“Some of the biggest fights will be outside the ring, but you know that from your life, and it’s tough. But you can do it,” Mary Jo Sanders encouraged Claressa Shields during a 2017 awards banquet sponsored by the Michigan Association of United States Amateur Boxing which was honoring the two-time Olympic gold medal winner from Flint.
This event provided the perfect opportunity for a momentous pairing of female boxing’s past and present. Shields was then only three fights into her professional career, and one month away from capturing her first two world titles on the same night by stopping previously undefeated WBC super-middleweight champion Nikki Adler, additionally claiming the vacant IBF belt. Nine years removed from the ring as of that evening, Sanders was invited to be the keynote speaker as a former prizefighter whose renown in the sports world equaled, and arguably eclipsed, that of her famous father, legendary Detroit Lions tight end Charlie Sanders, who passed away in 2015.
Mary Jo inherited her dad’s natural gift for athleticism, winning a state championship as a member of Rochester High School’s girls basketball team while also excelling in track and field, gymnastics, and ballet. She dug ditches and poured cement on construction sites to help put herself through school at Oakland University and Baker College, the manual labor paying additional dividends as Sanders began to take up weightlifting.
After placing first in the heavyweight division of the 1998 Miss Natural Michigan bodybuilding championships, Mary Jo won three consecutive Detroit Tough Woman contests, as well as the 2000 open-weight world championship despite the fact that her opponent had a 90-pound advantage over her. Sanders had also begun kickboxing and soon after seriously turned her attention to the time-honored tradition of pugilism, taking home the 2002 Golden Gloves. With the Olympics still no more than a pipe dream for women boxers and little else left for Mary Jo to achieve at the amateur level, she consulted her trainer and manager Jimmy Mallo who urged her to go pro.
Just like after Charlie Sanders had caught a short-range pass from Bill Munson or Greg Landry, his daughter Mary Jo hit the ground running upon her entrance into the professional fight game in February 2003 and never took a backwards glance, steamrolling over anyone who got in her way. She floored the much more experienced but far less skilled Willicia Moorehead (2-11) twice in the first round of her paid debut before a home crowd at The Palace in Auburn Hills, forcing the referee to stop the bout at the 2:03 mark.
The first six fights of Sanders’ rookie year all occurred within an equal amount of months, and she would extend her winning streak in very impressive fashion in early 2004 with successive victories over Layla McCarter and Chevelle Hallback, both being former and future world champions. Mary Jo collected her first piece of hardware by defeating Hallback for a secondary title in the form of the IBA Continental light-welterweight championship which she defended three months later with a ninth-round TKO of Lisa Holewyne, another former world titleholder who had fought, and is now married to, Christy Martin. Sanders and Holewyne would resume hostilities a year and a half later with Mary Jo pitching a flawless shutout.
Unlike Claressa Shields, who was fast-tracked to her first world title opportunity after only three fights, Sanders was made to wait until she had tallied sixteen unanswered wins on her ledger, beating the likes of Melissa Del Valle and Belinda Laracuente along the way. Headlining a July 30, 2005 show at Detroit’s world-famous Cobo Hall which featured what would be the penultimate fight in Thomas Hearns’ hall of fame career as the co-main event, as well as The Hitman’s son Ronald scoring a first-round knockout on the undercard, Mary Jo pounded out a unanimous decision over Bobo Olson’s granddaughter Eliza to capture the inaugural WBC super-lightweight world title.
Once she formally made her imprint on the landscape of women’s boxing, Sanders wasted little time establishing herself as a contemporary pound-for-pound great by becoming a four-division world champion in fewer than eighteen months. A southpaw fighting out of Trinidad and Tobago, Iva Weston would face off opposite Sanders for the vacant WIBA world welterweight title with Mary Jo winning on a third-round TKO.
Just four months later, back on top of the bill at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Sanders staked her claim to the vacant WIBA super-welterweight world championship previously held by Ann Wolfe courtesy of a clear-cut unanimous decision over then-unbeaten Tricia Turton. Appearing at The Palace for the second to last time on January 12, 2007, Mary Jo forced Gina Nicholas (11-5-2) to retire on her stool at the end of round two. Sanders improved to 23-0 and was awarded the newly-minted IBA world middleweight strap. Nicholas never fought again. Mary Jo made one successful defense of the IBA belt, defeating the always dangerous Valerie Mahfoud by across the board scores of 100-90 in the main event at Cobo Hall on March 30, 2007.
Because they both occupied the upper ranks of elite female competitors of the mid-2000s, the prospect of having Mary Jo Sanders and Holly Holm share a ring together had been a tantalizing one for quite some time. A tall, lanky, stick-and-move southpaw hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’ had racked up a stellar 21-1-2 record by the time she and Sanders did get together. The lone blemishes could be accounted for by a pair a stalemates, with Stephanie Jaramillo and Angelica Martinez, and a TKO loss to Rita Turrisi when Holm’s corner threw in the towel due to the severity of a cut beneath her eye. Holly had subsequently gotten the better of notables like Christy Martin, Mia St. John, Jane Couch, Ann-Marie Saccurato, and Chevelle Hallback, winning world titles in three divisions, which included a brief reign as undisputed welterweight champion in 2007.
In March 2008, Holm inked her name on the dotted line for the long-awaited showdown with Mary Jo Sanders in which she would defend her IFBA super-welterweight belt on June 13. Titled ‘Finally,’ their pay-per-view championship fight would headline a quartet of women’s bouts hosted by the Isleta Casino & Resort. Located in Holly’s hometown of Albuquerque, Holm had been featured there on eleven prior occasions, including her pro debut and nine world title fights. In fact, Holly had only just trekked beyond the borders of New Mexico for the first time in her career that February to take on Belinda Laracuente in Temecula, California.
Sanders, by contrast, was no stranger to being the visiting fighter. She had embarked on eleven trips outside of Michigan to that point, even putting in an appearance on a 2003 card held at the Playboy Mansion. Being that it was Holly’s title they were vying for, the Albuquerque native would once more be the beneficiary of home advantage. “Dad loved to play on the road,” said a nonplussed Mary Jo. “He always told me, ‘So, you have to bring a bunch of friends with you to beat me? Not likely.’”
The bout between Holm and Mary Jo was supposed to have taken place in January, but had been scrapped the previous October when the deadline to respond to the initial offer made to team Sanders by promoter Lenny Fresquez, which he claimed was “generous,” came and went. With the financial negotiations at a temporary standoff, Holm had turned her attention to Miriam Brakache and Belinda Laracuente while Sanders stayed busy by notching a fourth-round stoppage of Veronica Rucker in a non-title match.
“You have two beautiful girls with soft voices. But somewhere under all that, they’re animals,” Sanders said in reference to herself and Holly at a press conference in Detroit to announce the contract signing. “It’s always about what you did on the field or in the ring. Fans are going to get what they paid for and probably more at this one.”
Mary Jo demurred, however, when asked to make a prediction on what round the fight would end. “I made the mistake of predicting the round once, and my dad got into me,” she laughed, with her father Charlie seated nearby. “He came into my dressing room before the fight and reamed me for it. I’d said I’d knock her out in the third round, and I actually KO’d her in the first. Dad wasn’t happy, though. So no need to make a prediction. It’s just going to be a great fight.”
Jimmy Mallo, Sanders’ manager and trainer, had no problem voicing his definitive opinion on the outcome. “She’s stronger, better than she has ever been. It’s not going to the scorecards,” Mallo boasted. “We just hope Holly will bring her boxing gloves and not her dancing shoes.”
As for the soft-spoken Holm, she would rather her performance do the talking. “I don’t make predictions either,” she offered, deftly sidestepping the matter. “I go into training to fight all ten rounds. I’ll take the fight round by round.” Her tune changed not once throughout the publicity tour, which remained cordial between the two fighters. Their handlers, not so much. “I think we’re a lot alike in that we just want to get in the ring and fight. She’s really not a talker and I’m really not a talker,” Holly maintained at the Las Vegas presser. “I mean, I know she wants to knock me out, but every fighter wants to do that. We respect each other.”
After trading insults with the more combative Jimmy Mallo, in addition to agreeing to a not-so-friendly $3,000 wager between the two, Holm’s coach Mike Winkeljohn assessed the situation in a manner that was complimentary and critical toward Sanders at the same time. “This is an easier fight for Holly than some of her others, even though Mary Jo is by far the most talented fighter she’s fought,” he began. “Sanders isn’t going to run and cover and keep her hands up high (a probable allusion to the crafty Belinda Laracuente, with whom Holly had just tangled). She’s gonna throw a lot of punches, and that’s going to leave her chin open for what Holly has to offer.”
Holm had to admit that handing Mary Jo the first loss of her career would be a game-changing achievement. “You get known through that,” she said, “and I think that can catapult my career.”
It’s debatable whether one was necessarily looking past the other but, in any event, the gameplan was for Mary Jo Sanders to leverage a victory over Holly Holm into a lucrative mega-fight against Laila Ali in 2009. She, of course, took a tactful, pragmatic approach to this scenario whereas Jimmy Mallo was treating it as a foregone conclusion. “It’s going to happen,” he insisted. “But we are not going to get ahead of ourselves.”
To precondition herself to Albuquerque’s climate and high altitude, Mary Jo slowly increased her road work over the course of an especially tough training camp and swam laps for weeks. “We have to be prepared for anything. Hometown decision, the crowd all cheering for Holly,” said Mary Jo. “We wanted a sparring partner who could duplicate her moves but was much, much stronger.”
Mallo hired Damian Fuller, a 30-5-1 Detroit-based lightweight world title hopeful managed by Jackie Kallen, to mix it up with Mary Jo for 30 to 40 rounds per week. Standing five-foot-eight, Fuller was a lefty known for his fast hands and fancy footwork, and could therefore be counted on to mimic Holly Holm both physically and stylistically.
“Mary Jo has unloaded her heavy metal on me,” exclaimed Fuller shortly after a sparring session in which he had his mouthpiece jarred loose by a Sanders right hook. “She’s a class act. She takes boxing as seriously as I do. She’s got a great right hand and good uppercut. She’s going to stop this lady.”
Three of Sanders’ and Holm’s six mutual opponents came forward to share their perspective on how things might play out, with each choosing Mary Jo to win. More or less. “I don’t think Holly would do so well against Sanders,” surmised Tricia Turton, who dropped unanimous decisions to both women. “When Holly ducks, Mary Jo will make her pay. Holly is not going to knock anybody out.” Holm did have six knockouts to her credit thus far, just two fewer than Sanders in fact, but was certainly neither known nor feared for her displays of brute force, as attested to by Chevelle Hallback.
“Holm fought a great, smart fight. She doesn’t have any power, but she’s hard to catch,” said Hallback, referring to their 2007 scrap. Besides having fought both women, Hallback would be featured in the co-main event on the Holm/Sanders undercard. “Mary Jo’s got much more power. I think Mary Jo will take her if she doesn’t let the movement get to her.” Chevelle walked her endorsement of Sanders back a few steps by adding, “Either of them could win. I just wish them both the best.”
Pittsburgh native Shadina Pennybaker wasn’t quite as diplomatic about it. Despite lasting the four-round distance with Mary Jo Sanders on two occasions, separated by just a matter of weeks early in their careers in 2003, and having more recently been the victim of a technical knockout at the hands of Holly Holm, Pennybaker summed up her viewpoint very matter-of-factly. “Mary Jo’d whoop Holm’s ass,” she stated. “Easily.”
Naturally, Sanders accepted the forecasts with her usual grace and humility while Holm relished in the fact that she was being underestimated, giving her the chance to prove her doubters wrong. To Mike Winkeljohn, it was all just a case of “girls” who “couldn’t hit Holly” striking back the only way they knew how—verbally.
Mary Jo and her team arrived in Albuquerque six days early so that she could acclimatize and participate in fight week press junkets. Sanders was still working out so intensely in the days ahead that Jimmy Mallo had to caution her to dial it back so as not to leave it all in the gym or on the side of the road. Regardless of the elevation gain and 90 degree heat, Sanders was feeling good and promised that it would be Holm who would be suffering from oxygen deprivation come fight night. “I’m going to starve her of breathing room,” said Mary Jo during the final media event. “I’m going to take it to her. I’m going to cut off the ring and bang!”
Holly, on the other hand, opined, “I think a good boxer is someone who can utilize power while they’re moving and boxing. Not every punch is going to be your most powerful punch, and not every movement is made just to be slick. You’re going to be trying to set up things.”
As was his tradition, Charlie Sanders was present to not only sit ringside for his daughter’s bout, but attend the previous day’s weigh-in. “He’ll be here for the fight, and he’ll probably be nervous,” Mary Jo assured the reporters. “He’ll say something like, ‘Shouldn’t you have your mean face on?’ Dad worries more than anyone else.”
Both women stepped on the scale comfortably below the 154-pound super-welterweight limit. The challenger was 152 ¼ while Holm, the defending champion, came in at 150 ½ which was exactly eight pounds more than she weighed for her previous fight. Sanders is thought to have rehydrated to approximately 160 pounds while Holly remained right around 150 in order to maximize her greatest assets, speed and agility.
Besides Holm’s IFBA super-welterweight title being at stake, Sue ‘Tiger Lilly’ Fox, a 1970s trailblazing prizefighter turned historian who founded and runs WBAN (Women’s Boxing Archive Network), was on hand to present a ceremonial belt honoring the winner as the best pound for pound female boxer recognized by her esteemed organization.
During the pay-per-view broadcast’s ring introductions, an onscreen graphic misidentified Sanders as “Mary Jo Hallback,” an obvious and careless blunder mangling the names of Mary Jo Sanders and Chevelle Hallback. The action-packed co-feature had just seen Chevelle gain custody of the vacant IFBA world lightweight title by narrowly outpointing Jeannine Garside, putting even greater pressure on Sanders and Holm to deliver a fight to remember.
“I don’t really know what she’s going to do coming out. That’s why we prepared for everything,” Sanders had pondered in a pre-fight interview. “She could try to feel me out a little bit or she could come out with that straight left hand. The few tricks that she has, we’ve got it covered. The work is done, it’s just reaction and going out there and doing what I’ve been working for.”
This is all well and good except for the fact that when confronting a fighter who has a style as uniquely confounding as Holly Holm, pre-conceived strategies often have to get left by the wayside. Success ultimately hinges on the ability to adapt and improvise. No amount of rounds sparred or time spent studying and scrutinizing tapes can fully prepare a boxer for the challenge of adapting to, and improvising against, your opponent’s distinct brand of unorthodoxy or becoming a victim to your own exasperation with their quirks and eccentricities.
Mike Brundell. Title Bout Promises Sparks (Detroit Free Press, March 13, 2008)
Mike Brundell. Sanders: Boxer Toughens Training Routine For Next Fight (Detroit Free Press, June 7, 2008)
Mike Brundell. Sanders Hyped For Title Fight (Detroit Free Press, June 13, 2008)
Marvin Goodwin. Shields Learns From Sanders’ Stellar Career (New Haven Register, July 27, 2017)
Rick Wright. Holm Drubs Hallback (Albuquerque Journal, May 24, 2007)
Rick Wright. Holm—Sanders Pay-Per-View Bout a No-Go (Albuquerque Journal, October 27, 2007)
Rick Wright. Holm Wins By a Unanimous Decision (Albuquerque Journal, February 2, 2008)
Rick Wright. Two Daughters to Duke it Out (Albuquerque Journal, March 22, 2008)
Rick Wright. Holm Unfazed By Forecasts (Albuquerque Journal, June 11, 2008)
Rick Wright. Holm, Sanders Vie Tonight (Albuquerque Journal, June 13, 2008)
Mary Jo Sanders Biography (WBAN—accessed at https://www.womenboxing.com/biog/mjsanders.htm)
Holly Holm/Mary Jo Sanders I (uploaded November 27, 2009—accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=429vq4_z7lE)
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