By Thomas Gerbasi
Tori Nelson is slacking off. It used to be that she juggled three jobs and a boxing career. Now she’s down to “only” two jobs to go along with life as a world champion and a single mother of two teenagers. She even took this week off.
What’s going on here?
“This week I’m off from everywhere so I can train for this fight on Saturday.”
That’s what life is like for female boxing champions these days. Far removed from the million dollar paydays and premium cable dates, fighters like Nelson instead have to work a day job (or two) and keep plugging away in the gym in the hopes that one day, the rest of the sport’s establishment will give them their due. It’s a day the 37-year-old Ashburn, Virginia native believes is coming. Not today, not tomorrow, but eventually.
“I do, but right now it’s slow,” she said. “I thought it was going to make a big breakthrough once Claressa (Shields) won the (Olympic) Gold medal. If it was a guy, it would have been so different. But being that she’s a female, it was just like ‘oh, okay, she won the medal.’ But I feel that it’s coming.”
And until then, Nelson works, fights, and is a mother to her 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter. Between sessions in the gym, where she also works, she picks up a shift at IHOP, and though it’s an exhausting schedule, she doesn’t complain about it. And it’s not just about paying the bills and making ends meet. It’s about setting an example and proving a point.
“I don’t want my daughter to have to feel that she has to depend on a man,” said Nelson. “I can make it, and I can feed them and take care of them and spend time with them as much as I can. So I want to show them that you can be strong and that whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.”
A late starter in the fight game, Nelson first put on the gloves at 29. She quickly picked up a few Golden Gloves titles and competed in the Nationals. Eventually, her coach asked her what her intentions were. Was she going to quit, or give the pros a shot?
“I put too much into this to just stop,” she said. “I told him, let’s see how far we can go. And it all happened so fast.”
Floyd Mayweather-fast. Turning pro in May of 2010, Nelson picked up the vacant WBC female middleweight title in just her fifth pro fight. Two fights later, she added the WIBA belt, and in 2010, she nabbed the WIBA belt in the welterweight division, making her a two-division champion.
“I worked too hard to be mediocre,” she said. “In anything I do, I’m very competitive.”
And while her wins over 10-1 Aleksandra Lopes and 5-1-1 Kali Reis drew some attention in women’s boxing circles, it was her May 2014 victory over Mia St. John that really got people talking. Sure, St. John, then 46, had seen better days in the ring, but she was still the fighter who went the distance with Christy Martin, Jelena Mrdjenovich, and Holly Holm, and in her previous bout she fought pound-for-pound queen Cecilia Braekhus.
So what happened? Nelson improved to 9-0-3, but more impressively, she picked up her first pro knockout by halting St. John in the second round.
“That isn’t at all how we thought the fight would go,” admitted Nelson. It was a star-making performance, but it barely registered a blip on the mainstream boxing radar.
“My Facebook went crazy,” she laughs. “But as far as recognition in the boxing world, I’m still a female. It didn’t change.”
That’s a shame. Because no matter how you feel about the sport of women’s boxing, the talent level is as high as it’s ever been, and at the very least, they should be given a shot to perform on television or on the big cards. Hey, Europe and Mexico get it; why don’t the networks and big promoters in the States follow suit?
“We fight, we battle,” said Nelson. “And every card that I’m on, the females are always in the fight of the night. I don’t know why promoters are not seeing this.”
James Hogan and his Ponytail Promotions see it, and he’s acted accordingly, featuring Nelson on his shows, the next one which takes place on Saturday at Du Burns Arena in Baltimore. In the main event, Nelson defends her title against Nicole Woods, who, at 11-13-3 with an 0-7-2 slate in her last nine fights, shouldn’t be within sniffing distance of a world title fight. But in the current climate, this is more the rule than the exception.
“We went to more girls before her, and they were like ‘oh no, we’re not fighting her,’” said Nelson, who is just happy to get a fight at this point. “I’m like, but it’s boxing. But she (Woods) was the one who jumped on it. She said ‘I’ll fight her.’ Okay, you get it.”
Eventually, Nelson would like a crack at Braekhus, and even though she was turned down for a fight with the top female in the game, she keeps her sunny outlook on the sport and on life in general.
“Right now I need to stay busy, keep my record going, and stay sharp so when she’s ready, I can be ready.”
That’s what champions do, and Tori Nelson doesn’t need a shiny belt to know that she already has that designation – in boxing and in life. So she’ll keep fighting.
“I started it already and I don’t just stop something that I started,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to see that as an example. I started it already, and quitting is not an option, so I’m just going to keep going until God says that’s enough.”