It's fight night at the A La Carte Event Pavilion and Jenna Shiver is pulling a satin skirt on over her shorts. On the other side of the dressing room curtain, her opponent — nicknamed the Predator — is throwing punches into her coach's leather mitts, sounding like a hammer pounding nails.
Jenna's pink cell phone keeps beeping with text messages from her friends:
Knock her out
Go get her kill her
Jenna gets her hand taped while typing with one thumb.
"When are you going to lose that phone?" her coach barks. "You've got to calm down. You've got to fight."
Jenna puts the phone by her cowboy hat, the same kind her father wore into the ring. In her life away from boxing she has been a prom queen, runner-up for homecoming queen and a contestant for Miss Hardee County. The girl with the pink phone. But when she steps between the ropes she's all about her dad. She has even adopted his name.
He was Cowboy. She's Cowgirl.
Jenna starts to box the air, and lets the phone ring.
• • •
She keeps the story in a Charlotte Russe boot box in the closet of her apartment in St. Petersburg, where her prom queen picture is in a bookcase in her room. Ask to see the box and she pulls it out, lifts the cover.
Inside are his gray satin boxing robe, a dozen or so programs from his fights and some yellowed newspaper clippings. Don "Cowboy" Shiver was 22-1 in his career, the only loss coming to Olympic gold medalist Mark Breland in a nationally televised fight on ABC.
Less than a year after that fight, Shiver rolled his pickup on Interstate 75 on his way to a hunting trip and died. Jenna was 11 months old. That was the beginning of how she got to be Cowgirl.
Jenna grew up in a rough Tampa neighborhood off Columbus Drive with her mother and her half-brother. She went to Oak Park Elementary and got her first fighting lessons on the streets, where she would tangle over something as simple as a rock accidentally kicked the wrong way.
She describes her mother as reckless and unreliable, prone to disappearing for days at a time. Drugs were the problem, Jenna says, and other family members confirm this. When Jenna was 9, the state took her away from her mother and placed her with an aunt. A few years after that, she went to live with another aunt in Hardee County.
Today her brother is in a prison and her mother is a fugitive from probation on a grand theft charge.
"All my life, people thought I'd turn out a certain way," she says. "My brother is floored I'm not a druggie in jail and knocked up."
She tells herself she doesn't care what people think, but she wants so badly for them to know she's not like that. When she was looking for a role model, she didn't think of choosing Mom. She chose the one she lost — the guy in the old photos standing next to the punching bag, wearing the white hat.
Jenna, 23, a bartender and waitress at Lee Roy Selmon's, turned pro soon after she started boxing three years ago. Her record: 6-3 (and one draw). She wants what Cowboy wanted. To be world champion.
• • •
The fight against the Predator is a week away and Jenna is sparring with a 160-pound Marine at the 4th Street Boxing Club in St. Petersburg. It's a tin-roof building with no air conditioning and lots of sweaty boxers pounding leather punching bags.
Jenna's trying to jab the Marine with her left and follow with her right. But the punches are not connecting the way they were earlier, when she was practicing on the mitts.
"Pick it up Jenna! Get back on your toes. Let's do it right!" growls Jim McLoughlin, her manager, trainer and the gym's owner. With his broken nose, gravely voice and muscled body, he reminds you of a boxer dog.
Jenna gets a right hook into the side of the Marine's face just as the buzzer sounds.
"Beautiful, nice job," McLoughlin says. "You got the last one in."
Jenna shakes her head.
"I wasn't quick. It wasn't there today," she tells him as he squirts water in her mouth and helps her blow her nose. "Maybe I need more drills."
McLoughlin smiles. She didn't do so badly against the 160-pound Marine, considering she's only 129 pounds; he'd even call her the winner if he were judging it.
But she's so determined, trains with a kind of intensity that's rare. She reminds him a bit of her dad. She's greener than he was. But McLoughlin thinks she's better.
• • •
The day before the fight, Jenna checks out her competition, Renee Richardt-Douglas, at the final weigh-in at the Westshore Hotel conference room.
The Predator is thin, almost too thin. Her arms have some muscle definition, but not much. Richardt-Douglas, a 33-year-old commercial painter who has traveled from Missouri for this fight, pores over a used college textbook called Adolescence.
Jenna tells herself not to be overconfident. Muscles do not always equal skill in boxing. One girl had arms the size of thighs and Jenna still beat her. The Predator's thinness means she has been working out.
Jenna needs this fight. A month ago, she lost to a woman from the Dominican Republic who had just turned pro. Jenna says the woman fought dirty, that she head-butted and tripped her. The loss blew Jenna's four-fight winning streak and dropped her to 23rd in one boxing ranking.
She's hoping this fight will help her climb back into the Top 10. Only there can she shoot for a world title fight, as her dad hoped to some 20 years ago.
Jenna's nervous about the weight. The day before she weighed 130, a pound over her agreed-upon fight weight of 129. If she's over, she can be fined by the Florida Boxing Commission.
So earlier, she had donned sweats and boxed in her closed garage. All she has had to eat all day is a bowl of Lucky Charms.
She strips down to a bathing suit and hops onto the scale in front of Florida Boxing Commission officials and a dozen dried-out boxers. She's a pound under.
• • •
On fight night at the A La Carte Event Pavilion, Jenna is in the dressing room when her cousin, Tracy Guerra, breezes in to pray with her.
Guerra, wearing a pink dress and heels, stops to look at a sexy glam poster of Jenna in boxing gloves. Jenna is selling them at this fight for $20 a pop.
"God, why didn't I get your body?" Guerra says. "You're beautiful. Keep those teeth that people pay big bucks for."
Nobody in Jenna's family wants her to fight. One aunt can't bear to watch. Another comes when she can but says it's painful to watch. They worry at every turn that she'll lose a tooth or break her jaw.
"When she lost last time, I couldn't bear it because I knew it crushed her," says her aunt, Janice Shiver Guerra. "I stood by the door as she went into the dressing room. She had tears in her eyes. It broke my heart."
They all assume she's chasing her dad's dream. They see in her his heart, his passion, his crowd-pleasing personality. They just wish she'd direct it somewhere else, go back to college, something else.
"I was looking at an old scrapbook of your dad's today," the cousin says.
Jenna nods. It feels good to have a family member here.
"He only ever lost one fight," she says.
"I know and he took that fight hard," Guerra replies. "The first one is always the hardest. He had three more fights. He died five days after that last fight (which he won)."
"Oh really," Jenna says. "I didn't know that."
• • •
"Time for you to shine, Cowgirl," says McLoughlin, the coach. Jenna, in a black Cowboy hat, bounces on her toes, her fists in front of her, as she heads toward the ring. The crowd roars as her entrance song, Come With Me, from the Godzilla soundtrack, pulsates from the sound system.
As she makes her way between the ropes, Jenna's pretty features are set in a grimace. She's not thinking about the pain she's about to experience or the $600 she will make for this fight. She's trying to get angry. Images play in her head: Her opponent is trying to hurt her. She needs to hurt her first.
She hears the announcer say her opponent has a career four knockouts. She didn't know that.
As the fight begins, Jenna's head is pitched forward, her green eyes venomous. She comes out swinging and lands a right hand to her opponent's jaw. They call that the Shiver Driver. Same as her dad. More follow.
Within seconds, the Predator is laid out in the corner of the ring, legs out in front of her, her face red and distraught as if she might break into tears. She gets up and regroups, coming after Jenna.
She hits Jenna in the mouth, and Jenna comes back ferociously. Left. Right. The Predator's hair is sprouting out of her ponytail as the round comes to an end. In her corner, she looks defeated already.
As the fight progresses, the Predator becomes more centered, more determined. She even manages to dance away from a few of Jenna's punches.
But when it's over, everyone knows who's won.
An announcer interviews Jenna in front of the crowd.
"Where does the name Cowgirl come from?" he asks her.
"Well, I'm a third-generation fighter," Jenna replies. "My grandpa was Cowboy. My dad was Cowboy."
"Well," he tells her, "you have a hell of a right hand."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.