Timid Missoula tailor's love of boxing changes her life
Jul. 14, 2018
MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — At the Tailor of Missoula shop on South Higgins Avenue, photographs of professional fighters hang on the walls. They're clients, friends and idols of Lynette Kelly, the 30-year-old tailor who works behind the counter.
"There's a photo of a fighter up here named Jose Haro," she said, pointing to a boxer standing in the ring wearing shimmering boxing trunks. "I make all of his stuff, he's an inspiration, he's amazing."
Kelly explained that Haro had a promising boxing career that was interrupted when he was shot through both his feet in a Wal-Mart parking lot. His injuries forced him to start his training from scratch on permanently damaged feet.
After he recovered, Haro won the United States Boxing Association's 2017 featherweight title wearing a custom, sparkling, red-and-black boxing skirt with his nickname, "Pepito," across the front. Kelly sewed it special for him.
Although she's sewn her whole life, and opened her first tailoring shop when she was 20, Kelly only recently began making boxing gear after becoming a fighter herself.
She didn't play sports as a child, and she was always a particularly gentle girl. She grew up in a small town in Utah with four siblings. Her mother, Sheila Kelly, said Lynette's sensitivity forced her to change her parenting style. If her daughter ever felt she was the center of attention or in trouble, she'd break down in tears.
"On Lynette's fifth birthday, we came home and said, 'Lynette, we're going to have your birthday dinner,' and we walked into the house and she burst into tears and ran up to her room crying because the attention would be on her," she said. "So we had the birthday dinner without her and then she came down later and ate on her own."
Sheila Kelly said she used to tell her daughter that she "came into our family to teach us to be nice like you."
"Her being that tenderhearted made me a better person," her mother said, "just in the way I had to change myself because of how tender she was."
Lynette Kelly still has a gentle demeanor, but now, as she tailors wedding dresses and replaces zippers on motorcycle jackets at her shop, bruises from fighting dot her arms and legs.
"Usually people say, 'I hear your voice, I see your face, and I can't imagine you hitting someone and making someone bleed,'" she said. "I think a lot of people assume that in order to fight you have to be a mean person, and I don't think that's true at all.'"
Kelly began boxing four years ago. She said she had an urge to become a stronger person, and boxing was the farthest thing from her personality she could try.
"I felt like if I could learn to do that, then I could do anything," she said.
Her parents were shocked when they found out.
"When I told my family, 'I'm going to start boxing,' my dad laughed his head off," she said. "He was like, 'You can't even catch a baseball, you think you can get hit in the face?'"
For the first month, going to the gym was so intimidating her stomach churned. But she set goals for herself, and slowly built on them. When she started boxing, her son was a year old, and she'd still never played a sport.
"Going in for the first time, I was just honestly a sad, fat mom."
Her first goal, to not miss a single day of training, turned that around. Kelly went to the boxing gym six days a week, and it was so intense she lost 80 pounds in the first several week. Her goals increased incrementally: make it through a whole workout without wanting to cry, build enough conditioning to try sparring, get in the ring for an actual fight, sign up for a competition.
As her skills improved, she felt stronger, more empowered.
"For me, nothing about it is natural, so I've had to train myself to be aggressive, I've had to train myself to be tough," she said. "And I think because those things feel unnatural for me, it makes me a stronger person, because I have to work so hard and focus so hard to get that."
As she built connections in the boxing world, Kelly realized how expensive and difficult it is to get custom boxing uniforms. She was already working as a tailor after her mother taught her to sew, although up until that point her work mostly involved men's church suits, prom dresses and other alterations.
She decided to begin creating boxing trunks, vests and robes, and started her own brand, Victory Fightwear. She now sends custom boxing gear to fighters all over the world.
"I have a portfolio online, and it's a pretty unique niche. There aren't a lot of people who do custom boxing clothing," she said. "So basically a fighter will email me and say 'I like these colors,' or 'I want these specific details.' I send them a sketch, and they approve it."
Her online portfolio has photos of all the different trunks she's made, with pink leopard print, faux fur, national flags, and always the fighter's name printed boldly on the waistband. These days, in her Missoula shop, she's working on lots of wedding or bridesmaid dresses, as well as sleeping bags (a demographic change from her last home, she noted.)
In addition to those jobs, she works on the boxing gear, and the two are beginning to blend together. She recently made a pair of custom boxing trunks for another woman fighter in Missoula.
"I think fighters are the most inspiring people on the planet," she wrote on her website, "and I want to help them look and feel incredible in the ring."
Kelly's mother has never been interested in watching fighting on TV, but one day she got a call from her daughter asking if she had a certain channel that shows boxing matches.
"Yeah," Sheila Kelly replied.
Her daughter said, "There's a boxer fighting on that channel, and I made all the stuff he's wearing."
Sheila Kelly rushed to the TV and watched every round of the fight, admiring her daughter's work. Sheila has also sewn her whole life, and made all her daughter's wedding dresses, including Lynette's. Her daughter's decision to create uniforms for fighters exemplifies her kind nature, Sheila Kelly said.
"Boxing has such a small resource for custom work that when she started doing it, she made it really affordable for these guys," Sheila Kelly said. "Having boxed, and knowing the sweat and blood that goes into it, she does it much more affordably than someone else would."
When Lynette Kelly moved with her husband and 5-year-old son to Missoula 10 months ago, she searched for a gym where she could continue boxing, but found none was registered with USA Boxing, a requirement for participating in competitions.
Undeterred, she decided to learn jiu jitsu and judo at Sakura Warrior Arts. Kelly's new instructor, Torr Harrison, still trains her in boxing, but she can only compete in the martial arts. She's found that the different fighting styles are all connected, and loves that there's always more to learn.
The jiu jitsu training is even more grueling than boxing, she said, and before her tournament last month she sent a photo of some the bruises covering her arms, chest and legs to her brothers and father.
Her brothers responded encouragingly, telling her, "You're tougher than I am!"
"The last reaction I got from my dad before the jiu jitsu tournament last month — I was more beat up than I've ever been in my life — and he said, 'Please stop doing this, find something else to do.'
"I said, 'Well, if I stop, I'm just going to turn into a sad, fat mom, and I'm not doing that.'"
At a recent evening training session at Sakura, Kelly, with her dark hair buzzed on each side and the rest braided back into a bun, worked on her skills with three other boxers and her trainer.
She held her gloves up to her temples, and danced around the bag hanging before her. She punched it hard — right, left, hook, exhaling when her glove made contact. With every punch, the bag swung, and she adjusted as if it were an opponent.
Kelly is often the only woman in the gym, though she's noticed more younger girls competing in the martial arts.
Sweat dripped from her forehead as she practiced her kicks, swinging her leg up to hit the bag with a roundhouse kick, or turning her back to hit it with her heel.
"It's a really unique type of focus," she said of boxing. "There's a lot of problem solving involved, there's a lot of creativity, which you wouldn't expect. I think from the outside, it just looks like a brawling, chaotic mess, but it's incredibly technical."
After her training, Kelly chatted with her coach about fighting and competing. Harrison grew up in the dojo, which belongs to his father, and began coaching at 16. It takes a lot of courage to compete, he said.
Kelly never won any of her boxing matches, but she placed second in her latest jiu jitsu tournament, after which she hugged her trainer and and told him it was the first time she's ever won anything outside of costume design. But for her, the rush comes from fighting in general, not just from winning.
"In my experience," she said, "nothing makes you feel better."
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com