Rolling with the punches
Molly McConnell isn't a big believer in fate.
But if she hadn't spotted the flyer advertising a boxing class, if she hadn't been a post-college athlete in search of a new outlet, perhaps that sign would not have led McConnell into Grand Avenue Boxing Gym and onto the path to becoming a world champion.
"Sometimes when you find the right thing it immediately clicks," McConnell said, remembering her first taste of boxing at age 26. "For me, it was almost like pouring gasoline on a little spark."
Over 14 years, McConnell developed into one of the most successful female boxers in the world, winning a series of amateur titles and eventually a pair of professional world titles.
McConnell, 47, was inducted Sept. 24 into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. She is proud to be only the fifth person in boxing to join the state's hall of fame, and the first since Ray Lampkin Jr. was inducted in 2002.
"It's a huge honor to be put in there," she said, noting she is especially happy to help her sport get some recognition. "To be the first woman boxer in there is special."
McConnell quickly showed signs of having special ability in the ring. As she remembers it, she had her first Golden Gloves amateur bout after training for six or seven months.
Now a boxing coach and gym owner, McConnell said she "would never put someone in there so early now."
She lost that first bout, but showed promise. Ron Woodward, a coach at Grand Avenue, saw potential in McConnell and started working with her after that Golden Gloves debut.
"It was a perfect fit," McConnell said about a relationship that spanned her entire career.
With guidance from Woodward and highly accomplished coaches Leonard Trigg and Bill Mertz, McConnell had a successful six years as an amateur, during which she won most of her 45 fights. She won four national amateur titles and was a four-time Golden Gloves state champion in both Oregon and Washington.
Her first major title came at the 2002 Ringside World Championships.
In 2003, McConnell won Ringside Boxing and Police Activities League national titles. The PAL nationals was the final 2004 Olympic qualifier, but the women's boxing would not be added to the Olympics until 2012.
Though she missed the Olympics window, McConnell is happy about the growth women's boxing has experienced. She points to American two-time Olympic women's middleweight gold medalist Claressa Shields as someone who gained attention for women's boxing with her success, noting that as a pro, Shields has headlined boxing shows on HBO and Showtime.
In recent years, at least a half-dozen women have headlined boxing shows for television or streaming services.
"This is the beginning of what it takes to bring higher purse money to women in the sport," McConnell said.
McConnell played two seasons of softball at Lewis & Clark College before undergoing knee surgery unrelated to sports. Growing up in the Seattle area, she competed in softball, basketball, volleyball and track and field in high school.
Prior to going all-in with boxing, McConnell worked for seven years as a cabinet maker and painter for Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.
As a young adult, boxing provided the outlet for her competitive instincts. Her competitive nature and natural strength served her well both as an amateur and once she made the jump to professional boxing.
Professional boxing is a significantly different contest than amateur boxing. Pros fight more rounds, don't wear protective headgear and use smaller gloves, meaning they take more punishment for longer. But McConnell said the transition seemed natural.
"Pro style wasn't a big transition," she said, because she "hit harder than most women."
McConnell considered herself a "medium" athlete, but had confidence in her strength and competitive drive. She also had developed a powerful jab with either hand.
Her professional debut came in 2004 at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City and was featured on a cable television national boxing show. She won that four-round match by unanimous decision, starting a pro career that would feature five wins by TKO and numerous unanimous decisions. Her two losses were by split decision.
The bigger challenges as a pro boxer were outside the ring. To make ends meet, McConnell did some coaching and gave private lessons. But it was difficult to get paying matches.
First, as an unproven/unknown boxer, finding opportunities was difficult. When she became successful, it was difficult to find women who wanted to challenge her — until she became a champion and held sought-after belts.
Those belts are on display in her gym near the Rose Quarter. But it's not the victories that shine brightest in McConnell's memory. It's the hours spent in the gym with coaches such as Woodward and Trigg, and the relationships with sparring partners who became like family, that she cherishes.
Looking back, McConnell said Woodward and Trigg were ideal mentors. She credits their guidance for her success in the ring and as a coach/teacher/businesswoman.
Woodward, who died in 2016, kept McConnell focused even when she couldn't find opponents willing to fight.
"He pushed me to keep going no matter how hard things got," she said. "When the opportunities weren't there, Ron is the one who never allowed me to quit and kept me focused on our ultimate goal."
Woodward was focused on coaching his son, Bryan, when he first saw McConnell training at Grand Avenue.
"He saw in her what it took to get to that (championship) level. He saw her determination, and that's what really drew him to her," Bryan Woodward said of the bond between his father and McConnell.
Ron Woodward appreciated a student who listened to his instruction, Bryan Woodward said.
"She was hungry for knowledge, and that was something my dad always liked. He said many times, 'I'll take someone with will over someone with skill,'" Ron Woodward said.
McConnell said Trigg, now among the coaches teaching at her gym, "taught me as much about how to be a good human as he has taught me about boxing."
As a pro, McConnell's first loss came in her fifth bout exactly one year after her debut. That was a split decision to left-hander Terri Blair, who McConnell had defeated just two months earlier.
The unique challenge of fighting lefties stuck with McConnell, who as a coach makes sure those aspiring to box competitively learn to spar with southpaws early in their development.
Her only other loss as a pro came in April 2010, when McConnell was struggling to find opponents. It was a split decision on a card in Washington, D.C., that McConnell recalls as controversial.
In March 2011, McConnell won by split decision over Kita Watkins in El Paso, Texas, to claim vacant world titles from the Women's International Boxing Federation and Global Boxing Union in the women's super light (140-pound) weight class.
She fought the final four rounds of that 10-round bout with a broken right hand, relying on her left jab to win a split decision and two world title belts.
She had waited more than a year for that opportunity — and had several scheduled title bouts fall through — so McConnell wasn't about to let a broken hand derail her dreams.
Her final professional bout happened four months later. McConnell won a unanimous decision over Tammy Franks at Austin, Texas, but knew at the time that her heart was moving away from competition.
"I think I knew during that fight that I was coming to an end," she said.
It took awhile to get her adrenaline pumping for that fight. She no longer had the single-minded drive necessary to box professionally, and with her 40th birthday approaching it was time to shift her focus.
In her 10 years as a professional, McConnell went 16-2 with one no-contest. During that time, she supported herself by teaching individual boxing classes. That experience coaching led to her next career.
In 2012, she opened McConnell's Boxing Academy in Northeast Portland and has built a thriving business by catering to both competitive boxers and those interested in fitness and stress relief.
"I consider myself a teacher, not a coach. I think the word 'teacher' implies that the focus is really on learning," McConnell said.
McConnell still considers herself as much student of boxing as teacher. She credits Ron Woodward for that, too. He pushed her to study the sport.
"I spent years watching video and dissecting every fight I could get my hands on," McConnell said. "I tried to learn as much as I could about every part of the sport. I think that approaching anything that way allows you to absorb so much more information than just imitating movements."
McConnell's journey from cabinet maker to elite boxer would be difficult to imitate. But the story of how, with the help of good teachers, she used persistent drive and fierce focus to become a boxing champion is a tale that can resonate far beyond the boxing ring.
Thanks to the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, Molly McConnell's story and its place in the state's sports history will continue to inspire.
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