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Tonya Harding has undergone the transformation from ice skater to boxer.
Tonya Harding has undergone the transformation from ice skater to boxer. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

From the rink, to the ring

Scandalous skater Tonya Harding tries to fight off her past in new arena

ESSINGTON, Pa. -- Tonya Harding has a migraine. She's been sick for months with bronchitis and the flu. Now she has to meet the press to promote her upcoming celebrity boxing match. Interview rules are set by the promoter and Harding's new manager, who is also her godmother. There are to be absolutely no questions about Nancy Kerrigan. A reporter from Philadelphia introduces himself, and his first question is about Kerrigan.

"I'm going to stop you right there," says Harding. "That was 11 years ago."

Harding, 35, looks totally different from the 110-pound figure skater she once was. She still has the piercing blue eyes but her 5-foot-1-inch frame is bulked up more than her listed 125 pounds. Her biceps look like telephone poles and she is dressed in a black Everlast warmup suit. She is slated to box Brittney Drake, 25, of the Women's Extreme Wrestling Federation, whose website lists her as 5-6, 120 pounds. It will be Drake's boxing debut, and win, lose, or draw, she will be at her waitress job the next morning $1,000 richer. Harding's fee is undisclosed.

Promoter Damon Feldman is betting that the "Wounded Knee" -- in which Kerrigan was clubbed by an assailant at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in a plot devised by Harding's ex-husband -- will draw curious fans to the Lagoon, a nightclub on the shores of the Delaware River. Although she has steadfastly denied knowing of the attack in advance, Harding pleaded guilty to hampering an investigation, paid a $160,000 fine, and was banned from US Figure Skating competition for life.

Harding sued the US Olympic Committee when it threatened to keep her off the American team for the 1994 Games at Lillehammer, and she was allowed to participate. She placed eighth while Kerrigan won the silver medal. Since then, Harding has been arrested for assaulting her boyfriend with a hubcap and driving while intoxicated. A video of her wedding night was sold by her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and pictures of her appeared in Penthouse magazine.

In 2002, she turned to boxing, and 15.5 million viewers tuned in to see her beat Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones on "Celebrity Boxing." She has a 3-3 professional record but is unbeaten in a handful of celebrity bouts.

In the Lagoon match, the combatants will use 16-ounce gloves, wear headgear, and fight three one-minute rounds. "I'm going to knock her head off," says Drake. "I'm going to kick her butt."

"If you knock me down, I don't care, I'll get right up," says Harding. "I'm like the Energizer bunny. Usually the one who talks the loudest is the loser."

After the press conference, Harding learns that the statue of Rocky Balboa is just minutes away in Philadelphia. She has seen all five Rocky movies and loved them. She gleefully jumps in a car with her godmother, Linda Lewis. The statue, which of course is a likeness of actor Sylvester Stallone, seems to inspire Harding.

"I'll win this fight probably in the first round, maybe the second,' she says.

Lunch is from a McDonald's drive-thru. Two Big N' Tastys, small french fries, and a soft drink. Then it's back to the hotel to rest.

Making the jump
Harding says she is out of shape.

"My immune system is so far down," she says. "Now that I'm starting to feel better, I'm going to start skating and getting in shape. I'm going to start back skating and teaching. I want to box. I want to do movies, commercials, endorsements -- you name it, as long as it's in good taste and kids can look at it and watch it. If not, take a hike."

She has fired her former manager, who wanted to set up a big boxing match while this year's US Figure Skating Championships were going on in Harding's hometown of Portland, Ore., earlier this month.

"We're in litigation right now," says Harding. "I'm suing him. I'm not going to tell you why. It's not any of your business or anybody else's."

Harding did not see 15-year-old Kimmie Meissner land a triple axel, the first American to do so since Harding 14 years ago.

"I heard about it," she says. "And you know what? Unless it's as good as mine or [Midori] Ito's, then keep practicing. I heard she spun around when she landed it. If you don't land it and follow out, it's not clean. So I'll be anxious to see it. How big, how high, how she took off. Did she cheat the takeoff? Did she cheat the landing? We'll see."

Harding, who started skating when she was 3, started doing a triple axel when she was 12.

"I just loved jumping, that was my passion growing up," she says. "I always wanted to be the best at it, and I was. If I had a few months to train and get down to skating weight, I could do it again.

"To do the triple axel, you have to be the right weight and you have to have everything right. I mean, if you don't have a good loop or good positioning in the air, you're not going to do it. A triple axel takes guts, speed, and strength."

Harding says her skating background doesn't help much in the ring. "It's totally different from skating," she says. "The only thing that helps is, when I am skating, I build up my breathing. You definitely have to have a lot of stamina to box, and with my asthma, it hurt my skating a little bit. If you're not in shape, you're not going to do well, because without the breathing, your legs go weak."

She says she makes "a small living" from boxing. According to published reports, she makes up to $25,000 per professional fight. The "Bad Girl" label doesn't bother her, either. "Everybody always knows me as the bad girl," she says. "So it's like, everybody else has made money, why shouldn't I?"

Harding says the media blow things out of proportion and don't try to know the real Tonya Harding. "I'm kind of like a roughneck," she says. "I like hunting and fishing and going for drives in the woods and sitting at home watching movies and playing with my kitty.

"I do a lot of things for kids -- Celebrity Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America. I've done AIDS benefits. I back anything about children."

But the media, she says, won't let anyone forget about Nancy.

"Nancy? I could care less about her or anybody else," says Harding. "Big deal. People need to get over it. It's off my shoulders. I look in the future, not the past. You can't change the past. Most people have gotten over it but the media. I mean, there isn't anything that the people haven't heard. I've put it behind me. I mean, you don't hear much about O.J. Simpson anymore. You don't hear when some of the big ballplayers do drugs and get busted three or four or five times. They're still playing basketball.

Harding has set up a website for her fans -- -- in part because she was irritated that another so-called "official website" features pornographic fantasies about her.

"I have nothing to do with it and I've been trying to have it shut down for the last five years," she says. "Somebody's made over $5 million from my name to go to pornography sites and put my head on morphed bodies. I mean, do you think I'd be a boxer if I had boobs the size of those things?

"I wear boxing equipment. I mean, I'm not going to step out there wearing skimpy clothes. I'm a boxer, and I'm going to step into the ring with a boxer. I don't wear makeup when I box, jewelry. I'm a fighter. I look like a fighter, act like a fighter."

Fighting through it
Truth be told, Harding would rather not get in the ring. She's already had her nose broken, and there's a hint of sadness as she speaks candidly, one on one. This boxing show has an uncomfortable traveling-circus feel to it.

"Well, you know what? I've got to earn a living," says Harding. "I've got to pay bills, and at least I'm doing it and I'm not in debt. I'm not borrowing money. I'm working hard. I'm not selling my body. I'm not posing for anything. I'm doing something respectable.

"The girls that are coming up right now are already doing amateur fights. See, I never had any amateur training, so they already have the ring feel that I don't have. I enjoy the training. I don't enjoy the fighting part of it, per se. I'm still a beginner. I've got a pretty quick jab but my strongest punch is a straight right."

Her last professional bout, against Amy Johnson in Edmonton last June 25, ended in controversy.

"I knocked the girl down in the second round and they gave her 26 seconds to recoup," says Harding. "She took her mouthpiece off and waved to the corner people, who came to the top of the stairs, which they're not supposed to do in the first place. Finally they pushed her back out there to fight."

Johnson, who is from Edmonton, won the fight with a third-round TKO. The Edmonton Sun reviewed the tape and confirmed a 26-second count. But a protest filed with the Edmonton Boxing and Wrestling Commission was denied.

"If I fell down, they'd stop the fight at 10," says Harding. "It was a Canadian-vs.-American thing. You think an American is going to win up there? Especially not if your name is Tonya Harding." Her next fight is at the Copacabana in New York City Feb. 25. Don't expect to see her in Boston.

"I would not disrespect Nancy by coming to her hometown and fighting," says Harding. "People will be bothering her for interviews. People bother me anyways. Everything about me is about how other people can make money off me and my name. Look at how many media people made millions off me at the Olympic Games. You think they might at least send me a birthday card or Christmas card."

Being the butt of jokes, she says, no longer bothers her.

"Who cares?" she says. "I've heard them all. The way I look at it, it's pretty damn sad. They're making fun of a situation that wasn't a funny situation.

"Worldwide, everywhere I go, people want my autograph or to say hi. Oh God, it's 98 percent positive."

Harding says good things have come from her troubles with domestic violence.

"I've worked and helped a few women that have had domestic abuse," she says. "As long as I can help one person, I've done something. Everything that I've been through . . . If I could help make one person not make the mistakes I've made, then it's worth it.

"I like helping people. I guess it's because of the way I was brought up -- broken home and making bad decisions and being naive, just wanting somebody to love me. You know what? You've got to love yourself, because if you don't love yourself, nobody else is going to love you. And I had to learn that. I'm proud about me and that's all that matters. It's important to know you can make a mistake. The best redemption is success."

Mixing it up
Despite a snowstorm, the Lagoon is packed on fight night, with ringside seats costing $35 and general admission $25. Most people are rooting for Drake, a local New Jersey woman. Harding enters behind several massive security guards.

She's dressed in black except for a purple "Tonya" logo around her waist. During introductions, she looks straight ahead, never acknowledging the crowd ("I know they're liquored up").

And she looks mean.

"Once I get in there, it's game face," she says.

The response is a mix of boos and cheers. Jerry Nillon, a fight fan, shrugs and says, "She's a world-class athlete trying to redeem herself. I wish her well."

Mike Green, who is not a fan, disagrees.

"I want to see her get the [expletive] kicked out of her for what she did to Nancy Kerrigan," he says.

Patricia Gibbons is more practical.

"This is Philadelphia," she says. "We boo everybody."

The fight lasts just 75 seconds, and Harding doesn't need a collapsible baton to floor this opponent.

She tattoos the spunky but unschooled Drake early and often.

"It was like, boom," says Drake of the right hand that smashed into her nose, knocked her to the canvas, and sent blood spilling onto her chest. "She was so strong she just kept going. I couldn't take a breath."

Harding smiles, hugs Drake, and leaves to meet and greet her fans. She autographs Polaroid pictures of herself with admirers for $10 apiece.

"I like fighting, but I hate hurting people," she says. "I still am a beginner. It keeps my strength, it keeps my sanity, and I don't get in trouble for hitting her." 

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