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Amy Donaldson
Idaho's Kendra Reeves came back from a frightening first round to upset the No. 1 ranked female fighter in the world, as she earned her first national Golden Gloves championship Saturday.
Boxing has made me who I am today. —Michelle Maya

Every punch Michelle Maya threw was a statement.

Every adjustment Whitney Gomez made was an argument.

Every victory Maryguenn Vellinga earned was a validation.

And the swollen, bruised eye Kendra Reeves sported after earning her first Golden Gloves national championship Saturday night didn’t detract from the gold belt slung over her shoulder, it complemented it.

“Without question, I don’t think there is anybody here who doesn’t think we belong,” said Vellinga, a Park City woman who lost a split decision to Jazelle Rabago-Bobadilla in the 112-pound Golden Gloves national championship Saturday night. “These are some of the best female fighters in the world. The women at this tournament fought just as well as the men. The case has been made.”

It is both surprising and frustrating that the case has to be made at all in 2018.

Last year, state, regional and national Golden Gloves championships weren’t an option for these women, who all have dreams of competing in the Olympics.

Then, after years of lobbying and debate, the 90-year-old amateur boxing organization voted to allow women to compete in the regular series of tournaments, beginning with state tournaments in March. “This tournament … the three best bouts have all been women, and two of those were our girls,” said Larry Fullmer, president of the Rocky Mountain Golden Gloves. “The women are shining in this tournament.”

Women have always had to fight for opportunities in sports. Most often, they’re kept out or in lesser versions of the popular competitions because of faux concerns about the impact on women’s health. From marathon running to basketball, from ski jumping to boxing, women have been told often by both male and female doctors that they might damage everything from their fertility to sex drive if they choose to "compete like men."

And over and over, women have proved those assertions wrong. They’ve shattered myths about the kinds of things that women are capable of in sports like hockey and powerlifting. They’ve won fans over in sports like tennis and distance running.

They’ve proved — and are still proving — that whatever it is they have the desire to do, it’s just as possible for them as those who happen to be born male.

Female boxers have had to convince coaches to teach them, gyms to admit them, tournaments to allow them and governing bodies to sanction them. They continue to battle stigma from fans and media that assert women don’t belong in combat sports.

The four women from the Rocky Mountain Region, representing Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, have heard it all before. The jokes, the skepticism, the dismissive way people see and characterize female fighters.

But they’ve had to conquer much more insidious doubts than what any ignorant sports fan might offer. At 19, Michelle Maya is the only one of the three not to take a circuitous route to the ring. When her uncle took her to the gym, she carried the knowledge that her grandfather was a professional fighter, and like a lot of her male counterparts, this sport was in her blood.

“Boxing has made me who I am today,” said Maya, who won Utah’s second national Golden Gloves championship in three years, defeating Madelyn Bolin of Kansas City in the 119-pound division. “I’ve let friends go, let my job go so I could focus on boxing. I’ve prepared myself for years. I dedicated myself … training three times a day.”

When the referee held the 19-year-old Highland High graduate’s hand above her head, she raised the other in exuberance.

“It feels really worth it,” she said, “all I’ve sacrificed. In all of my teenage years, I’ve never partied, never had that normal teenage life. I just stayed focused on my boxing.”

Two other Utah women and an Idaho woman fought for national Golden Gloves titles Saturday night — a record for the Rocky Mountain Region. Maya and Idaho’s Kendra Reeves won titles, with Reeves giving fans one of the best bouts of the night in her victory over Stephanie Malone, who is the No. 1 ranked female boxer at 152 pounds in the country. A year ago, Reeves was 70 pounds heavier and had never played competitive sports of any kind.

At the encouragement of her boyfriend, Jason Samargis, she started to box. It was in the ring that she found the strength she didn’t know she had, and it carried her all the way to a national title in Nebraska this weekend.

“I wasn’t scared, but I was scared to lose,” said Reeves, who survived two standing eight counts in the first round to come back and dominate the final two rounds and win the bout. “I just fricking gave it everything I had. I just tried as hard as I could. … It just seems crazy. (Friday) Jason and I were talking about it, and he said, ‘Can you even believe you’re here?’ The whole thing is surreal.”

Saturday night, she and Maya couldn’t move through the crowd without people stopping them for compliments, congratulations and pictures.

And when women are allowed to compete, they earn more than an opportunity to prove themselves as athletes.

“We were exposed to opportunities as a result of this, opportunities we haven’t had,” said Vellinga. “As finalists, the winner and runner-up get continuing education money. That hasn’t been available to us. We’re getting the equal treatment we deserve, and that’s really exciting.”

There has been a women’s Golden Gloves national tournament in Florida since 2003, thanks to a former female boxer, but women had to pay their way there. Now that the Golden Gloves system is open to women, the franchises cover the cost of competing in regional and national events.

Herriman’s Whitney Gomez lost a split decision to Kimberly Carlson, Chicago, at 141 pounds. Gomez said the disappointment of second-place is mitigated by the fact that this is her first loss in eight fights.

“After losing at nationals (USA Boxing) in 2017, I asked myself, ‘Do you really want to be here? You’re not having fun anymore, and there is a lot of sacrificing for you to do this.’ I had to do a bit of self-evaluation. I’d lost the fun, lost the enjoyment. I hadn’t been keeping that positive energy. … This is going to be a good year. If anything, this loss will push me to work harder.”

Whether they won or lost, all of the women said their Golden Gloves experience energized them. It also energized the coaches and officials who fought for them to be able to participate.

“In just the last two or three years, the number of women participants at national events has almost tripled,” said Nick Butterfield, who coaches at Fullmer Brothers' Gym in South Jordan. He rattles off the list of benefits women find in the gym, even if they never do anything but train and spar. They sound an awful lot like the reasons men box.

And maybe that’s what the women showed most of all. Women should be allowed to wrestle, play football, run, ski jump (they still only have one event to the men’s three events), or whatever it is that moves them.

What the women find in competitive athletics is the same thing men find — fulfillment, purpose, discipline and self-confidence that comes with challenges whether they've won or lost.

The local women hope their record-breaking success does more than convince a few naysayers that females can fight. They hope it persuades young women, who might otherwise not see themselves in sports.

“We need to get more kids engaged, and I hope it leads to more growth,” said Vellinga, who, like Gomez and Reeves, has children.

To those women tempted but uncertain, she says, “Get off the fence and do it. I’ve seen people fall in love with it. It brings something out in you that’s hard to fight through a lot of other pursuits.”