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Punching out

Ridiculed and bullied as a youth, a mother of two turns to boxing and finds a new strength in the ring and outside it.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
Published June 26, 2005


[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Sandy Maloy talks strategy with coach John Brooks, who was a professional middleweight in the 1970s and had dreams of being a world champ.

  photo
[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Sandy Maloy, 36, trains at the Brooks Boxers gym in Tampa, where the light heavyweight works out for three hours after work, then goes home and often cooks and does dishes and laundry.
Maloy works on the heavy bag with guidance from coach John Brooks. Maloy, who weighed 160 pounds at age 12, spent most of her life staying quiet and hoping to avoid confrontations.
Maloy first visited the Brooks Boxers gym in August 2001, hoping to lose weight and improve her self-esteem.  
[Family photo]

TAMPA - Her right hand keeps choking. Her coach is vexed. He sees power there, enough to knock down some of the world's stoutest women, if only she'd learn to aim that sledgehammer through her opponent's teeth and skull and brain.

But here in the tiny N 50th Street gym, where she's walloping the single heavy bag on a Friday night, Sandy "Sweet N Sour" Maloy keeps sabotaging her best punch, pulling back an instant too soon with her straight right.

"That's the girl you gonna fight hangin' up there!" coach John Brooks is barking. "That ain't no bag!"

Maloy is 36 years old, a full-time bankruptcy specialist at an auto finance firm, the mother of two teenagers. She comes to Brooks Boxers every weeknight after work to punch and shuffle and spar for three hours. Afterward, if her husband is working late, there's cooking at home to do, dishes, laundry.

No one was as surprised as Maloy when she found herself, after just one victory, ranked No. 5 in the world in the women's light heavyweight division on www.boxrec.com That's less impressive than it sounds, mostly a function of how few women her size want to fight. She stands 5 feet 11, her weight hovers around 180, and just getting into the ring puts her in the elite.

Word came in, just last night, that she will fight eight days from now, in Greensboro, N.C. Coach Brooks believes the promoter, eager to build up the other fighter, is looking for a chump in Maloy.

People underestimate her, the coach believes, because she's softer-looking than most female boxers. She has good teeth, a fine straight nose, unscarred pecan-colored skin. When she answers the phone, her voice is as soft and melodious as a flight attendant bringing you in for a landing.

In just a few years, the coach has stripped dozens of pounds from her frame. But so far, all his badgering and all his love haven't eradicated a lifetime's habit of meekness. It's showing right now, in the way she refuses to throw her right like she really means it.

"She don't believe she can knock nobody out," Brooks explains. "If I can get her to get beyond that there, she can go on up to the top."

* * *

For much of her life, Maloy was the punching bag. Being 12 years old and 160 pounds can do that. She went to school in borrowed clothes and a homemade haircut. Her mom was white, her dad black, which bought the animosity of white girls and black girls.

She learned to stay after school at Palm River Elementary in Tampa, erasing a teacher's chalkboard, until the packs of bullies went home. When they caught her, she ran, and they tore at her clothes.

When her family moved to Land O'Lakes, where the local high school had just a few black kids, the torment was verbal. On the blacktop leading to her family's single-wide, kids painted an arrow and a racial epithet.

She got pregnant at 19, was unmarried, and raised two kids by herself while putting herself through school. She worked during the day, and at night went to Florida Metropolitan University and got a bachelor's in criminal justice.

She hated confrontations, trouble of any kind. Raised voices had always made her nervous. She never wanted anyone mad at her. The quieter you were, she thought, the safer you were. At parties she hugged the walls. Everyone called her sweet.

Once, about 10 years ago, a man she loved hit her in the face. It was an open hand, out of nowhere. She wanted to hit back. Balled up her fists. But she was afraid. He was big, and carried a gun, and her kids were there.

Later, she forgave him and took him back. It lasted another three years, and she felt like his doormat. She left because he wouldn't marry her.

"People took her kindness for weakness, and they just kind of slowly and surely broke her down," said a longtime friend, Jessica Parianous. "She just looked like the type of person you could bully."

But here, Friday night at the Brooks Boxers gym, she's jabbing the end-to-end bag, weaving and aiming. Her husband of five years, Stephen, chews a toothpick while watching her. He's a boxing fan who got her interested in the sport, though he worries about her getting hurt.

"I'm always nervous," he says.

Coach Brooks studies her. "You gonna have to cut her off!" he yells. "When we crowd her, we gonna bust her up."

She'd love to know what it feels like, to punch another woman hard and clean enough to make her eyes roll back and her body crumble. She has yet to do it.

"It's just like a rush, that you have that capability of debilitating someone like that," she muses later in her soft voice. "I heard that word. I thought, "Oh, yes, that's what I want to do - debilitate someone.' "

* * *

It's easy to fall into cliches. The sport teems with them. Boxing as a ticket out of the streets. Boxing as a metaphor for life. Boxing as a vehicle for redemption or reinvention. Hollywood loves these stories.

Real life isn't as tidy. It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that boxing saved Sandy Maloy's life, or her soul.

Still, something happened to her that everyone around her notices. She went for so long, being one way. Not even her best friends really imagined her any other way.

Then one day in August 2001 she walked down a row of out-of-the-way storage warehouses, stepping into the tiny gym built inside one of them. It had little more than the essentials. One speed bag, one heavy bag, one uppercut bag, one double-end bag. One gray, dirty, sweat-soaked canvas.

She'd never played organized sports. She had bad habits. She liked candy bars and long cigars. She got winded, going up stairs. She had no confidence, no coordination. She was just looking to lose some weight, feel a little better about herself.

She looked at the peeling walls, with their pictures of boxing gods and homegrown fighters, a whole gallery of Olympian physiques. One was an old photo of a sculpted, hard-eyed young warrior in boxing gloves named John Brooks, who fought as a professional middleweight in the 1970s and thought he could be world champ, with better luck.

Now before her stood a much older version of that man, stooped and growly and prone to shout. He started her off slow, because she couldn't run around the building without her ribs burning.

Pretty soon he was making her feel his love for the sport. Pretty soon he was making her cry. He made her jump rope. Thanks to all her extra weight, shin splints wracked her legs for months. She ached in every limb. That's an uppercut. That's a jab. That's a hook. Night after night, she was the only woman there, panting and shuffling in size 11 boots amid a swirl of smaller, younger, v-shaped men and boys whose gloves flitted like whipcords.

Pounds peeled away. She kept thinking of quitting. When coach Brooks screamed, she quaked. Once, he started yelling about how stiff she was, and she felt her tears rushing up. She didn't want him to see her cry, so she fled the gym, pulling off her gloves and tossing them on the road.

He went after her, yelling, "Sandy, come back!"

She was terrified of getting hurt. Seven months into her training, 20 pounds lighter, she was about to step into a Pinellas Park ring for her first amateur bout when she told Brooks, "What have I gotten myself into?"

She stepped through the ropes and into a haymaker. It came out of nowhere and left her dazed, dead on her feet, eyes open but seeing only gray. Only stubbornness kept her standing.

She went the full four rounds, but when the other fighter won the decision, she cried all the way home. She was thinking about her childhood, about how absurd it was, really, to spend years running from beatings only to walk voluntarily into one as a grown woman.

Her second fight also went the full four, no knockouts. The other fighter seemed raw, too, reluctant to hit back. This time, there in the middle of the ring, it was her own name Maloy heard over the loudspeaker, her hand the referee raised. She screamed. What could match that feeling?

Emboldened, she signed up for her first pro bout. It was April 2004. She would fight a more experienced fighter, a lefty named Yvonne Reis, in Port St. Lucie. The seriousness of the mood intimidated her. Oscar de la Hoya was in the crowd. She realized she could make a complete fool of herself.

Just before the bell rang, she thought of soldiers in Iraq and how much worse they had it. "This is nothing, Sandy," she told herself. "This is eight minutes of my time."

She landed a good punch, and noticed Reis smirk. That communicated pain, her coach had taught her. She won the decision again.

About a month later, coach Brooks told her to log onto the Internet. By winning one fight, according to boxing Web sites, she was now ranked in the world's top 10 in the light heavyweight class. "You're kidding me," she thought. There are a lot of small women getting into rings, but few Maloy's size.

At a Tampa hotel in February, she traded punches for four furious rounds with a massive boxer named Cynthia Lozano, who came at her swinging wild. Judges called it a tie. Coach Brooks thought she was cheated.

* * *

Victories come in all sizes. It used to be a problem, when it came to disciplining her kids, Tim, 17, and Michelle, 13. She'd think up a punishment, like no TV, and then relent. Now she sticks to it. She gives them pushups, too. Especially Tim, when he lets his pants sag. She won't stand for that.

When she married Stephen, she allowed him to be right all the time, even when he wasn't. That was how you kept things calm at home, she thought.

Now, it's tough to bite her tongue. She'll throw sarcasm at him. Like the time he kept giving excuses why he couldn't get in shape. He kept complaining about his gut, but wouldn't do anything. Finally she told him she had a method. She waved her hand over him and said, "Hocus pocus." He got the message and laughed, not even mad at her.

* * *

In 2001, before she started training, she drove to New Port Richey in hopes of fighting in an amateur Toughman competition. No other woman would sign up. A couple years later, a Bradenton mother of two named Stacy Young was punched into a coma and fatally injured during a Toughman bout.

Maloy has studied the tape, over and over, watching how Young drops her hands in exhaustion as the punches keep coming. "I'm scared of trouble, and still am," Maloy said. "That's probably what drives me to train as hard as I do."

She earns $500 to $800 a fight, and plans to retire at age 40, win or lose, and maybe become a paralegal or go to law school. But she'd first like to fight top-ranked Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali's daughter, and become the world champ "just for a day or so."

Santo Liquito, who writes a column on women's boxing for World Boxing magazine, had not heard of Maloy. He says there is a vast difference in talent between top fighters like Laila Ali and most contenders.

"A lot of that talent gap is right around the supermiddleweight area," he says, around where Maloy fights. "You have Laila Ali, who's considered the best pound-for-pound female fighter in the word. She has a bit of a mean streak to her."

And then most of the others.

* * *

The fight in North Carolina is eight days away. It's 6:40 p.m., about halfway through her Friday-night workout. She climbs into the ring, shadowboxing.

Coach Brooks paces behind the ropes. "I don't want you to be nice! There ain't no nice in there!"

Just a few hours ago she was at work welling up, because she remembered that for the first time she'll be fighting away from her family.

She had to excuse herself, go downstairs and cry it out. She wanted to say to coach Brooks, "Tell them I can't do it."

But here she is, shuffling around the soiled gray ring, jabbing and hooking. Other boxers have toweled off and drifted out.

"You gonna have to cut her off," Brooks yells. "When we crowd her, we gonna bust her up."

* * *

Thursday night, two days before the June 11 fight, she steps on a scale at Publix to discover she's in serious trouble. She's at 186. She has to fight at 175.

She doesn't tell coach Brooks. She doesn't want to let him down. Friday morning, she sits beside him on the plane to North Carolina. She takes tiny sips of water, just enough to wet her mouth. Otherwise, she won't ingest anything.

When they get to the Quality Inn, she weighs herself again on the hotel's digital scale. 182. She has to tell coach. He flips. "Sandy, how could this happen?" he says. Her first fight out of state, and now they're faced with the threat of a fine or canceled fight.

She puts a garbage bag on under her clothes, to make herself sweat, and runs for a mile in the heat. Two pounds gone. She closes the bathroom door and turns the shower on hot. She pours sweat and hallucinates and dreams of water cooling her throat. An hour of that. Four more pounds.

Just before the official weigh-in Friday night, coach Brooks eyes his wasted, dehydrated, crazed-looking fighter and tells her she looks like a crackhead.

"You're not gonna be good for nothing!" he cries.

She comes in at 176, a pound over. Her opponent, Ijeoma Egbunine, is at 176, too, so the fight's on for the next day.

Maloy sleeps okay that night, but shaving all that weight has punished her. Egbunine is the fan favorite and has a cheering section. Maloy has coach Brooks and Stephen, who has managed to catch a late flight.

Maloy comes out tentatively. The first two rounds, Egbunine knocks her around the ring. About Round 3, Maloy finds her game. She lands a right hook, and a left hook, and watches Egbunine's head jerk.

They're both standing, after four. One judge calls it a draw. The other two give it to Egbunine.

Coach Brooks tells her it could have gone either way, that she fought well.

Stephen tells her he saw paramedics visiting the other fighter's room, afterward. Another round, he's convinced, and his wife would have won.

* * *

Victories come in different ways. Maloy has been married to Stephen for five years, but he's known her since she was a teenager. He remembers how much trouble she always had, just looking people in the eye. If someone put her down, she believed it. If a man called her a name, she put her head down and took it.

Win or lose in the ring, he says, she's already changed totally. He's part of it, of course. He thinks they saved each other. He says she tamed his shiftlessness. She says he made her feel like she was worth something.

If only she'd come out faster, with a mean streak.

Christopher Goffard can be reached at 727 893-8650 or goffard@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 23, 2005, 09:10:04]


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