From a young age, Shelley Burton says, she’s known two things about herself.
First, she’s a born athlete.
Her mother, Vickie Burton, says, “She just loved sports, for as far back as I can remember.”
In grade school, Vickie says, her daughter would play basketball against her two brothers, who are five and seven years older than her. The boys, Vickie says, did not go easy on her.
By the time she was a student at Bigfork High School, her love and ability came together to make Burton a star athlete.
In the spring of 1995, the first year women’s pole-vaulting became a sanctioned Montana high school track and field event, Burton won state, and she won it despite a sprained ankle.
That was the first she competed in track, and she went to state in four other events.
From her sophomore year through graduation, she made All-State and All-Conference in basketball.
“I played every sport I could compete in,” Burton says. “Rugby, soccer, hockey, I loved everything.”
She always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, and in 2003 she turned pro as a boxer, reaching the rank of number three in the United States. On Nov. 11, shortly after her 30th birthday, she fought Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali and current International Boxing Association, Women’s International Boxing Association and International Women’s Boxing Federation Super Middleweight champion, at Madison Square Garden.
“I felt confident and cocky when I was playing sports,” Burton says. “I really believed in myself. A lot of kids wanted to hang out with me when I was playing sports.”
Secondly, Burton says, she’s also always known she’s gay. That knowledge, unlike her sports success, caused her to wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”
“I struggled with it in high school,” she says now. “I went along with what was popular, what was right—or what I thought was right. I didn’t know what was right and wrong then.”
Burton says these two foundational facts of her life, her literal fight to succeed as an athlete, and her figurative battle to come to terms with her sexuality and find a partner, ran on separate tracks when she was young. But as her career progressed, those tracks converged. Now she’s at a crossroads.
Burton’s first love was basketball. From a youth playing her brothers, she went on to excel at the sport on Bigfork’s high school team, and hoped to eventually join a pro team.
After graduating high school in 1995, she went to work toward that goal at Irvine Community College in California, where she had made the basketball team. But during a practice before the season even began, another player landed on her leg after grabbing a rebound, breaking her ankle. She was out for the season, at least, and the injury, combined with previous knee problems, put her basketball future in doubt.
At that point, Burton says, “I gave up and moved back home.”
But she didn’t stay in Montana long.
Instead, she moved around the country, spending time in New York, Massachusetts, Utah, Nevada and Arizona, working various jobs, trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.
She says she started to forget about her athletic aspirations.
“You know how your life kind of takes off on a different path?” she asks, by way of explanation.
Even so, she says, she had a deep feeling that “everything would just fall into place.”
During these years, Burton had also been wrestling with her sexuality.
“Because of the way society is, and because of the way my family raised me,” she says, she pretended to be straight, like everyone else seemed to be. She dated young men and tried to fit in.
At 21, having returned to the Flathead, she nearly married a man.
“I thought ‘okay, I’ll just get married and all this gay stuff will go away.’”
But two months before the wedding, Burton broke it off, and shortly thereafter came out to her family.
“You know, I’m gay and I can’t help it,” she says she told them.
It took a few more years for her family to accept that fact, she says.
In the meantime Burton moved to Missoula, where she discovered boxing while watching a fight tape at a party. It was a video of one of her friends fighting in a boxing competition.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that.’”
A few months later, at 24, with no training and no experience, Burton traveled to Butte to compete in the region’s annual Toughman contest, in which amateur female boxers are pitted against one another over the course of a weekend until a champion emerges.
Her only preparation, she says, was to go jogging and quit smoking for a few days beforehand.
Burton’s first amateur bout matched her with Leah Stucker, the Toughman world champ for six years running who had never lost a fight.
“Leah’s gonna knock you flat,” friends told her before the fight.
Stucker did manage to break Burton’s nose, but the champ lost her title anyway, by a split decision. Burton fought again the next night, winning the tournament title.
Still, she says, “I never had any idea that I’d end up going pro.”
The tough turn pro
Burton went 17-0 during her two-plus years on the amateur boxing circuit.
“I kind of felt like a badass because no one could beat me,” she says.
At her Evergreen home just west of Kalispell, Burton plays a tape of an amateur championship in which she competed. In these fights, the boxers come out swinging wide and wild in the first few seconds and quickly run out of energy. They don’t even attempt to block their opponents’ punches. Burton won most of her fights in this particular championship in the first round, despite most of the girls being much larger. Burton’s technique doesn’t look much better than her opponents’, but while they soon seem tired and bewildered, Burton appears inexhaustible.
After establishing her dominance on the amateur circuit, she says, one of the Club Boxing judges at The Wilma told her, “You know, you have a natural talent. You should go pro.”
At first she didn’t believe it, but more and more people began echoing the advice.
So in the winter of 2003 she decided to make a trip to Las Vegas, a sort of Mecca for the sport. Before leaving, she went online and Googled “boxing in Vegas,” which led her to manager Butch Gottlieb.
She e-mailed him, asking, basically, “How do I go pro?”
He told her to come down and do some training. When she got there, Gottlieb drove her to a gym and dropped her off. It would be a year before she saw him again. He would eventually become the manager who took her to Ali.
In the meantime, she trained for six solid months at the gym where Gottlieb had left her, then returned to Montana’s amateur circuit to put her training to the test. She fought better than ever, she says, and decided to return to Las Vegas with the goal of turning pro.
Between trips, she met a woman named Heather Blush at a Missoula bar.
“She definitely caught my eye,” Burton says of their first meeting. “I’m not the type of person to approach a female, but I saw Heather and walked right up to her. I wanted to get to know this person. It was incredible.”
In a phone conversation with the Independent from her and Burton’s home, Blush says “We were pretty much best friends right off the bat.”
She also notes that in some ways she and Burton are opposites. The slight-framed Blush, who holds a degree in English Literature from the University of Montana, says she’s always been a bookworm and shied away from sports. Burton, on the other hand, has the physique of an athlete, and reading, she admits, has never been her thing.
But personality-wise, both are calm and soft-spoken. Burton’s demeanor offers little clue that she fights professionally.
In fact, she says, “I hate confrontation.”
When Blush learned that Burton was preparing to become a pro boxer, she says, “I didn’t really take it seriously. I didn’t have any idea what that was going to mean—all-day, every-day training. I’d work, and right when I got off work, we’d go right to the gym.”
Shortly after meeting Blush, Burton returned to Las Vegas to train for her first pro fight.
It was against Rita Turrisi, a former champion kickboxer. The women faced off in July 2003, in St. George, Utah.
Early in the first round, Turrisi caught Burton with a perfect uppercut that sent her to the mat for the first time since she’d started boxing.
“My eyes were, like, jiggling,” Burton remembers, describing the aftermath of that blow.
To get back on her feet, she says, “I had to climb up the ropes.”
When she got feet under her, the referee told her to straighten her eyes out, or he’d call the fight.
She demonstrates how she complied, scrunching her eyebrows together into the face of an extremely intoxicated person trying to will herself sober for a cop.
Somehow she pulled herself together, continued fighting, and won by majority decision.
She was on her way as a professional boxer, but making it in the boxing world, even to the point of challenging the top-ranked fighter in the sport at Madison Square Garden, has few similarities with vying for the title in more popular sports.
The first time Burton spoke to the Independent, a week before she fought Ali, she cut the interview short after just five minutes, saying she was concerned about her cell phone bill. Women’s boxing, it turns out, doesn’t pay the bills.
In 2005, Burton says, she made only $300 boxing. This year, even with the Ali fight, she expects to make only $3,000. That’s partly due to the paltry sums she receives for fighting, usually between $600 and $1,500, with the Ali fight accounting for the most she’s been paid: $12,000.
And the payouts are ravaged by overhead costs. There are managers, trainers and fees to be paid, as well as travel and lodging.
According to Sue Fox, a former professional boxer who has written about the sport for ESPN and owns the Women’s Boxing Archive Network, a website devoted to women’s boxing, “the great majority” of female boxers keep their day jobs.
Burton is no exception, working full-time in sales for the Great Northern Brewing Co.
But despite the meager financial rewards, Burton continued boxing professionally, for love more than money, she says. And as her career progressed, so did her relationship with Blush.
The two eventually moved to the Flathead Valley together. In 2004, Burton proposed to Blush and the couple decided to celebrate a commitment ceremony—basically a marriage without the license and the legal rights that license affords.
They chose Mon Bel Ami wedding chapel in Las Vegas for their commitment ceremony, in part because Burton was scheduled to fight Akondaye Fountain there on March 26, 2005. Burton and Blush planned their ceremony for the day after the fight.
Unfortunately, her excitement over the impending ceremony didn’t put Burton in the best mindset for boxing. She lost to Fountain in a seventh-round technical knockout.
“My head wasn’t in that fight,” Burton says now, laughing. “It was poor planning.”
“Shelley had a little black eye in our photos,” Blush says.
After their commitment ceremony, Burton began preparing for her next fight, with Laura Ramsey, for the Women’s International Boxing Association middleweight title. Burton asked Blush to train her.
“I didn’t have anybody,” Burton explains, sitting on a couch next to Blush at their home. “So I asked Heather. I wanted someone who would be dedicated.”
“I certainly wasn’t what she deserved to have,” Blush avers.
“Whatever,” Burton responds. “She was awesome.”
Blush, with her preference for study over sport, seemed an unlikely trainer. But rather than back down from the challenge, she hit the books and learned as much as she could through videos, websites and boxing chat rooms.
When she first started holding the mitts for Burton to practice her punching, Blush says, it felt like her shoulders were going to be dislocated. With practice, she says, her arms got tough enough to handle it.
In the past, Blush says, most of Burton’s training had focused on increasing the power of her punches. Blush decided it was time to work on her partner’s defense.
“If your power is great, but you have no defense, you get hit, and your power goes away after the first round,” Blush says.
Burton says she was in “the best shape of my life” for her fight with Ramsey.
She would need to be to fight Ramsey, a powerful puncher with a 5-0 record.
Burton fought her in Edmonton, Canada, in November 2005, and the tape of that match illustrates Burton’s own assessment of her strengths and style: “I can take a hit.”
In Edmonton, some of Ramsey’s punches knock Burton’s head back as far as her neck will stretch. One clean blow to the center of Burton’s face throws her halfway across the ring. An announcer refers to these as “devastating blows,” and they certainly look it, until Burton shakes her head and comes right back at Ramsey for more.
Few of Burton’s punches are the sort that make for good replays, the kind where spit flies out of the punched boxer’s mouth. Instead, she tries to whittle away at her opponent with numerous quick jabs.
The fight goes all 10 rounds. Afterward, Blush says, her partner’s face was so beaten up “she looked like a Picasso.”
Immediately after the final bell, Ramsey collapses to the mat. When she gets to her feet the referee stands between the two fighters, holding their hands while the judges tally their scores.
The ref lifts Burton’s hand in the air and a huge smile erupts on her Picasso face. In the background you can see Blush, who attended Burton at ringside, smiling with her. They’ve won their first title. The huge gold belt now rests between plates in the center of their china cabinet.
The road to Ali
Butch Gottlieb, Burton’s manager, says the first time he met Burton, he asked her what she wanted out of boxing.
“I want to fight Laila,” was her reply.
Laila Ali was, and remains, the reigning queen of women’s boxing. Her record stands at 23 wins, zero losses. Twenty of those wins have resulted from knockouts.
She fights one weight class above Burton, as a Super Middleweight, which puts her at a maximum weight of 168 pounds; Burton usually fights Middleweight, or below 160 pounds. At 5”10’ Ali stands 4 inches taller than Burton.
And Ali, of course, trains with professionals. To prepare for her fight with Burton, Ali spent eight weeks training full-time with Floyd Mayweather Sr., who also trains Oscar De La Hoya.
Burton and Blush knew six months beforehand that a match with Ali was a possibility, but eventually they heard that someone else had been chosen.
Blush, who had worried about the prospect of a Burton-Ali matchup, was relieved: “I was like, oh, thank goodness.”
Then Burton’s manager called and told her that Ali wanted to fight after all. Another fighter had backed out, and Burton was next in line. She had 30 days to prepare.
“It was unexpected,” Burton says.
Before the fight, Burton spent three weeks working with professional trainer Don House in Las Vegas. In the months before that, she had done some training with Blush, as well as with friends at a local gym.
It was clear that Burton was the underdog, but some in the boxing world began calling the fight a mismatch—a fight in which one boxer is vastly superior to the other. The detractors included HBO, which purchased the rights to the Burton-Ali fight as well as the men’s championship fight that preceded it. HBO declined to air the Burton-Ali on the grounds that it wouldn’t be competitive. Instead, the network aired a rerun of a men’s fight from the week before.
According to boxing writer Sue Fox, mismatches have become a problem in women’s boxing, in part because there are not enough quality fighters. But she, at least, expected the Ali-Burton fight to be competitive.
Three days before the fight, while staying in a hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden, Burton acknowledged the mismatch whispers, but, she said, “There’s always an underdog.”
Burton’s often been the underdog, and most of the time she’s won.
Before the fight, she describes herself as “relaxed.”
Burton’s fight with Ali went untelevised in the United States, but is later posted on youtube.com, with German announcers.
It lasts four rounds.
Ali has a clear reach advantage, and uses it to land plenty of stiff punches to Burton’s head and face, while Burton seems to have a hard time returning them. But Burton, as she’s fought before, takes the punches and doggedly follows Ali around the ring.
The fight continues on in this fashion until, with just a few seconds to go in the fourth, Ali hits Burton with a combination of punches, one of which breaks Burton’s nose. Just before the bell is rung, the referee calls the fight and names Ali the winner by technical knockout.
Afterward, Burton and Blush are disappointed. Both say the referee called the fight prematurely. Burton says she’s broken her nose so many times she’s lost count, and she’s taken worse hits.
Regardless, Burton says, “I lost, and I’m fine with that.”
When Burton gets back home to Evergreen after her fight with Ali, she sports two big black eyes. Her nose is swollen and there’s a bump in the middle. She’ll eventually have a physician reset it.
Blush, who thinks Burton fought well, admits that she expected the fight to go much worse.
“I sort of expected what everyone else expected of her”—a mismatch. She’s proud, she says, of how her partner performed.
Burton is still disappointed though, and says she’s been asking herself, “Was it worth it?”
“I thought I’d be on top of the world,” she says.
Instead, “There are negative feelings instead of positive.”
At this point, Burton says, she’s unsure about her fighting future.
Her reason is a little surprising.
“I don’t like fighting,” she says. “I don’t like hurting people.”
She says she’s always been told that she should have more attitude, like Ali, but that’s never been her style.
“I don’t know if that’s a downfall,” she says. “Maybe it is. Maybe I’d be further if I didn’t feel that way.”
Burton says she always saw boxing as a sport, not as an anger release.
“I guess I just wanted to be someone,” Burton says. “In the sport.”
Now that she is, she has other reasons for thinking about calling it quits.
While her boxing career has progressed, so too has her personal life.
Burton says that while it’s still difficult for her family, they’ve come to accept her sexuality, mostly because of her relationship with Blush.
“Heather is a really easy person to like and love,” Burton says.
Blush says that before the Ali fight, Burton’s mother expressed confidence that if anything bad happened, at least her daughter had someone who genuinely cared about her in the corner, prepared to call the fight.
At this point in their relationship, Blush is in Burton’s corner in more than just the literal sense, and she’s hoping Burton decides to call it quits. During a conversation at their home, asked whether she’ll box again, Burton wavers, unwilling to commit to throwing in the towel quite yet. Blush responds to the same question with a hopeful smile on her face, shaking her head “no.”
Both are worried about the health impacts of boxing. Before the fight with Ali, Burton says, a doctor administered her a memory test.
“Things weren’t quite the same,” she says.
“We really want to have kids someday,” Blush says, and she and Burton worry about the later-life effects of a long boxing career, and how that might affect their family in the future.
While the Ali fight may not be her last, the end of Burton’s boxing career is certainly on the horizon, and she doesn’t have much of anything tangible to show for it. Women’s boxing has given her neither riches nor fame. Even Ali couldn’t beat HBO’s decision to ignore Burton’s big moment.
Love, for Burton, has also been a fight for legitimacy, and legitimacy in love, for gay couples, can sometimes seem as distant as a shot at the championship in Madison Square Garden. But in both boxing and love, Burton has taken her hits and kept swinging. She’s fought with nothing in her corner but her determination and the support of those she loves. And in the end, maybe they’re the best reward.