Knockout voice, killer punch

Teen can belt out a tune or a rival in the ring


It didn't surprise Franchon Crews when she made a bit of a splash on American Idol in 2005. The 19-year-old from West Baltimore has long believed she had the talent for a singing career.

"I believe I'm able to touch people and make them cry," Crews said.

But she is on the verge of making bigger headlines in another industry, as one of America's top female boxers.

"She's in shape and attractive outside of the ring, but in the ring, I'll just say she's not your average girl," said James Berry, Crews' sparring partner for the past two years at Baltimore's UMAR Boxing Club.

American Idol producers saw Crews as a singer who could box, but it's about time to start calling her a boxer who can sing. The hard-hitting amateur middleweight with an 18-2 record has won several national tournaments and recently made her international debut by winning a gold medal at the Pan American Championships in Argentina.

She is favored to win the middleweight title at the women's national Golden Gloves championships starting Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and she has already secured a berth on the United States national team that will compete at the women's world amateur championships in New Delhi, India, in November.

"We've had some female boxers over the years who were very strong, but Franchon's strength and punching power make her stand out," said USA Boxing President Bill Meartz. "She brings the kind of powerful aspect into the ring that demands respect."

Crews, a 2004 graduate of the Central Career Center at Briscoe, an alternative high school in Baltimore City, commanded her share of respect when she sang for American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul on a broadcast that aired Jan. 18, 2005.

Plucked from the masses to be among the few contestants whose auditions were broadcast, she sang Alicia Keys' "A Woman's Worth" and "delivered powerfully," according to Internet reviewers used such descriptions as "sophisticated," "feminine" and "feisty."

But Jackson said she was "all over the map, pitch-wise" and "needed a lot more development." Cowell said he liked that she was a boxer but "wasn't blown away." After she was turned down, Crews said on national television that she was going to be middleweight champion of the world.

In the months between the actual audition, which took place in summer 2004, and the night it was broadcast, the show's producers sent a camera crew to Baltimore and filmed Crews working out in a gym, then used some of the footage during the broadcast of her audition.

"The whole United States saw me," Crews said. "I'm like, `That's who I am: a boxer and a singer.' That's how I'm going to market myself. I try to look nice, classy and extra-girly when I go to fights, so that people see me in the ring and say, `I thought you were too pretty to box, but you fight like a man.'"

She comes by it naturally. Although she didn't box as a youngster in the Norfolk, Va., area, she had three brothers (one older, two younger) and grew accustomed to playing rough. She more than held her own.

"There were girls who could dress and girls who could beat up everybody. I could beat up everybody," she said.

Her parents separated when she was 8 and later divorced. Overweight and angry, Crews moved to Baltimore with her mother and wound up at the Central Career Center after being expelled from Douglass High School for fighting when she was a freshman, she said.

But she still loved to sing, and one day in a recording studio, she heard two boys discussing boxing as a way to lose weight. Thinking it might help her singing career, she walked into the UMAR gym in August 2003. She weighed nearly 200 pounds.

Crews struggled to do 10 sit-ups in her initial workouts, but after only a few months of conditioning, she showed enough potential to make UMAR coach Marvin McDowell stop and look.

"She would throw a jab, or a good one-two combination, or she would step using the correct footwork," McDowell said. "The first time she sparred, she got tired and said, `Take these gloves off; I can't do this.' But the next day, she came back. I was like, `We might have something.'"

Although the number of women registered with USA Boxing, the governing body for amateurs, has grown from 821 in 1997 to 2,451 last year, it is relatively easy to advance. Crews, who boxes at 165 pounds, won the Maryland state title in her first bout in April 2004. She is already a two-time winner at the U.S. amateur championships.

She still calls singing her "first love" and dreams of a professional career; to make ends meet, she works in an airport coffee shop. USA Boxing pays for her travel to international competitions, and the UMAR Boxing Club receives sponsorship from various city organizations for national events.

But boxing has become her priority. Now a powerful 5-foot-8, Crews fires combinations that often are punctuated by a devastating right. Two of her Pan American victories were by knockout.

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