The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Kali Reis Commemorates Native American Heritage Month With Split Decision Victory Over Jessica Camara on ‘The Road to Undisputed’

Kali Reis Commemorates Native American Heritage Month With Split Decision Victory Over Jessica Camara on ‘The Road to Undisputed’

The road to undisputed!
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 19: Kali Reis lands a punch on Jessica Camara during the WBA women"u2019s junior welterweight title and vacant WBO title bout at SNHU Arena on November 19, 2021 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

Native American blanket weavers practice a cherished, time-honored tradition whereby they incorporate deliberate imperfections into their artistic designs as a subtle yet tangible reminder that none of us were intended to be inherently perfect creations.

This is a concept with which Kali Reis is intimately familiar on a personal as well as cultural level. Kali has spoken in the past of having to adapt at a young age to feeling “comfortable being uncomfortable.” The product of a mixed marriage which endowed her with a heritage which is half-Native American (with a lineage descended from the Cherokee, Nipmuc, and Seaconke Wampanoag tribes) and half-Cape Verdean, Reis was raised in Rhode Island by her single mother, Patricia “Gentle Rain,” after her parents split up when she was just four.

Kali was simultaneously a quick-thinking straight-A student and the back-talking class clown, a naturally gifted adolescent athlete who also liked to while away her leisure time drinking and getting high. A self-described “oddball” with artistic proclivities who played in the school band and was a member of the color guards, Reis says that she never quite fit in, frequently made to feel like she was “never Native enough and never black enough.” Nonetheless, her mother instilled in Kali the customary ways of her Native forebears, and the family would often participate together in tribal pow-wows.

Among other commendable endeavors, Reis is involved with bringing heightened awareness to the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women movement and recently starred in the film Catch the Fair One, which deals with the awful reality of human trafficking.

Decorated with indigenous-inspired piercings and tattoos, Kali’s body itself is a living, illustrated tapestry that celebrates her proud Native ancestry while acknowledging the existential struggles that have informed her journey toward an enlightened inner strength that compliments the muscular physique from which she derives her physical strength.

In a constant tug of war throughout her youth to come to terms with the myriad facets of her identity, the boxing gym was where Reis finally discovered that she was at home within her own skin. From the age of five all the way through high school, Kali took part in organized sports—basketball, softball, and volleyball—but enjoyed just as much, if not more, extracurricular activities like wrestling, fighting, and playing tackle football with the neighborhood boys.

As a rambunctious teenager, Kali started taking private boxing lessons from a local Native fighter named Domingo “Tall Dog” who had competed professionally and was a friend of her mother. This was an integral first step that would soon lead her through the doors of the Big Six Boxing Academy in Providence—home base to Vinny Paz, among others—where Reis began training in earnest under the tutelage of Dr. Rolando Estrada, whose son Jason was a 2004 Olympian in the super-heavyweight division and would turn pro later that year, racking up a 20-6 record with losses to notables like Alexander Povetkin and Tomasz Adamek.

Following in the proud footsteps of 1970s Native trailblazer “Princess Red Star” Theresa Kibby, Reis debuted on September 6, 2008 with a second-round TKO of Betsy Rowell at The Roxy in Boston. Kali chose as her professional ring moniker the word ‘Mequinonoag,’ which means “many feathers” or “many talents.”

The 35-year-old Reis has admittedly had something of an up and down career to this point. After getting off to a 5-1-1 start over a four-year span, she fought for her first world title in 2013, dropping a unanimous decision to unbeaten WIBA welterweight champion, and newly elected International Women’s Boxing Hall of Famer (Class of 2022), Tori Nelson.

Reis ventured outside the U.S. for the first time in 2014, and her next three fights would likewise be contested on foreign soil. In between defeats to former and future belt holder Mikaela Lauren and then-WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer, Kali would win her first world title by claiming the vacant IBA strap with a points win over Teresa Perozzi in Southampton, England. This would earn Reis the historic distinction as the first indigenous female world champion. Two-time cruiserweight titleholder Marvin Camel, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes residing on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, had become boxing’s first Native American world champion in 1980.

Having just lost to Christina Hammer, Kali was then decisioned by WBO super-welterweight champion Hanna Gabriels, but would put an end to her losing streak by scoring a first-round TKO over Victoria Cisneros, picking up the vacant UBF world middleweight title in the bargain.

Reis would add another piece of hardware to her growing collection less than two months later—this time, of the coveted green and gold WBC variety—when she earned a split decision over Maricela Cornejo on a nearly all-female fight card in Auckland, New Zealand to become their new world middleweight champion. Her reign would last a little less than seven months, however, as her old nemesis Christina Hammer took the WBC title away in a unification bout to accessorize along with her own WBO belt.

Sending Cecilia Braekhus to the canvas for the first and only time in the Norwegian’s long and illustrious career, Kali nonetheless came up short on the scorecards in a bid for the undisputed welterweight crown in May 2018. Feeling that she was slighted by the judges, Reis lobbied for a rematch which never materialized, and instead clambered down to the super-lightweight division where she took possession of the WBA championship by outpointing Kandi Wyatt last November.

This past August, she successfully defended the WBA title, and also won the unclaimed IBO belt, by eking out a majority decision in a lackluster performance against the returning Diana Prazak who, one tune-up bout five months prior notwithstanding, had been out of action since 2014.

A far more dedicated approach from Kali Reis would be needed to dispatch Jessica Camara. Not flawless, necessarily. Her heritage has taught her that seeking perfection is a fool’s errand. But, on this night in New Hampshire, excellence would do quite nicely.

Picking herself up off the floor following a first-round flash knockdown to notch an upset victory over Heather ‘The Heat’ Hardy back in May, Jessica Camara appeared to be peaking at precisely the right time to coincide with Eddie Hearn’s master plan of putting together this ‘Road to Undisputed’ super-lightweight tournament, and undoubtedly had the goods to pull off a second consecutive coup when it mattered the most.

The Canadian-born ‘Cobra’ got a late start into the fight game, raising the curtain on her pro career at the age of 29 after a stint in the amateurs which was brief, yet not without its stellar achievements. Camara won the 2014 United Golden Gloves, and would subsequently add the 2015 Canadian Amateur National Elite Championship and 2016 Brampton Cup to her trophy case.

Boxing gave Camara the sense of intestinal fortitude she was deprived of as a young girl by her “tough, old school European parents.” Enduring the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother gave Jessica a vital lesson in sharpening her instinct toward self-preservation. “I was just a fighter through it all,” says Camara, “and I feel like that’s what makes me super tough.”

After rattling off four consecutive wins to kick off her venture into the paid ranks, Jessica ran into a bump in the road in the form of Natalie Brown. Rebounding herself from a stoppage dealt out by the still-ascending Jessica McCaskill, Brown knocked Camara out in the third round of their June 2018 scrap.

Back in action five months later, Camara shook off this setback and embarked on a three-fight win streak which was halted by Melissa St. Vil, who toughed out a decision by sim margins over Jessica last February. The overwhelming consensus is that this loss served as a teachable moment and turning point for Camara, and that it would be a vastly improved version of herself who Kali Reis would have to contend with. The same could be said in the reverse, of course, for Reis contends that she came away from her scrap with Cecilia Braekhus a better fighter for the experience, even in defeat.

Both women being managed by Brian Cohen and promoted by Lou DiBella, Reis and Camara are not just stablemates but friends. It goes without saying that when the bell rings, camaraderie takes a back seat to individual aspirations. There will be time for hugs and fellowship after the final bell has tolled and the decision rendered. Not before. It’s nothing personal. Just part and parcel of the hurt business.

Besides Reis’ WBA and IBO world titles being at stake, the vacant WBO belt previously worn by Christina Linardatou, then Katie Taylor, then Linardatou again, was additionally up for grabs with one ringside spectator looking on with anxious anticipation, not to mention a particularly vested interest. I’m speaking of Chantelle Cameron, the now-unified WBC/IBF champion at 140 pounds who eliminated Mary McGee from the ‘Road to Undisputed’ tournament just nineteen days prior and has been awaiting the winner of Friday’s showdown ever since. For what it’s worth, Cameron, when pressed for a prediction, picked Kali Reis to emerge victorious.

Camara’s powder-blue trunks bore the image of Jeanette Zacarias Zapata, the welterweight fighter who tragically lost her life in early September following a fatal bout against Maire Pierre Houle in Montreal. She took advantage early and often of Reis’ decision to begin the fight from a southpaw stance by finding a home for her left hook over Kali’s usually dominant but, in this situation anyway, dormant right hand.

Resuming her favored orthodox style in round two, Kali came out swinging and enjoyed some initial success with her jab and right-hand body shots until Camara was able to acclimate to Reis’ rhythm down and get her timing down on effective counters, including looping overhand rights as well as the left hook which would prove to be Jessica’s calling card all night long. After getting clobbered by yet another left hook in the opening moments of the third, Reis landed a nice one/two with her left hand, one to the body and the other upstairs.

The theme of Kali establishing a frantic pace in the first thirty seconds of each stanza continued in the fourth, as both fighters stood toe to toe and traded leather from close quarters. When Reis attempted to back off and create a little distance before re-engaging Camara, she got caught coming in with—you guessed it—a left hook, which stopped the defending champion in her tracks for a split second before the action picked back up. Jessica followed up soon after with a right/left combination that crashed home and demanded respect. A straight right from Kali produced a stream of blood from Camara’s nose, but this was little more than a minor nuisance. Worse was yet to come, but that would wait until the bout’s waning moments.

With Reis looking visibly exhausted by the sixth round, a still sharp and energetic Camara was roughing Kali up courtesy of body blows, short uppercuts and, of course, a heavy helping of dynamic left hooks.

Reis rode into the seventh on a much-needed second wind and took the fight to Camara, not only halting her momentum but getting the better of their exchanges for perhaps the first time that evening. The word retreat is not in Jessica’s vocabulary, and she was going nowhere but straight forward to deal with the situation head on with the rejuvenated veteran.

In a fight this close, particularly one of this magnitude which will be left to the frequently questionably and sometimes inexplicable fancies of the scorekeepers, making a statement by finishing strong and leaving a memorable last impression can go a long way. Kali Reis did precisely this. Things could have played out much differently, as evidenced by the fact that Camara began the tenth and final round by pounding away at Kali with a series of left hooks and rights to the body.

The tide turned, however, with the halfway point approaching. A straight right from Reis opened a gash over Jessica’s left eye and, with a visceral target to aim for and tee off on, Kali slammed the accelerator to the floor after Camara was given clearance to continue as precious seconds ticked off the clock while she was checked over by the ringside physician at referee Arthur Mercante Jr.’s behest. Letting loose with a furious ambidextrous onslaught, Reis looked to finish Camara and settle the verdict herself in lieu of the potentially whimsical judges. She nearly accomplished this mean feat with a quintet of blistering right hands that forced Jessica into duck and cover mode.

At the twenty second mark, Kali appeared punched out and unable to close the show in dramatic fashion. All due credit has to go as well to Camara’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves of toughness and resilience that she finished the fight on her feet. Despite having lost the last round, was not being stretched out horizontally on the canvas all that was required of Jessica to hold on to what in many observers’ eyes was a clear cut victory based on her gutsy performance throughout the entirety of this  twenty-minute skirmish?

It goes without saying that Camara thought so. After sharing an embrace at center ring born of mutual respect, each gladiator listened intently to the rendering of the decision, a lumped-up Camara sporting a knot on her forehead, her left eye cut and bruised and the cheekbone beneath swollen and discolored. Reis’ left eyebrow exhibited some minor swelling, otherwise she looked far less worse for wear, with a tribal necklace symbolizing strength and courage draped around the neck of her tank top which was streaked with Camara’s blood.

The 95-94 score in favor of Jessica Camara was nullified by matching tallies for Kali Reis of 97-93, giving the defending champion a threadbare split decision. Another embrace followed, this one more half-hearted on the part of a clearly disappointed Camara, who felt she had done more than enough to be given the nod, not to mention the three title belts now slung over Reis’ shoulders amidst a smattering of boos from some seated at ringside.

As for Chantelle Cameron, watching from the VIP section Friday night, her pre-fight prediction came to pass and it will indeed be Kali Reis with whom she will tangle early next year to determine who will ultimately walk away with each and every 140-pound belt.

Despite Reis’ playful taunt whereby she stated that if Cameron is a true world champion, the Brit will be happy to travel back to the U.S. for the deciding match, Chantelle is of the opinion that she is the A-side attraction in this tournament and deserves the home advantage. When and where this showdown will occur is something for Eddie Hearn to figure out not too far down the ‘Road to Undisputed.’

In the meantime, Kali Reis’ valiant, unflinching victory gives her even greater cause to proudly celebrate the remainder of Native American Heritage Month.

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