It’s hard to say what Queen Underwood wants more, the podium or the platform.
The Seattle boxer dreamed of a gold medal long before the 2009 announcement that women’s boxing would debut at the London Olympics. But it’s the platform that comes with being an Olympian that Underwood believes will allow her to make a real difference
“One day, I’m going to be great!” she once wrote on her now defunct QueenUnderwood.com website. “I’m going to change lives and I’m going to help people that are hurting and don’t have any place to turn.”
Before she was the one inflicting pain, she was the one hurting and afraid to call for help. As a child living in Columbia, S.C., she and her older sister, Hazzauna, were repeatedly sexually abused by their father.
The sisters shared a room and their father, Azzad Underwood, sexually abused Hazzauna in the room while Queen pretended to sleep, according to a New York Times article. Sometimes he pulled Hazzauna from the room. When Queen was in the seventh grade, he started abusing her, too.
In 1998, when Queen was 13 and Hazzauna was 15, the girls finally mustered the courage to call their mom, Alonna, in Seattle. She called the police, and her girls moved in with her.
Underwood didn’t share the story – even with friends – until this year. She hopes by opening up she’ll encourage others to break free from similar situations.
“I want to show people who feel they can’t go on or they don’t want to go on that they can be successful in their lives,” Underwood, 28, said.
Underwood’s real name is Quanitta, and she says her nickname lacks a compelling back story. “People just started calling me Queen because my name starts with a Q,” she said.
Whatever the reason, the name fits. She is America’s boxing queen, a five-time national champ and arguably Team USA’s best chance at a women’s boxing medal in London.
“Queen has always done better when she faces adversity,” said Cap Kotz, Underwood’s first coach and owner of Cappy’s Boxing Gym in Seattle. “She has a deep capability to dig down to face disappointment. It’s almost like she measures her worth by it.
“She doesn’t get all upset and blame people when she faces disappointment. She really takes it on.”
LEARNED FROM MISTAKES
If Underwood thrives in disappointing times, she should be at her best in London given what she experienced to get there.
She went to the world championships in Qinhuangdao, China, in May needing to finish in the top eight to qualify for the Olympics. She was upset, 26-25, by Norway’s Ingrid Egner in her third fight.
She failed to earn an automatic spot in the games and had to wait a month for phone call to see if she’d get into the games.
“I think she came home stronger from China,” said Kotz, who still keeps in contact with Underwood even though he hasn’t coached her for more than a year.
Former Olympic boxing coach Tom Mustin hopes Underwood learned a valuable lesson.
Underwood left Kotz’s gym last year to train with Mustin at the Tacoma Boxing Club. Mustin had worked with her for years, was in her corner at national championship fights and was on track to serve his fourth term as a U.S. boxing coach in London. (He said he recently became ineligible to work at the games because he worked a pro fight in Las Vegas. He says Olympic coaches aren’t allowed to work pro fights within six months of the Games.)
Mustin had Underwood spar with men her size in training.
“They (the men) don’t go all out, but they make her aware of her mistakes,” he said. “She’s not as strong as the guys, but pound for pound she goes just as hard.”
Underwood has a bad habit of falling behind early in matches before fighting back. This is what got her in trouble in China and nearly cost her a spot on the Olympic team, Mustin said. And this approach could be her undoing in London.
Against Egner she lost the first round 6-4 and the second 8-5, before tying 6-6 in the third. A furious 10-6 rally in the fourth came up one point short.
“She needs to show she can be a quick starter,” Mustin said. “She can win those fights.”
FORGED BY PAIN
Kotz first worked with Underwood when she was a student at Seattle’s Garfield High and says her talent was immediately evident.
But he sees lots of talent. Greatness requires much more. It requires getting pummeled physically and emotionally and then, bloodied and broken, choosing to come back for more.
Underwood had already been there.
“Traditionally a lot of great boxers have been hurt in some way,” Kotz said. “Boxing is strange in that way. You go down into that hurt and turn it into skill.”
Every boxer has a first experience facing that deep hurt and, Kotz said, “It’s kind of terrible.
“It is demoralizing on a very deep level. Something gets opened up in them, a feeling that they aren’t worthy people. And it’s a feeling many people don’t know what to do with. It takes a while to let those feelings more through.”
For Underwood, it was her first appearance at the national championships in 2006. She started getting serious about boxing in 2003 and was having success and hoped to do well on the national stage. She didn’t. She lost her first bout.
“It was horrible,” Kotz said. She was upset and pouted as she sat in the stands watching the rest of the tournament.
“It’s really no fun being a spectator when you are there to compete,” she said.
By the end of the tournament she resolved never to be in that position again.
“She kept getting sharper and sharper and sharper,” Kotz said.
In 2007, she won the national title and she hasn’t relinquished it since.
NO QUIT IN HER
Underwood offers a simple description of her boxing style: “Get ’er done.”
“I don’t worry about anything except beating whoever is in front of me in the ring,” Underwood said. “... That’s what I like about boxing. If you work hard and don’t quit you will be great.”
Kotz says Underwood is “a very clean boxer who throws a lot of punches. An outside boxer who controls the ring.”
Kotz and Mustin, both of whom will be watching the games on TV from home, would like her to take an aggressive approach in London.
Underwood says she’ll do whatever it takes to win.
“My strength is my willpower,” she says. “I never quit, inside or outside the ring.”
The Olympic women’s boxing tournament will have three weight classes. Underwood dropped almost 10 pounds to fight in the lightweight division (123 to 132 pounds).
The field includes 11 other women. Ireland’s Katie Taylor, the four-time world champ, will be the favorite to win gold.
Underwood has never beaten Taylor, but at the 2010 World Championships she overcame a 10-2 deficit to tie the match in the final round before losing, 18-16. Both fighters will be featured in the official Olympic film called “First.”
“Queen will be the underdog,” Mustin said.
A recent Sports Illustrated article said USA boxing officials have questioned Underwood’s commitment over the last year. But Mustin says commitment has nothing to do with her recent struggles. He blames her inexperience in dealing with increased media attention and a disappointing stint with a Canadian trainer that resulted in a month of subpar training.
But Mustin is confident Underwood can still shine in London if she stays focused and aggressive.
“Forget about the feeling-out process and just go for it,” Mustin said. “If she does that she has a chance to win the whole thing.”
And if she does, she plans to celebrate like a queen. She wants to tour Buckingham Palace.
Quanitta “Queen” Underwood
Class: Lightweight (131 pounds)
Club: Tacoma Boxing Club
Coach: Tom Mustin
Resume: Two-time lightweight national champ, three-time light welterweight national champ, 2010 world bronze medalist.
Dog’s name: King.
When to watch AT OLYMPICS: Round of 16: 5:30-8:30 a.m. (PDT) Sunday, CNBCcraig.firstname.lastname@example.org