How boxer Shelly Vincent rose above the pain of a traumatic childhood

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Heather Hardy (L) and Shelly Vincent pose for members of the media at the Jacobs vs Derevyanchenko press conference at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 24, 2018 in New York City. (Getty Images)
Heather Hardy (L) and Shelly Vincent pose for members of the media at the Jacobs vs Derevyanchenko press conference at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 24, 2018 in New York City. (Getty Images)

She was pretty sure her stepfather was going to die, and so Shelly Vincent made the decision to go to the hospital to see him, and say what she had to say.

And she had a lot to say.

Vincent had some good memories of her stepfather, a man she once whacked with a baseball bat in an attempt to get him from beating up her mother.

“I don’t know how to say this, because it’s important and I want to get it right,” said Vincent, now a 39-year-old boxer who on Saturday at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York will rematch with archrival Heather Hardy for the vacant WBO featherweight title in a bout televised by HBO.

“My stepfather was abusing us. I don’t just want to gas this man, because you have to understand. He was a drunk and when he was drunk, he was a very bad drunk. When he was drunk, he was a different person. When he was sober, which wasn’t all that often, he was a good man. I have to say, he was a good man and I have some good memories of him. He taught me how to hunt and how to fish. We did things together and I cherish some of those memories.

“But he drank so much. My God, it seemed like he was always drinking. When he was drinking, it would happen. The memories: Yeah, there were some good times, but some of the things, it seemed like it would never end.”

Vincent fights with a passion undoubtedly fueled by her past. She fought Hardy in 2016 in a bout on NBC Sports Network that was named the Ring Magazine’s female Fight of the Year. Vincent never gave up and gave as good as she got throughout, though she lost a disputed decision.

She had no choice but to fight, or she would never have lived past her teenage years. In addition to her stepfather physically abusing her, she was raped by one of her mother’s later boyfriends.

The other day, she saw herself on a billboard in Herald Square in New York promoting her fight, and couldn’t help but think of her late mother, who died in 2001 of leukemia.

She wrote on Facebook, “I was supposed to be dead … I already beat the biggest fights of my life. … I’m here HEALTHY and breathing. I beat rape. I beat abuse. I beat ridicule.”

Hardy is also a survivor of sexual assault, and few people have had to endure the chaotic life Vincent did. Rage didn’t fuel her interest in boxing, she said, though it did help.

But she found that hitting the heavy bag made a difference in her life.

“I was able to channel my depression when I was hitting that bag,” she said. “The anger also, of course, but when I’d hit that bag, I’d cry. And I realized that when I was doing that, it was the only time I felt good and I wasn’t depressed.”

Her stepfather once beat her mother so brutally that Vincent attacked him with a baseball bat in an attempt to get him off of her. All that did was to prompt him to beat her even more.

He had once beaten Vincent’s mother badly and then poured gasoline on her. He then chased her around the house with a match.

Vincent recalls the story in vivid detail, almost as if she sees it unfolding in front of her again and again.

“There was so much, and at the time, you don’t think it’s anything out of the ordinary because it just happened all the time,” she said. “It messed with me big-time. I tried to kill myself. I turned to drugs and alcohol. I didn’t take drugs because I liked the feeling of being high, I did it because I wanted to kill myself. I tried to overdose on cocaine and heroin. I never shot up, but I sniffed it. But I did so much to myself because of what happened. I tried to kill myself, oh, man, I don’t know how many times.

“I had a gun to my head once. Another time, I was so drunk and I drove the wrong way on the bridge. There was a long time where it seemed the best thing for me was to kill myself and be done with it. I didn’t have nobody to talk to or who could help me through it all.”

Vincent is only 5 feet 1 inches, but inch-for-inch, there’s not a tougher person around. Somehow, in the midst of everything, she convinced herself life was worth living and she weaned herself off of drugs.

Like so many others, boxing became a way out. She was a state Golden Gloves champion as an amateur and as a pro, has compiled a 23-1 record and built up enough of a reputation that she was asked to compete on just the second women’s fight ever on HBO, in the most famous arena in the world.

Her trainer, Peter Manfredo Sr., said he still worries about her given where she came from.

“There are so many of the kids that the lure of the streets just consumes them,” he said. “It’s been a difficult life for Shelly and she has her challenges, but she wants this so bad. She works so hard. Her motivation is very high.”

She speaks to children around New England to tell them of her story, of how she survived an unthinkable childhood to move to the verge of a world championship.

Shelly Vincent (L) and Heather Hardy battle in a memorable 2016 fight on Coney Island. They will rematch on HBO at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27 for the vacant WBO featherweight title. (Getty Images)
Shelly Vincent (L) and Heather Hardy battle in a memorable 2016 fight on Coney Island. They will rematch on HBO at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27 for the vacant WBO featherweight title. (Getty Images)

She’s a success whether she knocks out Hardy with the first punch or loses a wide decision. Boxing isn’t going to define her, not after what she has been through.

She’ll always be in boxing, though. She needs that regular cycle of going to the gym and won’t ever let it go. She will probably train fighters after her fight career is over and jokes she’ll be a boxing lifer.

She didn’t know whether she’d have anything to look forward to when she was a child.

“The other guy, my mother’s boyfriend, he’s the one who raped me and he did it after he built up trust with me and made it look like he’d be the father I never had,” she said. “I don’t want to talk too much about that. I never trusted anyone before and he got me to believe in him. He showed himself to be a sweet, caring guy and then he did that to me.”

She didn’t reach out for help because she wanted to keep it a secret. Counseling, she says, only works when one is ready, and she wasn’t ready at the time.

She kept that story buried inside a long time, where she wouldn’t think of it ever again.

“I wasn’t ready for anybody to know what was going on with me at that time,” she said. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t want the kids at school to find out. … My sister wrote a [victim’s impact] letter for court and it was reading that where I realized how bad this was and how far it reached. I never had a chance to have that big sister because it happened to her, too.

“She’d be in the closet crying every night. … It’s so hard to talk about. It affects the people who were there and just so many others. If you saw my sister’s letter, oh my God, you would understand the impact it had on so many of us. How can anyone do that to another human being? I know he did it thinking I was a little hood rat and he’d never have to worry about me.”

She laughs, the pain evident as she recalls the most trying time of her life.

“I won because look where I am now? I’m fighting for the title on HBO at The Garden,” she said. “I have a good life now. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m an open lesbian athlete. I’m comfortable with who I am.

“I’m pleased and happy to be me. I had a transformation with my look because of everything, but I love my look now, too, you know? It was all sad and heart-breaking what happened, but it’s made me who I am today, I’ll tell you that. I have a strength you can’t imagine and I have this confidence and this belief that nothing will ever happen to me in a fight that I can’t deal with or that I can’t overcome. That’s true strength. Believe me. That is what you call strength.”

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