Nappers Boxing Club fighter defeats Irish champ at international training camp
Nappers Boxing Club fighter Christian Zelenco, 16, of Ridgeway displays the award she received for being the best overall boxer an an international training camp last month in Ireland. BERND FRANKE/Welland Tribune
After the last jab landed and the judges wrote down their final scores it was The Terrier, not one of the larger boxers, who emerged as the top dog.
Despite her size – all of 5 foot 2 1/2 and 108 pounds – Christian Zelenco scored a unanimous decision over the defending Irish champion, a much taller boxer, at an international training camp last month in Edenberry, Ireland.
Nor did the one-time kickboxer’s short, compact stature drop her under the radar when the time came to choose the boxer who made the best impression at an all-female camp that featured 50 fighters, including 11 from Ontario. The 16-year-old from Ridgeway and a member of Nappers Boxing Club in Welland won the Caught the Eye Award, an honour bestowed following a vote of coaches and officials at an event that also included fighters from France and Switzerland.
Zelenco, a part-time Grade 11 student at Ridgeway-Crystal Beach High School after being home-schooled last year, said winning the award was “right up there” with beating Jessica Clarke, the Irish champ, in the three-round fight, her only bout at the camp.
“There were 50 fighters there, so to be selected from all of them is quite special,” she said.
Boxing Ontario’s invitation to attend the camp didn’t include any financial support. Zelenco had to pay for the round-trip flight to Dublin and come up with her own spending money, while the St. Brigid’s Boxing Club provided room and board.
She found the food wholesome and plentiful, though, not being much of a potato fan, a little too heavy on the spuds.
“Let’s just say, my relationship with potatoes is definitely on hold,” she said with a laugh.
Her win over Clarke improved Zelenco’s record to 6-1, but it wasn’t the biggest fight of her budding career in the ring. That happened April 1 when she defeated Jade Meunier, also by a 3-0 decision, for the junior women 48-kilogram title at the Canadian Youth National Championships in Quebec City.
Zelenco, who initially went out for kickboxing because she was a “small kid” who was becoming tired of getting picked on, now uses that size to her advantage when she’s going toe-to-toe with another boxer.
“Being small makes you harder to find,” she said with a laugh. “They called me ‘The Terrier’ in Ireland, they nicknamed me ‘Scrappy.’”
Those monikers, to a great extent, sum up her fight plan.
“I want to win, and that usually comes from offence,” Zelenco said. “If that doesn’t work, my goal will be to adjust.”
Nappers Boxing Club head coach and one-time Canadian champion Ray Napper praised the young fighter as “very coachable” and far ahead of where a boxer normally would be 1 1/2 years into their careers.
“She has a lot of talent,” he said. “She trains hard and she’s very mature for her age when it comes to boxing.”
Napper has become used to having kickboxers working out at his club. Over the years he has seen other martial arts students use boxing to improve their hand movement and striking abilities for kickboxing.
For the most part Zelenco has managed to keep habits and instinctive reactions from her former sport in the past.
“I haven’t dealt with too many issues over kickboxing,” Napper said. “She’s actually a very polished boxer.”
“I’ve never even seen her flinch with her feet. I would never guess she was a kickboxer.”
Zelenco’s transition to boxing from kickboxing hasn’t been without some hiccups, however. She forgot to limit using her hands to land blows her first time sparring at another club.
“I kicked the guy, that’s about it,” she admitted with some embarrassment.
Too wide a stance and facing too forward were other “bad habits” she had to overcome making the transition.
“I was used to leading with my head, which is bad in boxing. You eat a lot of upper cuts that way.”
Zelenco can’t see herself returning to kickboxing now that she has found a club in which she feels at home.
“I get a lot of support here,” said Zelenco, who joined Nappers in June on the recommendation of a personal coach in Milton.
“The coach is great. It’s a family atmosphere, and we all push each other.”
Zelenco branched out from martial arts after three years in kickboxing to expand her horizon in sports.
“She thought there were more opportunities in boxing,” Lynn Baxter-Pereira, her mother, said.
Baxter-Pereria was in her daughter’s corner from Day 1.
“I said ‘Try it for a year. If you want to go back, I will support you.’”
For Zelenco, the biggest rewards in her sport aren’t limited to victories in the ring and awards outside of it. Working toward a goal, and achieving it, are life-affirming.
“I get so much out of the sport,” she said. “I love what it makes me – a better version of myself.”
“Every time I fight it’s the same thing.”