The two fighters had not met, even though Heather Schmitz trained at the Front Range Boxing Academy in Boulder, Colo., 60 miles from Becky Zerlentes' Hard Knocks Gym in Milliken. But they began talking during a weigh-in four days before the Golden Gloves championships scheduled for the following Saturday in Denver and realized how much they had in common.
"They shook hands, got to know each other, really hit it off," said Jeanne DePriest, chairman of officials for Colorado Golden Gloves, who witnessed their bonding while handling the weigh-in. "Becky said, `After this is all over, in a couple of weeks, why don't we have lunch?"'
Four days later, on April 2, in the final round of a three-round amateur bout, Zerlentes collapsed into a coma after absorbing Schmitz' right hand to the left side of her thick, protective headgear.
Zerlentes, 34, died a day later. The initial diagnosis was that she died from blunt-force trauma. She became the first female fighter to die in a sanctioned professional or amateur bout. A ban against female boxers was lifted by USA Boxing in 1993.
Zerlentes' ring death chillingly paralleled the story line of Million Dollar Baby, the Academy Award-winning film about an impoverished heroine beyond the age of 30 who fights for a major financial prize, then loses her life after suffering injuries in the ring.
Despite the tragic ending, the leaders of boxing's leading state athletic commissions say the movie's success - and perhaps the dream of achieving actress Hilary Swank's svelte physique - appears to have contributed to an increased interest in women's boxing.
Hoping to capitalize on the movie, a professional bout scheduled for July in Las Vegas is billed "Million Dollar Lady." It matches two of boxing's best-known women fighters, 36-year-old Christy Martin and 37-year-old Lucia Rijker. Like the movie, the fight could yield the first women's million-dollar payday for the winner.
It also casts Rijker (17-0, 14 knockouts), who played the antagonist in Million Dollar Baby, in the role as the favorite against Martin (45-3-2, 30 KOs), whose perch as boxing's top female draw has been overtaken by the daughter of Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali (20-0, 17 KOs).
Calls for prohibition
Meanwhile, the sport has been thrust back into the national spotlight by the death of Zerlentes, which has in some quarters led to a renewed call for a prohibition of women's boxing.
"When you have an event like a fighter dying because of injuries in the ring, it scares a lot of the young females," said Wanda Bruce, a Washington, D.C., promoter and matchmaker of all-women's boxing shows for the past two years. "The men don't really accept me. The promoters have always been afraid to put women on their shows, and now, it's even harder for women to be in the ring because of her death."
The challenge comes as USA Boxing president, Sandy Martinez-Pino, heads a move toward generating more female participation. Her goal is to have women's boxing admitted as an Olympic sport by 2012.
"I've had so many young women call me and say, `Please tell us this isn't going to ruin our chances of being an Olympic sport,' " Martinez-Pino said. "Boxing is a family, and everyone feels badly about what has happened to Becky. But we're going to move forward with women's amateur boxing. What happened to Becky was an accident."
A former amateur Colorado champ who went 6-4 through 2002, Zerlentes had ended a two-year layoff by rejoining her Hard Knocks Boxing team in February. She had taken time off to earn her doctorate in geography - which she taught at Front Range Community College - but longed for a return to competition.
"Becky was into environmental programs, concerned about social issues and correcting injustices," said her trainer, Glenn DePriest, Jeanne's husband. "But she also found boxing to be a mental challenge as well as a physical one. For her, the skills to block and parry were as much a mental chess game of out-thinking your opponent as boxing was a healthy lifestyle."
Defenders of women's boxing say a unique set of factors led to Zerlentes' death and should not be held against the sport.
Zerlentes knew she was nearing the end of her career. She told friends that her last fight would be against Schmitz, 32, who was in her first fight.
Zerlentes was "the kind of person you liked the minute you saw her," which is why she bonded with Schmitz, Jeanne DePriest said.
So much in common
They shared remarkable similarities: Zerlentes taught geography and married a college professor; Schmitz earned a degree in geography and had a high school teacher for a boyfriend.
Each was a Chicago native who studied martial arts and was an avid cyclist before turning to boxing. Each considered herself an advocate for minority rights: Zerlentes for an on-campus gay/straight alliance group, and Schmitz for American Indians and at-risk youth.
At the time of their meeting, the two were unaware that they would be rivals in the ring.