From the rink to the ring: Tonya Harding's short-lived boxing career

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Fallen figure skater Tonya Harding had a brief boxing career.

Tony Holden thought he had seen it all during his career as a boxing promoter.

Then he picked up Olympian and two-time Skate America Champion Tonya Harding at the airport.

The former figure skater-turned-boxer arrived at Tulsa International on an otherwise nondescript winter day. Soon after getting in Holden's car, Harding started spitting out Skoal chewing tobacco into a cup.

The two had never met before, but it was a meeting Holden would never forget.

It was 2003, nine years after Harding had seemingly lost everything following the Nancy Kerrigan clubbing scandal, and she turned her sights to the ring. Harding had won her first bout in a 2002 "Celebrity Boxing" match against Paula Jones and turned professional soon afterward.

Due to her name and reputation, Harding received more attention and opportunities than most rookie boxers.

Her first professional fight was on the undercard of a Mike Tyson vs. Clifford Etienne fight in February of 2003. While her in-ring skills didn't exactly draw much praise, she did bring the fans and the cheers. Holden had heard about Harding's foray into the sport but wasn't sold on working with her.

"I was promoting fights worldwide and had several top contenders [including Zahir Raheem and Joe Mesi]," he recalled. "A [promoter] buddy of mine had done a show with Tonya Harding and asked if I would like to work with her. I immediately said no.

"I have a good reputation in boxing. I've been doing it for over 25 years ... I'm sort of a boxing purist and that sounded like a sideshow. But soon after, I had a show with top contenders and the ticket sales were pretty soft. I thought putting her on the card would get press and sell tickets." 

Despite the reservations of his wife ("She didn't talk to me for two weeks," he joked), Holden added the then 32-year-old Harding to his March 2003 fight at the Creek Nation Gaming Center in Tulsa. She was enthusiastic about obliging any media or appearance requests leading up to the event, and shortly after agreeing to participate, Harding came to Tulsa to help promote her bout.

Holden found himself with one of the most notorious athletes in the world, who was spitting chew into a cup in the passenger seat of his car. 

But it didn't take long for him to realize the power of Harding's name. Calling it a "publicity freight train," Holden, who had previously managed and promoted former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison, said the media attention the event received was unprecedented and ticket sales for the arena skyrocketed. Every interview Harding did ended up being the lead story on the local news.

"Tonya always acted like such a professional," Holden said. "She is who she is. She's not going to change or act like someone she's not -- but that's what made her interesting."

Harding's hard work outside of the ring paid off, and the event was sold out. On March 28, 2003, she fought in her third professional match against fellow novice Alejandra Lopez. Holden remembers the overwhelming cheers and support for Harding.

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Harding in the ring with Emily Gosa.

WBAN, a site dedicated to women's boxing, described the match as a "catfight," and speculated that neither fighter had had much training. Harding's nose began bleeding in the first round, but she nevertheless won by unanimous decision in the fourth. She improved to 2-1 and stuck around for more than an hour to sign autographs, but Holden knew her skills, or lack thereof, didn't match the hype.

"Tonya started [boxing] way too late and was very limited," remembered Holden. "Her tenacity was her strength. She gave it her all and never laid down, but she could never have contended with the top fighters at the time because she didn't have any amateur background.

"Her skills and defense lacked. It was more of a media attraction than a pure boxing show. But she took it 100 percent seriously and trained very hard."

Harding publicly declared that her dream was to become a title holder but fell short of the goal. Holden continued working with her but ultimately ended their professional relationship when his fighter, Mesi, began ascending the boxing ranks and required his undivided attention. He insists they parted ways on good terms.

Harding won her next fight against Emily Gosa in June 2003, but lost the two fights right after. With the promise of a pay-per-view bout if she could emerge victorious in her fight against Amy Johnson in June 2004, Harding was devastated to lose by technical knockout. She never fought again.

While Holden hasn't spoken to Harding in 12 years, he's planning on seeing "I, Tonya," the film about her life that debuts on Friday, and hopes it helps her get the redemption she has been so desperately seeking. And despite his initial hesitation and preconceived notions about her, he has nothing but fond memories of their time together.

"She did everything I asked of her and more -- she never turned an interview down. Matter of fact, I wish all fighters were as easy to work with. I loved the redneck in her. Oh, my God, it was funny. She just made you laugh. Whatever was on her mind, she was going to say it.

"[Tonya] paid her dues. She went through hell and was publicly shunned. Now, she's just trying to move on with her life." 


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