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Thursday, November 3, 2011
A fighting spirit

By Hannah Storm/Brainstormin Productions

In the world of female boxing, Maureen "Moe" Shea stands out as a force to be reckoned with. Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., to a strict Irish father and Mexican mother, Shea, now 30, early on learned the value of self-defense. After surviving an abusive relationship while in her teens, she turned to boxing as an emotional outlet and as a method of protecting herself. Her first fight in the ring resulted in a hard blow to her face -- but rather than cause her to rethink her commitment to the violent sport, the experience only made Shea more determined to succeed.

Her aptitude for throwing punches was quickly evident. When others complimented her by saying, "You fight like a guy," Shea responded, "No, I fight like an athlete." Her rise to fame was expedited when she was chosen as Hilary Swank's sparring partner in preparation for "Million Dollar Baby."

In the past few years, Shea has also been the sparring partner for filmmaker Jill Morley, who took up boxing herself during work on a documentary film about the sport. "When I first asked about the top women that I should interview, I was told to talk with Maureen," said Morley. "She is, in every way, the face of boxing in New York." Morley's documentary, "Girl in the Ring," is currently awaiting acceptance at Sundance, Berlin and other film festivals. We asked her to share the insights she gained into the sport during filming.

espnW: What got you started on this documentary?

Jill Morley: I've always bee really attracted to boxing, personally. I'd wanted to try it for a while, and then when I did, I realized what a story there was to be told. I met so many amazing women, with such incredible passion and dedication, and I wanted to give them a voice.

espnW: It's a pretty violent sport. What did you feel was the motive for these women to do it?

JM: Well, it's not the money! Professional male boxers might make a million dollars for a big fight, but these women are getting paid in hundreds, maybe a few thousand. What I saw, at least in the women in the film, was a way to fight their inner demons. Boxing gave them a way to release their emotions and confront past experiences.

espnW: Such as?

JM: Well for me, personally, I was able to work through issues of childhood abuse. Other women turn to boxing to deal with trauma or assault -- it is such a physical sport, it can cause a lot of memories to surface and allow you to work through them in the ring.

espnW: But not all women who box have been abused ...

JM: No, right. Boxing is also just an incredibly rewarding sport. It is intensely competitive and gives you the feeling of being in control. It's just you and your opponent in the ring. Win or lose, it's up to you.

espnW: What is the relationship between the boxers like?

JM: It might be surprising, but they are tremendously supportive of each other. It is a tight sisterhood of women helping each other work through issues, both boxing-related and whatever's going on in their lives. I think because the sport involves so much physical contact, it builds an intimacy among the athletes you don't see in other sports.

espnW: So even though they're throwing punches in the ring, they are friends outside of it?

JM: People have this misconception of female boxers being catty, like a girls' fight. It isn't that way at all.

espnW: Would you say boxing was a positive in these women's lives

JM: Boxing is a huge confidence booster. You feel strong and your feel satisfied to see yourself improve. One of the women in the film went through a string of fights where she lost every single one, getting punished in every fight. I wanted to know why she kept coming back, and she said, "Because even though I'm losing, I'm getting better every time." There is a real no-quit mentality to these women that is incredibly inspiring.

To learn more about Morley's documentary, Girl in the Ring, go to girlinthering.com.

-- Julia Savacool