Photos by  Jessica Bal

Susanna Mellone-Spence won her first fight when she was only three. When a boy in her pre-school in northern Italy tried to take her lunch, Susanna slammed his head against a locker. She was expelled. While some parents might have been ashamed of such violent behavior, Susanna, in her imperfect English, says her mother was proud. “I mean not to broke his head, but he was stealing my lunch!” she says with a laugh.

Some 20 years later, on the morning of April 8, 2011, Mellone-Spence and her coach, Francisco Mendez, a short, stocky man with sad, dark eyes and jowly cheeks, leaned against a bare white wall in the basement of the Daily News headquarters on West 33rd Street in Manhattan. They wore matching green sweatshirts that read “MENDEZ BOXING.” In less than 12 hours and only a few blocks away, Mellone-Spence would compete in the Daily News Golden Gloves Championships at Madison Square Garden.

To ensure her fight in a 112-lb. weight class, Mellone-Spence hadn’t eaten anything since the previous afternoon. She rubbed her stomach underneath her sweatshirt and sighed. “They late,” she said, referring to the officials keeping her from breakfast. Under the basement’s fluorescent light, she looked pale. Her dark eyes, usually animated and warm, appeared serious. A mess of brown curls held in check by a few baby barrettes, combined with the slight gap between her front teeth, made her appear younger than her 26 years.

Susanna Mellone-Spence (Photos and video by Jessica Bal)
Susanna Mellone-Spence (Photos and video by Jessica Bal)

At 5’1, and exactly 112 lbs. Mellone-Spence did not cut an imposing figure. Though t-shirts fit snugly around her upper arms and shoulders, people are usually surprised to hear she boxes. That puzzled reaction is commonly encountered by women boxers. Although they recently returned to the Olympics after a century-long absence, even those deeply invested in the sport admit to discomfort at seeing women in the ring. “If I had to choose between allowing women to box and not, I’d go with not,” says Brian Adams, a former boxer and the director of the Golden Gloves Tournament. “At the end of the day, you still don't want to see your daughter with a black eye or a bloody nose, whereas it’s appreciated if it’s a boy.”

That night in April, Mellone-Spence, a natural-born fighter and karate champion in her native Italy who discovered boxing late, in her twenties, was preparing to fight Christina Cruz, 28, a four-time Golden Gloves champ whose fans were expecting a fifth win. In 2011, Cruz had 60 fights, compared to Mellone-Spence’s five. In spite of her gangly arms and stick legs, she was one of the top-ranked female boxers in the country, and widely seen as a 2012 Olympic contender.

Cruz stepped out of the News building’s elevator wearing skinny jeans and boots. She had lost seven pounds to make herself eligible for the Olympics’ flyweight class. Her hair, parted down the middle, created a dark sleek curtain for her long face and prominent nose, which she broke only two years earlier.

Cruz, who’s a head taller than Mellone-Spence, kept a professional distance but was not unfriendly. One of Mellone-Spence’s teammates, Nisa Rodriguez, a tall, pretty girl with a faint birthmark by her left temple, tried to engage both girls in small talk but after a few minutes Mellone-Spence wandered off, still rubbing her stomach.

As officials distributed mouth guards, complimentary tickets and the tournament’s official program to each fighter, male boxers in the room tore off sweatpants and T-shirts. They stood in their boxer shorts, sucking in stomachs and puffing out tattooed chests. The newer fighters furtively counted the number of Golden Glove charms dangling from veterans’ necks. The women fighters filed into the back room for their weigh-in.

Cassie Rodriguez, a tall, broad-shouldered USA Boxing official with thinly arched eyebrows, stood by the scale holding a clipboard. She called Christella Cepeda, a baby-faced Dominican girl whose wide eyes betrayed her nerves, towards her. “Hey beautiful, step on that scale for me.” She motioned toward the old-fashioned scale—the kind usually found in hospitals and locker rooms. Cepeda, wearing only a bra and panties, walked forward quietly. “Any jewelry?” asked Rodriguez. Cepeda shook her head.

The boxers sat in chairs and on table edges. Some stripped down to their underwear. Others hid behind hooded sweatshirts and oversized headphones until their turns were called. Mellone-Spence found a spot near the scale and without any hesitation, whisked off all her clothes, revealing a tattoo just below her armpit, the same tribal design as Mike Tyson’s, and waited her turn. After a few minutes, she stepped up onto the scale. Rodriguez marked her clipboard and smiled. Mellone-Spence had made weight.

* * *

In the first round at the fight that night, Mellone-Spence was the aggressor, while Cruz threw few punches and ran. The pressure from Mellone-Spence surprised the MSG Network’s announcers. “Spence does not look intimidated at all,” said Kathy Clancy Burke, daughter of the late famed boxing trainer Gil Clancy. “If she can do this for four rounds, she’ll steal this bout,” her partner Michael Crispino echoed.

Cruz seemed not to hear the advice shouted by fans to “throw something!” Instead, she kept weaving and bouncing to one side or the other, letting Mellone-Spence do most of the punching. Some boxing critics would later say Cruz took it easy for the first round in order to gauge Mellone-Spence’s strikes and plan her strategy.

As she began to throw more than just counter-punches at the end of the first round and into the second, the announcers shifted their attention to Cruz—her record, her conditioning, her discipline and her Olympic potential. “Of all of our female boxers, Cruz has always reminded me the most of a man in the ring,” said announcer Clancy Burke. The commentators called Mellone-Spence “courageous” and “dangerous.” “Spence has a lot of guts. She’s come forward the entire bout,” said Clancy Burke. By the final round it was clear Mellone-Spence was outmatched, but she refused to give up. “She’s still throwing punches. Look at that uppercut!” marveled announcer John Duddy.

After the final bell, after the drowsy hugs and handshakes, and after the scores had been tallied, both women returned to the ring’s center. The referee stood between them, one wrist in each of his meaty hands. A moment later the announcer gave comment and the referee raised Cruz’s left arm in the air. The two boxers hugged once more. Mellone-Spence’s mouth folded in on itself and she blinked quickly several times before she could get out of the way of the camera.

The following morning Mellone-Spence returned to her job at the reception desk of Mendez Boxing on West 28th Street. Sitting beside a glass case full of framed portraits, boxing gloves and colored wraps, she smiled with some effort when members congratulated her efforts or badmouthed Cruz.

Mellone-Spence jokingly fights with trainer and coach Francisco Mendez at Mendez Boxing in Manhattan.
Mellone-Spence jokingly fights with trainer and coach Francisco Mendez at Mendez Boxing in Manhattan.

While she admitted that Cruz did ultimately win more points, Mellone-Spence didn’t think this diminished her standing. In an amateur fight, such as the Golden Gloves Tournament, an individual scores points with “clean punches”—ones that haven’t been deflected by a boxer’s mitt, arm or any part of the ring, and that connect with the front of the head or torso and land above the belt. Had it been a professional fight, punches to the sides and stomach, known as body shots, would have counted. “I think the most solid punches were from my part. As a pro, I won the fight. I think as an amateur, I lose the fight,” Mellone-Spence said.

Mellone-Spence said her style—fighting inside instead of wide, and pummeling her opponents with body shots—is best suited to professional fights, where the headgear is left in the sparring ring, and power wins. Her ultimate goal for the last three years has been to make it as a pro; she surprised reporters at the weigh-in by telling them she had no Olympic dreams. Olympic boxing is an amateur sport, endorsing amateur rules. For her, the Golden Gloves Tournament was a springboard for a paid, professional career.

Becoming a pro boxer requires tremendous dedication and hope—some would say a willing suspension of disbelief. “Physically and mentally it’s the toughest sport there is,” says Noriko Kariya, a former professional female boxer. “It’s a sport that doesn’t give back to the individual. It just takes.” A top tier male boxer can make $20,000 to $30,000 per fight, but female boxers, with the exception of superstar scions Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, make considerably less—as little as $500 for a four-round fight. Boxing promoters argue that women are paid less because their bouts are harder to sell to the predominantly male audience. Kariya put it this way: “Men don’t want to see an ugly girl fight and they don’t want to see a pretty girl get hurt.”

* * *

Susanna’s parents, Katya and Egidio Mellone, met and married in their late teens. They divorced when she was two. In Italy in the 1980s, divorce was considered scandalous—a stigma compounded by her father’s drug problem and prison record. While Susanna adored her father, she respected her mother’s decision to leave him. “My mom always loved him, like for real, like big love. She did it for me,” Susanna says.

After the Mellones' divorce, Susanna and Katya moved from one relative’s couch to another. Susanna was four when her mother met the man who would later become her second husband. He gave Susanna her first real home, but she needed something more.

A young Susanna Mellone-Spence with her father, Egidio Mellone. (Photo courtesy Susanna Mellone-Spence)
A young Susanna Mellone-Spence with her father, Egidio Mellone. (Photo courtesy Susanna Mellone-Spence)

In an old photo, Susanna’s father lounges on a quilted bed at his mother’s house beneath a portrait of the Virgin Mary and child. Susanna is frozen in a half–crawl. Her tiny, diapered bottom faces the camera while she looks up at her father. Dark curls fall into his eyes, which hold her gaze like a magnet. One of her father’s hands beckons Susanna forward while the other cups her elbow, keeping her from falling.

Egidio Mellone was Susanna’s confidant and she was his. “I never had too many friends, when I was little especially. I was very, very shy. He was my best friend,” she says.

On weekdays, Susanna lived with her mother and stepfamily, but spent her nights on the phone with her father, who was a mechanic, a poet and an artist. “My father is of course a beautiful person. Like a dream … A beautiful person,” she says.

On weekends, Susanna stayed with her father at her grandmother’s house. They would draw, read and write poems together. If she had homework, he helped her with it. They would play in the park or meet his friends at a bar and place bets on soccer matches. And at night, Susanna’s favorite time with her father, they would fall asleep talking. He believed that children had as much right to the truth as adults, and would tell her anything she wanted to know.

Susanna’s father contracted HIV before she was born. Both she and her mother were tested every four years for the illness. Even while he was sick, he continued to abuse drugs. More than once, her father waited for Susanna outside her school, haggard and high. Other days he wouldn’t show up at all. Susanna and her grandmother—his mother—would search the neighborhood’s back alleys until they found him. Sometimes he disappeared for days.

When she was eight, her father tried to wean himself off heroin. She and her grandmother watched as he burned with fever, shivered, then vomited over and over. He could stay clean for months, then slip back into old habits. When she was twelve, her father invited her to live with him. She declined. “My father was who he was,” she says. A friend, even a best friend, but not a parent.

“Christmas, he give me a lot of gifts. First of January, he sold them,” she continues with a strained, fragile laugh.

Inside her father’s journal, which Susanna keeps, are poems about love and freedom, sketches—a dog and cat sitting at a kitchen table, a pirate ship with an eerie sickle moon half-submerged—and the letters he sent her from jail. In one letter he explains to Susanna, who was in kindergarten at the time, that he tried to steal a car and “things didn’t go so well.”

“I’m telling you these things knowing that your mother won’t read them to you, but when the day comes that you can read on your own, take all my letters and read them one by one, so you can understand my mistakes and avoid making them. Daddy doesn’t want you to cry, especially don’t cry for me, I’m not dead you know and even if I died you shouldn’t cry, one cries about bad things and I’m not a bad thing, I am your great hero and one doesn’t cry for heroes.” (Translated from Italian.)

Looking back, Mellone-Spence says it was easy to forgive her father’s mistakes. “Maybe growing up you start thinking about what a father is supposed to do or be, but he taught me life in a different way, with his mistakes,” she says.

Her father died from complications of AIDS when she was 14. “When he died I went through like [a] low moment,” she says. She smoked and drank and fell away from karate, a sport she’d been practicing since she was ten.

Within a few months, she realized she’d let her sadness derail her. She returned to karate and for a while it steadied her. The gym became her escape. The people, the upbeat atmosphere and the focus required to compete took her mind off her worries. Then, inspired by watching women boxers on television, she found a small boxing gym near her home. When she first started getting hit she got angry: “Like, he hit me—‘I’m gonna kill you now,’” she recalls. But in time, she learned to channel her aggression and keep calm.

“I fall in love with boxing,” says Mellone-Spence. The thrill of finally making contact, mitt to flesh, was exhilarating. For a while, she tried to balance karate and boxing but it was like having two husbands. Leaving her karate coach and her students was difficult, but Mellone-Spence had to be true to her nature—and that meant boxing.

After winning her first boxing match in Italy, she and her boyfriend moved to New York. They stayed at a friend’s house in New Jersey, and she commuted to and from Brooklyn where she had found a job waitressing. Both she and her boyfriend shared a dream of becoming pro boxers, but since he wasn’t working, he was able to spend the bulk of his time training. Susanna trained in between shifts at the restaurant and some additional hours at a furniture store. When she had saved enough money, they rented a small apartment in Brooklyn. But a week later, the relationship came to an abrupt end. “He went out of my life like this,” Mellone-Spence says, snapping her fingers. Her boyfriend returned to Italy. “I was sad and alone,” she said. Susanna gave up her training for several months and worked extra shifts at the restaurant to make rent.

She grew close with her supervisor at the restaurant, Michael Spence. From the first time they met, Spence was taken with her smile. “I told her from day one. I’m like, ‘Don’t ever lose your smile, because as a waitress, with a beautiful smile, you get more tips.’”

During her first few weeks of work, anyone paying attention might have noticed Spence pretending to fix a tablecloth nearby whenever Susanna’s customers were giving their orders. Spence, whose mother is Italian, speaks the language, which was helpful since Susanna’s English was still very basic. Still, her warmth, her schoolgirl laugh, and even her broken English charmed customers. She remembered their names and they remembered hers.

After two months of working at the restaurant, she and Spence started dating. “It wasn’t old-school-fashioned ‘ask her out,’ it just happened,” he says. A few months later they moved into an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn together. At the time, Susanna had to return to Italy every three months to keep her visa from expiring; Spence saw how much this cycle of leaving and returning drained her. They were in West Point at his sister’s home, sitting in the woods on a bench that overlooked the Hudson River, when he proposed. “It was fast in terms of relationships, but I knew it was the right thing,” says Spence.

They married in October of 2009 at City Hall. The following month she started looking for a new boxing gym. Now that the chaos in her life had settled, she could afford to train. “We find this little gym, little ring, second floor, a beautiful little place, and I’m like, ‘If this is what makes you happy,’” says Spence. Within a month, Spence saw a change in his wife. “Her personality opened back up again…because she was doing something that she loved, and she missed. And then she went hardcore back into it.”

At the gym, Mellone-Spence built a second family. Her trainer, Francisco Mendez, was raised by a single mother in Mexico. When he first came to New York, he washed dishes while trying to save enough money to open his gym. The pair clicked, and Susanna was soon very attached to Mendez.

“I’m not a very trusting person and neither is he,” says Mellone-Spence. “When I start trusting him as a trainer that was it. He was my trainer,” she said.

A trainer helps Mellone-Spence put her gloves on.
A trainer helps Mellone-Spence put her gloves on.

Mendez treats Mellone-Spence like a daughter. They both love to laugh, to eat and to fight inside, with solid body shots—a classic Mexican technique. “She got Italian heart and Mexican style,” says Mendez.

Mellone-Spence will scold Mendez for walking too much despite pains in his knee. “What did the doctor tell you?” she’ll ask, then look away pointedly, like an embarrassed teenaged daughter, when he starts fist pumping to a techno song that’s playing in the gym. And when Mellone-Spence needs him most, when she’s inside the ring, “I can always hear his voice, even if he doesn’t shout,” she says.

Pointing to another man with a weathered face and graying hair sitting quietly against the glass case catty-corner to her reception desk, Mellone-Spence identifies her “cut man” —the person who tends to her scrapes and bruises. “He’s like my uncle,” she says. “And my trainer’s like my father. It’s like another family.”

* * *

Since the sport began, writers, historians and those inside the industry have tried to understand what motivates the best boxers. Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter, says he believes people fight for a reason: “They fight out of something. They fight out of poverty. They fight out of jail. They fight out of a bad family.”

Coach Mendez calls Mellone-Spence “hungry.” Her dedication is “200 percent” he says. “Some people, they have a lot of talent but they don’t have discipline and dedication,” says Mendez. Mellone-Spence has both. The way she trained, Mendez could see how much she loved to box. “When you love something, that’s everything.”

Mellone-Spence can’t say exactly what inspires her to fight, only that it’s personal. “Everything I do is for me,” she says.

At the Garden, Mellone-Spence showed the kind of aggression that no one, including the announcers, Cruz, Mendez, her fans and perhaps even she herself could have predicted. Her hunger is real, and it’s dangerous.

* * *

That summer after the Golden Gloves, Mellone-Spence began training six hours a day, six days a week. She ran four miles every morning, then shadowboxed. After her shift at the gym ended, she pounded the heavy bags and sparred with other pro fighters whenever they were available. But despite having already fought amateur matches against two of the best boxers in the country in her weight class—Cruz in 2011 and Laura Ramirez in 2010– Mellone-Spence had trouble securing her pro debut fight.

Mendez spoke with three potential managers but Mellone-Spence didn’t sign with any of them. “Francisco is very possessive in a kind of way. He trains me the way he trains me and nobody else can interfere,” she says. Mellone-Spence trusts her coach unconditionally. “It’s not just my choice. They gotta work together,” she says. “I trust Francisco, so I had no problem with that.”

Ultimately, Mendez bypassed the managers altogether and secured a fight directly through a promoter. Mellone-Spence had a fight date, a venue and an opponent. For weeks, every choice she made about sleep, food, training and her social life revolved around her upcoming fight. Then, two days before the match, the other fighter pulled out, upending her entire schedule. This happened twice.

The false starts in her career were frustrating not only to Mellone-Spence, but also to her husband: Mellone-Spence couldn’t enjoy a meal with his family because she had to make weight. She couldn’t go to parties with him and his work colleagues because she had to wake up early to run. “Even just sex,” she said. (Like a lot of boxers, Mellone-Spence won’t have sex for two or three weeks before a fight.) “It’s a lot of sacrifice. I do it because I’ve a goal, and he had to do it because he was my husband.”

In December 2011, Mendez found a possible match for Mellone-Spence: Elizabeth Cervantes, a six-year pro making a comeback after having a baby and spending three years away from the ring.

“I’ll take it,” said Mellone-Spence.

* * *

On January 13, 2012, at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in a small town an hour outside of Los Angeles, Mellone-Spence made her pro debut. She wore her hair in a dozen tiny braids to keep it out of her eyes, a red sports bra, and in honor of her Italian heritage, red, white and green boxing trunks with “Susanna” sewn in giant letters across the waistband.

In the first round, Mellone-Spence threw a sharp right hand, which knocked Cervantes back. Mellone-Spence felt like she could have ended the fight right there with a knock out. “You see the weakness in that moment and you just want to, like, jump her,” she remembers. A few spectators spurred her on, shouting, “Go Italy!” But Cervantes picked up her guard, and shook off the hit. The first and the second round belonged to Mellone-Spence, “the more accurate puncher,” according to one boxing news website. But sometime in the third round Cervantes wrested back control of the fight, with stiff blows to Mellone-Spence’s head and stomach. By the fourth round, even Mendez, who still contends she won the overall fight, concedes that Mellone-Spence let up the pressure.

The fight was close enough to have been a draw, according to one boxing blogger. Two judges scored the fight 39-37 in Cervantes's favor; a third scored it 39-37 in Mellone-Spence’s favor. The split decision meant Cervantes won.

* * *

At Mendez’s gym a year and a half later, Mellone-Spence remembers her debut fight: the bright lights, the crowd packed against the sides of the ring and the moment she received her first blow without headgear. “I never had anything like that pain,” she says proudly. She wasn’t frightened. She didn’t flinch. She returned the favor, again and again.

As pleased as she was with her performance, the loss still smarted. “I needed a win for me, because I worked so hard,” she says. When she returned to the gym after her loss, something had changed.

Mellone-Spence compared the time she spent training with the minimal rewards of that training, and grew disillusioned. She hadn’t expected a large paycheck, but she had anticipated having a handful of fights each year. Instead she had waited nearly nine months for a single match.

“All of this sacrifice, the not eating and not going out, all this stuff and you don’t make any money. It’s crazy!” she said. “If I was 22, 23, I would be like, ‘Okay it’s fine,’ but then you’re older. I’m 28 almost. I don’t see the future.”

Along with the financial hurdles, Mellone-Spence grew more wary of the danger boxing posed. “You hurt yourself and I’m like, ‘O.K., what I’m gonna do?’” Without a college degree or any other marketable skill, Mellone-Spence had no safety net.

And then there was the strain boxing put on her marriage. “Even if I was in New York, I wasn’t there. I was fighting and sleeping and training and working.” Her husband tried to be supportive but sometimes her absence frustrated him.

Mellone-Spence missed boxing even before she left the sport but simply decided, “I didn’t want that to be normal life anymore.”

* * *

A month after her debut fight, Mellone-Spence found herself sitting in a military recruitment center in downtown Manhattan. She had been inspired to make the visit during dinner table discussions with her father-in-law and brother-in-law, both of whom served in the military. “I like the lifestyle. I like traveling,” she says. The Navy would also offer her the opportunity to eventually go back to college.

Because of her green card status, Mellone-Spence would need to take one of the jobs that were currently available or wait a full year to re-apply. Given a choice between maintaining planes or boats, she chose planes.

In May of 2012, Mellone-Spence flew to Chicago for Navy boot camp. With her boxing career suspended, she and her husband planned a fresh start. When boot camp finished, he would move to whatever base she was stationed at and find a job there. That was the plan.

* * *

The Navy’s recruit training program was two months long. Every day and every drill was an opportunity for her superiors to send someone else home. As grueling as it was, Mellone-Spence enjoyed it. Her supervisors would punish her for smiling too much with push-ups and eight-counts—a squat thrust and push-up combo. “The point is to make you frustrated so you stop doing what they don’t want you to do. I was like, ‘I love doing it. We can stay here all day.’”

The hardest part of boot camp was the isolation. For two months, recruits were allowed only two five-minute phone calls. There was no access to email or news of any kind.

Just after her graduation from boot camp last summer, Mellone-Spence learned her husband had been cheating on her. She flew to Florida to continue the rest of her Navy training. Nine months later, she returned to New York to collect her belongings, boxes of books, clothes and photos, and serve her husband with divorce papers.

* * *

Mellone-Spence now works as an airman on a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida, inspecting and servicing planes. Through the Navy she’s been granted U.S. citizenship.

She’s fascinated by the planes and proud of her responsibilities, but she will never forget her time in the ring. “To me, the year that I lived in New York was the best part of my life. I did what I wanted to do. I was boxing. I was surrounded by boxing 24/7.”

Mellone-Spence wraps her hands before entering the ring.
Mellone-Spence wraps her hands before entering the ring.

And while she isn’t looking for reconciliation, she also has warm memories of the man who noticed her smile at a Brooklyn café and took her to meet his family when she was homesick for her own. Even as the divorce papers are filed, she is hopeful about finding another chance at happiness. “I still believe that you can create a family and stay together forever. It’s just not that easy,” she says.

When Mellone-Spence visits her home in Italy and someone hears that she’s living in America, the response is often the same. “They tend to be like, ‘Oh you’re lucky. You’re there. Over there it’s better.” She exhales heavily and for just a moment stops smiling. “You will never leave your comfort zone. So don’t say I’m lucky. I left everything. I’m not lucky.”

This September, Mellone-Spence will deploy to Japan with her squadron. She is currently studying Japanese as well as Jujitsu, and hopes to compete at the white-belt level soon. When she finds the right trainer, she plans to start boxing again.

* * *

Shannon Firth is a journalist living in Brooklyn. She writes about people living the American dream or trying to.

Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.

Letters from Egidio Mellone to Susanna were translated from Italian to English by Valentina Vella, an artist, writer, performer and valkyrie.

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