Stepping into the Joe Hand Boxing Gym on North 3rd Street in Philadelphia, on Saturday, the week before her co-main event fight at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, I knew I had arrived at the right place when I heard boxer Melissa St Vil exclaim, “heeeeyyyyyyyy” in her beautiful high-pitched voice.
She gave me a warm hug and then lit up with a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Dressed in lime green workout clothes, and sporting pink compression knee highs, she quickly turned back to the heavy bag and began circling with a succession of jabs and straight right combinations, high and low jabs, and heavy-handed body shots that landed with thudding precision.
Her manager and trainer, Brian Cohen stood by, with pads at the ready, as he called out, “Thirty seconds, Mel.”
Turning around from the bag to face him, St Vil threw punches in combination in response to his calls focusing on upper cuts and hooks to the imagined body of her opponent. Attacking each task with focus and force, St Vil, executed Cohen’s commands: “Power, Mel, power,” he said, before switching it up to “speed, speed.” St Vil, every bit the champion, continued to respond with precision as if she was on a seek-and-destroy mission.
At 35, Melissa St Vil (10-3-4), is Haiti’s first female boxing champion—along with being one of a rarefied group of Brooklyn’s professional female boxing champions sorority, a group that includes Alicia Ashley, Heather Hardy, Ronica Jeffrey, Amanda Serrano, and Alicia Napoleon. She’s also been a road warrior, fighting and winning in such places as Auckland, New Zealand, where she became the WBC Silver Female Super Featherweight champion, and Chengdu, China, where she not only retained her WBC title, but also added the International Boxing Union, World Super Featherweight Title over Katy Wilson (18-1 at the time of the battle).
Most recently she traveled to Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki, where she fought Eva Walhstrom for the WBC World Female Super Featherweight title. While she lost the fight 95-95, 97-93, 96-94, she was able to put her opponent on the deck (though ruled a slip by the referee), and otherwise showed grit and a fearsome barrage of fighting power against the long odds of battling a champion in her hometown.
In the current calculus of rankings, St Vil is ranked number one and according to her, Walhstrom has to be willing to fight her, “or they’re going to strip her.”
St Vil is no stranger to adversity or challenges. With a professional boxing career that began in 2007, she has not only fought against opponents in the ring, but against the changes in momentum and fortune that have beset female boxers in this era. She has also had to fight against her own demons of abuse and hardship, not to mention the notoriety of her experiences fighting and living in Las Vegas when she came into the orbit of the Mayweather family.
Her recent loss to Walhstrom also brought about some deep soul-searching, which has resulted in a renewed commitment to her boxing. As part of that process, she decided to take a break from her long time trainer, Leon “Cat” Taylor.
While still very close with Taylor, St Vil, sought out her former manager, Brian Cohen, to help refocus her career and bring her to the next level. That change has already brought about results with a new promotion deal with DiBella Entertainment—beginning this coming Saturday, September 29, 2018—not to mention her boxing debut in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.
According to Brian Cohen, she has “done really well in ticket sales,” which, he feels will make Lou DiBella very happy.
“This is the first time she’s fighting in Brooklyn, the first time she’s selling tickets … so this is a big deal for her, and she’s such a road warrior, this is what she deserves and this is what she needs. And, I’m proud of her, she put in a tough camp … and I’m very happy to be back with her.”
Brian Cohen went on to speak about her upcoming bout saying, “What I hope to achieve, is the recognition and the respect she deserves. She’s been fighting her whole life and hasn’t gotten the breaks she so well deserves … what people are really going to see is what Melissa St Vil brings to the table.”
Cohen also brought out the fact the St Vil is rated number one for the WBC and is the mandatory for the IBF as well, which should mean a chance for even greater opportunities. “That, along with having the “horsepower” behind her of a promoter like Lou DiBella, something St Vil has not had in her career, should help propel her towards a title opportunity in the near future.”
Brian went back to working with St Vil as she completed her training circuit, and after lunch at a local diner, he drove us to his home in South Philly, a cozy split level with an outdoor space that looked out on an unobstructed view of the Phillies stadium. After a few minutes, Melissa St Vil and I went upstairs to talk in Brian Cohen’s office—the afternoon light soft through the windows. After settling in she began by speaking about her journey in the sport.
“Boxing was my savior,” she said, “I came up in an abusive household and when I found boxing, I knew, this is where I belong.” Taking a moment, she reflected, “Being in the gym, it took me to a different place and I just felt good in the gym.”
With eleven years of professional boxing behind her, St Vil is now looking forward to her next challenges. As she talked more I could see that she was not only feeling confident, but in heading to the relative quiet of Brian Cohen’s home and her hours at the gym every day, she’d had the chance to revel and delight in her boxing, away from the realities of her life in Brooklyn. The training regimen had also brought her a new understanding of her boxing. “Coming here,” she said, “being in a peaceful space, being around people with good energy, and staying focused has made a big difference.”
Her time in Philly has also given her the chance to go back to basics and under Brian’s careful tutelage; she’s been refining her boxing skills. “He corrects my feet, tells me when my hands are low, tells me how to turn the jab, and he’s even there when I hit the speed bag and when I do my sit ups,” she said.
Having that attention has allowed her to focus more on her boxing, but more importantly, she feels that he is there to support her when she’s in the ring.
“My sparring has been good work,” she said. And in speaking about Brian’s role she noted that he’s been helping her understand how to really engage with her opponent. “I’ve just been discovering my eyes and what it means to sit down on my punches in the ring. I’m discovering my jab and what my jab can do.”
St Vil has also been discovering how to relax in the ring. “Yes relax,” she said, “relax, use that jab, and realizing that everything’s coming.” She can also hear Brian telling her “don’t rush it … use that jab, sit down on your punches, and he’s right there watching everything, from my feet, to my hips, to my head movement, to my eyes … and telling me, ‘don’t go out there and waste punches, pick your shots and box, you fight when you want to fight, everything doesn’t have to be such a hard fight.’”
“My whole boxing journey was a bumpy road …” St Vil reflected, but now as she put it, “I’m fighting in Brooklyn for the first time, I have a promoter for the first time, so I feel like my time is now, and I’m ready.”
When I asked her what she saw for herself in the future, St Vil’s smile broadened and she said, “For right now I see myself going straight to the clouds, all the way up.”
As she spoke she raised her arms above her head and with exuberance said, “Because now we have a plan, I’m not just going out there, with people saying, ‘hey do you want to take a fight?’ Okay … ‘Who’s your manager?’ I don’t have one … and so on.”
After another moment she said, “I have always had faith in myself, because I know what I can do, if I have someone who can believe in me and show me and help me on the right path. I can do anything.”
When asked what the secret to success in the sport is, St Vil put it this way. “You have to have a good team that knows their stuff.”
The difference now, is that St Vil has a team.