Saturday, March 1, 2003

Boxing proving cathartic for Harding

The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - She has grown accustomed to the double-takes, the odd stares, the blinking eyes that say "Hey, aren't you ...?"

"Some people recognize me right away but a lot of others get funny looks on their faces," says Tonya Harding.

Yes, Tonya Harding. That Tonya Harding.

The Tonya Harding who now lives in Nashville.

Batten down the hatches and hide the hubcaps, the dethroned ice princess has hit town. It's time for Music City to face the music.

To her credit, Harding gets a chuckle out of these and other references to her, shall we say colorful, past. She has long since learned how to balance fame and infamy. It's part of her life and, frankly, part of her appeal.

"The reason people are interested in her is because of her past, but I've told her that now she can do something to change the way people think about her now," says Jeff Hargis.

And that is what has brought Tonya Harding to town. She has been at the pinnacle of the fussy sport of figure skating and was later banned from it. She has tried everything from racing cars to hopping bars. She's been married twice and in jail twice.

Now at age 32 and a decade removed from the nastiness that preceded the Lillehammer Olympics, she is a pro boxer. Hargis trains pro boxers. Worlds have collided - at Hargis' local gym.

"When we started this, my first thought was that it was a publicity stunt," Hargis said. "It didn't take long to find out I was wrong. She's a competitive person and this is a way for her to be competitive again. The whole thing's been cathartic for her."

Hargis began training Harding about six weeks ago in preparation for her pro boxing debut. In a four-round bout on the undercard of the Mike Tyson-Clifford Etienne fight last Saturday in Memphis, Harding lost a split decision to Samantha Browning.

Considering that Browning dominated the fight, the only explanation for the split decision is that there must have been a French figure skating judge at ringside.

Now she is preparing for her second pro bout on March 15 in Gulfport, Miss. No, the opponent is not Nancy Kerrigan.

"The first fight was a learning experience," Harding said. "As soon as it was over, I was ready to get right back to training. I'm not a quitter. I'm not discouraged. Now I have a better idea of what to expect."

One thing she now understands is the sensation of taking a punch in the nose. In her first fight, which was more like a hit-and-hold scuffle, Harding was doing just fine until Browning caught her squarely on the schnozz.

"I saw Tonya eat a right hand and I thought, 'That's it.' But she got this determined look on her face and went right back at her," Hargis said. "She has a lot of gladiator in her."

Given her background and lifestyle, having the liberty to swap punches seems to suit her better than wearing a sequined outfit and carving out a triple-lutz on the ice.

"There are similarities between skating and boxing. You have to be mentally prepared and focused because any little mistake can really cost you," she says. "But I like competing one-on-one with somebody and you don't really do that in figure skating.

"You go into the ring knowing you're going to get hit. Getting hit doesn't bother me as long as I get a chance to hit back."

Remember that if you should bump into Tonya Harding.

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