Once hardened by years of physical and sexual abuse, alcoholism and life on the streets, this fearless Maine woman found her inner strength at the bottom and fought her way to the top. Liz Leddy kept her eye on the prize and found strength and a sense of purpose along the way. This is her inspiring story.
From the outside, The Portland Boxing Club has a desolate feel. It sits at the edge of a field, a snarl of hedgerow that leads to the tracks by Morrill’s Corner. The front door is boarded up at the window. But inside is a different story. Rap music booms – the kind of bass that gets behind your ribcage and aligns itself with the beating of your heart. Punching bags hang from thick chains. News clippings paper the walls, trophies populate every shelf. And in the middle of it all is the heart of the place – the boxing ring where two-time National Golden Glove winner Liz Leddy has spent the last 17 years.
Leddy arrives for an interview hauling a bag of equipment: boxing gloves, hand wraps, and her favorite warm-up tool, a jump rope. She sports a short kilt over Lycra workout tights. Loose strands of dark blonde hair frame her face, the rest is a wild tangle at the back of her head. Her eyes are bright and watchful. You get the feeling, as she unloads her bag that she is home. Leddy settles onto the stool and says, “Boxing gives you a chance to really feel what’s going on inside you. It makes me not want anything in my body but air and water.”
As soon as she starts talking you get the impression that, for Leddy, everything is at stake – and that’s because it is. Her body, her mind, her sobriety are at stake.
For years she had been living a tormented cycle of hard drinking and brutal physical, sexual and emotional abuse. She hit bottom on an arctic night in February 1998, when the ex-con she’d been staying with decided they were done. The assault that resulted was vicious. She came to on the ground outside their apartment, caked in blood. It took her a minute to realize that her index finger, from the joint up, was gone. It had been crushed in the doorjamb as he forced her out.
“That was my defining moment,” Leddy says. “There was this inner violence. I stopped fighting for myself.”
Weeks later a friend of hers, a boxer, recognizing Leddy’s disastrous state, brought her to the Portland Boxing Club.
Boxing offered a shot at survival. She began training under Bob Russo, the coach who would, in years to come, change her life. “Bobby was clear,” Leddy says. “I would give up my street punk ways and put down the bottle.” She learned to use her rage, bring it into the ring.
“Everyone has something to learn from Liz,” says Russo, “Coming off the streets like she did and going on to win two national championships. She is an example to all of us. If you are committed to changing your life, you can.”
Leddy wears a painterly tattoo of a Phoenix on her chest. Like the mythical bird, she has ascended from smoke and ash. The image is not only symbolic. It also provides camouflage for the jagged, ink-carved word she used to bear: SKINHEAD.
“My shaved head,” Leddy says, “my tough-guy attitude put me on the radar (of the other boxers) in a bad way.”
So when Mario Andelic, a stalwart boxer from Bosnia, started asking questions about her tattoo – he barely spoke English, but he got his point across – her shame, in the cold light of sobriety, was overwhelming. She sought out, and found, a tattoo artist who lends his talent to people such as Leddy who are pushing for a fresh start and whose mindsets have seen weighty change.
This is how far Leddy has come from the sick dregs of her old self. The ruin she has known has transformed into something magnificent. She wouldn’t be where she is today – might not be alive – without the people who have kept the faith. And her coach’s faith, in particular, has proven indispensable.
“Liz is the poster child of overcoming difficulty. Every day she struggles. I am so proud of the fighter she’s become,” Russo says.
In 2000, at the age of 17, she had her first fight – and lost. Lost her second fight, too. In 2003 Leddy suffered a harsh relapse. She spent her 21st birthday in the Cumberland County Jail. But she came up swinging, and went on to win seven silver and three bronze medals. In 2011, with Russo as her witness, she won her first National Golden Glove championship.
“There hasn’t been a happier moment in my life. Through every near miss, every loss and victory, I had persevered. Here was the proof,” she says. “I had that beautiful gold trophy belt draped over my shoulder, at last.”
In 2012 she won another gold. She will celebrate six years sobriety in April.
She says that at one point, “I was sure there wasn’t a soul alive who would wish for my freedom. Coach has seen me through unimaginable darkness. He has helped me to navigate life’s always changing waters.”
The tide changed when Leddy sustained a serious knee injury in 2014 during a routine spar.
“There I was, at the peak of my career and then the plane went down,” she says. The months that followed were physical and spiritual agony but, in steely Leddy fashion, six months later she had her gloves on. She is taking this slight “down time” to focus more on her training in mixed martial arts. She also instructs clients with Parkinson’s disease.
“These are people who don’t back down,” she laughs, “One guy, he’s a total animal!” She will always work with high-risk kids, both in and out of the ring. She sees herself in every one of them.
Leddy currently works at Custom Cut in Portland as a hairstylist. Russo provided her the funding for cosmetology school while she was in recovery and also training for the championship.