Jamie McGrath began boxing in 1997, totally by accident. Prior to then she could never have imagined herself donning boxing gloves, much less fighting professionally, which she will do for the first time on May 12 at the Town House in Huntington, Long Island, New York.
Although McGrath always loved athletics, and played soccer, basketball and softball while growing up in Smithtown, New York, she had never given boxing a fleeting thought. After graduating from high school she no longer had any athletic outlets, so she joined a local Lucille Roberts fitness center. However she didn’t find that challenging enough, and was intrigued by a sign in the window of the Academy of Boxing Gym in Huntington. It read: ‘Learn to Box for Fitness.’ McGrath, whose diminutive stature belies her highly competitive and intensive spirit, finally mustered up the courage to walk in and see what it was all about.
“I loved it right away,” recalled the 27-year-old McGrath, who is the married mother of one daughter, Samantha Judith. “After a week the coach asked if I wanted to fight. I thought he was crazy, but I went in the ring with Kathy Collins and I was like another person. The adrenaline rush was incredible. I couldn’t believe it was me.”
Collins, who won an array of professional titles, went 10 rounds with Christy Martin, and retired with a record of 14-2-3 (3 KOs), was once considered one of the sport’s premier female athletes. She still owns the gym with her husband, Frankie G., who doubles as McGrath’s manager. While she could have pummeled McGrath, she realized she was a diamond in the rough and opted to cultivate her interest in the sweet science rather than scare her away.
Within a few months McGrath had gained ten pounds of muscle and engaged in her first bout. It took place in Plainfield, New Jersey, where she said the only white people in the entire arena were her, her coach, and two family members.
“I got clobbered in the first round, and I really wanted to quit,” admitted McGrath. “I’m not a quitter, but I took a real beating. My coach told me I worked too hard to even think about quitting and pushed me to continue. I gave it everything I had, and won the fight. That was my turning point. I said, ‘Wow, I just beat that girl! I want to continue.’’
A few months later she was crowned the 1998 New York City Golden Gloves 112-pound champion at Madison Square Garden. It was night she will never forget.
“What a rollercoaster of emotions I went through,” she recalls. “It was one of the most amazing bouts of my life. I was swinging like crazy, because I was so determined to win. Nothing could have stopped me that night.”
She had become friends with NYPD sergeant Jean Martin, who was also in the early stages of her own amateur career, and who would go on to win five local Golden Gloves titles. Martin attempted to win a sixth crown this year, but lost a heartbreakingly close decision in the finals earlier this month.
“Jean and I developed a friendship that grew in leaps and bounds,” said McGrath, whose husband John is a police officer in Suffolk County, Long Island. “We both had our separate lives and lived far apart, but our middle ground was boxing. Even though she’s black and I’m white, people always joke that we’re twins.”
McGrath would go on to have a sensational amateur career, winning two local Golden Gloves titles and two national championships in compiling an overall record of 48-1. Her only loss was a decision in the 2001 Golden Gloves. She was also the first woman to fight in the International Cup, which many thought would be the precursor to females being allowed to box in the Olympics. At a tournament in Finland, she stopped all three of her opponents—a Finn, a Russian, and a Canadian—in the very first round.
McGrath considered giving up boxing for good when she was pregnant with Samantha, who is now three. But the bug just wouldn’t go away. She wanted to enter the 2004 Golden Gloves, but maternal obligations precluded her from doing so. Then she was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, a common but debilitating disease that is similar to mononucleosis.
After recovering from that, she was scheduled to turn pro in the summer of 2004. However, at the eleventh hour a blood test revealed that her opponent was pregnant, even though she quite possibly didn’t even realize it. McGrath had personally sold $5,000 worth of tickets to the show.
“That was a letdown, that’s for sure,” she recalled. “It was hard to get motivated after that.”
Right now McGrath is extremely motivated about her long-awaited pro debut on May 12. All she knows about her opponent is that she hails from Florida and is 0-1. She will sell even more tickets than she did last year, and she hopes this will be the first stop on a short journey toward bouts with such championship caliber female boxers as Regina Halmich of Germany and Melinda Cooper of Las Vegas.
The reason it will be a short journey, she says, is because she and her husband are determined to have more children. But first, McGrath concedes, she has to get this boxing out of her system.
“Believe me, I’m not doing this for the money, although I would not be averse to getting a $2 million Adidas contract,” explained McGrath. “But the truth is, this is a labor of love more than anything else.”
Where, one might wonder, does a suburban housewife and mother of an infant child get such zeal?
McGrath comes from a family of achievers. One sister is a former television news anchor in Georgia, and her other sister is whirlwind who, although she has three small children, always manages to be doing several things at once.
But, whether she realizes it or not, it is the father she never knew who might be her greatest influence. He was an award winning news photographer who was felled by a heart attack at the age of 32, when McGrath was still in diapers. She has no memory of him whatsoever. One cannot help but think that her infectious energy and need to live life to the fullest might have been spawned by the insurmountable sub-conscious heartbreak incurred by such a life-changing event.
“Maybe, maybe not,” said McGrath. “All I know is that boxing makes me feel good, feel alive. I’m very comfortable in the ring, and I’m very comfortable with challenges. You only live once, and you have to make every minute count.”
As a parent, she was asked if she would encourage her children to box, whether it is for fun or competition. “My husband says no way, but I’m not so sure,” she said. “Kathy Collins is pregnant with a girl, and my other friend, [boxer] Micky Pryor just had a baby. You never know what the future holds. Maybe in 16 years we’ll all be back at the Golden Gloves finals, except we’ll be watching our daughters fight.”