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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Latest Boxing News & Rumors Today / Mary Jo Sanders and the Holly Holm Conundrum

Mary Jo Sanders and the Holly Holm Conundrum: Part Three, Heartbreak in Auburn Hills

Heartbreak in Auburn Hills!
Publish Date: 08/07/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

Eager to relitigate the matter, Mary Jo Sanders wanted to personally put the lessons Holly Holm felt she took away from their first bout to the test. Sooner than later. And, ideally, not in Albuquerque. 

A return engagement with Sanders was neither contractually mandated nor foremost on Holly’s mind, however. “Everybody kept asking, ‘When’s the fight with Mary Jo?’ This is it,” Holm retorted. “It’s over and I won, and it’s a big thing for me.”

A big thing indeed, as a post-fight overture had allegedly been made to Holly’s promoter Lenny Fresquez on behalf of Laila Ali. Remember, it was Mary Jo who had originally been considered as a likely candidate to lure Laila back into the ring for the first time since Muhammad’s daughter needed less than one minute to dispatch Gwendolyn O’Neil sixteen months prior to the Holm/Sanders showdown. 

Sanders was within a reasonable weight range to Ali, who was fighting at super-middleweight, but evidently a less attractive option from a marketing standpoint now that she had lost to Holm. Moving up the scales to 168 pounds, or even meeting Laila somewhere in the middle at a catchweight was simply out of the question for Holly and, anyway, Ali was seven months pregnant at the time which made it all a moot point. Laila opted to focus on starting a family and never fought again.

Which made a Holm vs. Sanders rematch the logical conclusion, right? Not so fast. Fresquez was seriously entertaining the proposal of a unification fight for Holm with undefeated super-welterweight belt holder Giselle Salandy, who possessed the WBC, WBA, GBU, IWBF, WIBA, and WIBF straps. Failing that, backup plans were also under consideration that included Myriam Lamare and undisputed super-lightweight champion Anne Sophie Mathis. This was also more or less the case throughout the contentious negotiations leading up to the first Holm/Sanders bout when Fresquez made the ridiculous claim that Mary Jo was “afraid of Holly.” 

Holm would eventually scrap with both Lamare and Mathis, eking out a narrow points win over Myriam in February 2009 and getting knocked out by Mathis at the Route 66 Casino on her own turf in Albuquerque on December 2, 2011 before gaining revenge by way of unanimous decision at the same location six months later. She never did get to test herself against the 21-year-old Salandy, who fought for the last time the day after Christmas in 2008, decisioning Yahaira Hernandez in front of a home crowd in Trinidad and Tobago, and was tragically killed in an automobile accident nine days later.

One month removed from their first fight, it was confirmed that a tentative agreement had been reached between the camps of Holm and Mary Jo for a rematch on October 17, Holly’s 27th birthday, in Detroit. Despite the fact that they were conceding the home advantage to Sanders this time around, Holly’s trainer and manager Mike Winkeljohn pointed out that the formal contract had yet to be returned to them with her signature. “So, we’ll see what happens,” he cautioned. During the negotiations, Holm attended the ESPY awards ceremony in Los Angeles where she was nominated as best fighter but lost to Floyd Mayweather Jr. 

The following month, on August 20, the rematch was officially confirmed with a slight change in venue. Rather than Detroit’s Cobo Hall or even the Pontiac Silverdome, the fight would now occur at The Palace of Auburn Hills, which was still situated well within Mary Jo’s comfort zone. Sanders had earned the reputation of being not merely a great fighter by the Metro Detroit faithful but a goodwill ambassador for her home state which, at the time, was more important than ever when taking into consideration how particularly devastated its citizens had been by the recent economic crisis. 

Local business owner Chris LaBelle, who still operates LaBelle Electric out of Mt. Clemens, was one of four major sponsors who contributed toward the estimated $400,000 it took to host the rematch in Michigan, a morale boost to the entire state as much as it was for Sanders. He was happy to elaborate on the mutually beneficial relationship he had developed with Sanders dating back to her pro debut. “The uniqueness of Mary Jo and women’s boxing has created a lot of interest. Many of my clients have gotten hooked on her and won’t miss a fight. My sponsorship of Mary Jo has resulted in name recognition—made us more visible to the public—and provides an event to invite my customers and clients to,” he stated. “We get a lot of bang for our buck on our investment. We get an opportunity to sponsor a local athlete who is just an incredible person. It makes you feel good to see someone like her succeed. It has strengthened us as a company and individuals in some pretty hard times.”  

A Dodge distributor who oversaw two dealerships, Al Deeby was another of Sanders’ proud financial backers. “The return on investment is tough to measure, but I know this: we’re involved with a winning team—the loyalty, the pride, we just can’t lose out,” raved Deeby, whose six-year-old daughter was far less interested in playing princess than she was pretending to be Mary Jo Sanders, walking around their house wearing the boxing gloves and little robe given to her by her hero. “Mary Jo has done herself, the city, and her fans proud. Her appeal stretches across Detroit.” 

Cliff Lunney planned on going to the fight in the company of fifteen of his 600 employees from CWL Investments out of Ferndale which owned the most substantial franchise in the Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich chain. “We’re looking for Mary Jo to knock out Holm. We’re excited about the rematch,” Lunney exclaimed. “When Mary Jo does well, it reflects on the city. I want my store and my employees to share in that.”

Ric-Man Construction in Sterling Heights was responsible for the welfare of as many as 200 employees and was owned and operated by Steve Mancini, a lapsed boxing fan who had previously followed the career of the ‘Motor City Cobra’ Thomas Hearns. “We love her to death. My wife and I will be at The Palace to watch her win that fight,” said Mancini about Sanders, to whom he gave full credit for reigniting his passion for the sport. He had been enthusiastically sponsoring Mary Jo for the past three years. “She brings so much energy to her bouts. It’s the same energy that might just get this city back on its feet and turn this economy around,” he concluded hopefully.  

As was the case with the first time around, the referee and judges would all be from neutral locations to help alleviate potential concerns over hometown partiality. Well-respected hall of famer Steve Smoger drew officiating duties for the rematch, replacing Kenny Bayless whose overly-cautious approach dictated the less than fan-friendly stop-and-go pace in Albuquerque. 

Never one to openly criticize or speculate, Sanders remained characteristically quiet through the fallout from the first bout as well as the haggling over every minute detail leading up to the second. This, of course, was a different story from her voluble manager and trainer Jimmy Mallo, who had offered schizophrenic evaluations of the first scrap.

“The fight should have been judged a draw. Holly did a very fine job, but Mary Jo threw the cleaner, crisper punches,” Mallo opined in the days before the rematch. “Mary Jo had a night off, and Holly got a gift.” This stands in stark contrast to earlier comments in which he stated that Sanders hadn’t looked like her normal self in that contest, jokingly suggesting that perhaps it had been a twin sister he didn’t know she had who stepped into the ring in her place. “The whole of Team Sanders was shocked. Mary Jo was shocked,” admitted Mallo. “When you’re in someone’s backyard, you can’t let them make early deposits. We just didn’t stick to our game plan.”

“This is going to be bigger than our fight in Albuquerque,” acknowledged Holly Holm. “Mary Jo will be a different person. She’ll fight with heart and aggression. She’ll get after me. I expect to hear a lot of boos, but I’ll use that as motivation.” Holm watched their first bout on a portable DVD player during the flight from New Mexico to Michigan while jammed into the middle seat between two other passengers in the back row of the plane. Though this was her third viewing, Holly had to excuse herself and get up to walk off the jitters coursing through her body, confessing that it was too “nerve-racking” to get through the entire fight in one sitting.

“I know Mary Jo is feeling the pressure too. As boxers, we are fully exposed when we climb into the ring,” said Holm. “It’s the unknown you face every fight. You gain a lot of respect for your opponent, and it’s mutual.” 

Not until the day of the weigh-in did Sanders break her silence and was, unsurprisingly, in nearly complete agreement with Holm’s sentiments. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Holly. Her work ethic is great; she works very hard,” said Mary Jo. “If anything, she’s the one under pressure here. Detroit isn’t the kind of place you hit and run. They’ll boo you out of town if you do.”   

Asked to assess her performance in the first fight, Sanders simply mentioned having been “so, so far off who I am, what I do” and more or less left it at that. “I don’t talk backwards. I don’t think backwards,” Mary Jo stated defiantly. “I’ve left Albuquerque in the past. I rely on my tools—my fists—and I’ve been taught never to run away.”   

As content as Sanders and Holm were to carry on speaking of one another in congenial platitudes, their trainers were just as happy to continue to jaw with one another like kids trading barbs in a schoolyard. “People get disgruntled—they complain they can’t hit Holly, that she runs away. But they always walk away with black eyes themselves,” said Mike Winkeljohn. “Ok, she moves, but she hits hard. How many famous boxers have done just that? Why that’s a bad thing for Holly to do, I don’t know.” 

Jimmy Mallo fired back by insisting, “She didn’t hurt Mary Jo. She didn’t beat Mary Jo.” About any adjustments which were implemented during training for the rematch, Mallo had this to say: “We tweaked a few things, and we saw a lot of vulnerabilities in Holly that we’re gonna capitalize on this time.”  

Fight fans not attending in person would have to wait to see the return bout on a tape-delayed FSN broadcast, largely owing to the disappointingly lackluster pay-per-view buy rate for the first fight as reported by Holm’s promoter Lenny Fresquez. Banking on 10,000 purchases at $24.95 a pop, Fresquez was optimistically hoping for 15,000 which was more than twice what the number of national buys turned out to be—7,000 to be exact. He believed this had to do with the fact that the show had been an all-female card, concluding that he would be disinclined to pursue a similar venture in the future if there was no money to be made.   

This bout was sanctioned by the IBA (International Boxing Association) which was putting its vacant super-welterweight world title up for grabs. It had first been worn around the waist of Ann Wolfe courtesy of a TKO win over Gina Nicholas back in 2001, and the belt had been unclaimed ever since she vacated it soon after. Sanders was the first to make her ring walk, bouncing on the balls of her feet and shadowboxing in her corner while Holm came barreling past the camera crew and proceded to pace and then jog from one side of the ring to the other during the pre-fight formalities.

Anyone who questions Holly’s intensity needs only to behold her stoic, almost grim countenance as she stares daggers at Mary Jo Sanders before Steve Smoger instructs, and finally commands, an apparently reluctant Holm to touch gloves with her opponent. Say what you will, Holm has always taken the hurt business very seriously. 

Mary Jo didn’t need to concern herself with chasing Holm around the ring in the first round. After a tentative thirty-second period of reacquaintance, Holly was the first to instigate an encounter and, despite some of her trademark kinetic energy which was certainly to be expected, she was extraordinarily quarrelsome. Letting her hands go all the while, Holm bullied Sanders across the ring and into a corner with twenty seconds left of the opening frame. Mary Jo promptly punched her way out, but it was clear from the get-go that Holly came to Auburn Hills to prove that she was a fighter, not a runner. 

One takeaway from their first skirmish was obviously that Sanders learned to throw leather while Holm was in the process of closing the distance. Even while being bumrushed into the turnbuckle in the first round, Mary Jo connected with an uppercut which was an arrow she would pull from her quiver on a consistent basis throughout the evening. As Holly tended to rush forth with her head down, the implementation of these adjustments would prove very effective. 

If only Jimmy Mallo had worked with Sanders to step to the side when Holly would streak toward her rather than retreat in a straight line, opportunities would have presented themselves which may have precipitated a more advantageous outcome. Her right being her dominant hand, it would have served Mary Jo well to pivot to her left in such circumstances, forcing Holm to step to her own left and, theoretically, into a Sanders right hook she couldn’t see coming. Mary Jo had come up with some much-needed responses to questions left unanswered six months prior, but the enigmatic Holm would be bested only if all of the pieces were present and fit together perfectly. This trick may have been the gamechanger that Sanders and Mallo overlooked and left behind in the metaphorical puzzle box.  

Sanders hit the reset button between rounds and emerged from her corner with three consecutive jabs followed by a straight right to establish control over the next two-minute stanza. In a repeat of what transpired in round one, Holm railroaded Mary Jo into the same corner but couldn’t take advantage of the situation as Sanders blasted her way out. Unlike Kenny Bayless, Steve Smoger was more than willing to let the two combatants engage one another from close quarters, something which occasionally favored an aggressively driven Holm such as when she scored with a three-punch combination with her back to the ropes in the last thirty seconds of round two, though Mary Jo got the better of the very next exchange while also fighting off the ring strands.

Holly’s attacks were still unorthodox, but less ponderous than in the first fight when it often seemed as if she was devising her strategy even as it unfolded. Perhaps, though, that was part of Holm’s genius—making it appear as though not having a plan was her plan. Maybe her apparent unpredictability had actually been pre-determined and repeatedly practiced. With Holly, it was hard to tell, keeping you on your toes and second-guessing everything. 

Nevertheless, Sanders had not only seen this movie before but been a co-star in the original six months ago. Privy to the intimate knowledge of how the plot was likely to play out, as well as the twists and turns it would take along the way, Mary Jo was no longer mystified by the unknown and the outcome of this action-packed sequel was in no way inevitable. By the middle rounds, Sanders was seizing the momentum and making it work for her. 

Both getting hit more frequently and missing her mark more often, it was Holm who became visibly flustered, looking set adrift and lost at sea heading into the final three frames. But, make no mistake, she would find her way back to shore and into the thick of the action which intensified over the final six minutes in a give-and-take struggle for supremacy.    

Exhibiting remarkable stamina to compliment their gutsy performances, Holly Holm and Mary Jo Sanders delivered on the promise of a thrilling fight that went largely unfulfilled six months before. Naturally, each woman believed she had outworked her adversary to an extent sufficient to have secured the victory. 

“I felt like I controlled the center of the ring,” said Holm. “I felt I did enough to win the fight. I was the aggressor.” During her post-fight remarks, Mary Jo had to admit, “She’s not a runner anymore. She came to fight. I told her she should be proud of herself.” 

Judge Paul Smith was in agreement with Holm’s self-evaluation, scoring the bout 97-93 in her favor. His verdict was overruled by Marty Denkin and Steve Weisfeld, both of whom arrived at tallies of 95-95, regrettably deadlocking the decision. Both women were disappointed but neither one bitter. “I think I won, but Holly is a great girl. We’ll do it again,” vowed Sanders.   

Holm was immediately agreeable to a third fight as well, but the rubber match in what would have been a memorable trilogy was, unfortunately, not meant to be. Instead, Holm would go on to defeat Myriam Lamare the following January, as alluded to earlier, before closing out 2009 by stopping undefeated Duda Yankovich in the 4th round and easily outpointing Terri Blair in Las Vegas.

With a third scrap against Holly Holm seeming less likely and a mega-bout opposite Laila Ali no longer a viable option, Team Sanders entered into talks with undefeated phenom Giselle Salandy toward the end of 2008. “She was such a young woman and a champion. It was a tragic turn of events,” lamented Mary Jo concerning Salandy’s untimely death in January 2009. “I felt sick.”

Having adopted a “never say never” attitude toward another fight, Sanders kept plenty busy as a personal trainer. In early 2011, she had been mentioned as a potential opponent for Canadian former WIBA world lightweight champion Kara ‘KO’ Ro who was likewise looking to make a comeback. This never materialized, nor did the opportunity to coach Team USA’s women’s boxing squad which was preparing to make its historic debut at the 2012 London Olympics. Mary Jo had reached out to offer her services, but her calls were not returned. What a shame, as this would have allowed Sanders to impart her wisdom onto the likes of Mikaela Mayer, Marlen Esparza, Tiara Brown and, of course, fellow Michigan native Claressa Shields. 

“I asked my father how he dealt with that when he retired from football, how he dealt with not playing anymore,” reflected Sanders in March 2010. “He told me he had dreams for years about it, and that when he’d wake up, he was sure he’d played a game—smelled the turf, felt the hits. It’s tough to retire or think about it.”  

Once a fighter, always a fighter, Mary Jo was among the Class of 2018 inducted into the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame, joining Holly Holm who was enshrined the year before.



Mike Brundell. Sanders: Sponsors Are Big Fans Too (Detroit Free Press, October 14, 2008)

Mike Brundell. Holm Ready For Sanders Rematch (Detroit Free Press, October 16, 2008)

Mike Brundell. One Ferocious Fight Ended With a Draw (Detroit Free Press, October 19, 2008)

Mike Brundell. Ring Star Sanders Wants to Stay Active (Detroit Free Press, March 3, 2010)

Mike Brundell. Sanders vs. Ro: Great Fight for Silverdome? (Detroit Free Press (January 30, 2011)

Rick Wright. Boxer Lovato a Hero in Her Hometown (Albuquerque Journal, October 1, 2007)

Rick Wright. Duke City Star Did Her Homework (Albuquerque Journal, June 15, 2008)

Rick Wright. Condit to Defend Crown (Albuquerque Journal, July 20, 2008) 

Rick Wright. Holm—Sanders II Set for Oct. 17 (Albuquerque Journal, August 20, 2008) 

Rick Wright. Holm in Hostile Territory (Albuquerque Journal, October 17, 2008)

Mary Jo Sanders/Holly Holm II (YouTube, uploaded February 10, 2009—accessed at

Video: Mary Jo Sanders | Holly Holm II 1/3

Mary Jo Sanders | Holly Holm II 1/3


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