I have to admit that when I saw an article about a female boxer in Omaha it was her picture, a provocative image of an attractive young woman, more than her story that enticed me to want to meet her and profile her for a local paper. When I met her at the gym she trains at she turned out to be every bit as good looking as that picture suggested but she was not at all stuck on herself or her good looks. Instead, I found a hard working athlete and U.S. Army Reservist who is dedicated to her sport and to her military commitment, and someone who has some high level goals she wants to achieve. She’s very much aware of how people perceive her and she’s quite smart about how she deals with all that. My story about her originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), a now defunct newspaper.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)
By rights, Autumn Anderson shouldn’t be boxing. Even ignoring the propriety of women duking it out, she doesn’t fit the fight girl profile. Not this bumble gum Reese Witherspoonesque blond whose self-described “girly-girl” good looks earn her modeling gigs. In nothing more revealing than a bikini in case you’re wondering.
Still, the 22-year-old Omahan looks more like the ring card girl than the main event fighter. More soft and feminine than chiseled bad ass.
“Every time, it works to my advantage,” she said, “especially with the black and Hispanic girls because they’re like, ‘White girl, huh — oh, she thinks she’s tough?’”
On close inspection Anderson’s hard, compact body is anything but delicate. Her 15-9 record backs up her ability to handle herself inside the ropes. Still, why risk such a pretty face in the ring? She’s heard it all before from her parents.
Her answer explains why she got into boxing to begin with.
“I kind of wanted to prove to people females could do anything they put their minds to,” said Anderson, who took up the sport at 16, “because a lot of males especially doubt women and their abilities, especially physical abilities.”
A one-time competitive swimmer and runner, she craved “something with contact” — that challenged her toughness on a more instinctual level.
“I wanted to do a more individual sport. Something more aggressive,” she said.
Her commitment to boxing’s been tested by the only two long-term boyfriends she’s had and the only prolonged layoff she’s taken from boxing.
“It’s always my boyfriends being like,“‘Why do you box?’ Blah-blah-blah. My first one convinced me not to. I’d go to the gym, there’d be all guys, and so it’d make him insecure. It made me not want to go because it made him uncomfortable. Then we broke up and then I got back into it like hardcore.”
She said there’s no reason a man should feel threatened by what she does. “When I go to the gym I dress like a guy. I don’t wear short-shorts or tank tops to show off anything. I wear bandanas. I don’t let my hair down. I’m here for business. I’m not here to like pick-up guys or to be distracting. I’m more like a tomboy.”
Anyone who’s a drag on her dreams, which include Olympic glory, she cuts loose, with the exception of her folks, who’ve since come around to support her.
“Everything’s a life-learning experience, especially when you have opportunities and somebody’s holding you back and they don’t support you,” she said. “You just have to let them realize you’re going to follow your dreams and nothing’s going to stop you. I’m pretty stubborn. If somebody feels I can’t do something, I have to prove them wrong.”
Despite proving doubters wrong boxing still seems an unlikely choice. Besides her cover girl puss there’s her background, which reads more Girl-Next-Door idyll than Girl-from-Ghetto trial.
Raised by a single mom, she’s technically from a broken home, but it’s not like she grew up scratching and clawing her way out of the projects. No, she grew up in the burbs of Kansas City, Mo. and Baltimore, Md. She says almost apologetically that she’s never been in a fight outside the ring.
She’s been on her own since age 16, first in Nebraska City, where she lived with an older sister, later with friends, and then in Omaha. Her first boxing mentor was a crusty old coach in Sidney, Iowa. Then she was taken by the late Kenny Wingo at the famed Downtown Boxing Club here.
Whatever gym she landed in it was always the same — show us you belong.
“That’s what they always do with a new girl,” she said. “They want you to get in the ring and spar and see if you have any heart. See if you’ll last. If you get your butt kicked once, are you going to quit. So, I’ve gotten beat-up a couple times, and I kept coming. I just fell in love with the sport.”
Her ringworthy rite-of-passage was more difficult than most.
“I definitely didn’t grow up fighting people in the streets, which is different than a lot of boxers. I had to learn to be mean. I had to learn to be aggressive.”
Hitting girls in the face didn’t come naturally for Anderson, who was into ballet and modeling from a young age. She’s always been athletic, but before boxing the most physical things she’d done were dancing, running and swimming.
When that guy she later dumped got her to hang up her gloves for a whole year, she ran cross country and track at William Penn College (Iowa). But, she said, “something was missing in my life. I was like, ‘Man, this is boring,’ I came back to boxing.” Not exactly a classic path to the Sweet Science. That’s not all that defies expectations about her. Anderson’s a full-time college student majoring in real estate and economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She’s intent on getting her master’s in business administration.
She’s also a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves. This Motor Transportation Operator in the 443rd Transportation Company in Omaha does her battle assembly drills and training on weekends. She does her amateur fighting thing both inside and outside the confines of the Army, which has made her a poster girl.
The goarmy.com web site profiles Anderson’s multi-faceted life as reservist, student, boxer and young woman-going-places. She looks fetching in a portrait shot with an American flag backdrop. She stands tall, all 5-foot-5 of her, wearing a red tank top, her arms folded across her chest, her long blond hair framing her determined face and her gloves fecklessly slung over one shoulder. It’s a strong, sexy, confident, patriotic image.
Other photos show her in her Army fatigues and dress blues. She said snippets from the promo can be seen in GoArmy television spots. She felt like a pampered star when last July the Army sent a large production crew to the house she shares. “It took two days, about 12 hours each day. They did my hair and makeup,” she said.
“It’s a cool story for people who are interested in the Army,” she said.
Portraying her as a warrior is not a stretch. Not when you see her throw some leather in the ring. She can bring it. She’s tough enough to own the nation’s No. 5 women’s amateur ranking at 132 pounds. That ranking’s significance is debatable given the few women in the sport. But watch her spar and it’s clear she packs some power and possesses more than rudimentary skills. She has serious intent.
When not competing in Army tournaments she trains at the Northside Boxing Club in northwest Omaha. It’s an apt setting, given that the gym operates from one of the low-slung concrete block structures, Building 203, that housed elements of a former U.S. Air Force radar base. These days the multi-acre fenced-in compound at 11000 North 72nd Street belongs to construction Local Labor Union 1140.
While in training she’s at the gym five times a week. She’s now preparing for the August 4-9 Ringside World Amateur Boxing Championships in K.C., a signature event for a young woman with high aspirations.
My dream is to be a national champion and to fight in the Olympics,” she said.
Turning pro is another goal. Laila Ali has shown that talent and looks in the ring can lead to fame and fortune. But Anderson wants that trophy or medal first.
A national title may soon be within her reach. The Olympics will have to wait as its international governing body has not sanctioned women’s boxing. She hopes girl fighters like herself get their chance at the 2012 summer games.
Female boxing’s a fringe thing. Women’s Golden Gloves is still in its infancy. The small number who compete makes it difficult finding matches. Anderson’s fought one girl five times. To get action she must often travel. One of her last Nebraska fights stole the show on a 2007 Melee at InPlay card.
Sparse local/regional competition makes any national or international boxing event that much more important to her ambitions of being a title holder. Actually, she already owns one. She won the 2007 Armed Services Championships’ 132-pound division at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. But she acknowledges she didn’t have the stiffest draw and captured the title on the basis of only two wins, both against fellow servicewomen. No, the championship she really wants is a civilian one, in an open tourney like Ringside that features more top drawer talent.
Her coaches, led by former Omaha amateur boxer Tim Pilant, had high hopes for her in the National Women’s Golden Gloves tourney earlier this year but she got sick and didn’t make the trip. Two years before Anderson stopped one opponent at these same nationals before dropping a 5-0 decision in her second bout.
Pilant, who runs the Northside Boxing Club with a crew of grizzled ring veterans, “adopted” Anderson three years ago at a national tourney in Colorado Springs when she didn’t have anyone working her corner. Her original coaches and boxing father figures had both died and she was competing on her own. Pilant cornered her and invited her to train at Northside back home. She’s been there ever since.
He admires her “commitment” and “dedication.”
To date, Anderson’s been stymied at the highest levels by two women who’ve dominated her weight class — Naquana Smalls and Carrie Barry. Smalls has since retired, leaving Barry as the foe Anderson must go through to realize her dream.
Preparing for her first nationals in 2003 Anderson saw a picture of Smalls, already a legend, and was, well, intimidated. “I remember looking at her face in the brochure and going, ‘Man, I hope I don’t fight that girl right away.’ She did. In the mismatch Smalls stopped her. She fared better with Barry but still lost a unanimous decision.
One day Anderson wants to be the woman nobody wants to face.
“That’s exactly right. I’ve actually built myself up that way. All you have to do is work towards it and it can be you. You just have to tell yourself it’s going to be you,” she said.
She may not ever be a Million Dollar Baby but her looks and her smarts, combined with her heart, should help her go the distance.
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