. She is determined to make the transition from champion in one sport to champion in another.

Harding and Hargis, 42, a former kickboxing champion from Nashville with whom she has been training for three months, sat down with the Tribune to discuss her new career and her long-held feelings about misconceptions perpetuated by the media.

Trib: After the Paula Jones debacle Ñ a mismatch to say the least Ñ what whetted your appetite to get into the ring again?

Harding: That was for celebrity boxing. I had one hour of training to prepare for that. I knew nothing except to go in and start punching. I thought Jones did pretty good. It was just supposed to be basically for fun. She got me with one early, and it moved my headgear, and I was like, 'Wait a second.' It kind of ticked me off, and it was, 'OK, bye.'

That kind of inspired me to think about boxing (as a career). I had gotten offers before; I talked to (promoter) Brian Young, and he said, 'You really want to do this? If you are serious, we will do it.' I said, 'I'm serious. Let's do a trial run.' And once we got started training, I found I really enjoy the athletic part of it. It is such a gladiator sport. There are no politics involved. It is a one-on-one thing. You step in the ring, and it is whoever's better. It doesn't matter what you wear, what you look like, how you fight, as long as you win.

Trib: You think you can win a world title?

Harding: I do. I've finally found something I really enjoy doing. I thought about race-car driving, but I couldn't get into it. It was fun, but it wasn't me. It's not physical enough. In boxing, it's all about hard work and athletic ability. And I love competing, I really do. Being in front of the cameras doesn't bother me.

Trib: What is your motivation in this boxing endeavor?

Harding: The best revenge is success. I have had a lot of ups and downs, like everyone. You have a past and a future. I don't ever want to dwell on what has happened in my life, so I think about what is going to happen the next day. Success and wanting to feel self-pride is my motivation.

Trib: You feel vengeful about the things that have been said and written about you?

Harding: Well, sure, who wouldn't? If I didn't, I wouldn't be human. People have doubted me my whole life Ñ 'You will never succeed, never amount to anything.' My revenge is, 'Yes, I am going to succeed, in whatever I do.' If I'm going to put my mind and heart and soul into something, I am going to succeed in it.

Trib: How much does the lifetime skating ban bother you?

Harding: It really doesn't matter. I had my time. Gosh, I skated 24 years. You can look at all the young girls Ñ I mean, they are only 14 years old, and they can do what I was doing. It's a younger sport. Jumping into the air 4 feet and landing on your rear end, it kind of hurts more than just falling to the floor (in a boxing ring).

I am very happy about my career. It was something I did, and I did it great. I loved skating, and I still do. But it's time to move on to something else.

Trib: You had a lot of accomplishments during your skating career, but what you are most remembered for is the Kerrigan incident. Your reputation has taken a beating since. Do you have regrets?

Harding: No. Life is already planned out. What happens to you, you deal with. You get kicked down, you get back up, and you go on. I consider myself the Energizer Bunny.

Trib: You mean life is planned out by a higher being?

Harding: Oh, yeah.

Trib: Are you religious?

Harding: I am.

Trib: Are you a Christian, or É?

Harding: I don't answer that. That's my own preference, to keep it personal. But I do have my beliefs. I thank him for being here every single day when I wake up.

Trib: Do you still get recognized when out in public?

Harding: I can't go anywhere without being recognized. I can go anywhere in the world, walk out of an airport, and somebody will go, 'That's Tonya Harding.'

Trib: Do they bring up the Kerrigan incident?

Harding: Oh, no. They are very polite. They want to talk or get my autograph and get a picture with me. People want to see me succeed. I don't want to let them down. I don't want to let myself down, either.

Trib: At the news conference announcing your first pro fight, Tyson called you into his dressing room.

Hargis: He said he's a great fan. He told Tonya, 'We have both been up, and we have been down, but we keep fighting and going forward.' They are both people's champions, because we as Americans love to see people fall down, get back up, fight forward and succeed.

Trib: What bothers you most about what people have said and written about you?

Harding: I wish the media would stop judging me before they know the facts. They tend to jump out and think I have done something wrong, and they have to add their 2 cents' worth. I am not a bad person; I am the same as you. If you were to get in trouble and I were to hunt you down and find out what's going on, and then say something that is not factual whatsoever, how would it make you feel?

I wish people would get the facts right, because it is not only me they are hurting, they are also hurting the fans out there who don't know what to believe.

Hargis: It's like the hubcap incident. My impression from what I read was that she had taken the hubcap and beaten the hell out of her boyfriend. The truth was, she threw it at his motorcycle.

Harding: I didn't even throw it at him. Then I proved there was fraud on top of that. They put makeup on him, made it look like I beat the crap out of him. The captain of the police force gave me his pictures. (The ex-boyfriend) did it to make money off me.

And like (the December incident) when I was in a car with a friend who got stopped, and the big news was he had two unopened beer bottles in the back. I didn't know they were there, but who cares? The point is, he got a warning for no front license plate and excessive speed. Big deal. So what happens, the cop wants to make 15 minutes of fame, just to make money or something off of me, and make my life miserable. That could have cost me thousands of dollars.

Trib: Do you have a boyfriend?

Harding: No.

Trib: Are you dating?

Harding: Nope. I'm not into that right now.

Trib: Describe Tonya at 32.

Harding: Very motivated. Settled. Happy.

Trib: Will you continue to live in Vancouver (her home for the last five years)?

Harding: I really love this part of the country. I don't plan on ever moving. There's always the possibility I will, of course. You don't know until it happens.

Trib: You have had alcohol problems in the past. Are you sober now?

Harding: Yes, I am. My one-year (anniversary) comes in April. It makes me feel really good. I can think, I don't blow up, I don't have blackouts. It's really nice to know I can go out there and do what I am planning on doing.

Trib: What turns you on in life right now?

Harding: Being the best. That's all. Being happy, having fun at doing it, and being the best.

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..