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From trouble to triumph

Local teen McKenzie Box credits mixed martial arts for keeping her on the right path

by: RON HALVORSON/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - McKenzie Box (white) and Liz Lopez (purple) practice moves on the mat.

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a combat sport integrating fighting skills from several disciplines, such as boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, karate, and others.
   With techniques based on stand-up striking and clinch fighting, as well as grappling — including “ground and pound” — pretty much anything goes.
   Rules are few, fights are often in cages, and it’s a brutal, usually bloody sport — definitely no place for a girl.
   Try telling that to 17-year-old McKenzie Box.
   “You just get to go (fight), and you don’t have to think about anything that’s going on in your daily life — about school, about home, or about stresses you’re having with your friends,” Box explained. “Nothing else matters at the time.”
   Besides enjoying MMA, Box considers the sport to be her redemption, and even a way to give back to her school and community.
   “About a year ago I got myself wrapped up in the wrong crowd,” the Crook County High School junior said. “I was doing drugs, and going out and drinking, and fighting in alleys and at school, and it ended up getting me in a lot of trouble. I really didn’t care about authority or what anybody thought.”
   Box said that the police were called during one of her back-alley fights. She didn’t get caught, but Ken, her father, turned her in anyway, where she was given a ticket for disorderly conduct.
   “He (Dad) wanted me to know that I wasn’t always going to be able to get away with this stuff,” she said.
   Rightfully concerned, her parents sought counsel and prayer for their daughter at an evening Bible study home group they were active in. The next day found Ken at Cougar Cuts, where he not only got a haircut but was able to continue the previous evening’s conversation with his barber, also a member of the home group.
   As Ken paid for his haircut, a man walked up to him, shook his hand, and introduced himself as Justin Tomlinson. Unbeknownst to Ken, Tomlinson overheard the entire conversation about Box, and he offered to help. Coincidentally, Tomlinson is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitor and trainer who lived in Prineville at the time.
   “He said he would love to take me on,” recalled McKenzie, “but he wanted to talk with me about stipulations. He said my grades had to be above average, I was not allowed to fight outside of his gym, I had to obey my parents, and not disrespect authority like I had been.”
   MMA wasn’t exactly what Ken had in mind for his daughter, and he told Tomlinson to do whatever it would take to get her to quit.
    “Justin kind of pushed me pretty hard the first day,” she said. “I got pretty close to puking a couple of times, but I didn’t quit, and I kept going back.”
   Tomlinson left Prineville to follow a job, and today Box trains at Norm’s Extreme Fitness, where Bobby Blanchard teaches a basic jiu-jitsu class. Without a doubt, Blanchard said, she has the right attitude and competitiveness to succeed.
   “She has a champion’s heart,” he said. “I know boys that don’t even have the heart she’s got. Win or lose, I believe she has what it takes to be a warrior.”
   “I like to think I’m good at it,” said Box, “but I know I still have a lot to learn and there’s always going to be someone out there who’s better than you, no matter how good you think you are.”
   Her parents are reluctantly supportive.
   “I support her 100 percent,” said Kari, “but it’s just really hard for me to watch.” She said she’d probably watch her daughter when she fights in a cage, but that she might have to be buckled in a seat to stay put.
   “It’s hard to have her (Kari) bouncing up and down when you’re trying to focus on what’s in front of you,” Box said as she explained why her mother can be a distraction.
   Her dad isn’t so sure he wants to see her in the ring.
   “I like watching her progress and the stuff she’s learning,” he said, “but I don’t want to watch her fight. I don’t want to see somebody beating on her.”
   Box said that now she’s doing better in school, has a positive attitude, and has respect — for herself and others.
   Her grades are proof. A year ago, she did well to pull a C in a class. Ds and Fs were all too common. Today her grades are above average, and even As make stellar appearances on her report cards. Kari said she’s also more focused and self-assured, and where before she was kind of shy, now she “talks to anybody.”
   Walking the line is always a struggle, Box said, because of friends who are still drinking and fighting, and it’s difficult being home all the time.
   “Even though I’m frustrated with my parents because they won’t let me (go out), I know it’s for the better.”
   Were it to end there, it’s an inspiring story — but it’s just the beginning.
   Last summer, Box sent an e-mail to Tom Murphy, a RailAmerica executive living in Vermont. He was a NCAA wrestling champion, currently competes in MMA at the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) level, owns a gym, and is active in anti-bullying endeavors. Wrestling, he said, turned his life around from circumstances similar to Box’s.
   “I get this e-mail from McKenzie,” Murphy said, “who’s on the other side of the country, and she tells me her story a little bit.”
   Box told him of the gym she trained at, a need for equipment they couldn’t afford, her troubled past, and of finding her passion in MMA.
   “I didn’t know how much support she had,” he continued, “so I figured someone with a little bit of notoriety could reach out to her and say keep going in that direction because it worked for me.”
   Box also shared her vision — building a gym for local teens where she and her teammates could become role models to help kids turn their lives around, just as she has done, and to do what she could to make her school a better place. That struck a chord with Murphy.
   “I guess that’s the thing that grabbed me the most,” he said, “is her saying she wants to help kids, and she wants to help the community. Not just thinking about what ‘I can get out of it.’ That’s a special person.”
   Murphy has connections, one of whom is the president of Headrush, the “second or third largest MMA clothing company in the world.” He shared Box’s story, and Headrush sent her a number of quality MMA shirts, banners, and stickers to be used by the team. He’s continued his e-mail friendship with her and hopes to come to Prineville to the team and to put on his anti-bullying program, Sweethearts and Heroes. This program is unique, he said, because it focuses on empowering the bystanders to stop the bullying, instead of just dealing with the bullies and the victims.
   “The Sweetheart/Heroes thing is a big part of why she’s still even doing it,” said Ken. “He (Murphy) told her, the best part about doing this stuff is being able to give back to others. What you give is what you get.”
   Box understands bullying.
   “We do Challenge Days (at school). It works,” she said, “but it only lasts for a while. Time goes by and you forget about it. There are kids out there who struggle at home every day. To have something that they can turn to that they really love (such as MMA), and to know that they could be somebody that statistics say they can’t be, is one of the best opportunities you can give a kid.
   “My goal is I want to get in the cage, but my main goal is I want be able to help other kids that are in the same position that I was.”