Amateur boxers come in all sizes and shapes, often coming from much different backgrounds, following their individual dreams in their thoroughly unique ways along their arduous journeys.
Two contrasting stablemates from the Portland Boxing Club (Maine), Lisa Kuronya and Liz Leddy, have combined to capture eight national titles, including a stretch in which they successfully pioneered equality for women boxers in the United States.
They are as diametrically opposed as any two boxers, excluding their drives to excellence through hard work and preparation. Not only a naturally gifted athlete, Coombs holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a concentration in Environmental Science from West Chester University, and was a former Director of Environmental Health and Science at Bowdoin College. Leddy was homeless for much of her teen years, fighting daily in the streets of Portland, addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Their common denominator, so to speak, is Portland Boxing Club owner and head coach, Bobby Russo, who is also the National Vice President of the Golden Gloves of America. “Lisa and Liz are polar opposites,” Russo said. “Lisa is an environmental scientist who taught at Bowdoin, Liz was 13 when she started living on the streets, which began years of her drug and alcohol abuse.
“Lisa is a dedicated, smart, committed person who likes competition. She’s built like an athlete, long and lean. She’s always in ridiculously good shape. Lisa didn’t necessarily need boxing in her life. The first thing I said to Liz was that she had to cover up her Skinhead tattoo when she was in the gym. Twenty-plus years later and she’s still fighting. She’ll be in the gym the rest of her life because boxing saved her life. She is the poster child for what amateur boxing can do for some kids.
“They’re pioneers. Women boxers weren’t allowed to stay at the Olympic Training Center. They had to pay for their plane tickets, hotel and food at tournaments, unlike men, and together Lisa and Liz helped get the rules changed. The Portland Boxing Club is 27 years old and we’ve won 212 championships. Winning is the motivating factor and it’s great to make champions, but helping make good citizens, changing the lives of so many kids, is priceless.”
Coombs started boxing in 2000, almost by accident, because she landed a job in Portland, where she found Russo and the Portland Boxing Club. She had done some kickboxing workouts and enjoyed how she felt, lost some weight, and immediately took to physical contact. Kickboxing schools were not plentiful in Maine at the time, so she decided to transition to boxing, simply for fitness, but she soon got hooked on the sports’ demands like hard work, discipline and athleticism. Russo taught her to become a boxer and use her jab to out-box opponents.
She has a remarkable 46-6 amateur record, highlighted by the 2005 Ringside World Championship and five national titles (2006, 2007 & 2008 National Golden Gloves, 2006 & 2007 USA Boxing National Championships).
“I’m a hard worker and disciplined,” Coombs remarked, “but nothing compares to the discipline and hard work that it takes to compete in boxing at a high level. It’s indescribable. I managed a full-time, professional career in the consulting industry while competing at the highest level possible at the time. I learned a lot about myself and my compass for hard work and discipline has been re-centered. I believe that I can accomplish anything because nothing is quite as challenging as what I endured during this period in my life. I learned that hard work and discipline is rewarded.
USA Boxing proved to me with amazing travel opportunities, and I met so many diverse, strong, and brave women along the way. In my typical social setting, I would not have crossed paths with the phenomenal ladies who became my teammates. I will be forever bonded with my fellow females of the era – Franchon Crews-Dezum, Queen Underwood, Marlen Esparza, Carriey Barry and Emily Klinefelter – to name a few.”
Coombs was ahead of her time in one respect, women’s professional boxing didn’t afford boxers the same opportunities as it does today. She also got a relatively late start in boxing at 26. “Honestly,” Lisa adds, “I was satisfied with my accomplishments and my original goal of having 10 fights was fulfilled and surpassed. I was a pioneer and most importantly an advocate of equal treatment of women in the sport of boxing. I witnessed the inauguration of women’s boxing in the 2012 Olympic Games, and proudly watched Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza on the podium as the only U.S. boxer to medal in years. Some of the same women that I traveled around the world with as part of Team USA Boxing had opportunities that I never had, and that fulfilled me.”
Leddy lived in an entirely different world from which she most likely never would have escaped from without boxing.
“I was in with a bad crowd,” Leddy remembered. “I lived on the streets and fought regularly. Some said I was good at it, so I used that for intimidation, to be safe on the street. It was almost like a drug, too volatile; drugs and alcohol played a big part. Even the bad crowd wanted me to straighten out. They were boxing fans. It was amazing back then, around the Tyson-Holyfield fight. I eventually got an ultimate to get off the street. I went to the Portland Boxing Club and wanted to fit in there with a new, respectful group. I kept getting blindsided every few months, though. Fighting was a triumph for me because I did something right. I still wasn’t winning, but the stars aligned, and I pulled it off. Boxing has been a carrier that’s held me afloat.”
Leddy captured gold medals at the 2001, 20012 and 2017 National Golden Gloves Tournament. She was supposed to be part of Team USA that traveled to Ireland, but Liz was the lone American who actually fought.
“I built up a good fanbase there,” she noted. “I fought Katie Taylor (the reigning undisputed world lightweight champion as a pro, Olympic gold medalist and 5-time amateur world champion) and bloodied her nose two nights in a row. I knew my style was good if I could do that against her.”
Liz hasn’t hung-up her gloves, yet. In fact, she plans to turn pro in the not too distant future. “I do want to turn pro,” the 38-year-old Leddy continued. “My coaches advised against it because (at that time) I was at the top of Olympic consideration. And I enjoyed the benefits of being an amateur boxer, traveling around the world, but then I suffered a major knee injury that kept me out of action for six months. Boxing isn’t an easy game, but turning pro is something I will do. Competing in national events is probably harder because you need to weigh in everyday and you’re cultivated as a star.”
Coombs and Leddy are indebted to amateur boxing in general, Russo and the Portland Boxing Club in particular.
“Walking into the Portland Boxing Club was diversity at its best for the state of Maine,” Coombs concluded. “I met so many people there and they all had their own story to tell, often checkered pasts and strangely different than that of mine. I learned how to be more accepting and compassionate, and although so many of the boxers I worked alongside of were very different than me, we all had something in common – we wanted to be the best in the sport of boxing. These people became my family, and although boxing is an individual sport, we worked together to be the best boxer and most importantly, the best human being possible.
“Mostly, I appreciate the opportunities that were afforded to me because of the generosity of my coach, Bobby Russo, and the rest of the Portland Boxing Club, Russo was a pivotal advocate, supporting the women’s amateur boxing program. His first female athlete, Liz Leddy, blazed the way for us as the first competitive female representing the Portland Boxing Club. Russo is a highly respected coach and he’s run a top-notch, no-nonsense club for over 25 years. It was an honor to have him by my side all those years. I’ll be forever grateful and credit the Portland Boxing Club for the person I am today.”
Lisa couldn’t be more different than Liz, who credits amateur boxing for saving her life, and the Portland Boxing Club in particular, for allowing her to become the person she is today.
“The Portland Boxing Club gave me a life raft and I’m so lucky to have met those people,” Liz commented. “Boxing is full of paradoxes. Boxing gave me a safe place and it saved my life. I haven’t had a drink since 2008. After my first meeting there, I found there was new hope for me in boxing. I saw a guy wearing a Portland Boxing Club hat, went to the gym, and joined. I did need to overcome some relapses, though. The Portland Boxing Club helps me every day. It paid for me to go to cosmopolite school. Amateur boxing gave me all the travel I dreamed of. It’s given me a good life: roof over my head and a career. I’ve made amends to the city I was destroying and I’m giving back to kids by coaching and speaking at schools. Boxing is like life. We continue as warriors because you don’t graduate in boxing.
“Lisa is an amazing person. We’ve been friends since I came back. I took two years off, started drinking again, but I had a sense of loss. Goal setting has always been huge for me as a boxer and I’ve always felt like I’ve been catching up. Lisa and I are bonded like family, she’s helped me so much. We traveled together to my fist national tournament and I won a silver medal. We’ve become really good friends and have similar morals and values. It was hard seeing her win a gold medal when I wasn’t, but that pushed me to change to attain what I wanted in life. Lisa helped me mature.”
Coombs has retired as a boxer. Liz plans to turn pro. Together their influence in women’s boxing will grow, despite their contrasting backgrounds, inspiring a new generation of female boxers in America.