Bulldog Boxing and Fitness occupies part of a warehouse complex on a remote rural patch where east Tampa nudges against Brandon. A gym still in its crawling stage, it remains more tidy than dingy.
None of the chains bearing the weight of the nine heavy bags squeal. The floorboards of the gym's lone ring emit nary a creak. The three semitrailer truck tires, which patrons use for flipping, appear factory fresh. The place is devoid of grime.
But not grit. Its most famous occupant, bearing down on her 43rd birthday, sees to that.
"Honestly, I feel the same way I felt when I was 21 or 22," said Plant City native Chevelle Hallback. "Every now and then when I get up, I feel a little stiffness and I have to stretch. But once I get my day going, I feel fine. And I thank God for youthfulness."
Hallback, who has no spouse, no kids and apparently no dimmer switch, has just capped her early-evening workout with 500 situps. Before that, she skipped rope, worked the speed bags and pounded the mitts of trainer Nino Kercado while shuffling and weaving inside the ring.
"She fight like a man," Kercado, a 43-year-old Puerto Rico native, says in slightly disheveled English. "She gonna be 43 years old, but the way she fight, she don't get hit a lot."
Mercifully, this is Hallback's night off, otherwise she would head directly from the gym to a U.S. Postal Service distribution center near Port Tampa Bay, where she handles and hauls mail from 8 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. For all her success inside the ring — including four world titles — boxing hardly pays all the bills.
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If only first-class opposition arrived in bulk. To the contrary, this welterweight civil servant must scour ZIP codes to find a foe.
"Nobody wants to fight her," says Billy Calogero, Hallback's New York-based manager. "It goes back to the old saying, risk versus reward, and Chevelle Hallback is an extremely high risk for any female fighter."
Some nights, risk indirectly gets rewarded. In Hallback's most recent bout, June 13 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, she dispatched of Dominga Olivo within two rounds. She and Calogero say her four-figure purse was less than that of Oliva, who entered with a losing record.
It was Hallback's first match in nearly three years, improving her career mark to 29-8-2 with 12 knockouts.
"I fought for peanuts," she says, "and I did it just to fight at home."
Peanuts and a precedent. They pretty much explain why Hallback chooses to bob and weave her way around middle age's figurative jabs.
On this humid July evening, inside this fledgling gym, Hallback trains for a fight that may not materialize. She and Calogero are hopeful for a match on an Aug. 22 card at the Times Forum, but nothing has been guaranteed. If a quality foe emerges, and if Hallback can win, maybe it will move her a step closer to her ultimate goal: a showcase bout on HBO.
"A female has never fought on HBO when it was televised," she says. "I'm a person of faith, and I believe there's somebody out there that's going to see me and say, 'You know what, we're going to make it happen for her.' "
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A military vagabond whose stepdad served in the Army, Hallback was born in Plant City and spent a chunk of her childhood there. A cousin of former Tampa Catholic prep football All-American and big-league outfielder Kenny Kelly, she recalls attending Burney-Simmons and Robinson elementary schools as well as Turkey Creek Junior High.
But she also spent hitches in Monterey, Calif., the Kentucky-Tennessee border and Stuttgart, Germany, where she graduated from high school.
Her fascination with boxing was spawned before she knew long division. One night, well after her 9 p.m. bedtime, she sneaked out from beneath her covers upon hearing her parents repeatedly yell "Hit him back, hit him back" from the master bedroom. They were watching one of the Muhammad Ali-Leon Spinks fights on live television.
"I was like, 'I can do that, I can do that. That's easy,' " Hallback recalled.
It took nearly two decades for the fascination to segue into obsession. On a Saturday night in March 1996, Hallback discovered boxer Christy Martin — a coal miner's daughter who wore pink attire into the ring — on the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno undercard.
"I immediately got excited and was like, 'Oh my God,' " Hallback recalled.
Two days later, she went to a gym on Bearss Avenue and declared her desire to be a boxer. Eleven months later, she made her pro debut, stopping Connie Plosser in the first round in Miami.
Less than 13 months after that, she had won the Women's International Boxing Federation featherweight crown with a seventh-round TKO of Bonnie Canino in Fort Lauderdale.
"She don't fight like a regular female," said Bulldog Boxing proprietor "Silky" Wilky Campfort, a male middleweight with a 17-1 pro record.
"She's real slick with her punches, with her movement, with her speed. … She's very smart. Sometimes I'll go in there and spar with her. She makes me think more than when I spar with the guys."
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After winning her first championship, she captured three more crowns — from three different governing bodies — over the next 13 years. Yet she'd trade every acronym emblazoned on her title belts — WIBF, IBA, IFBA, WIBA — for the most elusive one.
"HBO, baby," she says.
This is what inspires the predawn runs, the weightlifting, the identical tattoos on her upper arms. Hallback, nicknamed "Fists of Steel," has that moniker etched around a fist smashing a pane of glass.
The metaphor is as vivid as the artwork. She desperately wants to break through.
Another win or two increases the odds of a rematch against undefeated Cecilia Braekhus, who won a controversial 10-round decision against Hallback in a welterweight unification bout three years ago in Denmark. That matchup might, just might, be appealing enough to persuade HBO to showcase a women's bout.
As long as hope lingers, Hallback is mailing nothing in.
"I keep thanking God, because it seems like he's restoring my youthfulness in order for me to reach my goal," Hallback said. "Once my body starts saying, 'Hey, retire, no more,' then I will stop."