Shelly Vincent: Fighting for the Positive

By Malissa Smith, @girlboxingnow


Shelly “Shelito’s Way” Vincent is a force of nature. Sporting tattoos, colorful hair, and a personality to match, she has pushed the boundaries of gender norms in a sport that is unforgiving at best when it comes to female participation in the sport.

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Standing all of five feet tall with a nearly perfect record of 23-1 save for her one loss to Heather “The Heat” Hardy (21-0), Vincent’s outsized personality and constant motion in the gym gives her the appearance of someone much larger. 

I had the opportunity to spend much of the day with Vincent a couple of weeks ago in Cranston, Rhode Island as she was winding down training for what will be the biggest, toughest ring battle of her life as she squares off against Hardy. 

Billed as Hardy-Vincent 2, the pair will open the show on HBO Boxing’s last regularly scheduled boxing broadcast – in itself a remarkable feat as their fight will be only the second bout featuring female boxers shown on HBO during its long history. A championship battle, they will fight for the WBO Female Featherweight title belt at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater on Saturday, October 27, 2018.

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The pair last fought in an historical bout in Brooklyn in 2016. Later dubbed the female fight of the year, it was also the first female bout televised by Premier Boxing Champions. Coincidently, their fight was on the same day Claressa Shields won her second Olympic Gold medal, something not lost on either fighter as they continue to push for legitimacy in the sport.

For Vincent, however, the “road” to the fight itself had been hard fought—and in the best tradition of boxing’s outlandish rivalries, Vincent had been calling out Hardy for years on social media and in person at Hardy’s fights to not only take her on in the ring, but to help build up the profile of their eventual contest.  

She’s also had to fight hard for the rematch something she said she’d been promised, but as it was not forthcoming, Vincent was not shy about pushing for it, even “crashing” one of Hardy’s MMA bouts to press her case for the rematch.

Hanging with Vincent and her trainer, the highly regarded Peter Manfredo Sr., who has been training Shelly and acting as her ring guide for the past several years—one got the sense that while Hardy is a nemesis of sorts, there was also a begrudging respect that had begun to form, not only as fighters, but as women pushing the boundaries of a sport that doesn’t really seem to want them in it.

Still, of the first fight, Vincent voiced a number of issues that she felt hamstrung both fighters—but more so, herself.

“We only had three weeks to get ready, which means we only sparred about—six times, if we sparred to the max.”  The shortened time frame made cutting weight that much harder, and with the need to sell tickets ever-present, a mainstay for women if they want any chance to fight on a card, the pressure was immense. Vincent also owned to a certain amount of chaos in her life at the time that made focusing difficult.

For this fight, she and Hardy have had plenty of time to have a “camp,” and while Vincent’s life has had its ups and downs since the first contest, she is quite alone now and able to stay focused for the work ahead of her.

“You’re going to get ten today,” Manfredo said, as Shelly nodded wrapping her hands with practiced competence,  “The is the last day for it, for so many rounds.”

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Camp has been good, a mixture of highly focused work with Manfredo at the gym in Cranston, and a lot of work on her own at all hours at the Seven Beauties Gym in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.  “To tell you truth, I haven’t been focused on anything but training, I don’t care about the promotion, I don’t care about nothing this time, and usually I’m the opposite.”

“I just want to focus on winning,” she went on to say, “Because she’s not beating me. I mean, I know I won that [first] fight. I didn’t back up once, I was landing body shots, I was landing combinations. She hit me more than I’ve ever been hit, but she didn’t hurt me … and I hurt her a few times. I mean she was hitting me with pot shots.”

In speaking more about the upcoming bout I asked her what she thought of their promoter, Lou DiBella’s likening their upcoming battle to the famed Gatti-Ward fights.

“I remember those fights. And they’re laying up in their hospital beds next to each other after. But you know what, it’s not going to be Gatti-Ward no more, after this it’s going to be Vincent-Hardy. It’s going to be the girl thing, it doesn’t have to be Gatti-Ward – let it just be us. When you think about it … when I beat her, ‘cause I’m beating her, then when we have the trilogy, that’s the first visual to a female trilogy and we can be remembered with those great trilogies.”

The rhythm of our day together was to have included Vincent’s training and sparring, followed by an interview with Manfredo and then with Vincent herself, but as I was beginning to interview Manfredo, he received word that his father passed away. It was a terribly emotional moment and after he left, Vincent and I sat down to make sense of it all in a life, that for her has been filled with tragedy, abuse, self-destructive acts, and the hard work of redemption.

“Family gotta come first, that’s like my father for real … I know he cares about me, outside of the ring, you know.”

The last thing, Manfredo had said to me was, “Shelly is really focused for this fight, the most focused I’ve ever seen her.”

Sharing this with her, Vincent nodded, and said, “Wow, he said that, he’s my father for real.”

Her own father disappeared from her life early on, and over the last few years she has felt the strength to share the horrific abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather and the experience of being raped at the age of thirteen. That is not something one just gets over and looking back on it she said, “I always wished I had somebody to talk to and I could have expressed all that stuff, because I feel I could have been a different person. So I always said, if I ever — because I thought I was going to be dead, but if I wasn’t dead or whatever from drugs or alcohol, I wanted to be that person for as many kids as I could, so that’s really why I walk out with the kids, and I remember before a fight, why the fuck I’m doing this.”

This mantra of sorts has pushed her to activism and has led her to be a role model for young kids who might otherwise go down a destructive path. She herself has had stints in prison for drugs and fighting, and wonders at times how she ever survived it, but of everything she’s experienced in her life, she credits boxing for showing her a path towards recovery.

“I didn’t get into boxing to turn pro, to make no money, not even to fight. I got in it to channel my depression and anger, and everything I had built up inside of me because that was the only time I wasn’t depressed because I felt that I was fighting back. When I fight … that’s why I wear the straight jacket, because it’s to symbolize the way women are tied down in sports, and me trying to break free of my demons and finally fighting back.”

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Vincent has not been shy about revealing her sexuality as a gay woman, nor being clear that her appearance is her way of expressing who she is—and while she feels strongly that being outside of the “norm” of how women should look has her hurt, she is adamant that her self-expression is an important symbol of fighting back.

That self-expression includes a myriad of tattoos on her body and around her neck. The tattoos mean everything to her and taken together are her life.

“The right side is the dark side, the middle is change your world, and the positive comes out on the the otherside … Everything has a meaning on me, it’s not just there to be there, it’s like telling a story, if I was to die or anything, you could tell, it’s like you would read a book.”

Her story includes her boxing heroes, Ali, Tyson and Marciano, her mother, girlfriends, her nieces and nephews, and around her neck, the story of coming to 10-0 and what it symbolized to her as a moment of breaking free.

Still, she fights through depression as an almost daily battle to be reckoned with – making the boxing itself the easiest part of her day. In focusing for this fight, she has worked hard to strip away things to their core even eschewing some of the heavy weight training she has done in the past to focus on speed, stamina, and a fighters acumen for knowing how to play out her upcoming ten rounds with Hardy in the ring.

Whatever else is happening in her life, even the suddenness of Manfredo’s father’s death; right now, the upcoming bout with Hardy remains her focus. She visualizes the WBO title belt around her waist, as well as a third battle to round out the trilogy—only this time in her backyard. She also understands that at 39 years of age she is fighting against time.

Vincent knows this is the fight of her life, and if there is such a thing as a sisterhood of the ring, Vincent and Hardy have much to share, as survivors, as activists in the sport, and as individuals who have figured out the best way forward is to come at life on their own terms as fighters. 

Will this be another fight of the year – yes absolutely, but win, lose, or draw, what we can be assured of is both Vincent and Hardy will leave it all in the ring.


Catch Heather “The Heat” Hardy vs Shelly “Shelito’s Way” Vincent at the Hulu Theater of the Madison Square Garden, and live on HBO Boxing on October 27.

Melissa St Vil: Refocused And Ready To Rumble

By Malissa Smith, @girlboxingnow


Stepping into the Joe Hand Boxing Gym on North 3rd Street in Philadelphia, on Saturday, the week before her co-main event fight at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, I knew I had arrived at the right place when I heard boxer Melissa St Vil exclaim, “heeeeyyyyyyyy” in her beautiful high-pitched voice.

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She gave me a warm hug and then lit up with a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Dressed in lime green workout clothes, and sporting pink compression knee highs, she quickly turned back to the heavy bag and began circling with a succession of jabs and straight right combinations, high and low jabs, and heavy-handed body shots that landed with thudding precision.

Her manager and trainer, Brian Cohen stood by, with pads at the ready, as he called out, “Thirty seconds, Mel.”

Turning around from the bag to face him, St Vil, threw punches in combination, in response to his calls focusing on upper cuts and hooks to the imagined body of her opponent. 

Attacking each task with focus and force, as Cohen yelled out, “power, Mel, power, before switching it up to “speed, speed,” St Vil was every bit the champion, readying for her seek and destroy mission.

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At 35, Melissa St Vil (10-3-4), is Haiti’s first female boxing champion—along with being one of a rarified group of Brooklyn’s professional female boxing sorority, a group that includes Alicia Ashley, Heather Hardy, Ronica Jeffrey, and Alicia Napoleon. She’s also been a road warrior, fighting and winning in such places as Auckland, New Zealand, where she became the WBC Silver Female Super Featherweight Champion, and Chengdu, China, where she not only retained her WBC title, but also added the International Boxing Union, World Super Featherweight Title over Katy Wilson (18-1 at the time of the battle).

Most recently she traveled to Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki, where she fought Eva Walhstrom for the WBC World Female Super Featherweight title. While she lost the fight 95-95, 97-93, 96-94, she was able to put her opponent on the deck (though ruled a slip by the referee), and otherwise showed grit and a fearsome barrage of fighting power against the long odds of battling a champion in her hometown.

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In the current calculus of rankings, St Vil is currently ranked number one and according to her, Walhstrom has to be willing to fight her, “or they’re going to strip her.”

St Vil is no stranger to adversity or challenges. With a professional boxing career that began in 2007, she has not only fought against opponents in the ring, but against the changes in momentum and fortune that have best female boxers in this era. She has also had to fight against her own demons of abuse and hardship, not to mention the notoriety of her experiences fighting and living in Las Vegas when she came into the orbit of the Mayweather family.

Her recent loss to Walhstrom also brought about some deep soul-searching, which has resulted in a renewed commitment to her boxing. As part of that process, she decided to take a break from her long time trainer, Leon “Cat” Taylor.

While still very close with Taylor, St Vil, sought out her former manager, Brian Cohen, to help refocus her career and bring her to the next level. That change has already brought about results with a new promotion deal with DiBella Entertainment—beginning this coming Saturday, September 29, 2018—not to mention her boxing debut in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

According Brian Cohen, she has “done really well in ticket sales,” which, he feels will make Lou DiBella very happy. 

“This is the first time she’s fighting in Brooklyn, the first time she’s selling tickets …  so this is a big deal for her, and she’s such a road warrior, this is what she deserves and this is what she needs. And, I’m proud of her, she put in a tough camp … and I’m very happy to be back with her.”

Brian Cohen went on to speak about her upcoming bout saying, “What I hope to achieve, Is the recognition and the respect she deserves. She’s been fighting her whole life and hasn’t gotten the breaks she so well deserves … what people are really going to see is what Melissa St Vil brings to the table.” 

Cohen also brought out the fact the St Vil is rated number one for the WBC and is the mandatory for the IBF as well, which should mean a chance for even greater opportunities. “That, along with having the “horsepower” behind her of a promoter like Lou DiBella, something St Vil has not had in her career, should help propel her towards a title opportunity in the near future.”

Brian went back to working with St Vil as she completed her training circuit, and after lunch at a local diner, he drove us to his home in South Philly, a cozy split level with an outdoor space that looked out on an unobstructed view of the Phillies stadium. After a few minutes, Melissa St Vil and I went upstairs to talk in Brian Cohen’s office—the afternoon light soft through the windows. After settling in she began by speaking about her journey in the sport.

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“Boxing was my savior,” she said, “I came up in an abusive household and when I found boxing, I knew, this is where I belong.” Taking a moment, she reflected, “Being in the gym, it took me to a different place and I just felt good in the gym.”

With eleven years of professional boxing behind her, St Vil is now looking forward to her next challenges. As she talked more I could see that she was not only feeling confident, but in heading to the relative quiet of Brian Cohen’s home and her hours at the gym every day, she’d had the chance to revel and delight in her boxing, away from the realities of her life in Brooklyn. The training regimen had also brought her a new understanding of her boxing. “Coming here,” she said, “being in a peaceful space, being around people with good energy, and staying focused has made a big difference.”

Her time in Philly has also given her the chance to go back to basics and under Brian’s careful tutelage; she’s been refining her boxing skills. “He corrects my feet, tells me when my hands are low, tells me how to turn the jab, and he’s even there when I hit the speed bag and when I do my sit ups,” she said.

Having that attention has allowed her to focus more on her boxing, but more importantly, she feels that he is there to support her when she’s in the ring.

“My sparring has been good work,” she said. And in speaking about Brian’s role she noted that he’s been helping her understand how to really engage with her opponent. “I’ve just been discovering my eyes and what it means to sit down on my punches in the ring. I’m discovering my jab and what my jab can do.”

St Vil has also been discovering how to relax in the ring. “Yes relax,” she said, “relax, use that jab, and realizing that everything’s coming.” She can also hear Brian telling her “don’t rush it … use that jab, sit down on your punches, and he’s right there watching everything, from my feet, to my hips, to my head movement, to my eyes … and telling me, ‘don’t go out there and waste punches, pick your shots and box, you fight when you want to fight, everything doesn’t have to be such a hard fight.’”

“My whole boxing journey was a bumpy road …” St Vil reflected, but now as she put it, “I’m fighting in Brooklyn for the first time, I have a promoter for the first time, so I feel like my time is now, and I’m ready.”

When I asked her what she saw for herself in the future, St Vil’s smile broadened and she said, “For right now I see myself going straight to the clouds, all the way up.”

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As she spoke she raised her arms above her head and with exuberance said, “Because now we have a plan, I’m not just going out there, with people saying, ‘hey do you want to take a fight?’ Okay … ‘Who's your manager?’ I don’t have one … and so on.”

After another moment she said, “I have always had faith in myself, because I know what I can do, if I have someone who can believe in me and show me and help me on the right path. I can do anything.” 

When asked what the secret to success in the sport is, St Vil put it this way. “You have to have a good team that knows their stuff.”

The difference now, is that St Vil has a team.


Melissa “Little Miss Tyson” St. Vil (10-3-4, 1 KO) vs  Mayra Hernandez (6-0, 4 KOs) is on September 29 at the King’s Theatre in Brooklyn, New York.