Boxing movie a labour of pleasure, pain

LYLE FITZSIMMONS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 2:36 PM ET

A punch in the mouth elicits a number of responses.

Some people take their first shot and never come back for more. Others land a few of their own and don't stop until they're world champions.

But for Jill Morley, post-fight inspiration went in a slightly different direction. Taking her lumps and putting them on display.

"Once I started boxing and started meeting the amazing women around me, the idea of the film came into play," she said. "Having already made one feature doc, I knew that it would be extremely difficult, time consuming and expensive. I was extremely hesitant about it. But, the women were so inspiring."

Now a full-time resident of California, the New Jersey-born and Philadelphia- educated filmmaker is the creative force behind "Girl in the Ring" -- a feature-length documentary project that tells unlikely stories of healing and recovery through boxing for herself and three other women.

"I'd like to say that I am a boxer who made a film," Morley said. "However, I have only been boxing for four years and writing and making films for over 10 years."

A dual major in communications and theater at Villanova, Morley pursued a lifelong passion in 2007 and trained to fight in the prestigious New York Golden Gloves.

But sparring stirred memories of childhood beatings at the hands of her mother. Ensuing flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares were so overwhelming that she attempted suicide and spent two weeks in a mental hospital, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

With the help of her husband, therapist and newfound boxing friends, Morley fought her way back into the ring to successfully compete in the Golden Gloves.

Her other subjects are no less compelling.

Maureen Shea originally went to the gym to look better for an abusive boyfriend and eventually became Hilary Swank's main sparring partner for "Million Dollar Baby." Today, she's won 15 of 17 pro fights and continues pursuit of a world title.

Susan Merlucci-Reno discovered the sport as a way to release pent up anger after failed pursuits in art and acting, and found success as an amateur. She'll compete in the Gloves for the final time in 2011.

Kimberly Tomes was adopted by a white family and struggled with childhood racism focusing on her Asian descent. Later, while working as a stripper, she was knocked out on stage by a customer and took up boxing to get rid of her "glass chin."

"We started filming four years ago when I started training seriously," Morley said. "I met a lot of female boxers during that time and wanted to pick girls that would be open with me about what they went through in their lives. Women boxers are used to having to suck it up, be tougher than the guys and prove themselves in the gym.

"I needed them to be vulnerable with me in order to make the kind of film I wanted to make. I also wanted to pick women who had some sort of goal in the next year, thinking it would take one year to make. Each of their stories unraveled unexpectedly, including mine."

A joint fundraiser Saturday night in Los Angeles will benefit both Morley's project and a non-profit organization -- Knockouts for Girls. Money raised will go toward Christmas gifts for orphans who've been jostled around the foster system. It will also go towards finishing funds for the film.

As the charity's director of boxing, Morley organizes and teaches classes to at-risk girls.

"We are very close to a good cut of the film and should have a final cut within two months," she said. "Still, we need to raise money to do a color correction, sound design, scoring, etc. After that, we will enter it into film festivals and hope it does well and catches the attention of cable distributors like HBO, ESPN, the Documentary Channel, etc."

Meanwhile, Morley remains confident women's boxing will catch on as a whole.

"I believe it can happen, why not," she said. "We just need something in pop culture to highlight it and bring attention to it. The boxers themselves are a colorful lot. There are great personalities and stories to be mined if only people would pay attention.

"Not to mention, the talent pool is growing and getting deeper. It's not such a subversive thing for a woman to box or learn martial arts anymore, so we are seeing girls who have been training since they were eight years old. Also, male trainers are taking us more seriously and really starting to teach us the mechanics and science of the sport."

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/fitzbitz.


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