Democrat and Chronicle from Rochester, New York on October 24, 2015 · Page A13
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October 24, 2015

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Democrat and Chronicle from Rochester, New York · Page A13

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Saturday, October 24, 2015
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She pauses. “Yahweh and his Son ... my biggest supporter for survival.” Taylor, wearing glasses with her hair pulled into a tight bun, is a confident woman who speaks comfortably about a h ard scrabble and harrowing p ast. She can do so because of h ow far she has come, and where she wants to go. Starting Monday, Taylor, a single mom of three young sons ages 8, 6 and 5 — who two years ago weighed 241pounds and was told to stay in the kitchen because her days as a boxer were finished — will compete in the USA Boxing O lympic Team Trials for the 2 016 Summer Games in Rio. T aylor qualified for the t rials at middleweight (165 pounds) by winning a bronze medal last month — at age 29 —at an open qualifying tournament in Baltimore and will be one of 24 women seeking a spot on Team USA in Memphis, Tennessee. Her eight-fighter bracket includes 2012 gold medalist and No. 1-ranked Claressa Shields, 20, of Flint, Michigan, whose coach is former Rochester resident Gloria Peek. A dozen years ago, Taylor was an accomplished teenage boxer for St. Martin’s Boxing Club, winning multiple titles at events like the Golden Gloves, Empire State Games and state fair. With no Olympic goal to pursue (women did not start boxing in the Games until 2 012), Taylor dreamed, and still does, of a professional career, l ikeLaila Ali and Christy Martin. But then life happened. Drug dealing. The relentless p ull of the streets. A two-pack- a-day cigarette habit and marijuana use. She experienced homelessness. She became pregnant three times. She was i n and out of an assortment of j obs. Inside the ring of her soul, she waged a constant tug of war between starting a new life in Charleston, South Carolina, and being here for her f amily in her hometown. B ut Taylor has gotten to this point because she refused to quit on herself and her children. And because many people refused to quit on her. P eople like Derick Graml ing, her personal fitness coach at World Gym on East Avenue. Like her handlers, Rocky Fratto and Jim Cassidy, the kindhearted professional boxing m anagers and promoters who have presided over a few ring renaissances in Rochester. Like Taylor’s family, her mom, Carol Price, and siblings Ty- lease, Cantrish, Lonnie and L orenzo. And she’s gotten here because she never quit on boxing. “I was very rough, a tomb oy,’’ Taylor says. “I sold drugs and did things I shouldn’t have done. I probably should be in p rison or probably should be dead. I had a lot of guns pointed in my face. I had a mouth on me when I was younger, but boxing has tamed me. It tamed me, it disciplined me. I allowed it to do that. I’ve been every- w here with boxing. Been down, u p, good, bad. But it is what tamed me.’’ Fighting to survive Taylor, the baby in her fam- i ly, grew up without a father. With her mom working two jobs, a troubled, unsupervised c hildhood morphed into many years as a young teen spent in d etention group homes and foster care. “I’d run away and be in the s treets,’’ she says. “When I’d get tired of the streets, I’d turn myself in and go to school, go b ack to lock-up or foster care.’’ She would attend three e lementary schools and three high schools, including Gates Chili where she played basketball. But it was boxing that tossed Taylor a lifeline when she was 13. At the other end of the rope was Don Simkin, now a retired probation officer and founder of St. Martin’s Boxing Club, who spotted Cierra on the street one day and stopped his van. “When Don first saw me, I had a black eye,’’ Taylor says. “I got into a fight with this guy and Don pulls up, because my sister’s husband was on probation, and he’d seen me with them. He asks about the eye, a nd then goes, ‘You want to come and box? ‘ He had what e veryone called the‘Barney Bus’ and I was like, ‘You going to bring me back?’ He goes ‘ Yeah, I’ll bring you back. I’ll p ick you up and we can do it every day if you like it.’ So I j umped in the van and that was a ll it took.’’ She has never forgotten Simkin’s guidance and dedication. And she has never forgotten the feeling lacing up the gloves and getting into the ring — usually against boys — gave her. “When I first started I was able to let out so much anger. It was a relief at that moment,’’ Taylor says. “I used to be the only female, so when I started Iwas boxing a lot of the boys. I’d have tears in my eyes box- i ng these guys, and I’d get frustrated, but it was an outlet f or me. I think that’s why I started loving boxing, it became my release from stress.’’ Training under Charles M urray, Rochester’s only world title holder, she became good at it, too. But then after the stabbing incident, after leaving Murr ay’s tutelage and finding op- p ortunities drying up in boxing locally, something in Taylor’s gut told her she had to leave this city. “A lot of things were going o n, being in the streets, and s omething was just telling me to move,’’ she says. “I felt I had to save my life in some way.’’ She was 17. From living in a homeless s helter in a strange city to s leeping at a gym to getting a job at a restaurant and moving into an apartment, Taylor’s life in Charleston wasn’t easy. But over the course of two years s he had built a life in and out of the ring. And just when she was about to turn pro, she got a phone call from home. Her nephew, Damien, just 5 months o ld, had died. She had never gotten to hold her brother Lorenzo’s child. “I began to question wheth- e r I was putting boxing before my family,’’ says Taylor, who has a tattoo of a sleeping baby D amien on her left bicep. “It taught me to have balance.’’ Perseverance she had by the spit bucket. While splitting her time between Rochester and Charleston over the next eight y ears, Cierra celebrated the b irths of her three sons — Lyfe-Cyril, Legend, and Legacy. There are two different f athers not in the picture and Taylor, who owns her GED, has worked as a chef, housekeeper, f loor technician and construction laborer to support her family, as well as running her o wn business called QE Entertainment, providing recre- a tional-based day care out of her home. “Me, I don’t hold grudges a gainst anybody, I can’t make anybody do what they don’t want,’’ she says. “But for my s ons’ sake, I try to keep myself positive. I do what I do wheth- e r he (the dad) is going to be involved or not.’’ Answering the bell Fast food became part of Taylor’s busy life as a single m om. By 2013 her weight had soared to 241pounds on her 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Aboxer himself, Derick Gramling had seen Taylor spar —without head gear against a male fighter no less — a year earlier and recognized her at their sons’ youth football game in September 2014. “We start talking about boxing … and one thing led to a nother,’’ Gramling says. “Ever since that time it’s been an u nbelievable story.’’ Like the part where Taylor transforms herself by drop- p ing 81pounds. “ When I moved back the last time, people in boxing are t elling me I was fat, to stay h ome and be a mom,’’ Taylor says. “Basically, it was quit boxing. But Derick would come and get me and take me to World Gym to see what kind of heart and willpower I had.’’ W ith a regiment filled with cross-fit training, swimming and sparring — while cutting back on carbohydrates and sugars in her diet — Taylor, who had already begun the process of getting back in shape, began shedding pounds under Gramling like a dog s heds fur for summer. She also had to quit the smokes, the pot, t he Red Bull and Olde English malt liquor. “I’d take pictures and video just to show her progression, w hen she’s struggling, throwing up, the blood, sweat and tears,’’ Gramling says. “These are the types of things that you have to do if you really want to g et into the kind of arena she’s t alking about. I’ve always said, ‘We’ll take will over skill any day.’ Because I can give you the skill, but I can’t give you will. Will is not taught, will is n ot given. You’re born with it.’’ G ramling had spoken to Fratto, his one-time manager, about Taylor and when Fratto and Cassidy arrived at World Gym last December to scout a mateur heavyweight Sean J ohnson, they got a chance to see Taylor in action. And it happened to be against Johnson and Gramling, a champion physique competitor. They c ouldn’t believe their eyes. “Derick has abs on top of abs and moves pretty good, and she’s in there slugging it out,’’ Cassidy says. “She’s giving as well as taking and I said t o Rock, ‘Gee, this girl is really impressive.’ I’m not a big fan of women in boxing. I’ve appreciated people like Christy M artin and Laila Ali. But this girl looks like she should be a good pro.’’ F ratto, 57, the popular Geneva boxer who fought for the world super welterweight title in 1981, said meeting Taylor rekindled his interest in the fight game. “She had gotten down to a bout 190 pounds in November, D ecember and I go to Jim, ‘I love her passion,’” Fratto says. “She was getting hit with shots, h er eyes are watering, and she’s still trying like hell. She probably tries harder than a nybody I’ve worked with. I told her then, ‘You got a shot. You got the potential to get to t he Olympic Trials.’” The process began with a s trong showing at 178 pounds at the National Golden Gloves last July in Fort Lauderdale, F lorida., where Taylor lost a 3-2 decision to 2014 USA Boxing heavyweight champion K rystal Dixon of New Rochelle. Two amateur bouts, two m onths and 18 fewer pounds later, Taylor then took part in the Olympic qualifier in Baltimore where she upset a favored Heidi Henricksen of Minnesota 3-0 in the first round, then lost a controversial 3 -0 bout toIesha Kenney of Virginia in the semifinals. In the consolation round, a fighter from California failed to show, handing Taylor the bronze medal and berth at the O lympic Trials. “It had been like seven years since I actually had a fight, so I was nervous,’’ says Taylor of climbing through the ropes again and moving her amateur record to 18-5. “But once I got in the ring, I felt like Iwas home again and I had p eople behind me. When you have people behind you, it m akes you feel very confident and settled inside yourself.’’ Now it’s about settling the question of who will represent t he United States at 165 pounds in Rio? Shields is the face of Olympic women’s boxing and there’s agood chance Taylor will draw h er first. An upset win by Tayl or would make headlines. “It will make a statement that’s for sure,” says Fratto, whose Geneva Granite company is helping sponsor Taylor. “ But just to come down from 2 40 pounds to 165 and make the Olympic Trials? The hard work that took to get here? It really tells you how much Cierra wants this. She’s extremely h ungry. She’s full of heart and s he’s got me inspired. It’s a good thing.” Looking in the mirror Not everyone supports Taylor’s boxing quest. Simkin, the man who introduced Taylor, and hundreds of other city children to boxing as a means to teach life lessons, has never e ncouraged the pursuit of professional ring careers. “The age-old question of any coach in any sport is asking, ‘ What will you do with the rest of your life?’ It’s an education. Ajob. That sort of stuff … not t he boxing,’’ Simkin says. “She (Taylor) won a lot of things when she was younger but somewhere lost perspective. Cierra needs to get a good job, and take care of her kids.’’ That’s sensible advice Tayl or has heard many times from m any people. But the idea of earning a few professional paydays to s upport her children as well as the dream of becoming a role model for girls and women in t he city — and doing so with Olympic credentials — remains such a strong voice i nside her it screams from atop the turnbuckles. By her esti- m ation, she’s had 20 people in her life die from violence, mostly guns, and suicide, a half d ozen in the past six months alone. She wants to make a difference. “ It starts with the parents or the adults around the kids,’’ T aylor says. “In Rochester right now, it’s like we’re in a war. There’s a type of shooting, akilling, gang stuff, every day. What got me to focus was wanting something. Wanting to be something. And wanting to c hange something in me. I had to find out who I was, because I had lost myself. I knew what I liked to do as a kid, but the world changes you as you grow up. I really had to search inside myself, to find out what I wanted to be and we have to help our kids do the same. And it’s teenagers and college kids, too. That’s our future. You push these kids away, (then) there is n othing.’’ As a female athlete, Taylor p lans to speak to young people at the detention centers, like Northhaven, where she once l ived. There is synergy bet ween her QE Entertainment, Fratto’s “First Me Foundation’’ a nd Gramling’s “Team Lift: Life Inspired Fitness Training,’’ which are grassroots efforts to guide, encourage and inspire people to live product ive, fulfilling lives. “ I truly believe that young women, even men and boys, can look up to Cierra and say, ‘Man, if she did it, I can do it,’” Gramling says. “She went t hrough the struggles of life. M aybe others will say, ‘I don’t have to be bad to get noticed. I don’t have to sell drugs, sell my body to do well in life.’ Our society needs more of those w ho have been through the s truggles to teach others and she’s very keen on that.’’ Even as the baby sister, Cierra is a rock for everyone - strong and always positive d uring a crisis - oldest sister Tylease McClain says. Going 15 rounds with life has taught Cierra well and her family could not be more proud of her and her goal to represent her c ountry in the Olympics. “It’s all dedication, believing in yourself,’’ McClain says. “Without that, you don’t get a nywhere. Cierra believes she can make it. Even now, were she to train younger people to b ox and to be fit, she has an excellent future. She can show what it’s like to overcome obstacles in life and be a better person, no matter what life throws at you.’’ Cierra says she was ins pired by her own mother, C arol, who after years of struggling and losing custody of her children, has turned her l ife around to become “a great grandmother. Her life has changed so much.’’ A s has Cierra’s. When it comes to her own children, they often accompany her to t he gym. She home schools her eldest son, who can be seen d oing his homework or playing in the kids’ room at World Gym. “ I try to keep boxing in its place and when I’m home, I’m just mommy,’’ Cierra says. “ She’s the ultimate mother hen and very protective and d oing it in a unique and tough way,’’ Cassidy says. “She’s just such an interesting person to Rocky and I. She’s come up the hard way and wants to make it better for herself and her kids. She’s confident — and so are w e — in her ability.’’ Epilogue Cierra Taylor can still see the handgun pointed at her face. Just because she refused to give the man who was wanted for murder a cigarette. “He’s going, ‘You want to get me to do something to you?’ I go, ‘No, I have a higher p ower that’s with me.’ I don’t know if people believe in God o r not but I’ve always read the Bible. I’d been walking the street, sleeping on porches, a nd I’d read the Bible. That’s d efinitely kept me a afloat in this jungle we live in.’’ L ROTH@Gannett.com Fighting Continued from Page 1A JAMIE GERMANO/@JGERMANO1/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cierra Taylor, left, with trainer Derick Gramling after a sparring session at World Gym in Rochester. Taylor, 29, has kicked a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and lost about 75 pounds to earn a trip to the USA Olympic Boxing Trials. Pathway to Rio What: U.S. Olympic Team Trials for women’s boxing. When, where: Oct. 26-31, Cook Convention Center, Memphis, Tennessee. Arrival date, Saturday. Weigh-in and bracket draw, Sunday. Competition begins Monday, Oct. 26. Who: Rochester’s Cierra Taylor, 29, is one of eight qualifiers at middleweight. Olympic boxing has three divisions for women: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. Go to http://www.teamusa.org /USA-Boxing JAMIE GERMANO/@JGERMANO1/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cierra Taylor works out at World G ym on East Avenue. Taylor, a single mother of three, will fight in the USA Olympic Boxing Trials next w eek. DemocratandChronicle .com Saturday,October24,2015 Page13A

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