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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Queen Underwood is fighting for a cause

By Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Queen Underwood's dream is to win a gold medal in London, where women's boxing will make its Olympic debut next summer.

But her dream is fueled, in part, by a nightmare. Underwood says she was abused as a child and got through the ordeal by imagining someday doing something extraordinary.

Underwood, 27, won't go into specifics about her abuse, saying the matter is personal, and that by reading her website, people can draw their own conclusions.

Starting Friday, Underwood will compete in the Pan American Games, where she is among the favorites to win gold in the 132-pound class, one of three divisions that will be contested at the 2012 Olympics.

Underwood, a five-time national champion, is the only U.S. fighter to win a medal (bronze) at the world championships in an Olympic weight class. She is currently ranked No. 4 in the world.

Underwood decided to reveal her painful past because people often ask what drives her to compete in boxing, where she has had to struggle for years to train, find coaching and make ends meet.

"My story says a lot of why it's hard for me to give up and why I keep going," Underwood said.

On her website under the heading "Queen Underwood's Inspirational Story," Underwood writes about her childhood dream that "One day, I will be able to sleep through the night without fear that the door knob will turn and the pain will begin.

"One day, I'm going to be 'Queen of the Ring' and nobody will ever hurt me again. One day, I won't be 12 years old and feeling helpless; one day I'll be strong and unstoppable ... This is the dream that kept me from losing my mind in the midst of abuse and violation."

My story says a lot of why it's hard for me to give up and why I keep going.

-- Queen Underwood

Underwood said she would not elaborate because what happened was personal and in the past.

"It's not really about what happened and went on then, it's what I am doing now. It's how I'm adjusting," she said. "Just to know that all types of abuse that I've been through and to be a five-time national champion, five years in a row ... I just don't want everything to be all about the bad part. It's good for me to finally get it out there."

She started the website this past summer to raise money for her training expenses. After the Olympics, where Underwood hopes to bring back a medal, she wants to establish a foundation to help others who have been harmed or suffer from low self-esteem.

Nine months from now, Underwood will find out if that medal becomes more than a dream. She's entering a critical stretch. After the Pan Am Games, she must qualify for the Olympics, first by competing in February's inaugural U.S. Olympic trials for women's boxing, then by performing well in an international tournament to earn a berth in London.

USA Boxing coach Basheer Abdullah, who was in her corner when she won bronze at the most recent women's world championships last year, said Underwood raised eyebrows with her mental toughness and exciting style as she narrowly lost to the reigning world champion, Ireland's Katie Taylor, in the tournament semifinals. Underwood won her next bout to claim bronze.

"She responds very well to every situation," Abdullah said. "She can box, she can be very aggressive."

Against Taylor, Underwood rallied from a 10-2 deficit. Taylor needed a late flurry of punches to win by just two points, 18-16.

"It was an amazing comeback," Abdullah said. "You just don't see that kind of comeback in amateur boxing. She gained a lot of respect."

Underwood started boxing at 18, seven years before the sport was voted onto the Olympic calendar. International sports officials had perceived boxing to be too dangerous for women, though women have suffered few serious injuries in the ring.

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee gave the sport the green light, nudged by the fact that men's boxing was the only summer Olympic sport lacking a female counterpart.

"It's pretty much a dream come true to go to an Olympics," Underwood said.

In London, eight women will fight in each of three weight classes -- flyweight (112 pounds), lightweight (132 pounds) and middleweight (165 pounds) -- compared with 10 for the men.

Even with strides being made, some people in boxing retain an old-school way of thinking. At the world championships, Underwood was one of the fighters surprised to see meet officials issue women skirts and tight-fitting tops as uniforms for the semifinals.

"I was like Xena in that thing," she said. "I was getting prepared to get dressed and I was like, 'What is this thing?'"

Abdullah said Underwood's biggest weakness is not having a consistent training situation. He's trying to help.

"She needs to link up to a coach she can trust and believe in," he said.

Underwood said she squeezes out a living on unemployment checks and a monthly stipend from USA Boxing. Because of her national title and No. 1 ranking, USA Boxing pays for coaching and travel to the occasional federation-related competitions and training camps.

At 18, Underwood was working at a fitness club, where she trained for power-lifting competitions. Always athletic, she played basketball in high school and was a gifted-enough sprinter to draw attention from college track and field coaches. But after graduation, she soon found herself adrift in the carefree days of endless summer.

"It was like heaven, not going to school anymore," she said.

Boxing got her back on track. It also surprised her older sister, Hazzauna, who was studying nursing at Washington State when Queen called.

"She calls me and says, 'I'm boxing now.' I thought, 'So you want to get your head hit? You want memory loss?'" Hazzauna said.

"When you think about the sport, you never think about amateur boxing, the headgear. You think of Muhammad Ali, you think of Rocky Balboa. When you think about boxing, it was a pretty gruesome sport."

But success was hard to argue with. Hazzauna, 29, and now a nurse, has come around, traveling to Colorado Springs to watch Queen win her past two national titles.

After their early years in Seattle, their parents split and the girls moved with their father, Azzad, and stepmother to South Carolina. As teenagers, Hazzauna and Queen returned to Seattle to live with their mom, Alonna, a nursing assistant who worked the hospital night shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Hazzauna was 16, Queen 14. "We were pretty independent by then," Hazzauna said.

Queen was the little sister with the big competitive streak, Hazzauna said. I can beat you to the corner. I can ride my bike faster than you. I can wrestle you to the ground, even if you're older and bigger.

After starting to box competitively at 19, Underwood juggled work and training. She had just completed five years of apprentice school for a commercial sprinkler-system company when she was laid off in September 2010. Three months later, boxing became her full-time job.

For Underwood, it's almost as if she expected to be here, from the time she was drawn to the sport after watching televised fights with boxers in their flashy robes entering the ring with a single spotlight on them. Like Ali.

"I wanted to be him when I wasn't even boxing," she said. "I wanted to be [Michael] Jordan. I wanted to be anybody that was big."

But team sports didn't allow Underwood to control her own destiny, the way she could the day she walked into the gym.

Winning gold in London would mean more than a medal. She would be a member of a select class, the first female boxing champions in Olympic history. She would leave her mark on the sport, and in establishing a legacy, she hopes to help kids and others.

"It would mean lasting, being remembered," she said. "There's only one time for a first anything."