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The Natural

Tonya Harding lost the fight but not the passion for her new job in the ring Side-saddle deck: She proved she can take a punch but now has to show she can deliver one

MEMPHIS Ñ Late Saturday night, as Tonya Harding sat in her hotel room at the Tunica Grand Casino after losing her pro boxing debut, the phone rang. It was her trainer, Jeff Hargis.

'Come on, we're going out into the casino,' Hargis told the former bad girl of figure skating.

As she meandered through the facility, dropping a few coins in slot machines, Harding was surprised by the public's reaction. Many gamblers greeted her warmly. Casino workers shouted encouragement. High-rollers invited her into VIP rooms. Many wanted autographs from her and photographs with her. The band in the lounge acknowledged her. Clifford Etienne, Mike Tyson's tomato can for the evening, introduced himself and wished her luck in her boxing career.

'I felt it was important she not crawl into her hotel room with her tail between her legs,' Hargis said. 'We lost, but we didn't fail Ñ that's the most important thing.'

Hargis, as with all good trainers, is enthusiastic about the potential of his latest charge, even after her four-round split-decision loss to Samantha Browning, 21, of Tupelo, Miss., at The Pyramid. Both fighters weighed in at 123 pounds and tangled in the bantamweight class.

The 5-foot-1 Harding, 32, pressed the action through the first two rounds, then fatigue set in. She kept boring in and, when in close, got in some punches.

But the 5-4 Browning did the most damage, jabbing with the left hand, using her reach advantage and smacking Harding's unprotected kisser throughout the bout.

'Samantha landed more blows, but Tonya was the more aggressive fighter,' Hargis said. 'Samantha was a little more patient. Tonya was excited and a little overzealous, and she left herself open at times. Typical first-fight jitters.

'But she has plenty of heart. I saw her take a right hand that was just buckling. I looked for Tonya's legs to go down; instead, I saw that stare that says, 'You hit me, and that's going to cost you.' That's what it takes for a fighter. Tonya is a natural for the sport. She just needs more work and more ring time.'

The reaction to Harding in the casino was different from the greeting she received as she entered the ring.

The curiosity quotient was high. The crowd of 15,171 was eager to see if the one-time world figure-skating champion could succeed in her latest sporting endeavor.

Browning, a ninth-grade dropout who cleans houses for a living, entered first, raising both arms to an ovation. Harding, with a French braid, black vest, boxing shorts and game-face scowl, came next to a mixed chorus of cheers and jeers.

'I could care less what the crowd was like,' Harding said. 'I was totally into what I had to do. Walking into the ring, I heard people. Some people were being great, and then there were people who weren't. É Who cares?'

Harding understands the posturing and the psychological warfare indigenous to boxing. Browning, a soft-spoken country girl, seemed oblivious. But she wasn't going to back down. During Friday's weigh-in, Harding and Browning faced off and had a 20-second staredown. After it was over, Browning smiled and joked with her husband/trainer, Nelson.

Harding, asked how she felt during the staredown, had a quick response: 'I was ready to stand off right then and there.'

Running out of gas

Twenty-eight hours later, the fight was on. Browning was warned for rabbit punching in the first round, in part because Harding kept wading in and wound up grabbing and holding as much as fighting. Near the end of the second round, the fighters went down in a heap, and it was ruled a slip.

'We both kind of stumbled and fell to the floor,' Harding explained. 'I tried to catch both of us, but it doesn't work that way.'

Harding said she ran out of gas early, 'at the end of the second, beginning of the third round.' After the third round, Harding slumped into her corner and told Hargis, 'I think I'm going to throw up.'

Hargis placed a bucket beneath her, and she spit into it.

'Go ahead and puke,' he told her, 'but you got another round to fight.'

The fighters wearily made it through the final round. When the bell sounded, Browning raised both hands and was hoisted up by her husband. They kissed, and she was greeted with a cavalcade of cheers.

When the ring announcer said, 'It is a split decision,' loud boos filled the building. One judge scored it 39-37 in Harding's favor. The other two judges had it 38-37 and 39-37 for Browning. When Browning's arm was raised as the winner, the boos turned to cheers.

Harding was a good sport about it. And as she walked past the media en route to her locker room, she said, 'I feel great. I made all four rounds! It was a great fight.'

Harding said she learned that boxing is 'way harder' than figure skating.

'Landing on your rear end, I got used to it (in figure skating) since I was 3,' she said. 'Getting punched in the nose, I just learned what it feels like. And, hey, you know, it's OK. It hurts a little, but I stood there and I took it, and I gave it.'

She had no quarrel with the decision: 'It's up to the judges, unless it's a knockout. Hey, she (Browning) gave me a run for my money.'

And then some. Browning administered plenty of punishment, discoloring Harding's nose by the second round and putting a scrape and small mouse over her left eye.

But Browning acknowledged that when she heard the words 'split decision,' she figured it might go the other way.

'Just because of who she is,' Browning said. 'Tonya Harding.'

More to come

Indeed, Harding's reputation mattered.

Harding has a four-year agreement with the event's promoter, Brian Young, and his Prize Fight Boxing group, and she got better treatment than Browning. Harding had a spacious locker room (though the sign on her door misspelled her first name as 'Toyna'); Browning dressed in a storage area.

Harding's paycheck (in the neighborhood of $5,000) dwarfed Browning's ($1,200). And Harding's purse would have been more if Showtime hadn't dropped her fight from its televised show when negotiations with Young failed during the preceding week.

Young made no effort to hide his partiality. After the second round, he raced to the ring, beckoned the referee and demonstratively yelled complaints, presumably about what he considered unfair tactics by Browning. Good thing Young wasn't judging the fight, too.

Is Harding ready to launch a serious bid at a world title? Time will tell, but she is undeterred.

She returned to her Vancouver, Wash., home for a few days off. Hargis is to fly in from Nashville, Tenn., this week to begin preparing her for the next bout March 15 in Gulfport, Miss. Harding's third fight is scheduled 10 days later in Oklahoma City.

It may be that Harding has found her calling in boxing. She's a determined, willing pupil with a coaching stable that will spend the time to train her. She not only doesn't mind the get-down-and-dirty part of the sport, she seems to thrive on it.

She proved that she can take a punch. All she must do now is learn how to protect herself and deliver one as well.

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