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Perella pulls no punches at program in Charleroi

| Sunday, May 7, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

Leslee Perella says she was a tomboy as a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh. That competitive nature serves her well today as she pursues a career as a professional boxer.

"I played a little bit of everything -- swimming, volleyball, cross country and track in high school and softball in the summer," Perella, who now lives in Baldwin, said while waiting to speak to the Holy Name Society of Mary, Mother of the Church in Charleroi. "I even tried (professional) football at one stage in my life. Was I a tomboy• I think that goes without saying."

Now 38, Perella is as feisty and fierce as ever, especially when she steps into the ring. She is the No. 4 ranked junior lightweight in women's boxing.

Not bad for a fighter who began her career at age 34 and says she fell into the sport "by accident."

"Boxing picked me, I didn't pick boxing," she told the Holy Name Society gathering in the church lyceum. "I went to Jimmy Cvetic's gym with the idea of getting in shape. That was it, I had no designs on becoming a boxer."

Perella, whose petite stature belies her toughness in the ring, recalls that the guys at the gym may not have wanted her there.

"I'm sure some of them resented a woman working out there," she said. "The trainers had very little patience with me once I started showing some interest in learning. They began having me spar against some of the boys and I was lousy. I got beat up a lot and I cried every day. Do you know how embarrassing it is to get beat by a 13-year-old boy when you're more than twice his age?"

Things got so bad, Perella said, that the trainers told her to "go back to swimming or whatever it is that you do. You don't belong here."

"But I kept coming back," she said. "I'm definitely not a glutton for punishment, but my pride was hurt and I've always liked to prove people wrong when they say I can't do something. I was determined to get better."

And improve she did. Within a year, Perella won city (Pittsburgh) and state (Pennsylvania) Golden Gloves championships.

"You know what happened?" she said, laughing. "The same guy who told to me to quit boxing because I didn't have what it takes to be successful asked me to be on his next card."

Perella made her professional debut against Ashlynn Johnson and pounded out a unanimous decision. She lost to seasoned veteran Shakurah Witherspoon in her next outing.

"That was only my second fight and Shakurah already had something like 60 fights," Perella said. "She's a very good boxer with a lot of experience."

Now 3-1-1, she trains at the Martial Arts Sports Complex operated by former Pittsburgh Steelers standout Craig Wolfley in Bridgeville.

When she's not training and looking forward to a shot at a championship, Perella, who has a daughter, works as a bartender at the Blue Note Cafe‚ on Pittsburgh's South Side. That popular night spot and restaurant is owned and operated by Stockdale native Pete Gialames.

"Pete told me about Leslee, and we thought she would be a good speaker for one of our programs," Rich Saccani, of the Holy Name Society, said. "Charleroi has a long and colorful history of boxing and boxers in the amateur and professional ranks. Who can forget the Hilltop Athletic Club?"

Saccani and Jim Chacko, of the Holy Name Society, presented Perella with a commemorative Charleroi Cougars hooded sweatshirt.

"This is really neat," Perella said. "Maybe when I win a championship, I'll wear this in the middle of the ring."

Perella won the hearts of the Mary, Mother of the Church audience, which was composed of men and women, with her outgoing personality.

She explained that she is not the first member of her family to don the leather gloves. Her father, Tony Perella, was a boxer, as were her brothers, Tony Jr. and Jimmy for a brief period of time.

"My dad was not too thrilled when I told him I was going to start fighting," Perella said. "He said he would go to my first fight but he was going under protest. The next thing I know, he's standing on a chair and cheering like heck for me. I think my daughter got everything going when she yelled to me in the ring, 'Let's go, Mommy.'"

As part of her program in Charleroi, Perella showed tapes of two of her fights, including her last one against top-ranked Terri Blair on Dec. 20, at Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester, W.Va. That four-round bout ended in a draw, which came as a surprise to Perella.

"Personally, I thought she won the fight," Perella said. "Terri's a southpaw and they're always more difficult opponents. She's a real brawler and she hit me so hard at one point that I was knocked back about three or four feet. Then she landed a solid punch on my temple and I just blacked out. I didn't go down but I just saw darkness for a couple of seconds. If the fight had gone any longer than four rounds, I think she would have knocked me out."

Perella left the ring that night with her left eye swollen shut but her pride intact.

"I looked like Rocky Balboa," she recalled. "Terri kept landing punches on the left side of my face. But I'm not a runner; that is, I won't back away from anyone. I'll just keep coming at you. I was lucky to come away with a draw, but I'm not complaining."

Perella does have a gripe, however, with critics and skeptics who say women shouldn't be involved in professional boxing; that the sport is comparable to roller derby or women in professional wrestling.

"Why should certain sports be limited to men?" Perella said. "I think women deserve a shot at competing in any sport."

She does not favor the idea of men and women fighting each other in the ring or anywhere else.

"There really is no reason for a man to ever hit a women," she said. "It makes no sense for men and women to be fighting each other. If you took a heavyweight male boxer and pitted him against a heavyweight female fighter, chances are the man would win every time. But what would that prove• If the guy wins, he's criticized for beating up a woman. If he loses, he's criticized for losing to a woman."

Perella, a 1986 graduate of Carrick High School, earned a degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and worked as a social worker at Western Psych for a few years.

"I had to quit because it was just too stressful," she said.

Which is an interesting observation from a woman who just happens to be a professional boxer.

"Hey, I have a mortgage and other expenses just like everyone else," she said. "The money (from boxing) isn't that great but it helps."

So Perella will continue fighting as long as her talents, commitment and Father Time will allow her to do well.

"Yes, I got a late start in the game and I'm getting older," she said. "I'm usually facing fighters who are much younger than I am. But I think my nickname (Long Play) says it all. I want to keep playing as long as I can."

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