At 5, she packs a powerful punch

Since she was able to crawl, boxing has been at the center of Mia Ellis' life

December 28, 2005|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

Killer Bee has her game face on.

It's a sneer, almost. A face made to fight.

She squirms as her coach dabs Vaseline on her cheeks. Closes her eyes as the blue headgear slides over her head.

The uncomfortable mouth guard comes next. It's a forced sneer now.

Killer Bee looks a little nervous standing in the worn blue boxing ring, looking down at the boys and teenagers who congregate every evening at the Upton Boxing Gym, where the noise from Pennsylvania Avenue fades with the thud of blows and the shuffle of feet.

"What's up, Killer Bee?" hollers a man outside the ring.

The bell rings.

She holds up her black boxing gloves and shuffles into the middle of the ring, punching with all her might. All the might of a 5-year-old.

Killer Bee is Mia Ellis, a kindergartner at Mount Royal Elementary. But here she is now, fierce and determined, pumping her boxing glove in the air at the end, declaring herself the champion.

There is no winner. This is not a real fight. The sparring lasts no more than 10 minutes.

Mia's opponents are a pair of boys, ages 8 and 11. But they're all she's got, for there aren't many boxers in the class of a 5-year-old who weighs in at 52 pounds and stands 3 feet and some inches.

"I wish she could fight now," says her father and coach, Kenny Ellis. "I know it's crazy, but time will tell. This is what she wants to do.

"Box."

Still not as popular as during the reign of Muhammad Ali, boxing has found a stable place in the urban landscape of cities like Baltimore, where men like Ellis grew up, turning to a sport that channeled the energy that frequently got him into trouble on the streets.

But the path for women has been more arduous. Many skeptical coaches refused to coach them. And it wasn't until 1993 that USA Boxing was ordered by the courts to allow females to compete.

Over the past decade, attitudes have evolved, resulting in an increased interest in women's boxing, particularly among youth. The number of competing amateur females has increased by 50 percent during the past five years, according to USA Boxing statistics.

"The new trend is that they're starting younger and younger because more and more coaches are starting to train them," said Adam Pollack, a member of the women's subcommittee of USA Boxing and a coach in Iowa City, Iowa.

But 5 years old?

Some experts warn that kindergarten is too young to start training a child to play a sport, let alone one like boxing - which the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against until age 18 because of potential brain injuries.

"That's another indication in our society that we just try to speed everything up here," says Greg Dale, a professor of sports psychology and ethics at Duke University. Dale says young children are more prone to physical injuries and mental burnout. "How much of this is really dad wanting them to do that or just wanting to be with dad?" he asks.

But some say it is never too early to begin playing a sport, so long as it's not too competitive. "At the earliest stage a kid needs to be having fun and developing fundamental skills," says Larry Lauer of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

Others point out there are those unique and rare individuals who are born with an innate talent and a desire that manifests itself early. There are those - her family and friends say - like Mia Ellis.

"If the kid wants to do it and they're focused and dedicated and learning, then why not?" says Pollack of USA Boxing. "If you can take up the piano at 5, you can take up boxing at 5."

The story of Mia Ellis' boxing ambition begins even before that.

The way Kenny Ellis tells it, his Million Dollar Baby started punching in the air before she was even a year old, the result of nights of cradling Mia to sleep to the sights and sounds of the boxing matches he studied as a coach.

And so the instinct took root. Soon Mia crawled in pursuit of the boxing tapes and mimicked punches. By the time she was a toddler, Mia was doing training exercises at home with her dad. Sit-ups and push-ups, jumping jacks and leg squats.

At age 2, she went to her first fight in South Baltimore and was transfixed by the bloody nose a boxer got.

She began punching against her dad's hands with socks. Her father later ordered gloves for her online - first 8-ounce ones she's worn out and replaced with a larger 10-ounce pair. A pair of pink ones arrived on Christmas.

"She's self-motivated," says Ellis, pointing out that his older two daughters never took to the sport, instead pursuing interests in modeling and fashion. "It's not anything I'm forcing her to do."

Mia's occasional sparring began when she was almost 4 after Ellis purchased her first headgear.

This is also when Ellis' friend, actor Barry Ben, decided to make a documentary about Mia. Mia Killer Bee premiered last month at film festivals in New York and Annapolis.

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