When Missy Fitzwater first launched her fists into a punching bag, she “felt God in her chest.”
Sixteen years old at the time, Fitzwater was painfully shy – so timid that her mom still ordered meals for her at restaurants. But boxing became not only a place where the Wellington, Mo., native found confidence but also a borderline-religious experience.
“I internalize things to a fault,” Fitzwater said. “Something bad happens to me, and it would go in, and never come back out. Boxing was a place for me to go and not really repent, but I could go and just let it all out. It was spiritual to me.”
At first, Fitzwater only started boxing because she thought she needed exercise. Looking in the mirror one day, she let her anxiety get the best of her, and thought she was getting too heavy. Then, slamming away on her dad’s punching bag in the basement, Fitzwater realized something else: She was good at this.
Her parents took her to work with Craig Cummings, a former professional boxer who’s now a firefighter and boxing coach. Without a gym to call home, he trained Fitzwater at the Kansas City Fire Department’s Station 17. Still timid, Fitzwater trained on the cement floor, the smell of smoke pungent in the air, and surrounded by dozens of grown men. Not exactly the environment for a shy 16-year-old.
“At first I was very nervous,” she said. “(With) a whole bunch of men watching me, I was like, ‘oh gosh, I’m going to embarrass the family.’ ”
But the more she punched, Fitzwater shed her shell with each drop of sweat falling to the dirty floor.
“I’ve always had a fighter in me,” she said. “But first I was fighting the wrong thing, and that was myself. I was beating myself up and I think most females do that in some sense, like ‘I’m not pretty enough’ or whatever. So I think when we turn to boxing, we find something else to fight.”
Fitzwater has, in a general sense, found something to fight besides the voice in her own head. But specifically, it’s difficult for Fitzwater to find other women to fight. Boxing isn’t hugely popular in the area, and her coach has tried to get her fights as far away as Colorado. A slender figure to begin with, Fitzwater feels most comfortable fighting at 119 pounds, but has gone to 135 to try to match up with someone nearby. She won her Kansas City Golden Gloves fight at that weight, and now stands at 5-5 after dropping her first three amateur fights.
But this week, she hasn’t had to travel far. USA Boxing’s National Championships are being held at the KCI Expo Center all week. So Fitzwater doesn’t have to travel much more than she already does every day, from the farm where her family lives in Wellington, to Turner Boxing Academy, where she primarily trains.
Fitzwater will fight Friday, against the winner of Thursday’s bout between Esmeralda Navarro and Christina Cruz.
With dreams of a spot on the 2020 Olympic team, Fitzwater, now 18, has come a long way from punching a heavy bag in her basement because she wasn’t happy with herself. Now she doesn’t just have something to fight against, but something to fight for.
“I just think if it’s something I have this much passion and drive for, I need to shoot for the stars and see where it takes me,” Fitzwater said. “At times I think, ‘you come from a small town; don’t shoot that high.’ But then I’m like, ‘I am who I am. My dreams are what they are, and I can do anything if I set my mind to it.’ I get empowered by where I come from.”