While growing up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, which has a population of 25,000, NABF featherweight champion Jeri “Fists of Fury” Sitzes was never afraid to dream big.

While still a teenager Sitzes became enchanted by the artistry of martial arts. She took up tae kwan do and soon began winning tournaments.

“Something in me always liked the art form,” said the now 27-year-old Sitzes. “It was really beautiful to me. To move so fluidly and have that kind of power is awesome.”

The seemingly genteel Sitzes, who says that she has never been in a street fight, still lives by the philosophies she learned in the martial arts. After a successful career as a professional kick boxer, where she held a world lightweight title, Sitzes moved to the comparatively thriving metropolis of Springfield, Missouri, to try her hand at professional boxing in 2002. It seemed to be the next logical step.

“I learned on the job,” said Sitzes, who lost a unanimous four round decision to undefeated Renee Richardt, 7-0-1, in her pro debut in St. Louis.

“Jeri was born in Missouri, the Show Me State, and boy did she show them,” said Jill Diamond, who coordinates women’s boxing for the NABF and the WBC. “Even though she lost her debut, it was clear that she was a knockout.”

“I love to win, but I’ve learned from all of my losses,” said Sitzes, whose record now stands at 11-6-1 (5 KOS). “Every fight that I lost, I know exactly what I did wrong. Learning how to lose with humility only makes you a better winner.”

The biggest loss of Sitzes’ career was a 10 round decision to Kelsey Jeffries at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, in September 2004. At stake was the vacant IBA super bantamweight title.

“Kelsey is a cool professional and I have so much respect for her,” said Sitzes. “I trained in the Las Vegas heat with Melinda Cooper for that fight. One judge called it a draw. It was a helluva fight and a lot of the people in the crowd booed the decision.”

Three fights ago, in January 2006, Sitzes won the vacant NABF title with a unanimous decision over Jackie Chavez, 9-1, in Hollywood, California.

She still marvels at Chavez’s resilience and durability. “She has a helluva heart,” said Sitzes. “I hit her with everything. I had her knees weak, but I couldn’t put her down.”

When Sitzes was announced as the winner, she was ecstatic. “I am very proud to be the first woman to have the [NABF] title,” she said. “And my family is even more proud of me, although my father always jokes that I should get a real job.”

Since defeating Chavez, Sitzes has also beaten Crystal Bolles (TKO 1) and Lina Ramirez (W 8) in non-title bouts.

She says that her Herculean work ethic was passed on to her by her family, especially her mother Devonna, who is afflicted with cystic fibrosis and sarcidosis, and her father Jerry, who is a retired truck driver. She also has six sisters and two brothers.

“My mom is the real fighter in the family,” said Sitzes. “What I do is easy compared to what she’s been through.”

The unmarried Sitzes had wanted to attend college to study fire science or private investigations, but says that she got so many offers to fight that she opted to box full-time instead.

Even though she concedes that she is barely eking out a living in the Sweet Science, she is happy to be participating in the vocation that is nearest and dearest to her heart.

“I’m barely getting by, so thankfully I’m not materialistic,” said Sitzes. “I live with my sister and my car is broken down, but I get to do a job that I love. I consider myself really lucky to be able to say that.”

She is also excited about some of the friendships that she has established since she began boxing. Former heavyweight Tim “Doc” Anderson, who is serving a life sentence in Florida for killing his promoter, Rick Parker, in 1995, had seen her stop Mary Ortega, who was 24-1-1, in five rounds in Kansas City in January 2004.

After viewing the televised bout in prison on Telefura, Anderson, who had competed on the Midwest circuit for much of his career, was so impressed with her riveting performance, he mailed a note to her at the Springfield gym where she trained. They have been writing to each other ever since.

“What a story!” she says when asked about Anderson. “He seems like such a nice person whose case should be reconsidered.”

Anderson, who alleged that Parker had poisoned him during a rematch with former football star Mark Gastineau, claims that he killed Parker after the rotund promoter threatened to murder Anderson’s quadriplegic sister.

Several jurors at Anderson’s well-publicized trial have publicly stated that they would never have convicted him of first degree murder if they knew it carried a mandatory life sentence or the death penalty.

They said that they felt “blindsided” and “misled” by the prosecution team and were going to plead to the judge for leniency for Anderson.

To show what a small world the fistic community is, Sitzes also met former heavyweight champion Tony Tubbs and fighter/trainer Clint Calkins of Iowa at a boxing show earlier this year.

While talking to Calkins, who is a close fiend of Anderson’s, Calkins said, “You’re the guy Doc knows. He speaks so highly of you.” Another friendship was spawned that continues to this day.

“She was overmatched at the start of her career, but is coming into her own as a champion,” said Calkins. “She is the new star of the female fight game.”

Besides boxing, Sitzes uses her talents to teach self-defense to other women. Because learning the rudiments of self-defense improved her own life so immeasurably, she is happy to be able to impart her knowledge on others.

“Everyone should learn something like self-defense,” said the always engaging Sitzes. “At times when you least expect it, it could be a matter of life and death. Women have a lot of power, they just don’t know how to emphasize it a lot of times.”

Although she is just 5’5” tall, Sitzes has power to spare in a number of areas. Still, she says, she is a country girl at heart. When she returns home to Poplar Bluff, where she used to work in several restaurants, she never lets her celebrity status go to her head.

“In Springfield things are pretty low-key, but at home I’m popular with everyone: the young, the old, even the hillbillies. When you are around fighters, who work so hard to get what little they have, it’s hard for any amount of fame to go to your head.”