Heavy-hitting diva Franchon Crews sets her sights on London Olympics

On a quiet Friday morning in a West Baltimore gym above the Cash USA pawnshop, Franchon Crews unleashes a powerful flurry outside the ring.

"It's been a long, a long time coming," she roars. "But I know change gonna come, oh yes it did."

Her final breath floods the room.

"Sorry, that's my own little version," she says in a nearly-empty UMAR Boxing gym. She replaced "will" with "did" — changing the last word of "A Change Is Gonna Come" because for her, change has come.

Decades after they were recorded, Sam Cooke's lyrics resonate with one of the nation's best female boxers. The chubby girl with anger problems and family responsibilities grew into a woman who won three consecutive national boxing championships. She flirted with a singing career, got suspended from boxing for two years for doping and returned to win another middleweight division U.S. title this year. Now, at 24, the woman who calls herself the "Heavy-Hitting Diva" is prepared to compete this week at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, with her eyes set on the London Olympics in 2012.

If she represents the U.S. in London next year, she will be present at the perfect time, and perhaps first true chance, for women's boxing to pierce the mainstream sports landscape, as it is the first time it will be in the Olympics since it was a demonstration sport in the 1904 Games.

Getting here

Born in Norfolk, Va., Crews grew up in the suburbs. Her parents separated when she was 8. At that age, she was already cooking dinner, usually something simple like sausage and eggs, for her mother, Sarah, who worked three jobs at times.

Today, Franchon speaks daily with her father, Willie, a former semi-pro football player and amateur boxer who lives in Virginia with Franchon's three brothers.

"I get my physical strength from my dad," she said. "But my mom is the epitome of strength."

When Franchon was 13, she and Sarah relocated to Baltimore. Crews struggled making friends and attended the Central Career Center, an alternative high school, after she was expelled from Frederick Douglass High for fighting.

In August 2003, Crews walked into the UMAR gym hoping to lose weight. At the time, she weighed nearly 200 pounds. Marvin McDowell, the founder and president of the gym's boxing program, did not think she would cut it.

"No one paid me attention cause I was a loud mouth, a little chubby," Crews said. "Eventually Mr. Marvin saw something in me."

He saw her resolve, her strength, the long arms that launched stinging jabs. The two began working together. After eight months of training, Crews won her first tournament. By year's end she was the state Golden Gloves champ.

"I never met or saw a female as tough and hard as she is. You know she looks all glamorous and pretty and diva-ish, but she's tough," McDowell said. "There's no quit in her and she's gonna be there for the long haul."

Dreams of a singing career competed with her newfound boxing ambitions. In 2004, her voice landed her in front of the judges at an "American Idol" audition. Crews' rendition of "A Woman's Worth" was rejected, but was shown on TV.

"I made the declaration on TV, 'If I'm not the American Idol, I'm going to be the middleweight champ of the world," she said. "And now, I'm less than a year away from that."

Crews continued training at UMAR Boxing and began to ascend the sport's ranks. In 2005, at 17, the 5-foot-8 fighter won her first of three consecutive U.S. middleweight National Championships.

While Franchon was flourishing in boxing, other aspects of her life were troubled, Crews says. Her mother was suffering from diabetes, kidney failure and high blood pressure. In 2005, Sarah Crews endured a near-death experience when she was robbed. She suffered internal bleeding and had two strokes during a three-month hospital visit. Last November, a stomach ulcer flared up in another health crisis.

"My mother is never a burden, but I always have to be on call for her," Franchon said. "She's disabled, but she's very independent."

Sarah, a Jehovah's Witness, believes her daughter has developed maturity beyond her years stemming from these incidents. While Sarah does not support boxing because of her religion, but the two chat regularly when Franchon travels to compete.

In 2007, Crews made a major change. She switched trainers to work with Gary Russell Sr., a fixture on the local boxing scene whom Crews described as "a technician and a perfectionist." She attributed the change to wanting "to see if the grass was greener on the other side."

Franchon won two straight national titles under Russell, capturing the U.S. National Championship at 165 lbs. in 2007 and at 154 lbs. the next year.

In 2009, however, Crews tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended for two years. Crews, who will not say what the substance was, says the suspension was unwarranted and fears that it will be inextricably linked to her reputation.

"I wasn't in the wrong," she said. "I battled it for a year. I battled it for the whole time, like I had lawyers fighting on it the whole time.

Anthony Bartkowski, executive director of USA Boxing, wrote in an email, "Franchon Crews violated the [World Anti-Doping Agency] drug policy and subsequently received a two-year suspension. She has served the suspension and is now cleared to box."

For 18 months, Crews did not train. But she restarted. And in June, she enjoyed a 15-13 victory over Alyssa Defazio of Peoria, Ariz., in the middleweight championship bout at the USA Boxing National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo.

On track

Crews' commitment to boxing has returned. She balances jobs at the Cheesecake Factory and a hotel with her training, which essentially serves as a third job. Most days start at 4:30 a.m. and end at midnight.

In January, Crews returned to the UMAR gym with McDowell and assistant coach Dennis James, a former pro fighter, in her corner. McDowell and she picked up where they left off.

"He never said anything bad about me," Crews said of the man she considers a father figure. "He never held animosity. If he did, he never showed it."

With one of four spots reserved in the Olympic Trials, Crews has as good a chance to represent her country as any middleweight. She trains seriously. She runs every day and her stamina is better than it has ever been.

Joe Zanders, the coach leading the USA Boxing National Team, believes the adversity Crews has overcome will help her succeed.

"That's what champions are made of," he said. "People who can get up off the canvas in their life, in their personal life, as well as in the ring."

Zanders cited Crews' athleticism, punching skills and her abilities to listen to her corner and make adjustments. "She has put herself in position to be a very strong candidate for the Olympic team," he said.

On a Friday night back at UMAR, Crews does her best Beyonce impression before a mirror, singing "Run the World (Girls)." She will soon trade her black Converse High Tops in for heels.

The Heavy Hitting Diva, indeed. The girl with a right hand that "will put you to sleep," as one male fighter who she spars with described it. The one who will bring gold back to Baltimore, McDowell believes.

It's been a grind for Franchon Crews. Over the past decade, Crews has lost a lot of weight and nearly her mother twice. But she's also won all but three of her 47 fights.

Change has come. But it just might be time for her to sing a new tune — "London Calling."

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