Jelena Mrdjenovich: Triumph, Tragedy and Travesty

By Ian Aldous: “Right before we were about to walk to the ring, I had a bunch of tears and I started crying. My friend, Brad Switzer, our second in the corner, he looked at me like, ‘get your shit together’ and I laughed, ‘ok, you’re right’. I wiped away the tears and we did our ring walk.”

When speaking with prize fighters, it’s a common occurrence to be met with bravado, hyperbole and confidence. This time, however, raw and honest words concerning the mental state of a veteran fighter took up a considerable chunk of my conversation with multi-time world champion and reigning WBA featherweight titleholder, Jelena Mrdjenovich (41-10-2).

Since her professional debut in 2003, Mrdjenovich had been trained and guided by Milan Lubovac. Early last year, he suffered a cardiac arrest and devastatingly remains in a vegetative state. Her last bout, a title defence against Iranda Paola Torres, in December 2020, was her fifty-third fight and first without her much-loved trainer and mentor. A tough decision was made to advance her career and utilise the stellar services of renowned trainer, Johnathon Banks.

“It was emotional. It was tough,” the thirty-eight year old admitted. “I was very open about talking about the depression I was going through and the emotional struggles I was having, and still continue to have.”

“It’s definitely been a struggle. One of the major reasons I chose Johnathon is because he experienced a similar thing with Emanuel Steward and he knows what I’m going through. He can relate. It’s a unique situation but it feels like we’re on the same wavelength. I feel like he understands the struggle emotionally that I go through and that’s secured our bond a bit more.”

The emotional Canadian prevailed via unanimous decision, despite sustaining a nasty cut, in a rough, non-stop ten-round title fight broadcast by Ring City USA on NBC Sports Network. Her new trainer was actually unable to be in her corner due to a clash of dates with Banks’ No.1 fighter, GGG fighting on the very next day. Current day Covid bubbles meant he couldn’t attend both fights.

To add further to the swathes of negativity suffered in 2020, Mrdjenovich and her team had valid reason to be aggrieved by the actions of the World Boxing Council. Unable to agree terms with Amanda Serrano for a unification bout, the WBC ‘awarded’ Mrdjenovich, who had held the WBC featherweight world title since 2016, with the spurious title of emeritus champion, while Serrano’s interim championship was upgraded to a full world title.

“I’m honestly as baffled as everyone else. I’ve been a WBC champion off-and-on since 2005,” she said openly. “I’ve always fought whoever they placed in front of me. I had asked Ring City to hold off my fight because we’re supposed to undergo the full process with the WBC and go to a purse bid.”

“I wasn’t even informed by the WBC,” she added. “I was informed by Ring City that they had already elevated Amanda and appointed me a champion emeritus, whatever that is even supposed to mean. This was a shock to me as it was to everybody else. Obviously, I’m very disappointed. I’ve always taken pride in taking tough fights whenever they come up.”

The former super-featherweight world champion believes female fights are more affordable currently, hence why they’ve taken more prominent positions on televised cards since the advent of Covid-19. Mrdjenovich, known for a left hook that has helped score nineteen stoppages in forty-one fights, still harbours hope of a unification bout with IBO, WBC & WBO 126-pound world champion, Serrano. The unified champion from Puerto Rico has made it abundantly clear she wishes to completely unify the division, paving the way for the four-belt fight.

“I’ve never avoided Amanda,” Mrdjenovich states. “I obviously think this is a great fight and I value my time and me as a business more than maybe Amanda and her people value her. I think it’s a great fight for women’s boxing and it’s a fight I deserved to get paid for. I’ve been in this business for eighteen years. I’ve been a world champion for fifteen years. I deserve to finally get paid for that type of fight.”

“They gave me some bullshit offer and I said, ‘are you kidding me?’ All of a sudden I was impossible to deal with and that’s why they (the WBC) elevated Amanda. I was waiting for the purse bids because we have promoters in Canada that happily would have promoted this show. But, unfortunately because the WBC makes their own rules, they decided to just make me an emeritus champion.”

Both featherweight champions currently operate under the Ring City USA promotional banner. But, before that tantalising clash can take place, Mrdjenovich will defend her WBA strap this Thursday night against Erika Cruz Hernandez, who hasn’t lost since 2016 and is 12-1. Mrdjenovich and Banks are seven weeks into a Las-Vegas-based training camp preparing for the challenge of the Mexican contender.

“Listen, when you’re a world champion, you have that target on your back, and everybody elevates when they step into the ring. I am defending my WBA title here, so there’s a lot on the line for her. She’s had a full camp. I expect her to come out both guns blazing and she’s prepared to rip my title from my hands.”

“I’m excited to fight, but again, I’m super disappointed not to be able to defend my WBC title (pauses), because it was stolen from me.”

In her eighteenth year as a pro, Mrdjenovich has seen and done it all. She’s lost ten fights, but has never been stopped, and has returned to the win column whenever the vultures have circled. The female fight game has changed drastically since her debut and the female fighting pioneer has earned the right to call the shots.

“I’m long past the days of taking fights for no money.”