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Boxer Shelley Vincent has battled outside the ring to earn a chance inside it
The first inkling of evidence that Shelley Vincent takes her craft seriously appears on the outside of her right biceps.
It's there one will discover a tattooed portrait of a young Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion and one of Vincent's early inspirations in the boxing game.
"That's one of the main boxers I try to mirror," Vincent said. "When I show that to people, they go crazy."
Vincent is no Iron Mike yet, but the New London boxer owns a back story that could rival Tyson's rollercoaster life in the limelight.
She took up boxing at 18 years old, and her trainer at the time found she had a considerable amount of natural talent. But too many fights outside of the ring derailed her early promise.
She said she was expelled from the Groton school district for fighting, a result of a lack of trust in people.
Vincent also said she later dealt with depression and alcohol abuse after her 37-year-old mother died in 2000, seven months after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Ever since, it's been a long road back to the fight game for Vincent, now 33, who is also openly gay. She had run-ins with the law and admits that assaults led to two brief stints in jail, one as recently as four years ago.
But since this last time in jail, she has turned her focus back to boxing, her early passion. It has led her to happiness that years ago she never thought was possible.
"It's sad that it took me so long to do it," Vincent said. "But better late than never."
'A lost soul'
Vincent lost her mother, Tania, her closest confidant, when she was 20 years old. The oldest of three siblings, Vincent took her mother's death especially hard.
She initially went to live with her grandparents and finished her GED at New London Adult and Continuing Education. But she was soon out of boxing and without an outlet to channel her anger.
"She was a lost soul," said Roberta Vincent, her grandmother.
Vincent said she was uncomfortable speaking in great detail about her troubled past. She did say it took her a long time to realize that many people were not against her.
She said she regrets many of her youthful mistakes and hopes to help other young people avoid a similar path. Her decision to aggressively return to boxing a few years ago has also been a blessing.
She turned to trainers Kent Ward and Rollie Pier at Strike Zone, a boxing and mixed martial arts gym on Bank Street in New London. Ward said he was impressed by Vincent's talent and thinks boxing was ultimately what kept her going, even if she did lose her focus from time to time. "Without boxing she probably wouldn't have found her way back to anything," he said. "It was the light at the end of the tunnel."
Half Italian and half Cape Verdean, Vincent, who goes by the name "Shelito," is about 5 feet tall and fights at bantamweight, which tops out at 119 pounds.
Last year she won a Golden Gloves title in her weight class at a national competition. After winning 11 of her 15 amateur fights, she recently turned professional.
She owns a 2-0 record, the most recent win coming in a unanimous decision in a March 30 fight at Foxwoods Casino on the undercard of ESPN's "Friday Night Fights." Her next fight, at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., is May 24.
In looking for more competitive female opponents, Vincent has also started working with renowned trainer Peter Manfredo Sr., a former world kick boxing champion. Manfredo, who operates a gym in Pawtucket, R.I., has trained several successful fighters, including his son, who was an exceptional professional middleweight.
Manfredo has worked with women before and said early on he noticed the energy and agility that Vincent brings to her sport. The women seem like they try harder because they want to show to everybody that they belong. That's the kind of product that I have with Shelito," Manfredo said after one of Vincent's sparring sessions. "She'll do anything a man will do and more. She's looking to show everybody, 'I'm here.'"
Vincent said the money she has won in her first two pro fights has been enough to cover the expensive medical testing that boxing requires. While she's out of other work at the moment, she's hopeful that continued success will lead to bigger fights and a shot at a women's title.
'A ton of fans'
She has developed a following in New London. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, an avid boxer, presented Vincent with a mayoral proclamation in February and encouraged people to support her.
Vincent also has more than 1,200 Facebook friends and gets support from her family, including her father, whom she has reconciled with in recent years. Her girlfriend, Lorraine Gonzalez, and Gonzalez's 4-year-old son, Terry, are also big supporters.
Then there are Vincent's fights, which provide yet another example of the outpouring of support she receives. She had her own cheering section at the Foxwoods bout.
People seem to love a woman who has a tough-as-nails exterior - one with more than 20 tattoos - that mixes with a softer side.
"You can't help but love her. She's an amazing person. She's effervescent," said Mary Morgan, who is Vincent's unofficial manager and adviser. "She has a ton of fans, and she's just so popular. She doesn't go anywhere that she doesn't know someone."
Vincent has also found time recently to reflect on her past. She credits boxing with playing a large role in turning her life around. It's a fact that her family has also come to acknowledge.
"She has been through some tough times," said Roberta Vincent, her grandmother. "The boxing has really helped her focus. It has helped her put her anger somewhere else."
Where Vincent goes from here will play out over the coming months. She said next month she'll go against a skilled fighter from Florida who will be making her pro debut.
It's a showdown that Vincent will diligently prepare for. She taps several sources of motivation to keep her going each day.
"I'm trying to do everything inside of me to be positive and do well now to make my mother proud," Vincent said.
"Winning my last fight was the best feeling I've ever had in my life. It just makes you want to go in there and work and not let anybody down. I don't want to be good; I want to be great."