By Sheila Oviedo, @sheila_uncut
I met Franchon Crews nearly one year ago in her home city of Baltimore. Three months before we met, the “Heavy-Hitting Diva” won a four-rounder against Sydney Leblanc by unanimous decision, but her career would stall after that fight. She managed to get a fight with Tiffany Woodard in January 2018 to keep busy, but a follow-up fight in the Claressa Shields-Hanna Gabriels card in June did not materialize.
In recent months, however, things have a taken a more interesting turn. On September 13, she fights another boxing “diva”, the arguably more popular Maricela “La Diva” Cornejo, for the vacant WBC Super Middleweight belt. #CrewsCornejo opens the big fight weekend fanfare for #GGGCanelo. After nearly two years of a lackluster career, Franchon is back in the big stage. And it’s finally time to tell her story.
Note: Quotes were edited for brevity and clarity.
A Fighter’s Fighter
Franchon started boxing in 2005 for the sole purpose of losing weight for a future singing career. Little did she know at that time that she would become one of the most bemedalled amateur boxers. Franchon went on to win US Open, Golden Gloves, Pan American and World championships over a 10-year amateur boxing career.
“The life lesson I learned from boxing is to be yourself. I found out that when I live up to my standards — and I have high standards for myself — I’m not as susceptible to disappointment. I know I’m great. I know I can beat any boxing champ out there. What’s cool about me is I don’t have pressure on me, I’ve done everything. I know what it’s like to lose and bounce back… I was nobody when I moved to Baltimore. Now I’m known around the world. I’m your favorite fighter’s fighter.”
“My boxing persona embodies my life. I’m the Heavy Hitting Diva (HH Diva for short). Sometimes I’m a diva, sometimes I’m raggedy. I’m emotional. The same way you watch a ballet dancer or a person who dances and expresses himself. That’s how I fight in the ring. Sometimes I’m dramatic, sometimes I’m crisp, but how I feel is how I fight and that’s how I’m gonna win. I’m a boxer-puncher now. When I started, I was just a power puncher.”
She went pro in November 2016, fighting the two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields in the first Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward card.
“The experience of going pro in 2016 was magnificent. You know some people were trying to write me off. I went out of the amateurs on a bad note…but I was there fighting on HBO. What made it special was I found my team. I had my husband. We bounced back. Making weight was one accomplishment in itself. I made the weight, I felt good. I just embraced it.”
Like many of the top women boxers today, Franchon is another voice calling for parity and equality between male and female boxers.
“They always say, respect the past and create the future. We’re just following up the plan that Cristy Martin, Ann Wolfe, Laila Ali, the other women made for us. It hurts my soul sometimes to see an MMA fighter getting more recognition in the sport of boxing. (But) I guess you could say any attention is good attention.”
What is probably less known is Franchon’s life outside the ring. This boxer is also a designer and is slowly gaining a clientele. She designs boxing outfits and is looking to expand her design business.
“When I was young, I would take socks and make clothes for my Barbie dolls and paper dolls. I’ve always had the passion for creating stuff since I was little. I made my first outfits in 2008. I didn’t like the outfits we had to fight in. They weren’t fitting me and I couldn’t afford to buy the fancy outfits. So I said I could try to make this myself. I bought a $25 sewing machine off Craigslist and started making outfits myself. After a few outfits, I said, ok I’m gonna invest in myself because nobody’s going to do it for me. I had $75 and got a brand new sewing machine and I just started working and working.”
Her husband, Glenn Dezurn Jr., also a professional boxer, wore her first creation on his second professional fight and has worn her creations since then.
One of her first and loyal customers is the middle-weight boxer from California, Raquel Miller, who sported what, to me, is one of Franchon’s classic creations in October 2017.
“I and Raquel kinda butted heads in the amateurs. But it was really more of admiration for each other. She reached out to me when my mom passed away. She was so nice and we quashed everything. I said, look, I make these outfits, I wanna make this outfit for you. So she wore the outfit. It was cute but I was not yet that good at it, but she rocked it confidently. She showed me love. She said we have to support each other because we’re already in a male-dominated sport. She said I like what you’re doing. Then she had two more fights and she brought me the idea of Wonder Woman. I was like, do you know Wonder Woman has a twin sister named Nubia? So we found the design, we had fun with that.”
Franchon creates the outfits in the loft of the Baltimore apartment that she shares with Glenn, an area she calls her “happy place”. And you can tell her apartment is a place of comfort. Here, her voice softens, she sheds her businesswoman persona and simply becomes Franchon Crews, but still with lots of dreams and ambition.
“I look to the story of Underarmour and Kevin Plank in his grandmother’s basement. I draw from that. I draw from Queen Latifah’s story. Lil Kim is one of my inspirations. Raunchy or not, she was just so adventurous. She’s iconic. And they you get Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, all these people who stepped out of the box.”
“I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes. This is just something I like to do. Everyone likes variety so that’s what I want to be. I tell people hey, it’s ok that you want to wear so and so, but if you like my style, come see me. I would like this to be one of my main sources of income. I would love to be dressing other people, not only boxers. I want to be a fashion brand.”
Like Peanut Butter and Jelly
Franchon was born in Virginia Beach, where her mother worked for Montgomery Ward & Co, a general merchandise company. When the company closed down in 2000, her mother was offered a job in Baltimore by a former supervisor. A year later, Franchon and her mother moved to Maryland.
“My mother was like me. At one point she worked three jobs just to take care of me. It’s always been me and my mom. My mom was my best friend. We were like peanut butter and jelly.”
Starting out in Baltimore, Franchon worked at The Fudgery, a popular fudge shop, where all staff members know how to sing. She has also worked at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant and Holiday Inn. While working at The Fudgery, a hair salon owner, Milroy Harried, spotted her and asked her to sing to his clients, and that’s how she found herself auditioning for American Idol when she was 16. “One day, everybody in the salon got together and they helped send me to an audition in DC.”
“From American Idol, I learned that everything isn’t what it seems. It may look easy on the outside but it’s a lot of work to get on TV. I learned to just trust the process and embrace the struggle. It’s not a fairy tale like we think it is. It taught me to endure.”
Today, Franchon continues to sing professionally, booking performances in the Baltimore and DC areas. And to this day, Mr. Harried remains one of Franchon’s strongest supporters and confidants.
In 2015, her mother got sick and Franchon took care of her until she passed away in 2016. Her debut fight against Claressa Shields on November 19, 2016 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Everyone said, oh you’re crazy (to fight Claressa). I said I’m not crazy at all. I know what my plans are. Everything was in divine order because I fought on HBO on November 19th, my mother turned 59 on November 24th, she went to the hospital on November 27th, then passed away December 7th. I got a decent amount of money (from the fight). I had to pay for my mother’s funeral. I had an emotional breakdown, I couldn’t work for like a month. Everything happens for a reason.”
Franchon met her husband, Glenn, at her old gym in Baltimore. Glenn once photobombed a picture that the Washington Post took of her for an interview in 2006. “He’s been around me forever, I just didn’t know.”
She credits Glenn for helping her bounce back from trials in the national amateur team. “He would get up in the morning to train with me. When I trained for the Olympics in 2012, I didn’t have anyone. He was the only person behind me. He spoke to my soul.”
In turn, she helps him manage his career. She helps arrange interviews and sponsorships, she sews his boxing outfits, and occasionally spars with him.
In person, Franchon is tall, graceful, fashionable with a disarming smile. But behind the well-put exterior is an all too familiar lament over body image.
“I’ve always had issues because I’ve always been the big girl, not even fat, but just as a big, athletic woman. I credit Serena Williams. I’ve never met her personally but looking at her and how she’s so graceful on the court. All the things she endured, the fat shaming, (people calling attention to) her hair, her skin tone, people calling her names because of the sport she’s in.”
“I’ve been through it too. It’s a lot. People have stereotypes of what’s beautiful and what’s not. Being a woman of color, we’re told that our hair is ugly, that being thick is ugly. Yet women of other ethnic backgrounds are paying to get that thing we are born with. Once you realize ok, it’s not me, it’s them, you calm down.”
In the wake of the US Open Women’s Finals this year, Serena is at the center of a controversy that is more than an umpire-player dispute. It is reflective of the unequal treatment of women and men in sports.
“Serena is being criticized for being a strong woman who stands up for herself and says what she has to say in a male-dominated sport. But that’s one of my inspirations for doing what I do.”
Franchon Crews vs Maricela Cornejo for the vacant WBC Super Middleweight title will air on ESPN on September 13.