Mary Jo Sanders: Onward and Upward

05.12.05 - Bernie McCoy: On December 17, one of the premier female boxers in the sport will put her unbeaten record on the line. The daughter of a famous athlete, this boxer exploded on the professional scene without the benefit of an extensive amateur background and has beaten every fighter she has been matched with. Laila Ali is also scheduled to fight on December 17..

Mary Jo Sanders and Laila Ali share a number of background similarities, both in and out of the ring, ranging from an unbeaten record to natural athletic ability, which can at least, partially, be traced to genes inherited from their athlete-fathers: Muhammad Ali, probably the most renowned heavyweight champion of the last century and Charlie Sanders, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection during a standout, ten year NFL career with the Detroit Lions.

Last week, I spoke, by phone, with Mary Jo Sanders and her manager-trainer, Jimmy Mallo, from their base in Detroit. Sanders, preparing for her December 17 return bout in Auburn Hills, MI with Lisa Holewyne, may be the best fighter in that fighter-rich city who doesn't come out of the Kronk Gym. Mallo, however, recalls taking Mary Jo, as part of her early training, to Kronk to spar with one of the gym's rising female stars, Kara Ro. "It got pretty lively", Mallo remembers in a bit of an understatement. Sanders adds a bit more perspective, "At Kronk, you have to 'earn your way in', and a sparring session is a bit of a misnomer. It's 'all out' from the moment you touch gloves. Kara and I got pretty intense, but, I have no doubt that they know who I am at Kronk." "All out" is as good a label as any for Mary Jo Sanders and her approach to her sport, "I don't like to lose. I never have, whether it's games or sports and I especially don't like to lose when I climb into the ring. I go hard when I'm sparring, running or doing conditioning work, I'm full speed, all the time."

Mallo notes that, recently, he's been working on bringing that attitude up another notch, "I'm reluctant to say that, in the past, Mary Jo may have had a bit too much compassion when she was in the ring, but, lately, we've been concentrating on bringing out her natural aggression and getting her to throw her punches with bad intentions." Sanders agrees, "Boxing is the toughest of all sports and there's no place for 'let up' once the bell rings." Given the fact that Mary Jo has reeled off eighteen straight wins, a step up in aggression and "punches with bad intentions" can't be great news for Sanders' future opponents.

As far as those eighteen wins are concerned, the list has an All-Star team quality to it, including, as it does, some of the best fighters in the welterweight ranks: Eliza Olson, Belinda Laracuente, Melissa Del Valle, Layla McCarter and tested veterans, Lisa Holewyne and Cynthia Prouder. But, when asked about the fight she vividly recalls, Sanders quickly answers, "Oh, Chevelle Hallback, no question. That was a non-stop ten rounds. We fought in upper Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and the action and the noise from the crowd was constant for every round. I was glad to be a part of that bout, it was a great experience. Chevelle is a terrific fighter and a good person and I was glad to come out on top."

Regarding future plans, Mary Jo takes a bit more of a laissez-faire approach, "I fight whoever is put in front of me. I'm like a groom at a wedding, tell me when and where to show up and I'll take it from there." Given that she is in the most competitive weight division in the sport, Sanders is aware that there are still a number of good fights available. There is talk of a bout with Christy Martin in the Far East; Lucia Rijker is still on the scene; and, certainly, there is the fight that would match the boxers who, many fans feel, are the two most skilled in the division, Sanders and Sumya Anani. Jimmy Mallo says he's been working a long time "trying to put together the right combination of venue and financial backing for an Anani bout. That fight deserves a first class setting because it's the premier fight in the sport right now." He hopes to haveall the elements in place in 2006.

There are also plans, some would say dreams, and, realistically, it's probably, at best, a hope, for a Mary Jo Sanders/Laila Ali bout. In fact, Mallo goes so far as to flatly state that, on a long term basis, "Mary Jo is being groomed for Ali." Asked about such a bout, Sanders expresses not only a willingness, but confidence. "That would be great," Mary Jo enthuses, "I know I can handle the step up in weight. I've been a competitive bodybuilder and I'm familiar with the technique of tweaking you body in order to gain weight the right way, putting on muscle, not fat. I've done it and I'd be very comfortable climbing into the ring at 168. I'm confident I wouldn't lose any speed and I know I'd gain punching power."

Any of these bouts, Mary Jo Sanders in the ring with Sumya Anani, Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker or Laila Ali would be exactly the type of compelling match-up the sport of Women's boxing so badly needs at this point in time. Such bouts would provide a showcase for just how good the best of the best in the sport really are. Sanders puts it bluntly, "The female bouts on TV now, when they are on, and that's not very often, usually consist of a 'name' fighter and an 'opponent'. And yet, even without good match-ups, the attraction of female boxing, for whatever reason, inevitably results in a 'spike' in TV ratings. If my fight with Chevelle Hallback had been on national TV, I guarantee you that ESPN, Fox Sports and Showtime would be beating down the doors for more bouts. Instead, we fought without TV, in northern Michigan, but you know what, there are a whole lot of people who were there that night who are probably still talking about that bout." (Sanders and Hallback fought in May 2004).

Despite how good the Sanders/Hallback bout was, not enough people have been talking about Mary Jo Sanders, at least outside of Detroit. Sanders has certainly done her part, fighting some of the best boxers in the sport and coming away a winner eighteen times. There are other main event quality fights with main event quality fighters out there and Jimmy Mallo is trying his best to come up with the right time, the right place and the right amount of television exposure for those match-ups. If, and when, Sanders gets those opportunities and that exposure, it's very possible that boxing fans will continue talking about "that woman boxer with the famous father, the guy who played with the Lions."

Article posted on 05.12.2005

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