Ronica "Queen" Jeffrey: On the Comeback Trail

By Malissa Smith @Girlboxingnow and Sheila Oviedo @sheila_uncut

It’s a Saturday and a crowd of trainers and gym regulars was gathered around the front ring at the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Everyone watched the action in the ring intensely. This was, after all, no routine amateur sparring.

Ronica “Queen” Jeffrey, the reigning WBC Silver Female Featherweight champion was sparring the reigning WBO World Featherweight champion Heather “The Heat” Hardy. It was Jeffrey’s last heavy sparring before she returns to the ring on December 7 in Queens, New York. Later that day, Hardy posted a picture of the sparring session on Instagram, writing “the Queen was sharp AF”.

Ronica “Queen” Jeffrey spars Heather “The Heat” Hardy at Gleason’s Gym.

Ronica “Queen” Jeffrey spars Heather “The Heat” Hardy at Gleason’s Gym.

For someone who is stepping back to the ring after a self-imposed 28-month hiatus from boxing, Jeffrey was indeed looking sharp, throwing snappy combinations that make her an entertaining fighter as well as a walking lesson in technique. Her trainer at Gleason’s Gym, Leon “Cat” Taylor thinks she can do better, but don’t all trainers push their fighters to a higher level? Considering that this is only her second fight since April 2016, she was as sharp as she can get for this week’s fight.

When it comes to the sweet science, Ronica Jeffrey (16-1-0, 1-KO) has had few peers, her only loss coming from a close split decision against Carla Torres in 2014. A three-time Golden Glove Champion, USA Boxing silver medalist, PAL champion and holder of multiple Super Featherweight and Featherweight titles. Jeffrey’s professional career had a good run until she took a break from fighting after defeating Gentiane Lupi in Auckland.

A boxer’s decision to take a two-year break at the peak of her career does not go unnoticed especially when her last fight was a display of beautiful, technical boxing against the taller Kiwi fighter in her home turf. Her 10-round WBC Silver Title Championship fight versus Lupi in Aukland, New Zealand—an all female card, in April 2016 was her biggest platform yet.  With a stellar performance, she seemed poised for even bigger things, but also felt there were a lot of things going on “team wise,” as she put it and as time went on, she just didn’t feel it anymore.

For reasons that she appears to have moved past, Jeffrey, then 33 years old, took a big step back from what she characterizes as difficult situations and “everything that was going on.” During that time, her own training took a back seat and her interest in the sport and the competition dwindled.

“I wasn’t even training, I wasn’t even trying. I was still around boxing but I didn’t feel it because I was just like . . . in a place of frustration,” she said. “It was just myself, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. You can’t do boxing and be confused like that because you just end up hurting yourself.”

She noted that the WBC had been “very, very supportive” through that challenging period.

But the hiatus meant she would face a long road back when she climbed back through the ropes, including a ranking as number four in the US featherweight division behind Shelly Vincent.

Jeffrey made her comeback in August 2018, easily defeating Hungarian fighter Gabriella Mezei (9-17-4, 3 KOs) in a six-round crowd pleaser promoted by Uprising Promotions, also in Queens, New York. Exhibiting little if any ring rust, Jeffrey gained momentum, as she broke down her opponent methodically in each successive round in what was anything but a walk over. In her comeback fight, she was surrounded by her boxing family from Gleason’s and fought under a card of Gleason’s fighters, helping her ease back into the game.

Jeffrey vs Mezei, August 2018. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Jeffrey vs Mezei, August 2018. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

What made her glove up again? “When you’ve done something for so long, your body starts to miss it. I started hitting the bag, started training. And you know, that hunger started coming back, like mentally I’m thinking, I need to do this . . . thing again.”

Jumping back into the sport, however, has its challenges. For one, responsibility for the business of her boxing, both management and promotion, are all falling on her. While still officially listed as being signed with Brian Cohen, she is out on her own when it comes to working to find opportunities to fight, handling the mechanics of signing contracts, and the myriad of other tasks that managers perform.

“It was easier, like making sure my outfits are always good to go down to socks, the shoes, you know, anything in life, stuff like that,” she recalled of her time with a manager.

She’s also without a promoter and relies on her @queen_ronij Instagram and Facebook accounts to communicate with her followers about her upcoming fights, something that does not come easily to her. In person, Jeffrey comes across as reticent, even aloof to those who don’t know her. She is the first to admit that by promoting herself, she is out of her comfort zone. Even posting on social media does not come naturally.

Jeffrey’s corner: Leon “Cat” Taylor and Elmo Serrano. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Jeffrey’s corner: Leon “Cat” Taylor and Elmo Serrano. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Selling tickets is also a challenge. Most of her career has been as a road warrior with a base at the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in Dover, Delaware. She was able to build up a large group of fans there, but she hasn’t fought there since 2013—and hasn’t had the luxury of a new home base, at least not yet.

For herself, she’s acutely aware “that it is a business” and whether “people are going to come out and see you . . . I have to build that even though . . . people know me . . . but creating this community . . . show[ing] my best . . . [to] people who don’t know me so they can feel like they want to come out and see me as well, because, you know, without support and without the fans, then you’re really nothing.”

Her comeback road had its issues. Her first fight was to have been last May, but was canceled when her opponent was unable to fight. Her renewed dedication to the sport, however, saw her persevere along with a strong training schedule at Gleason’s with Taylor, who she says, is like a father.  

Leon “Cat” Taylor training Jeffrey. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Leon “Cat” Taylor training Jeffrey. Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Now, as Jeffrey prepares for her next bout, she is feeling confident that she is back on track to make a statement about women in boxing and her place in a sport that is finding renewed energy and opportunity.

Like many women fighters, Jeffrey came into the sport to lose weight. At one point she weighed 160 pounds and while this did not bother her too much, she felt the need to exercise and get fit. A friend introduced her to a trainer at Gleason’s, who later on encouraged her to go for the Golden Gloves, the premier amateur boxing tournament. She eventually went on to become part of the US national team.

While her hiatus may have been a time of reflection for her personal relationship to the sport, it’s also been a time for her to grow professionally. She built her own personal training business and is building up a new generation of fighters, two of whom will be going to the upcoming USA Boxing Nationals.

When asked how this makes her feel, Jeffrey visibly softens and smiles. Her fighters clearly hold a special place in her heart. “It makes me feel like . . . your kids are going to that good old school that they worked so hard for. It’s good to see them do it for themselves. It’s good to see them take the things that PJ (her co-trainer) and I show them and carry along with them.”

Jeffrey (left) with her team of amateur fighters.

Jeffrey (left) with her team of amateur fighters.

Their success in the amateur ranks also takes Jeffrey back to a time that she considers the happiest in her life. “It makes me feel like, oh, I remember the feeling. The Golden Gloves and the USA championships, they were the best times of my life, the best experiences. And I want everybody to experience that.” She considers her time in the amateurs her formative years as a fighter.

Jeffrey has a solid amateur pedigree, having been three-time New York Daily News Golden Gloves Champion, the 2006 Empire State Games Champion and Metro Champion, and the 2006 National PAL Champion. The illustrious amateur experience shows in the way she fights. Jeffrey is a fighter’s fighter. She is highly technical and enjoys the technical aspects of fighting with sharp punches, lots of levels, a stick and move style, and a sixth sense for how to stifle her opponent’s game plan.

But coming back to elite level sport at 35, Jeffrey is also adjusting to younger fighters entering the sport. “Now I have to be a little bit more strategic . . . a little bit smarter.”

Photo by Amanda Tarley.

Photo by Amanda Tarley.

At an age when many male boxers hang up their gloves, retirement is not yet in her mind. “I’m happy, I’m happy for myself. [I will box] as long I’m enjoying myself. Once it feels more like a chore . . . then I’ll take another look.”

Coming back, Jeffrey has had time to reflect on her relationship to boxing. The time off, “taught me that [I] like boxing, it’s like a marriage. You love it, you have issues with it. Sometimes you hate it or love it.  Sometimes you just need . . . a break, but you really can’t stay away . . . like it’s still in here,” Jeffrey said, indicating her heart. Her perspective is to instill the idea, that one must “do it from the heart . . . you got to enjoy what you do . . . you got to be passionate about it.”

Catch Ronica “Queen” Jeffrey on December 7th at the Amazura Concert Hall, Queens, New York.