Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Mary Spencer has been on the ropes for the past few weeks.

The three-time world champion and nine-time Canadian champion in women’s boxing was in limbo after two rare losses, waiting to hear whether she got a wild-card spot for the first Olympic women’s boxing in 110 years.

What had caused the lapse? Was she distracted? Did she have too many commitments — including a contract with CoverGirl cosmetics?

The good news, which arrived Monday morning, was a relief.

“I feel like I got a second chance,” Spencer, 27, told a press conference at the Windsor Amateur Boxing Club, where she has trained since high school.

Spencer has never had a major injury in her decade-long boxing career, a journey that has taken her from “the projects” of Windsor to contender for an Olympic gold medal.

No broken bones, no concussions. The worst injuries she has ever sustained are cuts and bruises, a fat lip and a few black eyes.

Spencer finds it surprising — and, clearly, a little irritating — that this is often one of the first questions she is asked. Boxing is statistically a safe sport, she says.

“I’m fighting every day with bigger men. Everyone stereotypes. That some people stereotype boxing is no surprise to me.”

Spencer was widely touted to win a gold medal at the London Olympics, but she took two major hits in the past few weeks.

The first was in Cornwall in April, when she lost to 17-year-old sensation Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan, in the Women’s Continental Boxing Championships.

The second loss was more painful. Spencer lost 18-11 to Anna Laurell of Sweden at the women’s world championships in China on May 14. At the same tournament, Shields also lost to Savannah Marshall of England. It was the first loss of Shields’ career, but she still qualified to go to the Olympics.

This left Spencer in limbo waiting to see if she would get a wild-card spot. She distracted herself last weekend with two bouts in Montreal with Germany’s Andrea Strohemeir, winning both.

Spencer typically gets up at 5 a.m. and is in the gym at 6 a.m., but her coach Charlie Stewart gave her Monday off. She learned at 8 a.m. she had won the Olympic berth. As she laughingly told it to reporters a few hours later, she went back to sleep.

Pat Fiacco, the president of Boxing Canada, said the decision was the right one. “Mary has attracted a significant amount of interest to women’s boxing.”

Spencer calls herself a fighter, not a boxer.

“I’m not just a boxer when I’m in the ring. I’m a fighter. It’s who you are.”

Here’s who Mary Spencer is: She was born in Wiarton, Ont. and lived in Big Trout Lake, Detroit and Owen Sound before moving to Windsor. She is Ojibwe and still mentors children on the Cape Croker reserve.

She is five-foot-11 and played basketball, soccer and volleyball in high school, and ran track and cross country. Her home life was disciplined and she had what she calls a “Christian upbringing.” Her father, Cliff, was a minister.

Once, when she wanted to buy new shoes, she returned grocery carts for the 25-cent deposit until she earned the $120 she needed to buy the shoes.

Spencer has an intense, searching gaze and an easy, loose-limbed way of moving that telegraphs strength. There is something serene about her, like a deep pond that is still on the surface.

“One of the hardest things about boxing is that you can’t go to practice upset. You have to leave it all behind. You can’t just bring your frustration with you and whale away at the bag,” she says.

“In the ring, if someone tries to taunt me, I have to stay focused. You can’t get frustrated in the ring because you’ll get beat up. It’s a lesson for life. Keep that attitude inside and outside the ring. It will benefit both parts of your life.”

Spencer was introduced to boxing at 17 by a friend who had put on some weight and wanted a buddy to take to the gym. Spencer had always felt out of place in basketball among girls who took new shoes and track suits for granted.

“Boxing isn’t like that. I felt it was made for me,” she says. “All the competitive boxers were there. I thought it was really cool. The next thing I knew I was in training and had a coach.”

At first, she had no idea how to throw a punch, but that didn’t matter. The other sports gave her an advantage — not just strength and stamina, but the ability to see things and understand the game better.

Spencer never had a problem learning to hit. “I’m not trying to hurt my opponent. That’s not what the sport is about. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can see the respect.”

It took her a few defeats to be OK with losing. Her first loss brought tears.

“It took some maturity to get to that point. You have to get back up and fight stronger and smarter. Losing can damage a fighter. Or it can make them smarter.”

Spencer researches her opponents, going online to look for footage of previous fights, sizes up her opponents by looking at them, figuring out how to expose their weaknesses. Knowing your opponent is the main part of the game plan.

“One time I saw an opponent with a knee brace. I knew what I had to do to beat her,” she says. “You can try to be a psychologist. But you’ll get the wrong answer. It’s just as important to know about yourself.”

Do men ever try to challenge her to a fight? No, she says. “That would be a lose-lose situation.”

In high-profile sports, it’s not just the hits in the ring that can be damaging.

In January, at the women’s boxing championships in Nova Scotia, Spencer won against her old friend and sparring partner Ariane Fortin, eliminating Fortin from Olympic contention. Fortin later told a Radio-Canada interviewer the judging was fixed and there was an anti-Quebec bias.

Boxing Canada denied any bias. Spencer told the CBC that she had no doubt she had won the round and hoped to mend the friendship, but on Fortin’s terms.

In March, Spencer won a contract with CoverGirl, one of nine Canadian athletes and only two boxers (the other is American Marlen Esparza). She was flown to Los Angeles to be photographed for a print and television campaign. Ironically, the only time she actually wears makeup is when she goes to church.

“She’s very strong, she’s powerful, she’s a great fit for our brand,” says CoverGirl external relations manager Tala Arous. “She’s got a great story. She’s well respected and a great role model for young women.”

The world of boxing has fascinated filmmakers, but Spencer finds there is little about any Hollywood version that reflects reality. She disliked Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed Million Dollar Baby, which starred Hilary Swank as a waitress who proves to be a natural fighter but comes to a tragic end after a sucker punch in a $1-million bout. Her favourite was The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward, because it was about his life outside the ring.

“The control of coaches and family, all of the stuff we come up against,” says Spencer. “Micky Ward was not the most skilled boxer, just someone who wanted to give himself a shot.”

Spencer likes to think a lot of girls will see her television commercial. Not because it will encourage them to buy makeup, but because it might prompt them to consider joining a boxing club.

“It’s an amazing sport,” she says. “It changes lives.”

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