Kerrigan, Harding still worlds apart

Ice days over, form holds for famed pair, with one a matron, other a slugger

January 11, 2004|By NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK - You meet Nancy Kerrigan at a high-end AIDS charity event inside a MAC cosmetics store in downtown Manhattan, where the full-time mother and part-time celebrity is trim and prim, dressed in black.

You track down Tonya Harding somewhere very different, across the country in a hotel room in Vancouver, Wash., where she is training earnestly between boxing matches.

They are worlds apart, 10 years later. Harding is an athlete, alone and bruising her way through life. Kerrigan is an actress, a homemaker. Kerrigan will never climb into a ring, never get smacked in the nose.

Harding will never be invited to a mainstream ice show. They are still the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West; still the elegant Vera Wang skating dress and the homemade, low-cut affair frowned upon by judges.

And yet, a decade after an associate of Harding's ex-husband struck Kerrigan on her knee on Jan. 6, 1994, the two women remain forever linked by crime and imagery. Theirs is one of the strangest sports stories of them all.

"We were friends back then," Harding said about Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan and all the other skaters. "Everybody was always friends. You tour together. You room together. That's what really hurt. Everything was such a tragedy. You want to cry, but there's nothing you can do. God had my life planned out for me, and I took the wrong path."

That path led Harding to dark places. It led her to ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (now Jeff Stone), who arranged the assault on Kerrigan by indirectly paying a mercenary named Shane Stant to smack Kerrigan above her right knee at Detroit's Cobo Hall during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It led Harding to plead guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, to accept $110,000 in fines, 500 hours of community service and three years' probation.

She has endured three broken marriages, an eviction from her home, three days in jail and more than a week of tending grave sites - her sentence for punching and throwing a hubcap at the head of one of her ex-husbands, Darren Silver.

Finally, that journey has led her somewhere more compatible, to the one sport that rewards dubious attitudes.

"Without being too blunt, the biggest difference between figure skating and boxing is you have to have the [courage] to get punched in the face," Harding said. "I just let everything out that's been bottled up. I think of when my truck breaks down. Or me hitting my trainer, Paul. I want to pound on him."

She is irrepressible, this woman with the broken homes and the beat-up pickup truck. Her veteran trainer, Paul Brown, spotted Harding this year at the Grand Avenue Gym in Portland, Ore. She'd been in some brawls but didn't really know what to do in a ring.

"She was having a tough time getting through a four-minute training program," Brown said. "Now, we work right through the asthma."

You may remember the asthma. And Harding chain-smoked, which didn't help.

There were always things going wrong for her on the ice. Her shoelace snapped, or her dress strap snapped. But she could jump. A 5-foot-1 acrobat, she landed triple axels years ahead of her time. She won nationals and captured a silver at the worlds in 1991, beating Kerrigan both times, fair and square.

"I always had the strength and not the skills as a figure skater," she said. "Just having that strength makes me a great boxer."

She is not a great boxer, however. Her record is 3-2, not counting the beating she put on Paula Jones in an ill-conceived "celebrity" match. Her last match, in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club, was something of a disaster. Melissa Yanas charged across the ring and knocked Harding down twice. She kept getting up, but the referee stopped the bout after 73 seconds.

Defeat never sat well with Harding. She insists that Yanas wasn't who she said she was, quite literally.

"At the weigh-in, I was eye to eye with her," Harding said. "In the ring, I was looking up at her. Whether it was even the same girl, I can't say. I lasted 1 minute, 13 seconds with this big, humongous woman. That took a lot of guts."

`I'll put her down'

She will fight again on Jan. 24 in a pay-per-view event in Boise, Idaho, but this time about five pounds lighter, as a bantamweight at 118. She said she'll intimidate her 18-year-old opponent, Beth Westbrook, by turning her baseball cap around and staring down her young opponent. "Then I'll put her down," Harding said.

This is the very same passion that Brown hopes to market. Harding made nearly $14,000 for her last fight, and Brown predicts she'll be fighting for a title soon.

"Because of the notoriety over the knee, she may be worth millions," he said.

But that notoriety cost Harding plenty. She finished a distant and disappointing eighth at the 1994 Olympics, when Kerrigan took silver. She was banished, ostracized by the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Everybody wondered then, and still wonders, how much she knew about the assault.

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