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Olivia lands a thudding left

What’s so special about a 38-year-old prizefighter with a journeyman (or woman) record of 18-17-2? I’m happy you asked. The answer, you see, is…. well, a whole lot actually. After all, what’s not to like about a still-active and fiercely competitive female boxer, proud Canadian, and globe-trotting former world champion? But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s ask Olivia ‘The Predator’ Gerula, which is exactly what I did recently.

“The fight record doesn’t mean a damn thing,” she acknowledged of the fact that not being undefeated, and even having double-digit losses on your resume, is nothing to hang your head about and can be a point of pride in women’s boxing. Here’s why. Consider the unusually high caliber of top shelf opposition, the frustration of often having bouts scheduled, rearranged, or canceled on harryingly short notice, the lack or utter absence of sponsorships or endorsements which would allow for proper training camps free of everyday distractions and commitments, in addition to the difficult-to-tabulate frequent flyer miles racked up traveling here and there, anywhere and everywhere. Hopefully these little details help the big picture become that much clearer.

“To be honest, my approach has always been to tell people where I am ranked in Canada and the world,” said Olivia of dealing with the cynics and doubters who still may not quite get it. “That’s usually enough for them to process.”

Her current ranking, it’s worth pointing out, is 9th worldwide among featherweights, arguably the most talent-rich division in women’s boxing. Specific to their native Canada, Olivia is positioned second between her three-time ring rival, WBC/WBA World Featherweight Champion Jelena Mrdjenovich, and her upcoming opponent on September 8, Sarah Pucek. Gerula is rated as the fourth best pound for pound Canadian female fighter, #105 globally which puts her comfortably and admirably within the top 10 percentile.

2017 promises to be momentous for Olivia Gerula in two respects. Not only does this year officially usher in her second decade in the fight game but, in all likelihood, it also bears an end date hand-stamped by ‘The Predator’ herself, a reality check which evokes mixed feelings as Gerula mulls over the long-term prognosis of her physical and cognitive well-being weighed against the nagging potential of leaving loose ends untied.

“I am having a hard time wrapping my head around retiring. But I know 20 years is a long time to put my body and brain through so much punishment,” Olivia confided. “The game plan is to fight til the end of this year and go out a champion. But I keep getting all these fight offers in France, Switzerland, Haiti and I know the minute I retire I will be reconsidering, so that sucks!”

In what will undoubtedly resound through the psyche of many other prizefighters as a hauntingly familiar refrain, Olivia stops to ponder, “Boxing has always been with me, a part of me. I’m not sure what will define me once I hang up the gloves.”

To achieve a deeper comprehensive appreciation of the boxer and the woman as she is today, we must trace back to her point of origin. Like the Neil Young song goes, Olivia was “Born in Ontario”, Brampton to be precise, before the Gerula family packed up and headed off to Winnipeg, Manitoba when she was but a year old. Thirty-seven years later, she makes her home there still. “It don’t really matter where I am, it’s what I do and what I can,” Neil Young sings. Surely, Gerula can relate.

“I have had this athletic streak for as long as I can remember. But my road to where I am at now as a world ranked professional boxing champion started off with gymnastics and soccer of all things,” Olivia reminisces. “As a kid, I couldn’t get enough and then into my teens it wasn’t enough anymore. I had these tree trunk strong legs and awesome flexibility so at 14 I was like, ‘Hey I think I’d be wicked at kickboxing!’ Turned out to be true.”

Having claimed a handful of amateur titles, Gerula joined the professional ranks where she lost only once, to world champion Bridgett Riley. “At the time, kickboxing fights were few and far between. Not being all cocky (I swear!), there wasn’t a lot of competition either. Whether that was just because I was a girl or Canadian or from Winnipeg I don’t know but it was the truth. I did some martial arts, kickboxing, and Muay Thai until a pro boxing offer was made and I took that on in true fearless Olivia fashion. Make money at doing this? YES!’”

To satisfy my curiosity as to the extent of her amateur boxing experience, she was quick to exclaim, “Zero! Another reason why my record is so deceiving, I learned along the way.” Her on the job training inside the prize ring was preceded by a 1997 tag team boxing exhibition in Vancouver consisting of one six-minute round, according to the WBAN website archived and administrated by Sue ‘Tiger Lilly’ Fox, herself a former professional fighter. Gerula was evidently paired with Tara Morneau against Sarah Schmedling and Para Draine and, assuming that it went down more or less the way it sounds, the kid in me who grew up watching Jay and Jules Strongbow battle Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito or Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas engage in free-for-alls with the Wild Samoans on Saturday mornings was nonetheless intrigued and I couldn’t help but ask. “Details from that long ago are not my friend,” Olivia laughs. “I do remember having fun though.”

Gerula’s pugilistic learn while you earn venture got off the ground on October 4, 1997 with a four-round points win over Christina Berry in Rochester, Minnesota and rolled into Boise, Idaho a mere ten days later where she dropped a unanimous decision to her tag team adversary Sarah Schmedling. On the undercard of a bill at the Tacoma Dome headlined by Native American heavyweight contender Joe Hipp, Olivia earned a hard-fought draw against Diana Dutra, a heavy hitter from British Columbia who would gain a measure of notoriety seventeen months later by bursting the eardrum of Lucia Rijker with one of her punches before being knocked out herself in the third round.

As a testament to her career-long commitment to travel wherever necessary to answer the knock of opportunity (and knock back by way of right hooks and ribcage-rattling body blows), it wouldn’t be until her fifth professional fight in May 1998 that Olivia would get to compete in Canada and, even then, not in her own home province. In Red Deer, Alberta, she would earn a split decision win over Cathy Boyes. All told, Gerula has collected passport stamps in four foreign nations and seen action in 10 of the 50 United States, plus its capital of Washington D.C. which is a district unto itself.

Subsequently, Olivia’s fortune would take a drastic downturn with five consecutive defeats. To be fair, Gerula entered into this losing streak at 3-1-1 while the combined records of her opponents going into each respective fight (Kathy Collins twice, Freida Gibbs, Melissa Del Vale, and Dakota Stone) was a whopping 44-3-9. After getting back into the win column with a first-round knockout of Laramie Hinostroza, Olivia fought to a stalemate with Mia St. John and faced off against then 6-0 Jelena Mrdjenovich in the first fight of their trilogy.

Gerula hadn’t fought on Canadian soil in over six years and, furthermore, this bout would be contested at the Convention Centre in her hometown of Winnipeg. Olivia was pretty much having her way with Mrdjenovich until she got caught with Jelena’s trademark left hook in the fourth round and collapsed face forward onto the canvas, necessitating several anxious minutes for her revival. In an eerie coincidence, their third fight would conclude in exactly the same manner. When they resumed hostilities nearly five years after this first matchup, it would be a much different story, one with a far happier ending for Gerula. More on that soon to follow.

But first, she would post a pair of victories in front of her Winnipeg faithful and then come up short in Las Vegas against Maureen Shea, known as ‘The Real Million Dollar Baby’ for having trained Hilary Swank for her starring role in Clint Eastwood’s film. “20 years is a long time and posed a wide variety of different challenges,” mused Olivia when I asked which of her nearly three dozen foes put up the toughest fight. However, she went on to give specific consideration to current WIBA World Super-Featherweight Champion Sandy Tsagouris who was born in the same Ontario town of Brampton which is where they slugged it out for the vacant Canada Super-Featherweight belt on October 13, 2007. “I do remember my Toronto fight against Sandy was a hell of a battle and another questionable 8-round title fight loss.”

The best of times were right around the corner for Gerula, an “epoch of belief”, a “season of light”, the “spring of hope”, to further borrow from Charles Dickens. The achievement of remarkable career highlights was capped off by a singular honor bestowed onto Olivia by Sue Fox. “When Olivia Gerula was WBAN’s 2009 Fighter of the Year, she set the bar high when she not only took on very tough bouts, but she fought in others’ hometowns and countries,” Sue told me recently. Fox expounded upon the attributes that she feels set Gerula apart from the rest. “WBAN has been covering Olivia since the late 1990s, and she has proven from the very beginning that she is a warrior in the sport and a great role model. She will fight any and every one. Win, lose, or draw she has a positive attitude toward her opponents and the sport.”

First claiming a split decision victory over former two-division world champion Fujin Raika in Tokyo, Olivia was back in Canada just five weeks later for a rematch with Jelena Mrdjenovich in her backyard of Edmonton, Alberta. Jelena was now a battle-tested 23-3-1 and, more importantly, the defending WBC World Super-Featherweight Champion. It should come as no surprise that Gerula rejoices in singling out her landmark unanimous decision over Mrdjenovich as her “best boxing moment ever! If you look at the expression of pure joy on my face in the picture of the ref holding up my hand victoriously and the look of complete and utter defeat on hers,” she elaborated, “it’s worth 1000 words. My kickboxing students printed me a hoodie in honor of my post-interview speech. ‘Pay back’s a bitch!'”

Olivia closed out 2009 by trekking yet again into hostile territory, in this case the Halle Georges Carpentier in Paris to make her first successful world title defense against Myriam Chomaz who hailed from Andre the Giant’s birthplace of Grenoble, France. Because Chomaz held an interim version of the WBC belt, Gerula unified the title with her majority decision win and would finally get the satisfaction of taking a victory lap before a home crowd with her world championship hoisted above her head after decisively outpointing Brooke Dierdorff at the Winnipeg Convention Centre in July 2010.

From there, it was off to Sweden, where professional boxing had only been reinstated on a provisional basis in 2006 following a thirty-six-year ban, to take part in what Olivia refers to as “a shit show” versus Frida Wallberg. “Without going into crybaby hysterics, I never should have lost our first fight. Don’t care what country I was in or what the WBC’s agenda was. You have to beat the champion to become the champion, not make it close! Never should have happened.”

The rematch clause Gerula had worked into the contract called for the second bout to be held beyond Wallberg’s jurisdiction and contested over 10 rounds, not 8 as Swedish officials had mandated for the initial title fight, a stipulation which was sanctioned by the WBC. She was granted one of her wishes, anyway. Although the rematch would indeed be a ten-rounder, it would occur in Karlstad, Sweden and Frida retained her newly-won championship by margins which were wide enough that they were acceptable even to Olivia who was gracious in defeat. Wallberg bested Amanda Serrano (her only loss to date) in a second successful defense before being unseated by Lucia Rijker’s protégé Diana Prazak in career-ending and nearly tragic fashion. Happily, Frida has since made a remarkable recovery.

Olivia’s third, ill-fated meeting with Jelena Mrdjenovich in December 2011, with the champion’s WIBA World Featherweight Title on the line, was a result of pure happenstance. She had agreed to take the fight as a late substitute for the injured Sarah Pucek, the very same woman Gerula will be challenging for her NABF Super-Featherweight Title on September 8 at the Cascades Hotel and Casino in Langley, British Columbia.

Other than her championship belt, what else does Pucek bring to the table? “I don’t know much about Sarah,” Olivia admitted. “She jabs, she stays busy, she’s younger and taller, she will be the hometown favorite… nothing new there. She popped up on my radar a number of times and I finally got a contract locked in.”

At 8-2-1, Sarah Pucek rides a four-fight winning streak into her title defense against Gerula whose split decision win over Nydia Feliciano last October in Washington D.C. was bookended by a pair of disappointing world championship opportunities against IBF Featherweight titleholder Jennifer Han and Amanda Serrano who is now a 33-1 five-division world champion and was defending the WBO belt now worn by her sister Cindy, keeping the heirloom in the family. “The Amanda Serrano fight was rough,” Olivia remarked about her first-round knockout loss in yet another short-notice title shot. “Can’t note it as my toughest fight since I barely got started but do have to give credit where credit is due. Hard loss to swallow.”

Pucek also claims the distinction of being the first female to win the British Commonwealth Title, the oldest prize in boxing history, when she beat Lucia Larcinese by ten-round majority decision in a rematch last April. Sarah is hopeful that a victory over Gerula-an accomplished veteran and former world champion-will earn her the chance to step in against Jelena Mrdjenovich (who is rumored to be retiring after two more title defenses) that she lost out on six years ago and went instead to her soon-to-be-adversary. Olivia, needless to say, has other plans in mind.

“I will be in the best shape, body and mind, I can be when I step in the ring September 8th and do everything in my power to bring home the win,” affirms a confident and ready Gerula. “I was hoping for a Canadian Title (the featherweight version of which Pucek holds as well), national pride and all, but I will happily take the North American Title instead.”

Due to a lifelong and tenacious determination coupled with sometimes never knowing when the phone will ring with a fight offer from a promoter whose home office may be near or far, preparation has never been an issue for Olivia. “I am a certified personal trainer as well as a kickboxing/boxing coach so fitness is my breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says. “I live in the gym, so for me a day off is never a real day off since I am constantly active in my day to day.”

When I asked her to provide a rough sketch of the daily workout regimen that takes her up to fight night, Olivia illustrated it this way: “As of right now at 6 weeks out, I run 3 days, spar 2 days, pads/bags 2 days, conditioning 2 days, yoga, hot tub, and then more hot tub. As the weeks go by a few of those days increase and some decrease depending on my progress.”

The byproduct of strict adherence to such an arduous training schedule is that Gerula has staked her ring reputation on being an exciting, inexhaustible pressure fighter whose footwork enables her to pick her shots from an outside range at a variety of angles and employs side to side head movement to give her opponent different looks but seems happiest and most effective when creating the opportunity to swarm inside and conduct transactions on an up close and personal basis, walloping away with her head pressed into the shoulder or chest of her foe and breathing room at a bare minimum.

And then there’s the exuberance shown toward her chosen profession in the bruising business. Olivia will more often than not return to her corner smacking her gloves together, grinning with her tongue poking through her gum shield, and sometimes remain standing as though the one-minute rest period were a nuisance and not a necessity.

Twenty years’ worth of peering beneath the fabric of society-alternately appealing and unsightly-as well as creating unique ripples across its surface, has given Gerula a firsthand perspective with regards to the public’s evolving views towards female prizefighting. “It’s impressive to remember what things were like back in 1997 when I started and how women’s boxing has progressed,” Olivia reflects. “Back in the day it was catcalling and whooping like you were stepping on a stage instead of a ring. The whooping remains but the thunderous applause mostly drowns it out now.”

Even if the scales seem to be tipping heavily in favor of increasing acceptance, promotion, coverage, and enjoyment of women’s boxing, Gerula is well aware that the system of checks and balances requires an ounce or two of pragmatism to be weighed into the equation. “Is there still a lot of room for growth? Absolutely! But as the level of skill in female fighters rises, so does the level of respect and, fingers crossed, one day the paydays! With more and more positive media exposure, I do think women’s boxing will continue its climb in popularity but until those major big-name sponsors step up and become a possibility for decorated fighters like myself I can’t see the hype or publicity showcasing a female main event selling out the MGM Grand with paydays in the millions. And that is simply just disappointing.”

Late July saw the debut of the trailer for Olivia’s documentary The Predator’s Last Stand which will premiere on Canadian television on September 16, eight days after her fight with Sarah Pucek. Hopefully video on demand or other online streaming services will enable her fans all over the globe to view the film which deals comprehensively and truthfully with the peaks and valleys of Gerula’s boxing career and its imminent final chapter.

Olivia’s brother Eddie, an impassioned long-distance runner, was happy to share with me some thoughts on his sibling’s achievements. “I’m beyond proud of my sister! She has something you can’t teach and that’s heart. She has so much will and determination,” beamed the elder Gerula. “She has blazed the trail for the new generations of female boxers. She has never taken an easy fight. Her resume is the who’s who of boxing! She never backs down from a challenge. Watching her from the corner is such an amazing experience.”

Presumably Eddie will be in Olivia’s corner in British Columbia on September 8, cheering her on to one more championship with the rest of Team Predator. Even if it means that, as the away team, they will be stationed yet again in the visitor’s locker room.

“I am the variable I can control,” asserts Gerula, “so my goals remain the same.”