The real Million Dollar Baby
After overcoming tribulations, boxer Maureen Shea finds a new life and another shot at a world title in Ventura
By Chris Jay 03/13/2014
ROUND 1 — Bronx beginnings
From where she grew up and how she grew up, Maureen Shea was almost destined to become a fighter. The second child and only daughter to her father, a former Marine and New York City police detective of Irish descent, and her mother, an airlines ticket agent of Mexican descent, Shea’s childhood was full of pent-up energy and a reckless attitude that even at an early age led to trouble.
By the time she had reached high school, Shea, behind the back of her strict father, was already drinking and experimenting with drugs. Kicked out of the all-girls Roman Catholic school in her junior year, Shea ended up at a public school and began dating a man who was six years older. Though they started as best friends, it was a relationship that soon turned into a classic case of abuse.
Maureen Shea works the mitts with her head trainer,
Joseph “Hoss” Janik at Knuckleheadz Boxing in Ventura.
Photos: by Chris Burau
ROUND 2 — Battling abuse
Like most abusive relationships, the young and impressionable Shea was blind to the early signs of trouble.
“We started as best friends. I thought that it was love,” recalls Shea. “The problems started little by little. Verbal abuse. Putting me down. Cursing me out. I thought I deserved it. I didn’t know any better. Then I caught him cheating. Didn’t leave him. He had full control over me. He took my self-respect, my self-worth.”
Things escalated, however,when Shea found steroids in his car while he was driving her home one day. The verbal abuse took a horrifying turn into physical abuse.
“I confronted him about the steroids and he just pulled over the car and tried to strangle me to death. He was screaming, ‘Die, die, die.’ I remember thinking, ‘God, if it’s my time, please take me.’ I passed out. He drove away. I woke up and walked home. When I got home, he was crying on my stairs. Said he thought he killed me and it would never happen again.”
Still, it wasn’t enough for Shea to leave. She took him back even after he assaulted her again in another incident needing eight stitches.
It was during this time, though, that a karma-worthy twist of fate occurred. The verbal abuse Shea got from her boyfriend that she was “fat, ugly and out of shape” led her to start going to a gym.
In a movie-like moment, there, in the back of the gym, were some old heavy bags. Shea began hitting them again and again. Day after day. The simple act of releasing the anger and the sadness through hitting the bags opened Shea’s eyes to a whole new world and her “first real love,” boxing.
ROUND 3 — Almost famous
As expected, her boyfriend was not thrilled to see her interested in or excited about anything, let alone something that was teaching her how to defend herself while working with and meeting other men.
More than that, Shea found herself gifted at the sport. The confidence that came with that led to her finally being able to break free from the hold her boyfriend had and, after six years, Shea finally left him.
Though he didn’t go away easily at first, trying to get her back, not to mention stalking her, Shea held strong and threw all her efforts into the sport as well as finding time to graduate from college.
One day, not long after Shea started her amateur career, fate came walking into her gym in the form of the actress Hilary Swank, who was looking to learn how to box in preparation for an upcoming role. Shea’s trainer matched her up with Swank and they became sparring partners. The two also became friends, and eventually Swank went off to film the movie, having absorbed a great deal from Shea’s training, experience and even outspoken, headstrong personality.
The film Shea had helped prepare Swank for was, of course, Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood blockbuster that swept the 2004 Academy Awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for Swank.
Suddenly, Shea’s life was turned upside down. She went from never having given an interview in her life to speaking on every network imaginable, being featured in People Magazine, invited to red carpet events, and even making an appearance on E! True Hollywood Story about Hilary Swank. She had become, by accident, a minor celebrity, especially in the New York City area.
With all the media attention and the lack of opponents on the amateur female circuit, with just 12 fights under her belt, Shea decided to lose the headgear and no pay and turn professional in 2005.
The professional ranks were a perfect fit for Shea. With her aggressive and hard-hitting style, she racked up win after win and basked in the attention that came with it.
On the strength of Million Dollar Baby, many predicted women’s boxing was finally on the threshold of going mainstream. It seemed the seven-figure purses that come to the sport’s biggest male names were not far off for a talented group of up-and-coming women boxers and Shea’s name was in that mix.
Her appearing on the undercards of famous fighters like Evander Holyfield and Miguel Cotto and her ability to promote fights in two languages (Shea speaks fluent Spanish) led even one of the sport’s biggest promoters and power brokers, Bob Arum, to proclaim, “She could become the face of women’s boxing.”
She even got a new and seemingly appropriate nickname when one announcer ran with the obvious at an event, introducing Shea as “The Real Million Dollar Baby.”
ROUND 4 — Bad night in the Garden
So it was with a record of 13-0 that Shea signed on to a dream fight at the famed Madison Square Garden for a shot at a world title in front of the home crowd. After dropping her opponent in the first round, it seemed as though it was going to be an easy night.
But ask anyone involved in the sport of boxing — if it can break your heart, it will.
Shea’s opponent fought back with a fury and sometime in the fifth round ruptured Shea’s eardrum.
Not that that stopped Shea at all. She kept fighting, not knowing what was wrong with her.
“I heard this weird noise and I could literally hear the air rushing through my head. Then my equilibrium started to go. I couldn’t stand up. In the last round, I went down,” Shea said. “I made it up but the ref stopped it. There was only 30 seconds left in the fight. She would have won on the cards but I wanted to go the distance.”
What many didn’t know was that Shea’s trainer at the time was not in her corner that fateful night. He had gone to Belgium to train a fighter for money — “a male fighter,” Shea is quick to point out — and left her alone with no game plan for a once-in-a-lifetime world title fight.
After recovering, Shea immediately fought again, trying to recapture the magic, but she unknowingly went up against a hard-hitting opponent, again with no game plan, and Shea was stopped. Her career that just six months earlier was supposed to save an entire gender’s future in a sport was now on the ropes; and worst of all, Shea had another opponent that was winning a fight against her outside the ring.
ROUND 5 — Dealing with depression
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs due to an extreme reaction to the winter and lack of sunlight. Shea had been suffering from it since she was a teenager.
Initially and incorrectly diagnosed as bipolar as a teenager, after an assortment of drugs like lithium didn’t do the trick, eventually her depression was traced to seasonal affective disorder.
“At it’s worst, I couldn’t get off the couch. You feel like you’re in a fish bowl and you can’t get out. You can see life going on outside you but you feel like you can’t participate. We’re not talking about the winter blues,” she continued.
“It’s an actual chemical imbalance. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
With her condition worsening, in desperate need of health insurance and basic income, Shea accepted a lucrative job offer and officially put her professional boxing career on hiatus.
It seemed the fistic fairytale was over but in another twist of fate, not long after taking a day job, Shea was asked to be a host on a reality boxing show based in Mexico.
While she was filming in Mexico, she realized she wasn’t content just to sit back and announce other women fighting; she was ready to start a new chapter in her career and fight again professionally. Most of all, she had to get off the medication and go someplace where winter wouldn’t devastate her anymore.
So when the show was over and the producers were getting ready to fly Shea back home, she made an impulse decision to leave her life back in New York and come to California.
ROUND 6 — West Coast turnaround
Moving to Los Angeles and staying temporarily with her aunt, she also got in touch with a longtime friend and nutritionist, Robert Ferguson, who lived in Ventura.
Ventura was also the home of the famed Mohawk sports trainer Joseph “Hoss” Janik, whom she had met briefly in 2007 during a visit to California.
“I knew in 2007 when I met him that I wanted to train with him. There was an instant connection,” explains Shea. “I didn’t really think it was realistic because I was in New York and he was in Ventura but now that I was in California I thought, maybe there’s a chance.”
Shea, who had gained more than 50 pounds, primarily from the medication and inability to work out due to the depression, began the slow crawl back into shape and lost the medication. Initially driving three days a week to train at Hoss’ Knuckleheadz Gym in Ventura, Shea instantly fell in love with the city, the people and the anonymity.
“Nobody knew who I was here. Nobody knew I was a professional boxer. No one knew I had fought for a world title. No one knew I was almost famous. (Laughs) It was freedom. I was finding myself,” she said. “It was a fresh start in all ways. I really found myself out here. Found a new group of wonderful caring friends. A new life really.”
Officially moving to Ventura in the summer of 2011, Shea and Hoss headed to Mexico to slowly bring Shea back into the sport outside of any pressure or media attention.
The cat, however, is now out of the bag, as the two have gone on a sensational seven-fight-win streak, with her record now standing at an impressive 22-2. Shea is once again widely considered one of the best female featherweight boxers in the entire world.
The incessant training and mature focus have now been rewarded with the type of fight that she’s dreamed of having again ever since that fateful night in the Garden, the chance to fight for a title in her hometown. The only difference is, now that home is Ventura County.
ROUND 7 — Title fights and sunset nights
As much as Ventura County is an absolute hotbed for professional boxing with champions, contenders and world-class trainers all calling the area home, there was a surprising lack of actual professional boxing events taking place. When local businessman Alec Benke and Player’s Casino CEO Bill Kracht noticed the void in the area last year, they decided to form Top Players Promotions and threw their first fight at the Ventura Fairgrounds last summer.
“We had been hearing about this female boxer in the area who supposedly was a great fighter and had a great story,” explained Benke. “We had some people say that a female boxer shouldn’t be on the card or at least not be one of the main events. We went ahead anyway. Let’s just say it was the best decision we could have made.”
“She’s a special fighter and a special person,” Kracht said. “Not only does she bring people that love boxing, she also brings people out, people that aren’t boxing fans but fans of Maureen. That’s what women’s boxing desperately needs right now, a star. We believe she is it.”
Beyond fighting in America for the first time in years and being able to do so in her adopted hometown, now the WBO has offered Shea the chance to fight for the interim title at the event that, to simplify, is the title that guarantees you a shot at the world title. Or as Shea explains, “It’s the world title before the world title.”
ROUND 8 — Unanimous decision
With the win, Shea could once again start to be referred to as the face of women’s boxing and the fighter that could revitalize the sport much as Ronda Rousey has done for women’s MMA.
This time, however, Shea has a different view on the fame game.
“Well … if I do become the face of women’s boxing again, it won’t be my old face. I have a new face. It’s tanner, laughs Shea.”
“Do I think I could be the face of women’s boxing? Absolutely. Why not me? But if promoters don’t step up and give women’s boxing the attention it deserves on TV and on big cards, if won’t happen. It’s up to them. The talent is out there but the opportunities aren’t. All I can do is stay in shape and keep fighting. Even if I just help lay the ground work for another female to have that shot. That’s good enough for me.”
As for outside the ring, Shea stays busy on the motivational speaking circuit and is constantly involved in charity work and appearances.
“I’ve come to terms with things inside and outside the ring. I respect myself now. I accept myself as a woman. I got to know myself without depression or abuse and I feel renewed. Now I want to share my story,” Shea explained as she warmed up for a three-mile run on the Ventura Promenade. “If I can help someone not go through what I’ve been through, it’s worth it. Letting girls and women and even men know you’re not alone and you can accomplish what you want no matter what or who is holding you back. That’s my real fight.”
It’s the end of another beautiful day; and at the same time that a winter snowstorm is raging in her native New York, an all-smiles Shea is literally running off into the setting sunset, a woman and fighter reborn.
Maureen Shea fights for the WBO Interim Featherweight Championship at Ice vs. Fire II, Saturday, March 15, at the Oxnard Performing Arts and Convention Center, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the first fight starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are available in advance at www.topplayerspromotions.com or at the door on the night of the fight.