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Fighting like a girl: Bay Area boxer wins world championship
Melissa "Mighty" McMorrow poses at B Street Boxing in San Mateo March 17 . Photo Diana K. Arreola
Melissa “Mighty” McMorrow poses at B Street Boxing in San Mateo March 17 . Photo Diana K. Arreola

Eddie Croft knows about grit. His droopy left eye—the lasting badge he’s earned toiling against the best of his boxing era—painfully, yet proudly, evidences that.

“I fought killers,” boasted the 45-year-old from his chair in the duskily lit downstairs room that is B Street Boxing in San Mateo. Croft, despite a 12-year professional career and championship bouts against renowned Mexican fighters Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, never won a world title. But one of his fighters has. And she, like Croft, has grit.

“I think a lot of it is making the best of the hand that you’re dealt,” Croft said of his Bay Area-based fighter Melissa “Mighty” McMorrow. “She’s 4-foot-10 on a good day.”

McMorrow, a fighter who has been routinely underpaid and dismissed by boxing promoters and judges despite continuously proving she’s one of the best 112-pounders in her sport, made sure Feb. 28 was a good day. That was when she travelled to Rosarito, Mexico and challenged Tijuana’s Kenia Enriquez for the women’s World Boxing Organization flyweight title.

“Honestly, I was surprised that Kenia picked such a big fight [for] her first title defense,” McMorrow said. “And the only thing I can think, is that they just completely underestimated me.”

For 10 rounds, the 33-year-old McMorrow (10-5-3, 1 KO) hostilely stalked her then unbeaten (13-1, 6 KO’s) 21-year-old foe, stubbornly charging through the younger and taller Enriquez’s longer and straighter, “prettier” punches.

“There are some people that have really pretty styles and I am just not one of those people,” McMorrow said. “I almost have to dirty it up in order for people to see it my way.”

McMorrow narrowly lost her prior two fights in Mexico against Mexican opponents Mariana Juarez and Jessica Chavez. But against Enriquez, the judges favored her. Obliging her corner’s uncomplicated and tactful advice of “don’t let her breath,” McMorrow bobbed and weaved and bashed the champion with rights and lefts on the inside.

“In every fight she’s been in—without fail—eventually the people have to fight inside,” Croft said. “They can run, but eventually she’ll get there.”

It’s a demanding attack plan to occupy a fighter’s space for the entirety of a bout, but it’s one that proved victorious. McMorrow—by split decision—was crowned the new women’s WBO flyweight champion of the world.

“I don’t know,” answered McMorrow when probed about her toughness, her grit. “Maybe it’s the Brazilian blood.”

That blood showed early on. McMorrow—the child of her Brazilian mother Zulmira and father Clyde (whom she kindly describes as a 70-year-old geek who was a hipster before there were hipsters)—pleaded with her mother to let her play soccer.

“She said it was for boys,” McMorrow said. But by age 8, McMorrow had convinced Zulmira otherwise. She played soccer well through her college days at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, assuming the position of center midfielder—a role typically reserved for the fittest and toughest athletes on the field. She backed that up with running 400-meter hurdles.

“I’ve always excelled at the really grinding sports or events,” McMorrow said. “I feel I have to use it to my advantage.”

She did that in her mid-twenties while attending a fight party, the kind where patrons partake in some unsanctioned fighting fun. Having never even participated in a brawl yet believing she could win, McMorrow—whose face wouldn’t necessarily be considered intimidating—chose an opponent to fight in the makeshift ring. She was hooked. And soon after that she sought a trainer in Oakland-based Robert Salinas. McMorrow then relocated to San Francisco, where she was in need of sparring partners. She found one in Croft.

“Eddie has always had the rule that he only spars with people that can’t hurt him. So he used to spar with me,” McMorrow said. “He won’t do it anymore. So to me, that says that it’s too painful.”

Fighting for fairness
Feb. 28 wasn’t the first time McMorrow was underestimated—or underpaid. She was 30 years old when she was handpicked to lose against German-based women’s world flyweight champion Susi Kentikian in Frankfurt, Germany.

McMorrow made less than $10,000 for her first world title, and $15,000 for a title defense, which was her career high. Those sums, which many men in boxing clear before ever fighting for a championship, are why McMorrow has to maintain her fulltime job as an architect at Solar City—a San Mateo-based solar energy company. Maintaining a fulltime job along with a boxing career is something the majority of elite male boxers don’t have to do.

“There’s just no money in boxing. I could never really justify leaving my job,” McMorrow said. “It seems unfair that men get paid a lot more. Especially when I feel there would be a draw.”

But with her 34th birthday looming, so is the end of McMorrow’s fighting career. She’s looking for two more fights, a rematch with Mexico’s Arely Muciño, and a bout with Chico, California’s Ava Knight. She hopes a potential contract with Zanfer Promotions, one of the top boxing promoters in Mexico, will help get her that.

“We would love to fight in the U.S. Especially if we got a chance to fight in the Bay Area, so Melissa could have somewhat of a hometown advantage, which we don’t ever have,” Croft said. “We always go in as the enemy. And we always go in as the B side … and more often than not, Melissa wins the fight.”

Story by: Alexis Terrazas