Million Dollar Baby – Mia St. John

Mia St. JohnWELCOME TO MIA’S WORLD

Forget Mia St. John, the “Bunny Boxer”. It’s time for you to meet the real Mia St. John: published author, mother of two, veteran female combat athlete, and survivor.

Mia speaks for but a slight few female boxers who have stepped outside the protection and favoritism of some of boxing’s biggest promoters to seek not only self-enlightenment, but self-improvement. For years, she was touted as the toughest female fighter by Bob Arum, and a slew of other nicknames that rarely did justice to her swift right hand. Eventually, those very labels, and Mia’s ethical divisions over how she was marketed by those very factions, propelled her further in her own life than any promoter could propel her in any career. Mia St. John can be considered a success on many fronts, but to consider her time boxing the most prominent of her successes would be a vast misjudgment.

Put yourself in the shoes of any female boxer. Numerous are the stories of those that were made and broken by those they knew, those they didn’t, and in some cases, those they’d wished they hadn’t. Few of those stories will ever see the light of day. Not all of them are as intense or decorated with obstacles as the next. And some of them even have a semi-decent ending.

MOVING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK

Thoroughly outspoken on the politics and corruption of the boxing industry throughout her career, Mia now rescinds as she recounts those instances of frustration and adversity as enlightening experiences. In an industry where anyone else in her position might’ve been happy behind a veil of promotional smoke and mirrors, Mia left those securities behind in pursuit of personal discovery. And where she once tirelessly strived to fight the world’s top competition, wherever she could find it, Mia’s seemingly found renewed confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

Though Mia looks forward to a Pay Per View match October 20th, and her first-ever professional MMA match at that, I felt there was more to talk about than just this fight. I mean, geez… this is Mia St. John. She’s got a male boxing fanbase that 99% of the male boxers don’t have. She’s done it all in this sport. She’s both won spectacularly and lost dramatically in high-profile events. She’s worked with every promoter who’s anybody in boxing. She’s fought more than 50 times in professional boxing rings the world over, and can still count her losses on two hands. This woman has accomplished something special. But even then, there’s so much more to her. Sure, we’d talk about her fight Saturday, but I had other questions.

“I realized that through a lot of my career, (my image) was something that the promoters created,” Mia recalls. “This Playboy Bunny, this ‘Toughest Female Fighter’… they created all that. It was an image. It wasn’t real… I’d rather have what I have, than have continued the farce, being something that I wasn’t.”

Touted early on as the Toughest Female Fighter early on in her career, Mia was soon thrust into the spotlight of the boxing scene after exploding onto it with a debut TKO that took less than a minute. Soon, she found herself working with Top Rank, and the likes of promoters Don King. Midway through her career, a stint with Bob Arum ran its course. And then… neither of them promoted her at all.

THE IN-ROADS

Mia’s career began with Don King, yet the desire for a more vast array of quality opposition took her towards Bob Arum’s Top Rank promotions in due time. “It was really enlightening working with two of the biggest promoters in the world,” Mia tells me. “Leaving King for Arum was something people told me I could never do. They’d tell me King was going to get me, and yeah he tried to sue me, but I actually fought him and he ended up letting me go. I went and signed with Arum, and started opening for De La Hoya. That’s really when my career took off… those De La Hoya fights. Then Playboy made me an offer, and things really skyrocketed. It was great. I was doing the A-List shows like Jay Leno, Conan O’ Brien, and Good Morning America.” Mia St. John Amassed 22 wins with 1 draw while under Arum and King combined.

Most impressively, entering into the world of professional boxing at a late-blooming 29 years young, Mia had put up 50 fights within an 8-year span from 1997 to 2005, making her one of the most active female boxers of her prime competitive day. To accomplish such a feat, she’d have to do something rare in today’s sport: cross boundaries, take risks, and forego what-ifs. In this, leaving behind the promotional services of the Arum money-machine was seemingly inevitable.

“I left Arum because I wanted to start fighting the toughest girls in boxing, and in order to do that, I had to leave Bob Arum,” Mia explains. However, she continues, reality awaited. “I did (leave Arum), and my first fight without (him)… without being under the “protection” of Bob Arum, I was TKO’d in the second round… live, on ESPN,” Mia explains.

NO REGRETS

Regrets about leaving Arum? She goes on to explain her position more thoroughly. “He wanted to continue promoting me like he was promoting me, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to fight fighters like Christy Martin, and I wanted to fight the best to know where I stood in this sport that I love.”

Mia reflects on her first loss with Arum optimistically, rather than lamenting over it. “People always ask me if I regret leaving Arum. My mom tells me I should have stayed with Arum and played it safe.” Her tone changes and her glimpses of that confidence I mentioned earlier start shining through. “I don’t believe that. I believe if I could go back and redo that moment all over again (when I got KO’d), I wouldn’t change a thing. Getting KO’d on national television was enlightening, and I learned so much.”

Mia learned enough to win her next four fights impressively.

“After that, I went on to fight the toughest females in female boxing. And to me, that was everything. Truth was everything. Bob Arum promoted me as the best female fighter in the world. And then here are the critics, calling me the worst. I wanted to know for myself, what’s the truth? Am I really the best? Am I really the worst? So I just started fighting everybody… anybody that I could. I didn’t care if they were the toughest or the baddest, I just wanted to know where I stood as a fighter.”

“What I found out is that I’m wasn’t the best, I wasn’t the worst, but I am damn good. And you know, that was good enough for me. Because like I said, what meant more than anything in the world to me was the truth. So I’d never take back that day I was KO’d.”

THE CLIMAX

After nine years of paid dues and close to 50 fights on her record, Mia won the IFBA Lightweight World Title with a unanimous decision over Liz Drew. Further disproving the very same critics who’d called for her to catch early knockouts in what became some of her most remarkable professional performances in boxing, she came back to win IBA Continental Lightweight Title in ten rounds, again unanimously. After years and years of enduring boxing’s trials and tribulations, the culmination of her career comes in the form of back-to-back title wins. She speaks of her title wins excitedly, yet even then, looks forward.

She passionately lays out her convictions for me, without pulling any punches whatsoever. “To me, it wasn’t just some publicity stunt, like it was for Arum. Then you have the politics behind boxing.”

OH YEAH, THOSE

“Where do I start?” She pauses… even in her conduct outside the ring, Mia is deliberate and precise in what shots she chooses to take. Here, she’s careful not to over-commit. “It’s a corrupt sport,” she begins. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anything so corrupt in my life. It really left a bad taste in my mouth… like what these promoters do, and the (athletic) commissions. They’re just so willing to risk someone’s life for the sake of selling something. The commissions go right along with it in every state, because everyone’s getting paid off by somebody… whether it’s the judges or the referees, the doctors, the promoters, the fighters… everybody’s being paid off,“ she explains.

THE CRASH

Although she rightfully decries the ruthlessness of some of combat sport’s most irresponsibly empowered, as she always has throughout the course of a long and storied career where she allowed no one to hide her from anything or anyone, she stays optimistic about her endeavors outside of boxing. When you consider what this woman’s endured to stay on course over the history of her career, you quickly realize that this woman is built differently than others. With some of these accolades yet to occur in her career, and only 20 fights into what would be a long and accomplished in-ring tenure, the flashpoint of Mia’s career came in the form of a Jet-skiing accident that almost took one of her legs.

A less-sensitive subject nowadays that Mia has seldom discussed, I took a chance at asking Mia about her mental processes throughout such a crisis. As I said earlier, this is a rare individual. A chance to observe this kind of strength, with the opportunity to interact on any level with it, is one I had to absorb.

“I was in a jet-ski accident,” she explains. (Note: this is contrary to reports that she was in a skiing accident). “The person that was driving did like a ‘cookie’ or whatever you call it, and flew into the air. I flew off the jet-ski and landed on my leg. I ended up in the hospital for about six weeks, and had four operations. With the first one, the doctor told me flat out that he didn’t know if he could save the leg.”

I couldn’t even imagine receiving that kind of news.

“For about 24 hours I just stared at the ceiling… just stared at the ceiling, and I was so depressed… finally, after about 24 hours, I thought ‘it’s okay. It’s okay, because I’ll go on.’”

POWERFUL WORDS

“I said to myself ‘I’ll be the first woman with one leg in the boxing ring. I’m going to keep on running. I’m going to keep on weight lifting… I’m going to keep on doing everything I did before, so it’s going to be fine,’” she tells me. “Within the first 24 hours, all I could do was stare at the ceiling in shock, but quickly, I came to acceptance. Like, if that’s what has to happen tomorrow morning, so let it be. It was the weirdest thing when I woke up from the next surgery and I saw the doctor looking over me… you’re just waiting, like ‘what happened!’ He said it was tough, but he got down to the very last fibers of the leg and saw they were alive, and he thanked god it was okay. So other than my leg looking kind of messed up, it works perfectly fine.”

FEMALE BOXER FAMILY LIFE

At 40 years young, most mothers to teenage siblings are maintaining the grind of full-time life, while doing their best to identify with their budding youngsters. Mia’s no different, aside from the fact that in addition to raising kids, she’s still making a living dropping opponents. “They didn’t mind when they were young,” she explains, “because they just thought ‘Isn’t every mommy a boxer? Isn’t every daddy on TV?’ But now they’re older. They see the injuries, and they don’t like it. They want me to quit. Being that their dad is an actor, they don’t like the cameras and the fans. They don’t like that whole world. They’d rather be left alone, kept out of it”

It’s interesting to hear her talk about her teenagers reactions to hers and her ex-husband’s (note: Mia’s ex husband is Kristoff St. John, known for his work on the day time drama The Young & The Restless) fame. “It was hard for them to deal with because they just wanted to be like ‘normal’ kids and have ‘normal’ parents, which they never did,” she empathizes, “and that probably meant a lot to them. If they could change things that might be one of the things they ask to change… to just have a normal mom and dad. But you know, they’ve had some positive things come out of having us as parents. They get to travel the world, they get things that maybe other kids wouldn’t. So you know, there are negatives and positives to that.”

I can’t help but think that I might appreciate Mama Mia (no pun intended) more than the current children do.

DIVERSITY VS. ADVERSITY

So let’s see… you’ve fought 50-something times. You’re a champion. At 40, you’re taking on new challenges by stepping into the Octagon for the first time. Is there anything else?

Ah, yes. Her non-profit organization, “El Sober Es Poder” (translated, knowledge is power). “It’s for Latinos here in California who are first generation, who need help with education,” she proudly explains. “I say education because that’s what it’s for, but actually, we do anything. If a family can’t fund a Christmas, we have helped farmers out with their Christmas and Thanksgiving… we try to do whatever we can.” As she recollects some of the moments she’s shared with the underprivileged families her charity has been able to help, she speaks with a different kind of compassion than that of her boxing career.

“In the end, when these families come up to me and they’re so happy they’re crying, and they’re thanking me, I feel like “wow”… like, I know sometimes it’s a hassle and it takes so much time, but in the end that’s what it’s about… it’s about helping other people. I tell my kids, it’s not about another car or another house or bling bling… that’s not what it’s about, that’s not happiness. Another car isn’t going to make you happy diamond ring isn’t going to make you happy. It’s about what you can do to benefit another person. That’s where you can find happiness”

Also awaiting this accomplished athlete and mother, apparently, is an accomplished career as an author! “I’ve already written two books,” she excitedly declares as I ask about these long-awaited memoirs I’ve heard so much about. “The first one is a fitness book, and the second is my tell-all… my memoirs.” Ah-HA! There it is! “You get to see what truly happens behind the closed doors of boxing. You’ll really know what happens, and I didn’t write it to bring anyone down or hurt anyone, but just for people to see what really goes on, and that if something happens and they have to crack down on boxing or combat sports, good! So be it… if it saves a person’s life, I’m glad I did it.”

Also, surely soon to see the same type of success is Mia’s recently-released workout DVD, The Million Dollar Workout. “Well, I love fitness. I think that so many women, especially at my age with having two kids… and the DVD was really to say “you can still do it… here’s a workout you still can do, it doesn’t matter how old you are or how many kids you have… you can do it!” It’s in stores now, and you can also get it at my online store. I feel good about doing that. And the book to go with it comes out in Spring of 08.”

HERE AND NOW

Foraying into the realm of Mixed Martial Arts for the very first time, Mia St. John will take on the challenge of her first cage fight at age 40, after a successful 43-9- “My fight on October 20th is at an event called Brawl For It All at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. It’s a Mixed Martial Arts match. It’s my first cage fight on Pay Per View. And I say it’ll probably be my last fight, but I always say that… every fight is my last fight,” she laughs. I ask her how long she’s been saying that for, to which she replies “several years.” She also informs me that she’ll be doing a signing for 3-days at the Wrestle FanFest that same weekend, October 18th – 20th, at the Sheraton Gateway In San Francisco.”

When asked if there’s anything in her tenuous and storied career that she has yet to accomplish to her liking, she’s modest in her assessment, and content with her accumulative accolades. “Yeah, there’s one thing… I think I’ve done it all and done everything I set out to do, but I’ve always wanted to fight in Mexico. That’s where my family lives, that’s where my family’s from… I’ve always wanted to do that, and unfortunately, it hasn’t yet happened. There have been a couple of opportunities, but nothing promising. That’s one thing left that I’ll do… for my last fight, I’d like that to be in Mexico.” Any and all promoters are welcome to help setup Mia’s dream match in Mexico.

THEN AND THERE

At the end of the day, the only question left is Ol’ Inevitable. Mia’s been boxing professionally for a decade. Before that, she has fond memories of pushing both her Tae Kwon Do training and her Psychology courses at CSUN up against one another as she finished college, to the point that she’d sometimes go to class wearing her gi. Now, having raised two teenagers, and with all the outside endeavors… how does that affect her in-ring attributes, in a practical sense?

“I’m slow!!!” She laughs, as she modestly jabs at herself. “Yeah, it gets harder to stay motivated every day. I do get tired more easily, and I do get all the aches and pains and the injuries and everything that goes along with being 40. But I just have to work harder, and never give up… and every day, find something to motivate me… which is usually fighting, because when I get to come in here and spar and do my thing, THAT is motivating.“ Mia trains with Sensei Mark Parra, 6th Dan Arjukanpo Black Belt, and Pete “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, world-renowned former kickboxing champion, at the World Famous House Of Champions in Van Nuys, CA, where we sit for this interview. How much longer can she keep the same frenetic pace that’s kept her selling Pay Per Views whenever she steps into the ring since 1997?

“Not long,” she admits. “I think the reason I have so many injuries is that my body is telling me something. You know, something like ‘you probably don’t want to do this much longer… enjoy this while you can’. And also, I have other things I want to do too. I want to continue with the charity, and I want to continue writing books, and other projects… I’ve been working on some TV shows, and I just feel like it’s time to leave it to the younger girls who are coming up and doing this. This is their time to really show their stuff, and we’re going to see a whole new generation of girls coming in that are really good athletes. I’m kind of like one of the pioneers, and there’s a time to step down, and I think that time is coming.”

As we prepare to wrap up, I ask Mia in one last flash of retrospect if she’d change anything she’d done or said in all the years she’d been subject to this device we call the boxing industry. Her answer comes quickly, coolly, and confidently.

“I wouldn’t change a thing.”

IT’S AS SIMPLE AS THAT.

“Every decision I’ve made, I’d do all over again,” she says. ”MY MOM would have changed some things! I wouldn’t have left King, I wouldn’t have left Arum…” she laughs. “But I’m glad I did things the way I did. I wouldn’t change anything.”

In all of this, with as much as she used her boxing career as a vehicle for her own self-discovery, she thinks her accident taught her the most about life. And it’s lesson is one we can all take from in some way.

“I learned I’m resilient. I learned that no matter what happens to me, I can overcome anything. And I really can. Some people wonder about things happening, if they’ll crumble if something bad ever happens. I learned that I won’t.”

Her stare is as focused as ever.
“… no matter what happens, I won’t.”

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