STORY BY CHARLES L. WESTMORELAND
PHOTOS BY ANGELA SHOEMAKER
It seems like a story tailor-made for the big screen. Small-town girl chases a dream for eight years. She wants to be a professional boxer. Her parents shake their heads and worry about her wasting a hard-earned biology degree. Co-workers quizzically observe her bruises and black eyes on Monday mornings. Then despite a mediocre record, chance deals her a title shot — against one of the most feared women boxers in world.
Of course, the impossible happens. The blond-haired, blue-eyed belle from rural Kentucky knocks out the champ with 23 second left in the final round.
It is, surely, “The Terri Blair Story.” But the tale is still being written. It moves to Louisville for the rematch. For the first time, our protagonist fights in her adopted hometown, defending her welterweight title against Jamaican slugger Sumya Anani on May 26 at Louisville Gardens. Again, Blair steps into the ring an underdog. Boxing experts say her earlier victory over Anani — which made her the International Boxing Association welterweight champion of the world — was a fluke, because Anani (25-1-1 at the time) hadn’t fought in 14 months.
This time, Blair’s trainer, former professional kickboxing champion Abdul Jarvis, promises victory and predicts a knockout late in the match. Apparently he knows something the rest of the boxing world doesn’t. With just one second left in the ninth round, Blair knocks down Anani for the third and final time in the round, forcing the referee to stop the match.
And so, the 30-year-old southpaw from Paintsville silences critics by pounding on the “Jamaican Sensation” until Anani can no longer stand. Blair’s record improves to 8-10-2.
“She is a harder puncher than Sumya. (Blair) is the hardest puncher in four divisions,” Jarvis says, referring to how Blair often shifts between weight classes for different fights. “She’s a smart boxer, has good fundamentals and a lot of power.”
A title shot by default
The week leading up to the rematch should’ve been the best week in Terri Blair’s life. But it was badly tainted before the fight ever began. Four days before the match, Blair’s grandmother, Renia Blair, 76, suffered a fatal heart attack. While the spotlight shone on an empty seat during the pre-fight press conference, Blair was spending time with family in Paintsville. The next day she traveled directly from the funeral to the weigh-in.
Blair says the loss of her grandmother was heavy on her mind, but she also knew her grandmother would have told her to stay focused on the match.
“She meant everything to me. A few years ago she saw me box in Lexington and she was really proud of me,” Blair recalls, her eyes beginning to tear up. “I knew that she would have wanted me to concentrate on the fight and to win.”
Jarvis had tried to negotiate a title fight with Anani a year before the initial match, but he was turned down because of Blair’s sub-par record. Eventually Blair got a match after Anani tired of waiting for a prominent challenger.
“In women’s boxing, the women who are ‘upper-level’ pad their records by fighting easy competition at home and are scared to fight anyone competitively,” Blair explains. “All I want to do is fight the best people out there. Win or lose I’ll put on a good show.”
Anani, 34, has a history of brutally punishing opponents in the ring, which has made her one of the most feared women in the sport. In a 1996 match with newcomer Katie Dallam, a hard blow from Anani ruptured a blood vessel in Dallam’s brain and left her with brain damage. Dallam’s Web site hints that the match may have inspired the Oscar-winning film “Million Dollar Baby.”
Now that Blair is a champion, Jarvis doubts that prominent female fighters will want to step into the ring with her.
“Any boxer with 20 or 25 wins and no losses hasn’t fought anybody yet, but they‘re too worried about losing to sign up for a tough match,” Jarvis says, adding that Blair’s record is deceiving and may be a result of biased fight judges. Blair has often been forced to travel to other boxers’ hometowns to get fights — hence her nickname, “Road Warrior.” But fighting away makes winning difficult because of hometown officiating, Jarvis says; he thinks only three of her losses were legitimate.
“She traveled all over the U.S. fighting and she’s been cheated everywhere,” Jarvis says. “Then at the right moment, at the right time, she steps up and becomes a Cinderella story.”
Says Blair: “I‘m used to going into other boxers’ hometowns and getting a loss no matter how I fight. It’s expected.”
Blair was trailing on points during both fights with Anani before winning by technical knockout both times. Blair says she often feels she needs to knock out the other fighter because decisions aren’t likely to go in her favor.
The Queen of Kings
Before her recent fight at Louisville Gardens, boxing promoter Greg Peals publicized Blair as the “Queen of Kings,” tying her to Louisville’s most prominent boxing champion, Muhammad Ali.
“I’m still in shock,” Blair says. “It’s a great accomplishment to be grouped with Ali and to be the first female boxer from Louisville to win a world championship.”
And Blair shares something else with Ali — a charismatic ring presence. Before the starting bell, Blair skipped to each side of the ring, smiling brightly and blowing kisses to the crowd. Although she’s a woman of few words outside the ring, that all changes when the gloves are on.
“Boxing is what I do for fun,” she says, “and I like to give people a good show.”
Blair notes that she’s often a fan favorite even when she’s fighting out of town. Unfortunately, despite being the champ, she may have to hit the road for future fights, because there weren’t many fans to charm on fight night. Peals hoped to sell more than 2,000 tickets, but the crowd was less than a quarter of that. But Jarvis remains optimistic that Louisville will rally around his boxer soon enough, especially if she keeps knocking out the best in the business.
“If it’s not UK or U of L sports people don’t seem to care, but she’s the kind of champion a city can be proud of,” he says. “You won’t see Terri Blair out drinking at a bar or going to nightclubs. Sometimes I have to make her celebrate after a match. When you do see her, she’s out running and training. She never stops training.”
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