Almost 10 years later, Kristy Follmar is fighting on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights. She’s far removed from her garage in Cedar Lake. It’s her third nationally televised professional fight. She is fighting Elizabeth Drew. A victory tonight will propel her up the narrow staircase of women’s professional boxing. Follmar’s strawberry-blond hair is in cornrows and pulled back in a ponytail. The camera is on her. Adorned in a silver robe, she shadow boxes, while commentator Brian Kenny gives the voice-over: “Coming up next …”
While attending Hanover Central High School, Kristy Follmar played volleyball, softball and ran cross-country and track. After graduating from a class of fewer than 100, she left for Muncie and enrolled at Ball State University. At Ball State, she ran cross-country until it all seemed routine. “I remember watching boxing with my dad,” she says. “It stuck with me. I always wanted to try it and see what it was like.”
And she did. Her first exposure to fighting was in a Tough Man Contest, in which she fought twice in one night and won her division. During her sophomore year, Follmar entered the Muncie Police Athletic League (PAL) club and sparked the interest of coaches Mark Lemerick and Rodney Cummings, both former Indiana Golden Gloves champions. Under their tutelage she won the Indiana Golden Gloves Championship for the women’s 130-pound weight class, in 2000 and 2001.
A week before her fight on national television, Follmar talks of her various options. She received a degree in telecommunications with a minor in sociology from Ball State. She wants to win each fight but she has other opportunities, opportunities that some might see as obstacles or distractions from pursuing a career in professional boxing.
Follmar, 23, explains that her dream is to go as far as she can as a professional fighter. But she came to Indianapolis with the hope of landing a job with a local television station. Or, even better, to someday work on a movie set.
Her eyes are wide and bright blue. Her facial structure looks delicate, even fragile. She is modest and brutally honest. No bragging, no excuses. She just softly says what she thinks. It’s as if she hasn’t learned the typical bravado and arrogance of contemporary athletes. Or maybe she has, but refuses to play the role.
She’s looking forward to the televised fight. It’s a chance to advance in the ranks of women’s boxing, where obstacles are often greater than punches from another fighter. Currently her record is 12-1, with eight knockouts. She is listed as the North American Boxing Council’s Women’s Junior Lightweight Champion and ranked No. 7 by the World International Boxing Association and No. 5 by the International Female Boxer Association in the Super Featherweight division. According to the Internet Boxing Records Archive, based on wins and losses alone, Follmar is the No. 1 contender.
Follmar is aware of the dangers of her profession, some may say too aware. “At night sometimes, I feel that I can’t breathe through my nose very well. I haven’t been hit that much, but I wonder if it is just from sparring, from an accumulation of punches.” Or maybe Indiana allergies?
“I don’t know, but I always feel nervous before a fight.” But what fighter doesn’t? “But it seems to get worse with each fight. I feel like everyone is expecting me to knock out my opponent.” For Follmar, her nerves will be the opponent who returns again and again, like fighting someone who never hears the final bell.
Follmar grew up in Chicago for the first eight years of her life. After that her family moved to Cedar Lake, Ind. “Growing up, my family was typical, and everything was hunky-dory. We were a really close family.” But the punch that hurts is the one you don’t see coming: “But then, out of nowhere, my father committed suicide. When my mom broke it to me, I asked, ‘How?’ When she said that he shot himself, I just remember getting so completely pissed off.”
And here Follmar perhaps threw her first real punch: “I was just so mad that I wanted to hit something. My mom happened to be standing in front of me. I don’t even remember doing it, but I guess I whacked her.” The anger continued to grow: “I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason; that people die when God is ready for them. So it really bothers me that he took himself out of the picture, because I’ll never know if it was meant to happen.”
She reflects on what both he and she will miss: “It’s not just the boxing experience that I wish Dad could’ve experienced with me. But I was the first Follmar to graduate from college, and when I get married, he won’t be there to walk me down the aisle, or to be a grandpa to my kids. To this day, I still think … What if I would have just gotten to him before he left for work that day and gave him a hug good-bye. Just maybe that would’ve been enough to influence his decision.”
She adds, “I come from a family of bad tempers, and I just let everything build up inside of me. But my mom bought me a punching bag and a pair of gloves. Instead of blowing up and punching doors or whatever, I just went out there and beat it up.”
At first, her mother was less than enthusiastic about Follmar’s new sporting endeavor. “My family has come to love boxing. When I first started, nobody wanted me to do it, but now they are fighting for tickets and go all over Indiana to watch me fight. I have a following of about 50 friends and family members who come to every fight.”
She has also found much support from the boxing community. “Coach” Lemerick became more than a coach: “He has become one of my best friends. He was sort of a father figure for me throughout college, always trying to keep me away from the boys and the bars. I couldn’t thank him enough for all that he’s done for me.”
Unlike heavy bags, professional opponents punch back. They have their own anger, their own dreams and desires. Follmar’s only loss came by a very controversial decision to Mia St. John, known more for her Hollywood looks than her boxing ability. Her photo spread for Playboy magazine received more attention than almost any of her fights. St. John entered the ring with a 24-1-1 record, while Follmar was only fighting her third professional fight.
Most ringside observers, including the Fox Sports’ commentators, thought that Follmar won the fight. While being interviewed, as the crowd loudly booed the decision, St. John smugly wrote off the protest, saying, “I guess they wanted the white girl to win.” St. John’s people refused to consider a rematch. In boxing, the “name” or location often scores more points than the punches landed.
Undaunted, Follmar continued fighting, knocking out her next four opponents, none of whom had a winning record. But that’s part of the Midwest circuit. But then she defeated Rene-Richardt Douglas (11-1-1) by unanimous decision, followed by what probably was the most publicized fight of her career. She fought local Shelby Walker (6-3-1) in the main event on a card that drew 8,000 people to the Pepsi Coliseum, an almost unheard of number for women’s boxing. After each round, the crowd gave enthusiastic standing ovations. Even The Indianapolis Star, usually reluctant to cover local boxing, gave the fight headlines in the sports page on the following day.
“Honestly, I don’t enjoy hitting people,” Follmar says. “I’ve felt bad during and after every single fight, but that’s the nature of the sport. If I don’t swing first, I’m going to get hit.”
Her next fight was against Talia Smith, who had a deceiving record of 3-2. “She wasn’t my toughest opponent, but it was my toughest fight.” Once again, the battle against her nerves took its toll. “I was so nervous I didn’t eat all day. I was throwing up before the fight. “I knocked her down in the third round. I threw like a 20-punch combination. When she went down, I was hoping that she wouldn’t get up, but she got up and kept on coming.”
The lack of food and the subsequent vomiting weakened her, so that she wasn’t defending herself as well as she should have been. But when the adrenalin is pumping, the punches aren’t felt: “It wasn’t until after the fight that I realized that I took too many punches, in the last two or three rounds. For the next week, I couldn’t focus, my head and neck hurt; I felt sick, and all I wanted to do was sleep.” She didn’t go to a doctor, but she thinks that she had a mild concussion.
“I don’t want to do this much longer. I want to get married and have children. I mean, it’s not like I want to be boxing when I’m 30.” She pauses and says, “But I don’t want to look back with any regrets.” She adds, “This may seem ironic, but I am not a violent person. I don’t believe in fighting … People who don’t know me can’t understand why I love to box. But people who know me probably notice that I’m the most unstressed, laid-back person in town. And maybe that’s because I take out all of my stress in my workouts.”
Along with Mark Lemerick, Rodney Cummings co-trains Follmar. He is no stranger to the ring. Cummings won the Indiana Golden Gloves Championship every year, from 1974-1979. He went to the national championships in 1978 and 1979. Cummings is one of boxing’s success stories.
In 1975, he won the Indiana Golden Gloves Scholarship, which allowed him to receive a degree in political science from Ball State University. He then earned a law degree from Indiana University (in Indianapolis). Cummings has been the prosecutor for Madison County since 1994.
His approach is realistic: “Make boxing your vehicle to something better. My guess is that Kristy has two years left. The goal is, of course, a world championship. She doesn’t want to do this long-term, and I don’t want her to either.”
Follmar had spent the last 10 months working for the Prosecutor’s Office as a victim’s advocate. “I was able to help people and see a lot of things, most of them pretty depressing. For a while, I even thought of going to law school. But I’m not an office person.”
Cummings’ belief that boxing can be a vehicle for better opportunities worked for Follmar. Fox 59’s sports department had interviewed her on two occasions. When they realized that she had a degree in telecommunications (and had even applied previously for a job), they offered her a position as a “guest coordinator” for the Fox morning news program, a job she was scheduled to start the Monday after her fight on ESPN the previous Friday night.
Follmar bounces up and down, as she and Liz Drew, 32, are introduced. Weighing in at 131.5 gives Drew a 2.5 pound edge. But Follmar at 5-foot-8 has an inch height advantage. Follmar wears a black top and trunks. Drew’s hair is cut so short, it almost looks like a burr. She wears a black top and white and black trunks. Many friends and family have come to support the hometown fighter.
The bout is scheduled for six two-minute rounds. Each round is one minute shorter than in men’s boxing. Before the fight, Follmar had to battle another, familiar opponent — her nerves: “I got really sick before the fight and threw up twice. I felt very weak after that.”
The fight is a typical Follmar fight: a lot of punching and action. The crowd cheers loudly as Follmar circles to her right, popping left jabs in Drew’s face. And that’s the plan: Stay on the outside and box. Slugging with the shorter, stocky Drew is what Follmar doesn’t want to do. Yet she and her corner know that the vomiting before the fight might have dehydrated her.
Anyone who equates female boxing with “foxy boxing” has never seen some of the top female fighters. What they lack in experience, they make up for in heart. Former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman was in the ESPN studios on the night Follmar fought Drew. After the fight, he said, “I think that ESPN should get this tape out to all of the heavyweights in the division. If all of the heavyweights fought like that, boxing would be in great shape.”
The pattern of the first two rounds is the same: Drew, bobbing and weaving, always pressing forward and Follmar moving to her right, throwing the left jab and straight right, followed by a left hook. By round four, Drew begins landing her right hand more frequently. The fight is dead even. Ringside commentator Teddy Atlas notes that it seems like Follmar is slowing down. The pre-fight sickness begins taking its toll. She later says, “I have to learn to control my nerves a little more.”
Follmar makes a good comeback in round six, landing good combinations on the inside and then moving back outside. The final bell rings; the women embrace and await the decision. Both ESPN commentators score the fight a draw. The pro-Follmar crowd begins to quiet as the ring announcer takes the microphone: “… We now go to the judges scorecards …” Two judges score the fight 58-56 for Follmar, and one judge scores the same for Drew. When her name is announced, Follmar breathes a sigh of relief.
Afterward she says, “The fight was a little too close for comfort and, honestly, if we were in her hometown, she would’ve probably gotten the decision. I definitely didn’t perform the way I’d like to. But it’s all part of the learning process.” Coach Lemerick also sees the nerve issue as part of the learning process. “Sometimes I wish that Kristy would be a little more cocky, a little more confident. I don’t think that she realizes just how really good she is.”
The learning process continues. Follmar began her job at Fox 59 the following Monday and picked up a part-time job as a waitress. During this period of learning, boxing will take a temporary backseat. She’s come a long way since punching that heavy bag in the garage of her Cedar Lake home.
“I’m so thankful for what I have — a mother and step-father whom I love very much and a huge network of family and friends who I’ve gotten so much closer with since I started to box.” After returning from a vacation to Ireland in late June, she plans to begin training again. According to Lemerick, Follmar might be fighting on ESPN in early August. From an obscure Tough Man Contest to nationally televised fights, Follmar has come a long way since beating the bag in her Cedar Lake garage. “My mom is very proud of me,” she says. “Hopefully, Dad is, too.”