“Boxing helps me to calm myself. Not as angry as I used to be.”
-Keisher “Fire” McLeod-Wells
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. She’s not related to Cassius Clay and please don’t compare her to Laila Ali! She’s Brooklyn-born boxer Keisher “Fire” McLeod-Wells and she is to be taken seriously. Very!
At first glance some may find it easy to dismiss Fire as just a skinny girl with a pretty face. But her colleagues at the world-famous Gleason’s Gym, where she’s trained since the beginning of her career, will quickly correct you. Yes, she has model looks. Yes, at 5’8” and 110 pounds she is slim. Yes, she has impeccable fashion sense shunning the traditional boxing gear for flirty tennis skirts, super cute leggings, and Juicy Couture socks. But don’t be misled by her beauty, lean physique, or designer frocks; she is a real contender.
As an amateur Fire established an impressive record of 34-6, and she captured multiple titles including, two Ringside World titles, three Empire State championships, and four NY Golden Gloves medallions, the most by any boxer in Gleason’s. As a professional boxer Fire has won four of her six fights decisively. Ladies and gentlemen, Fire is definitely no pushover; the last girl who made the mistake of thinking she was, left the ring in tears…literally.
I headed over to Gleason’s Gym for a few rounds with Fire…outside of the ring! Along to help document the occasion were talented photographer Tamara Edme of Urban Exposure Images and super gifted make-up artist Tyshelle Alvarez-Hutson. I’m happy to report that The Boxing Diva, as she’s affectionately known, didn’t make us cry, but she did leave a lasting impression.
When did you start boxing?
I started boxing in 2002, preparing for a movie role I was trying to audition for. My Manager wanted my arms to get leaner so I had to take up boxing.
What kind of part was it for?
It was for Terminator 2. They were looking for the female and they wanted an unknown at the time, a fresh face. My Manager had submitted me for the role and I went to the audition. They liked me but they thought I was very frail, no muscle and I was at the time. So they said, “We’ll agree to see her again if she [bulks up]. I think it was maybe two more months when they would be doing another audition. So I said, “Ok.” I was willing to do anything to try to get the role. (Laughs) I thought if I hit around on the bag and just focus on the arms and not changing anything else on my body maybe it would work.
And what happened with the part?
Oh I didn’t get the part obviously. (Laughs) But I got recruited by a trainer who had a team of girls. He thought I had all the attributes to be a champion in my weight class cuz I was very small but tall. So what he told me was, “Hey if you come train with me, I guarantee I can make you a champion in year.” I didn’t know what that meant; I didn’t know anything about the sport. I just said, “Ok, if you think I can be a champion, alright, whatever.” To make a long story short I won my first championship title in less than a year. I found my niche and I just loved it. I just kept at it [ever]since.
What’s your weight class?
I can fight anywhere from 106 to 116. It’s called Fly Weight. Super Fly Weight.
Super Fly Weight. Like Super Fly.
What does it take to be a champion?
It takes a lot of focus first of all. A lot of discipline and of course training; that goes without saying. But mostly discipline; a lot of mental discipline. Anyone can go in there and throw punches. But you have to throw the correct kinds of punches; you have to have the technique, the skill, and listen to your trainer. You have to trust your trainer and know that he or she can see better in the ring than you can while you’re fighting. Work hard and focus. Anyone can be a champion if they have those kinds of attributes and consistency as far as the training and everything.
What was your first fight like?
Oh my first fight. I remember it was right in this gym. And the girl that I fought…it was her first fight too.
Exactly. Which is funny because in women’s boxing, in the amateurs, there is no novice division. A lot of people don’t know that. So your first fight can be with someone who has like 40 fights. But I got paired fairly. The girl was very short; I remember that, very very short. And I just used my jab and she just couldn’t touch me. She just couldn’t get in. I think they gave her a standing eight, which is an eight count. The ref stops it cuz that person got hit too hard; either that or they got knocked down. I didn’t knock her down, but it was a really really bad hit. We went the full rounds; at that time it was three rounds, three minutes. I can’t even remember the rules; they change the rules a lot. But I won and it was like a one-sided fight. I remember that because I was so happy and so nervous prior to that. I always said, “If I lose my first fight that tells me that I’m in the wrong field. But if I win God is giving me a sign that this is your thing.” And I won and it was a very happy win.
What was the feeling like after that first win?
I felt like I was a real boxer. You have a lot of people who just train and they call themselves boxers. They tell their boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever, “I’m a boxer.” But it’s like you said; they’re just virgins, like breaking the cherry. When you have your first fight, win or lose, you’re considered a boxer.
What did your parents and your twin sister think about your new career choice?
Well my sister, she didn’t know anything about it. She probably thought I was crazy. That’s just such an extreme from what we were pursuing. We were pursuing acting and modeling together at the time. And I just fell into something completely the opposite. Of course she was supportive and only had good things to say, never had anything negative to say. But she was afraid because she saw her face and to see it bloodied, it was kinda like seeing herself so she was a little squeamish.
My Mom, she just didn’t understand what the hell I was thinking about. (Laughs) She just didn’t know. She didn’t really express it because she wanted to be supportive but I could sense some, “What are you thinking about?” But I was grown, so I could make my own decisions. I was living on my own also; I was taking care of myself. But now, she’s one of my biggest fans. She comes to most of my fights and she’s the loudest one. I can hear her. She’s like, “Get her! Knock her out!” And she’s so conservative. But she loves the idea that I’m boxing. And she brags about me and every time I’m in the newspaper or whatever she says, “My daughter look, she’s boxing, she’s boxing, she’s boxing!” She just loves it.
You weren’t afraid of being hit? I’m so girly, so thinking about my face…
Yeah I’m girly too. One thing that my trainer at the time-not training with him anymore, I have a new camp-but at the time when I was competing as an amateur the first thing he always focused on with all of the girls, the number one thing was always defense. And if you’d seen the other girls…these girls were Golden Gloves champions and I couldn’t believe it. These girls were pretty; they were feminine. People think, the stereotype, when they think of female boxers they think of football player type women. But I’m one of a lot of other females who are very feminine who you wouldn’t think are boxers. It’s just that I’m kinda like one of the more popular ones now in New York so when they see me they don’t think there are other girls. Everyone thinks Laila [Ali]. And she’s not a pioneer of boxing at all. There are a lot of other girls who are just as beautiful and more skillful. But because we don’t have the name attached to boxing it didn’t work out that way.
When you have good defense and you’re good…knock on wood, but I’ve never had any kind of disfigurement, scars. Not even with men; it’s the least amount of injuries than any sport. Its way more injuries in tennis than in boxing. In the amateurs you wear the headgear, the gloves are padded. In the pros it’s a little different because you’re not wearing the headgear anymore, there’s a lot more risks that you’re taking but it’s not as bad as people think it is. It’s really not.
CLIP FROM DOC PRELUDE TO A FIGHT
How long have you been a pro?
I’ve been a pro for two years now. I fight for money. In the amateurs there’s no money, bigger gloves. The gloves are 10-ounce in the amateurs, in the pros they’re 8-ounce. Less padding, they’re small so you feel the punch more. (Laughs) I like it better because now I’m not wearing the headgear, vision is better and you’re more of the star of the night as opposed to amateurs. They don’t see you because you have the headgear.
It could be anybody under there.
Yeah and then they have more than one fight going on; they’ll have maybe like 18 fights going on in the amateurs. In the pros you have about eight fights and I’m usually the only female that will be fighting in that card, so it’s kinda like my night. And not just me, but the other girl [that I’m fighting] also. We have so much respect for one another. It’s not as bad as people really think it is. It’s actually a beautiful sport and there are beautiful people. And a lot of those girls are friends; we have to fight, but we leave it all in the ring. And that’s it, but it’s the appreciation that we have for the sport that I love so much.
What’s the most money you can make on a fight?
There’s no limit.
How do they determine the purse?
The show itself. The show may have good sponsorship and have a lot of money to pay for a bout. Typically a women’s bout of 4-rounders is anywhere from $800 to $1000. That’s the same thing with men. But a championship title fight 6-rounder, you see the big difference between women and men. It really depends on who you’re fighting. You might be fighting a big contender who has a name, him or her, and they want you to fight that person. And I’ll say, “I’m not going to fight them unless you give me such and so amount of money.” They can say no or yes. It’s like negotiating. You can get a lot of money and then you can’t.
What’s the average in a big fight that a woman can make versus a man?
A good payday for a woman?
And what about that same type of fight for a man?
Wow! Big difference.
That’s what I’m saying; it could be a big difference. I know guys in here they have the good backing, they may be tied to a promoter and they’ll get a stipend, a car, whatever in advance. And they’ll fight the championship title and they could get paid up to $100,000. A woman – $15,000; that’s like a lot of money. (Laughs) That’s just an example. In Germany and other countries it’s different. The thing about us fighting in the States…there’s more money overseas. Like in Germany, people there accept women’s boxing a lot more; they have their star and they take very good care of their star. They don’t fight outside of Germany. Germany will bring people, girls like us from New York or whatever, to come out there and fight their girl. Because they’ll pay us good money, we’ll go out there. But 80% of the time we’re not going to get the win. Even if we’ll win the fight clearly…
It’s a decision and they’re not going to give it to you.
Exactly! Unless you knock the girl out. But most of the girls in the States who are World Champions they don’t have undefeated records.
FIRE’S PROFESSIONAL DEBUT BOUT
What’s your record?
4 – 1. I have one loss in Panama.*
Within the last two years.
Oh since you started in the pros?
Yeah. In the amateurs I won everything. Golden Gloves, it’s the biggest tournament, it’s the most popular tournament. Hundreds and hundreds of boxers sign up for that every year. I won that four times. That’s what I’m mostly known for, because I have lot of Golden Gloves championships; it’s more than any of the guys that train here.
What are some of the big names in women’s boxing?
Melissa Hernandez, Belinda Laracuente. Belinda’s from here, from this gym. Layla McCarter, Mia St. John, there’s a lot. Susi Kentikian; Susi Kentikian is in my weight class and she holds the belt and she’s in Germany. They never bring her out to the States to fight anyone. Look at her record you’ll see that all of her fights are in Germany. If you look at a fighter like me or Melissa or Belinda, you’ll see us all over, everywhere.
What was the hardest fight you ever fought?
I probably would say my last fight. Not my last fight, the fight before that here in New York. The girl was tough. They play that fight all the time now, probably like every Sunday. I beat her unanimously, but I took more punches than I’ve ever taken in any fight. She caught me with some looping left hooks. I remember with one punch me getting really dazed; if she had jumped on me I could have probably been in trouble, but she didn’t. Maybe it woke me up. And I went in there and got back in rhythm.
What fighter is this?
Her name is Melissa McMorrow.* She’s out of California. I fought her at B.B. Kings on February 9th . Six rounds. It was my first 6-rounder; I was fighting four rounds before. She had more fights than I did, professional fights. And she came here to win. But I was there to win too. I think it was the second round; she may have won that round. I think that’s when I took those couple of hits. But after that I was catching her. It was a good fight. She was tough.
Talk to me about the stigma that comes along with being a female boxer. What’s the most hurtful thing you’ve heard?
The thing that I hate to hear during my fights when I watch them on TV, you can hear some stupid guy in the audience saying, “Knock her shirt off.” Very sexist things. So that bothers me. I don’t hear them while I’m fighting, but when I watch them back on TV you can hear the crowd. That’s…
Very disrespectful. It’s usually drunks who’ve had some beers. Otherwise I get a lot of support in this gym. People know me and they respect me a lot. I would say probably in the beginning of my career, when I came in people thought that I was too Barbie Dollish and they just took me as a joke and thought that I was just some model that wanted to portray a boxer. I like being girly; I don’t see why I have to take off my make-up because I’m going to train. It doesn’t bother me and make-up doesn’t affect my–
Yeah my movement. It doesn’t affect me! So if they don’t know me, they’ve never seen me, I’m a joke in the beginning. When they actually see me train, they’re like “Who’s she?” Someone will say, “Oh that’s Fire, she won the Golden Gloves.” And then I start to get the respect. So in the beginning if I’m in an environment where no one knows me, they’ll say, “Who’s this skinny twig?” I get that not so much from the guys, but more so from other girls. They’ll be like, “I’m sparring with her?” Because I’m always like the smallest one. But when we get in the ring it’s different. I made one girl cry after the ring because she underestimated me and now we’re good friends.
Well it’s better to be good friends with someone who kicked your butt!
Well we are good friends, but we’re always getting at it in the ring. But it’s good for both of us. We make one another better. And now she just won a title for a professional fight. And she told me, “Man I remember when me and you first sparred you made me cry because I didn’t think that this little skinny ass girl like you could fight.” I couldn’t believe that she said it, that she admitted it. I think it takes a lot for a person to admit that and she did. We’re real cool now.
So what is the stereotype? If someone were to paint a picture of a female boxer, what picture would they paint?
Someone very masculine. Probably short hair, butch-like. I don’t know if I should say butch-like, but someone very masculine. That’s the first thing…someone bigger. People have to understand there are different weight classes. There are girls who are even smaller than me. I’m completely the opposite of what they think a boxer should be. Well, then they think of Laila Ali. But she’s still a big girl.
Right. But that’s the stereotype. Masculine and we’re all lesbians.
But you’re not. You’re married.
No, I’m not [a lesbian]. But that’s the stereotype.
How long have you been married?
I got married in 2007.
What did your husband think about your boxing?
Oh I was a boxer before he met me. I think that intrigued him more.
Did he know that you were a boxer in the beginning or did he find out?
How I met him. He was selling these Channel shoes that he came across hot. And a friend of mine ran into him on the street, she couldn’t fit the shoes. I was living in Harlem at the time. She said, “I have a friend who likes designer stuff, she can fit this shoe, it looks like her size.” She called me and I said, “Send him over.” And he came over and I opened the door. I didn’t think about this guy being crazy; all I cared about were those Channel shoes. (Laughs) I was like “Come on in.” [WARNING: Don’t try this at home folks…unless you have a championship title belt!]
It’s a good thing you could box.
I thought he was so adorable when he opened the door. At the time when I was living in Harlem, I had a bookshelf and it had all of my trophies. He thought it was a boyfriend I might have been living with. He didn’t think they were my trophies or that I was a boxer; he never asked me. And then long story short, we ended up going out on a date and it came up. When it came up, I said I was training to be a professional boxer. He said, “Oh those are your trophies?!” He said, “I’d like to come see you train.” He came to the gym and ever since then he’s come to the gym every day. He’s very supportive. He comes and watches me train. And everyone that interviews me always asks him what he thinks, “Do you ever worry about your wife?” He goes, “No I always worry about the opposition.” He may take a little look if I’m sparring with guys just to make sure because some guys can get out of hand. But it’s never come to that point. I always handle myself even if I’m taking punches, I take it.
Do you feel stronger on the street now?
No, I feel the same. I did have some confidence [build-up]. But it was more mental confidence than physical confidence.
What do you think are some of the rewards that have come as a result of your boxing?
I’ve gotten [the opportunity] to do a lot of good jobs like photo shoots and meet people. I shot with Gilles Bensimon not too long ago and he was awesome.
He is a great photographer!
Yeah. I get to meet these people and work with them. And later on sometimes I get another job just from meeting them. I think my biggest one is the campaign for NBC. That was a really really great reward to represent New York as a female boxer in a not sexual way; it was more of a strong, attractive, smart sense of strength. And that was a huge huge accomplishment for me to get that campaign. That was probably my biggest besides the wins and the trophies and the belt.
What are your hopes, plans, and dreams for your career as a boxer? What do you hope to leave?
Right now, I’m trying to get a world title as a professional. That’s my goal. It’s not more so for the money; it’s no money in female boxing like that, only if you get endorsements. But I just love the sport. I don’t have a particular goal. I do wanna win that world title and that’s it. I’m comfortable. I like my life right now. I love the gym, I love being here, meeting new people, I love opening the doors for the next generation and to say that I represented boxing in a positive and a beautiful way. I’m not the stereotypical [female boxer], I don’t have that name like Laila Ali. I wanted to put in the work, the sweat and the tears and all that good stuff and hopefully open the doors for the next generation, because it’s a hard sport. But as far as money, if it comes it comes. I live pretty comfortably now and I’m happy with that.
It’s good to be able to say that. How long do you think you’ll be boxing?
As long as my body lets me. I know this one girl, she’s awesome and she’s 43 years old. If you look at her you would never think so. She’s a world title champion over and over, and she’s still at it. So as long as my body allows me. I will be 34 tomorrow…
Thank you. And hey, looks like I have 10 or 15 more years. (Laughs) If not, I’ll go on to commentating. I do that from time to time for the amateur fights here for the website Gofightlive.tv and I commentate with the girl who does all the fights. So maybe I’ll branch off into something like that, as long as I’m still in the boxing community I’m pretty good.
How has it changed your life?
It made me calmer. I expend all of my energy training because I used to be an angry person. Very confrontational in the street with men. Because you know there are very ignorant men on the street and usually I would get combative with them. I just wouldn’t ignore it. Now boxing helps me to calm myself. Not as angry as I used to be. I used to be bitter also. You know just acting and trying to get this job and modeling and all of the competitiveness and I was depressed. I was frustrated. I would land some roles and then I wouldn’t land the ones that I really wanted. I would land the ones that I didn’t really care about. And it just made me angry and bitter and just a very stand-offish person. Then I started boxing and I guess I found my niche and something I’m good at. It made me calmer. My husband, he said he sees a big difference. He’d always say, “You used to be angry, you used to be bitter and harsh.”
Why do you think a sport that’s so pugilistic and viewed as aggressive was able to calm you down?
Because it was a mental thing. When I’m in the ring and when I’m boxing it’s so relaxing. Yeah it’s aggressive, but for me it’s so relaxing and therapeutic. It’s very therapeutic for me. It just made me calm and more pleasant to be around. I don’t think I was very pleasant to be around before. I’m talking about in relationships and stuff. Now it’s just like I enjoy life. I’m around people and I see the hard work. And not just boxing; it could be anything competitive, I start to appreciate it. I watch tennis; I’m not a tennis fan but just because I see the work. Dancers, everything I’m so into it. Just to watch it, because I know what it takes to compete and I have so much admiration for people who compete. It’s a lot of hard work. It just gave me a lot more respect for people.
Complete this sentence. Fire is…
Just fire. That’s how I got my name. A lot energy. Anything that fire means, that’s me.
Well no one in particular gave me that name. But my hair used to be red like yours, very wild, curly, and looked like fire flames. So people used to call me fire head, fire bomb, and fire crackers. It was always something with the word fire. So whether they were picking on me, I just decided to use a negative and turn it into something positive. And I said, “Fire is my personality.” At that time I was angry, but now it’s a good fire.
Is there anything else you want the world to know about boxing?
One thing I’d like people to know is you can’t judge a book by its cover. And you don’t have to put on the façade to be something that somebody said, “This is what it’s supposed to be.” You can be yourself and you can bring yourself into this sport and you can be actually good and just don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I brought my fashion, my femininity. I didn’t change it. People told me, “You need to take off the make-up; you need to do this, you need to wear real boxing shorts.” I was like, “No. I’m gonna be myself. I’m gonna bring myself into boxing.” Whatever style you have you can do the same. Don’t let anyone tell you how to be in this sport or anything in life.
Finally, can you tell me in one word what it takes to be a good boxer?
(She thinks for a moment and says…)
Keisher “Fire” McLeod-Wells definitely has a lot of heart. Earlier this year her fearlessness and hard work ethic took her to Mexico where she lived in a hotel for one month with eight boxers from around the globe and participated in a reality show called Todas Contra México, which means All Against Mexico. At one point in her career perhaps All Against Fire could have been the name of The Boxing Diva’s autobiography. But now the haters are finally taking notice and the smart ones are all on her side.
*A few weeks following our interview Fire suffered a disappointing loss by split decision to Melissa McMorrow; the two are now tied at one bout apiece. Like the previous match-that Fire described as her toughest battle up until that date-the fight was very close. The re-rematch is scheduled to go down in the Fall and if it’s anything like the first two meetings, it is surely one not to miss. The Super Fly Weight’s new professional record is 4-2. But count on her adding some more numbers to the “wins” column and one day snatching that pro championship belt!
Many thanks to Gleason’s Gym for allowing The Socialite Design & Urban Exposure Images to photograph on the premises. And a super special thanks to Brian Bloom of Brian Bloom Photographs for granting permission to use one of his incredible images!