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Olivia Gerula: A Long Climb to the Top
by Bernie McCoy

May 11, 2009

     
   
   
   
   

(MAY 11) "We wish we had another ten just like her." Are these words about the next young "phenom" projected to scale the ranks of Women's boxing? No, this pronouncement comes from Butch Gottlieb, veteran boxing manager and Las Vegas fixture, who fits seamlessly into the "been there, seen that" part of the sport. And his words don't refer to the newest "can't-miss" female fighter, loaded down with amateur championship belts. Rather the former mentor of Chevelle Hallback and Laura Serrano, among others, is speaking of Olivia Gerula, newly crowned WBC female super featherweight champion and current WBAN "Fighter of the Month."

And as is often the case with Gottlieb, he isn't through talking, he's saved the best line for last: "She is a true professional in every aspect...". Compliments are often delivered as frequently as left jabs in the sport, but the "P" word is used sparingly and with great care, particularly by fight guys like Gottlieb who know full well that "professional," despite the literal definition, applies only to a relatively few of the many fighters who climb into the ring for money. Butch, however, might have added a second "P" word when it comes to Olivia Gerula: persistence.

Remember Fredia Gibbs and Kathy Collins, two very good fighters in those high flying days of Women's boxing during the last decade of the last century? Gibbs had a draw with Sumya Anani at a time when it seemed the entire sport was avoiding the "Island Girl" and Collins dropped a close majority decision to Christy Martin in Madison Square Garden. Olivia Gerula, as a teen, fought Gibbs once and Collins twice during a nine month period in 1998/99. Two months later, Gerula stepped in with another star of the era, Melissa Del Valle, unbeaten in 16 bouts at the time. After dropping a decision to Del Valle, Gerula's record dropped to 3-5-1 and an observer could be forgiven for thinking about the label, "opponent;" a fighter good enough to compete with top fighters, not quite good enough to win. Olivia Gerula, speaking on the phone from her home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, last week, will have none of that, "that wasn't me, I was determined that I was going to have an impact on the sport of Women's boxing, it took some time." It did indeed and it took all those elements that go into making a professional boxer, including a large portion of persistence. And it took ten more years.

Yes, Butch Gottlieb should have used two "P" words because this fighter, this professional fighter, who freely admits that her twelve year career has not been without twists and turns, hills and valleys, has persistence and she has it in overflow. And today, at a time when Fredia Gibbs and Kathy Collins have long disappeared from the active boxing scene and Melissa Del Valle's last appearance in the ring was two years ago, Olivia Gerula stands atop the female super featherweight ranks with what is, arguably, the gold standard of championship belts, the WBC crown. You want persistence? Look no further than this compelling story of a boxer who wouldn't settle for just being in the ring with good fighters, she was determined to come away a winner.

Following the June 1999 Del Valle bout, Gerula's career continued, some might say meandered, into the new century with wins over middle-of-the-pack fighters such as Laramie Hinostroza, Elizabeth Stephens, Amanda Carriere and Olga Heron, losses to top ranked boxers Jessica Rakoczy and Jelena Mrdjenovich and a draw with Mia St. John. But through it all, those who gauge the relative merits of female boxers continued to list Gerula in the top ten ranking of the featherweight division, a good indication that, despite a record hovering around the break even point, Olivia Gerula was considered one the better boxers in one of the best divisions in the sport. "Sure, that was satisfying," Gerula admits, "but it wasn't enough. I just couldn't seem to get the right combination of direction in and out of the ring."

During this period, Gerula was spotted by Mary Ann Owen, the premier photographic chronicler of the sport, who was covering Gerula's bout with Elizabeth Stephens in March 2004 in Las Vegas. Owen urged her husband, Butch Gottlieb, to consider taking on the management of Gerula, and shortly thereafter the fighter joined Gottlieb's Infinity Boxing organization. Another "outside the ring" turning point for the Gerula occurred in September 2008 when she opted to place herself under the tutelage of Winnipeg local boxing trainer, Mark Collins. "I was in a good place," she notes, "for the first time in a long time, things started coming together. I still continued to do a lot of my gym work on my own, but I knew that I had the support when I needed it and that was a big change from a lot of the early years in my career."

That change crystallized for Gerula and the rest of the boxing world when she traveled to Japan in March for an eight round bout with Fujin Raika. "I felt in complete control throughout the bout," Gerula relates, "I never felt so mentally and physically prepared, everything worked just like it should. I knew I had won easily and when the first two judges split their decisions, the first one for me, the second for Raika, waiting in disbelief for the last judge, it felt like my heart was dropping to my knees. Then the third judge gave me the decision, it felt great." Five weeks later, Gerula had the opportunity to go to Edmonton to fight for Jelena Mrdjenovich's WBC super featherweight title. Mrdjenovich, five years earlier, had KO'd Gerula in four rounds in Winnipeg. "I felt I had everything to gain fighting for a WBC title," Gerula recalls. She came away with a close ten round decision that was not only the culmination of a long tough, twelve year slog through a tough sport but also served as an absolute affirmation that while talent, fortitude and dedication are essential ingredients for a fighter, every once in a while it's the persistence to stay with goals, through the hills and valleys every athlete experiences, that separates a special fighter from all the others who only fit the literal definition of a professional.

What's next for Olivia Gerula? She just turned 30 (May 1) and says, "I have a least five more years left in the sport," and she's eager to defend her title. "I'm ready to go anywhere against anyone, that's what I've been doing for my entire career." Myriam Chomaz, the WBC interim super featherweight champion (don't ask!) is the logical opponent, but Gerula notes, "there seem to be some complications." According to reports, Chomaz's promoters had fully expected a bout with Jelena Mrdjenovich and now appear reluctant to put together a Gerula/Chomaz match-up. Not only have those promoters proven to be mediocre boxing prognosticators, forecasting the Gerula/Mrdjenovich bout wrong, but it seems they can't spot a good boxing story even when it's handed to them. Olivia Gerula and her twelve year career is one of the best stories in the sport in years. It's a welcome respite from the tale of fighters ascending to a title by virtue of a record padded with wins over walkover opposition. Olivia Gerula is 11-10-1, but that eleventh win gave her the WBC title. In any business that's called the bottom line. And if the geniuses in France can't figure that out, Olivia Gerula should simply move out and up against any one of the other good fighters in the super featherweight division. It's what she's been doing for twelve years, with professionalism and persistence.

Bernie McCoy

 
     
     
   
 
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