Thousand Dollar Baby: By day Jamie O'Hare studies for a master's in social work. Her night job is anything but.

Mar 19, 2008 at 4:00 am

At 5 a.m. on March 7, Jamie O'Hare clambers out of bed and spits into a cup. She spits en route to an interview with KFNS 590 AM (the Fan) and again on the way to her gym. There O'Hare mounts an exercise bike — inside a sauna. She pedals away on an empty stomach, forgoing even an ice cube. And she spits some more.

The 25-year-old social-worker-in-training — and St. Louis' only professional female boxer — is wrapping up a two-month stint during which she consumed protein and green vegetables exclusively, and only 1,000 calories per day. Later this afternoon she'll have to weigh in at 147 pounds for her second pro bout. She figures she still has three pounds of water weight to go. She spits and spits and spits.

Typically a chatterbox, by early afternoon the Florissant native is not up for much conversation. "My mouth is bone-dry," she moans, having filled a twelve-ounce cup with saliva.

O'Hare will graduate from Saint Louis University in May with a master's degree in social work. A graduate assistant in the School of Public Health there, she also interns as a victims' advocate for sexual-assault and robbery cases at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office. Six days a week of boxing training complete her hectic schedule but do little to dampen her vivaciousness.

"Jamie has what I call infectious charisma," observes Malika Poindexter, O'Hare's boss at the prosecutor's office. "Sometimes I get tired just hearing about her day, and I think: 'How do you fit all that in, and still stay so bouncy?'"

O'Hare is the kind of girl who likes to stretch and hydrate before an alcohol-free Saturday night of club dancing and then be one of the first to arrive at church the following morning. She is a collector of Norman Rockwell prints, and a germaphobe with a weak stomach. When her boxing sponsors, former St. Louis Blues hockey enforcer Reed Low and his wife, Dena, recently regaled O'Hare's family and friends with a gory story of Low's recuperation from a broken jaw, she had to walk away.

Hazelwood Central High School students will remember her as the Class of 2000's homecoming queen. These days, with her steely green eyes, buoyant mahogany mane and freckles, O'Hare looks to have stepped off a page of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue circa Kathy Ireland.

"I get so sick of hearing, 'Oh God, you're dating a boxer! Does she kick your ass all the time?'" reports O'Hare's boyfriend, Dave Grieshaber. (No slouch himself, Grieshaber once modeled in Cosmopolitan.) "No, she doesn't," he adds. "She's a really sweet person with a huge heart."

In sum: not exactly someone most of us would picture enjoying a good noggin clobbering.

But from ringside O'Hare has the look of a natural. At five-ten, she's taller and longer-limbed than many of her opponents. And ripped. She'll have nothing to do with the baby-pink gloves that are all the rage among women fighters — which might have something to do with the fact that she trains with a team full of men.

When her turn came for the team's rite of passage, known as "The Shoe," O'Hare stepped right up and chugged a repulsive mix of grass, dirt, wine and tequila from a line cook's old black boot.

"It's hard to gain respect being a female fighter, and Jamie goes about it the right way, with hard work," notes Jesse Finney, proprietor of Finney's Championship Kickboxing & Mixed Martial Arts in Crestwood and O'Hare's longtime coach. "She's got the most potential of any girl I've trained."

Armed with national and international title belts in kickboxing, plus a Golden Gloves belt in amateur boxing, O'Hare went pro in boxing last summer. Her career is just getting underway, and she shows no signs of slowing down. Going into the March 8 contest, she was undefeated in twenty-plus matchups spanning every fighting genre she'd attempted.

No doubt, the hardest part of training for O'Hare is cutting weight. She "walks around," as they say, between 165 and 172 pounds. She has tried dropping vast amounts of weight just before fight time: noshing on nothing but Jolly Ranchers and sour gum for days before the match, and spitting. But the yellow eyes and cramps were unbearable. "Turning pro," she says, "I decided I have to get rid of it as cleanly as possible."

In the week leading up to her March fight, O'Hare is down to egg whites for breakfast and four ounces of chicken for lunch and dinner. One morning she sucks a whole lemon.

The vision of a ten-inch ice-cream cake from Dairy Queen — a post-weigh-in ritual — keeps her going. Especially on March 7.

The scales at Finney's are off this morning. The first has her at 152 — five pounds over. She tries a different scale: 149. After two hours of biking in the sauna, O'Hare is at 147.2. Still not good enough.

Then a state official shows up with the actual weigh-in scale. The official verdict: 149.8.

Back to the sauna she goes, with spit cup.

Amid the hubbub, O'Hare's 37-year-old opponent arrives from Atlanta. Weary and bleary-eyed, O'Hare takes one look at the dark-complected Carrine Hamlett and thinks she's staring at Lucia Rijker, the two-time world champion — undefeated in 54 fights — who trained Hilary Swank for her Academy Award–winning role in Million Dollar Baby.

Like O'Hare, Hamlett, who works in the accounting department of an export company, went pro last year. But she's 0-1. Though her close-shaved scalp conveys an air of toughness, Hamlett's slow drawl and laidback gait make her seem smaller than she is.

The tournament scale doesn't agree with her either.

In the end the boxers' managers agree to change the contract so the women can weigh in at "under 150." O'Hare proceeds to ask Hamlett a question she's never heard before: "Would you mind meeting my mom at weigh-ins?"

"No problem," Hamlett replies. "Save me a piece of cake."

Jamie O'Hare's typical training day is set to the sounds of Mexican hip-hop. "One,, two, three, four," purrs soft-spoken trainer Jose Ponce. "Money shot...atta girl! She takes that one, you're gonna fuck her up."

Four days before the bout, however, O'Hare is up against a different foe. "Come on, give me a glare," begs Lance Tilford, a commercial photographer. "Don't look like you're posing for your prom picture.

"Work it...lean...lay into it. "Good!" enthuses Tilford. "Now that's hot!"

It has been decided that some sexy photographs would ramp up O'Hare's image, making a nice gift for sponsors and perhaps opening the door to a sports modeling contract. Tilford and his wife, makeup artist and model Tamara Tungate, have never shot a female boxer; O'Hare, for that matter, has never been made over at a department store cosmetics counter, let alone sampled a sliver of the products in Tungate's triple-decker makeup kit.

The boxer clears the gym of her male sparring partners, refusing to let them watch the couple at work with her. She looks downright bashful feigning a pummel of a heavy bag while wearing a short black dress.

"You must become a completely different person in the ring," Tungate remarks after O'Hare finally squelches a spell of giggles.

O'Hare's pro debut last July at the Scottrade Center ended in roughly 70 seconds. Her opponent's corner man tossed in the towel after O'Hare pulled off three swift knockdowns. "I was glad they called it off, because I'm not out there to really hurt anyone," the fighter says in retrospect. "You want to hurt them an inch more than they hurt you, just so you can win."

The bout was a disappointment for having concluded so soon, and this time around O'Hare is hoping for more action. The stakes seem higher, too.

For one thing, O'Hare says, she readied herself for last year's fight pretty much on her own. This time, her manager Finney, who's also a fighter, turned her over to the 32-year-old Ponce, an LA native who now owns Pound 4 Pound Gym, located inside SWEAT St. Louis in Clayton. Squat, with spiky hair and a jiggly belly that O'Hare attacks with rapid-fire jabs, Ponce has spent about 150 hours in the ring with his first female trainee.

Last month he recruited his friends Reed and Dena Low and their south-county salon, Upper Cuts, to become O'Hare's sponsor — her first. Ponce also helped arrange the commercial photo shoot and embraced the various reporters who came calling. "Jamie can go wherever she wants to in boxing," says Ponce. "She's got the whole package."

Finney had a tough time stomaching some of the changes. He is the first to admit that releasing O'Hare, his "baby," to Ponce was like "watching your kid go off to college." Finney especially pooh-poohs the media fluffing and marketing efforts. "Quote me on this," he says. "I don't like it at all. If she doesn't stay focused on family, friends and fighting, she'll be yesterday's news."

The tension is definitely not lost on O'Hare. For a week straight, she stresses over whether Ponce or Finney will take the lead in her corner come fight night. Every day at the gym, she pesters Ponce: "Have you talked to Jesse yet?"

"The first few times Jose held mitts for me, I felt like I was cheating on Jesse," O'Hare admits. "But then Jose and I developed a very close bond. Now I feel like he's a member of my family. I don't know what'll happen after this fight, but I kind of wonder: If I go back to Jesse, will I feel like I'm cheating on Jose?"

O'Hare found Finney's gym almost four years ago. At that time, she was strictly kickboxing, her latest obsession on a physical-fitness odyssey that took root after a frightening episode in college.

While a senior at Missouri State University in Springfield, O'Hare was sunbathing with friends one day at the pool when an older man she didn't know began squirting her with a water gun and taunting her with sexual innuendo. Before long, she says, the man "started stopping by my house, bringing me flowers, showing up outside my classes. He knew my whole schedule."

Sometimes at night, she says, the man would cross the alleyway from his halfway house and tap on her apartment door. The stalking escalated to the point where even after O'Hare obtained a restraining order, the man would "stand on the edge of my apartment complex and shoot me threatening looks as if he wanted to kill me."

Angry, O'Hare enrolled in self-defense classes at a Springfield martial-arts studio. She became hooked, to the point where she moved on to kickboxing and within months began teaching other women. It was both an addiction and therapy. As she puts it: "I swear it was better for me than the students."

The incident is not well-known among many of O'Hare's contemporaries. "I had no idea about the stalking until recently," says Cyndi McGee, a sexual-assault victims' advocate and O'Hare's mentor in the city prosecutor's office. "I think it's tremendous that she found the strength to grow from that experience. She definitely doesn't carry that veil or shadow of victimization with her."

O'Hare returned to St. Louis in summer 2004 and joined Jesse Finney's gym in short order, but it took some time before the trainer finally noticed her. "One of my guys pointed her out," Finney recalls. "He said, 'We've got a good one on our hands.' She was aggressive, and pretty tough; she didn't shy away when she got hit. Plus, we like people that are not only hard-working but groomed and clean-cut, the ones that are good people in and out of the ring."

Although women have been stepping between the ropes as far back as the 1700s, the sport has never been exalted for its parity. The 1904 St. Louis Olympics featured the only Olympic female boxing exhibition ever, and boxing is still the only summer Olympic contest (besides baseball) in which women don't get to compete. It wasn't until 1995 that the first Golden Gloves women's bout took place (in New York). Four years later Muhammad Ali's 21-year-old daughter Laila "She-Bee Stingin" Ali staged her pro debut at an upstate New York casino. Ali is now credited by sports historians as having done the most to elevate the profile of women boxers. (Today Ali co-hosts NBC's American Gladiators.)

Finney put O'Hare on an amateur card at a Shriners fundraiser in Springfield, Illinois, for her first competitive bout, in kickboxing. "It was a little smoker show, with no more than 150 people," she says. "The only two females in the whole place were me and my opponent, and I actually had an old man come up to me and ask me if I'd like to have sex with him!

"But it was still a blast. Winning is an awesome feeling, you know, and having the crowd there for you — I know it's a very selfish thing. But then again, it's very cool to be able to entertain people."

As time went on, O'Hare learned to box without really thinking about it. She and Finney agree that the coach had a way of prepping her for bigger and better things, without always explaining everything he had in mind. "Girls are very emotional in and out of the ring — girls you date, girls you marry," says Finney, by way of explaining his understated approach with O'Hare. "And Jamie's...still a girl."

O'Hare had no idea what she was getting into with her first competitive boxing match, for instance. "I didn't really want to do it, but I didn't want to say no to Jesse," she says, explaining how she only came to find out it was a Golden Gloves title match after she'd won it. "I'm like, 'I get a belt?'"

Then there was the nerve-racker when Finney told her she had only a day to cut twelve pounds for her first international kick-fight, a barefooted match against a six-foot Hawaiian.

And the day Finney told O'Hare she was going pro. Recalls Finney: "It took her two days to get up the courage to call me and ask, 'Do you really think I'm ready for that?'"

His team had long ago nicknamed her "The Assassin." At the end of her amateur career, they rechristened her "All Heart."

At the O'Hare home in northwest Florissant, where Jamie still resides with Mom and Dad, boxing is a sensitive topic. Steve and Mary Ellen O'Hare, a chemical salesman and special education administrator, respectively, have always had somewhat more refined tastes when it comes to athletics. He likes to hit golf balls; she used to water-ski. Fighting is the last sport they would have chosen for their only daughter.

"We go to one of her first amateur bouts, and it's at South Broadway Athletic Club, where the ceilings were eight feet tall and every person in the room had two or three cigarettes lit. We're watching our poor daughter — who has asthma — get punched," Steve recounts.

"It made me nauseous," adds Mary Ellen. She walked out and didn't buy another ticket for two years.

Jamie was actually a "prissy" kid, her parents recall, popular in her teens and the founder of a high school club whose mission was to reach out and befriend the students who sat alone in the cafeteria. (Organized just months before the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, O'Hare's club was memorialized in a long Suburban Journals article.) In college Jamie took up rock climbing, mountain biking and skydiving. "Having two brothers," notes Mary Ellen, "she didn't ever show fear."

Still, the O'Hares never expected to see Jamie throwing jabs and crosses. And the timing of her new hobby left the whole family feeling conflicted: From 2004 through 2006, Mary Ellen was engaged in her own fierce battle, with failing kidneys.

"She was so sick she would go to bed at 6 p.m., and sometimes I'd hear her crying quietly in her room," says Jamie. "I'm a fixer, and I couldn't do anything about it, so I used the fighting as therapy. But there were days when I felt like quitting. I was constantly thinking: How selfish can I be? She's sick and here I am doing something she hates."

Thirty people stepped up with offers to donate a kidney, but there were no matches, including among her family. "Jamie really wanted to donate, but she wasn't the right blood type," says Mary Ellen. "We even looked into the paired-exchange program, where she would've given an organ to somebody else who would've donated to me. That didn't work out either."

As for the boxing, says Mary Ellen, "we agreed to disagree."

Jamie learned to change her bloodstained clothes before leaving the gym for home, to spare her mother the sight.

Finney, her trainer, says he'll never forget those two years. "I try to keep my distance with fighters, but it was tough with Jamie," he says. "My mother is my best friend, and I don't think I could've handled that situation half as well as Jamie did. I admire the hell out of her for it."

On September 23, 2006, with Mary Ellen's kidney function hovering just above 10 percent of their capacity, the O'Hares at last got word that transplants were on their way from the East Coast.

"It wasn't long before I had my mom back," says Jamie. "And now she's 100 percent returned to her sassy self."

Mary Ellen concedes she's still not won over by boxing but is taking her daughter's battles as they come. On March 7, she arrives at the Ultra Sports Lounge in Union Station for Jamie's weigh-in toting the requisite Dairy Queen ice-cream cake. Jamie has texted and called several times to explain how friendly Carrine Hamlett seems, and Mary Ellen is anxious to meet her daughter's rival.

But O'Hare and Hamlett can't appear more opposite ambling across the dais to the scale. O'Hare strips down to a cheery coral sports bra and skimpy black Spandex. Hamlett wears a baggy black tank top and long red athletic shorts. O'Hare flashes a smile. Hamlett stares. The tattoo on her right bicep — "Dainty," in script — seems to belie her I-mean-business visage.

When it comes time for the women to pose head-to-head for the cameras, fists raised, O'Hare can't resist a giggle. At last, Hamlett cracks a grin. "You're so silly," she says.

O'Hare has a crowd of at least twenty friends and family gathered to watch her tear into the cake. When Hamlett comes over for her piece, Mary Ellen hugs her.

"OK, this is weird," Steve O'Hare blurts. "I don't want to start to like this girl. I want my daughter to pound her!"

An hour later, Jose Ponce corners Jamie O'Hare with an instruction. "You've done the nice thing," he says. "Now stay away from her."

Right about then, Reed and Dena Low are telling Mary Ellen O'Hare how thrilled they are to sponsor O'Hare for her June 21 fight, too.

Mary Ellen nearly drops her Corona Light and lets out a yelp. Jamie hasn't yet told her that bout is on the calendar.

The week of the March 8 fight Jamie O'Hare throws punches in her sleep. She turns in well after midnight and wakes a mere four or five hours later.

St. Louis' two best-known fight promoters, Jesse Finney's Shamrock Promotions and Steve Smith's Rumble Time Promotions, have teamed up for this show, featuring some of the region's premier boxers and mixed martial artists and dubbed "Extreme Fight Party." The tone is glam, with white linens spilling across a sea of tables in the Renaissance Grand Hotel's main ballroom. FOX Sports Network is in the house (the night's fight card will air on FSN at various times from March 20 through April 14).

O'Hare started primping at about three o'clock, after Bible study and a heart-to-heart with her family. She arrives at the Renaissance just before six, wearing a touch of foundation and a few spritzes of chamomile-scented body spray. Childhood friend Lindsay Zoellner has coaxed the fighter's tresses into a pair of taut French braids. Her pedicured toenails sport fiery red polish. "Time to hurry up and wait," she gripes.

At 6:40 p.m. cut man Jerry Leyshock slathers his secret ointment above O'Hare's eyes. Ten minutes later she moisturizes with Albolene.

The right hand gets massaged and taped at 7, the left at 7:06. Jose Ponce appears super-Zen, working his magic on O'Hare's hands. She's in her own world, tapping her foot to her iPod.

Ponce called O'Hare three times today to ask, "How's it goin', champ? What you doin'? What you thinkin'?" But by the time he picked her up for the fight, O'Hare still didn't know who'd be in her corner. She sprang into Ponce's SUV and fired off questions: Did Jose talk to Jesse? Could two people issue instructions? "If Jesse wants to be the lead, tell him to use your words," she'd said.

The show's supposed to start at 7:30, but O'Hare doesn't get in to see the doctor from the boxing commission until 7:36. Carrine "The Punisher" Hamlett is there, gloves already on, carefully watching O'Hare. When their eyes meet, both women let out nervous laughs. Earlier, O'Hare recounted how, since Friday, she was trying to divine her opponent's strategy. "She had such low energy; she was so calm. Is she going to come out like a hurricane, like most girls, or is she going to take it easy, be all cool?

"I had to stop talking to her yesterday," O'Hare confessed, "because I was starting to like her."

Now, back in her team's dressing room after the physical, an irked O'Hare exclaims, "What's up with taking your blood pressure right in front of your opponent?"

Butterflies in the stomach, Ponce has said again and again, are a good thing.

At 7:49 O'Hare's gloves go on. Five minutes later Finney, Ponce and Leyshock huddle up with their fighter and her brother Michael, who has snuck downstairs to lead them in a short prayer. Ten minutes of mitt work later, Leyshock estimates they still have another half-hour to wait. Yells O'Hare: "This is the worst damn part!"

More than once, the stress and sacrifices have made O'Hare consider giving it all up. Though the money is nice — her first pro matchup netted her $1,200; this payday will prove slightly bigger — she could live without it. Sometimes, too, she thinks about how far she has gone in school and wonders, "Why am I doing this?"

Tossing in the towel, though, might mean disappointing the people she has made so proud.

"Jamie inspires me regularly," says Bruce Clements, a scientist with Clean Earth Technologies who knows O'Hare from his days as associate director of SLU's Center for the Study of Bioterrorism and Emerging Infections. "And she won't promote herself, but her many friends will."

Clements is one among a cheering section of 160 that awaits O'Hare in the ballroom. A diverse crowd, they are friends from high school, college, SLU and the Circuit Attorney's Office, even her hairstylist, not to mention her octogenarian grandparents.

O'Hare also can't deny what she loves most in boxing at this point in her life: "You get inside that ring, and you can't run from anything, like you can in the rest of the world."

Finally, at 8:34 p.m., Team O'Hare gets the call to wait in the wings.

Six days a week of training, two-a-days for the past two weeks, about to culminate in four two-minute rounds.

"Quick jabs, a little smoke 'n' mirrors," Ponce has instructed. "Then the body shot. Get that elbow in her ribs. Keep your chin down, especially if she comes in close. If she's fast, dig that glove into her chest."

O'Hare thinks she might vomit.

At a quarter to nine, Dena Low turns over her ringside seat beside husband Reed to Mary Ellen O'Hare. As the words "All Heart" come over the mic, Mary Ellen jumps up and tries to scream but has already lost her voice.

Bagpipes roaring, the spotlight shines on Jamie O'Hare, hooded and motionless in her shiny new robe, emblazoned with "Upper Cuts." When the horns abruptly cut to rock band Korn, O'Hare swaggers to the ring, arms hoisted in the air.

The bell sounds at 8:49 p.m. Effervescence be gone. Still, round one has a politeness to it; O'Hare and Hamlett look like they're getting to know each other, tossing quick jabs but mostly playing their hands close to the chest.

The women pick it up in round two, putting more power behind the punches. Although Hamlett appears to hang back, dancing a bit, she manages a solid right hook midway through that sends O'Hare stumbling.

"Uppercut! Uppercut!" yells Reed Low.

O'Hare comes back with a vengeance in the third round. She dominates with her lower-body movement, backing Hamlett into the ropes on every side. But for the most part both women's long reach seems to prevent them from getting close enough to really have it out.

"It felt more like a sparring session than a fight, and I liked that," Hamlett will say later.

"I was like, 'Come on, fuckin' fight me!'" O'Hare will grumble.

In her corner between rounds, O'Hare is getting it in both ears. No sooner does Finney issue a set of orders than Ponce chimes in with his own instructions just before the bell sounds.

Hamlett and O'Hare both turn up the heat for the last round, moving faster with their feet and their fists. But cut man Leyshock remains on standby. When the last bell rings, no one has gone down.

"If she doesn't win, I'm gonna kick this guy's ass," mutters Reed Low, shooting a glance at the ref.

O'Hare has a lot on her postfight to-do list, from a long-awaited visit to a new St. Louis cupcakery to training for early April's St. Louis marathon. She has also vowed to help Ponce get ready for his first fight in four years, and they both plan to get tattoos. (O'Hare envisions a pair of boxing gloves encircled with "September 23, 2006," the date of her mother's kidney transplant, and "Proverbs 3:5-6.")

O'Hare is scouting for a job in social work within the criminal-justice system and imagines a way of one day linking counseling and boxing for women. She knows it's no sport for the masses, but she believes more than a few could pick up some tricks.

Although it feels like forever, the judges only take a minute or two to file their scorecards. The ring announcer sounds deflated as he ticks off the tallies: 38-38, 39-37 O'Hare, 38-38.

"A draw?" O'Hare's mother moans.

Up in the ring, there's nothing left for Hamlett and O'Hare to do but hug.