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Featherweight champ Jelena Mrdjenovich talks about what keeps her fighting

'When you get bitten by the boxing bug, people just yearn for it. '

'When you get bitten by the boxing bug, people just yearn for it. '

Jelena Mrdjenovich started boxing as a workout. Now she's a world champion. (Inside an Athlete's Head/CBC)

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call Jelena Mrdjenovich one of the toughest women on the planet. The reigning WBC and WBA female featherweight champion has held titles in three weight classes. In 50 fights, she's never been knocked out. All her losses have come by decision, while 19 of her wins have come by knockout.

In her episode of Inside an Athletes Head, Mrdjenovich talks about what runs through her head during a fight, what she loves about the sport, and how you keep fighting when blood from your head wound is trapped under your contact lens.

Pressure is a constant for a high level athlete. What do you away from the ring to deal with that pressure?

For me, managing pressure, I think it's just something I do naturally. I spend a lot of time with my family and my friends outside of the ring. I think they keep me level, and kind of grounded. I'm very fortunate I have amazing people by my side, who've supported me since day one. For me, I think just being a "normal" person, outside of being an athlete, that's a big thing.

Do you remember the first time you really felt pressure as an athlete?

I don't know if I feel [outside] pressure, as much as I put pressure on myself. That's just me as an athlete and a human. I like to be the best version of myself. The pressure I put on myself is that we put in so much time and effort, when I say 'we,' I mean my whole team, who are with me every step of the way. A big part of that is just not disappointing [people]. And I basically felt it from my very first professional fight.

Who is the person in your life you turn to when you feel like you need advice or find yourself struggling?

I have a trainer, who I call my second dad, and he actually was a family friend, a friend of my dad's, and that's how he started coaching me. He's kept me grounded and level headed. I tend to always make things harder. I put a lot of pressure [on myself]. Nothing I ever do will be perfect. He's the one who lifts my spirits and he believed when I haven't. So whenever I'm feeling a ton of pressure or am anxious and can't straighten it out, he feels it... He's been my backbone and my rock through this journey.

What makes someone want to be a boxer?

The challenge of the sport is so incredible… I got into boxing by accident. I went into a gym just to get a physical workout... A little background on me: I grew up playing every sport. I went to the University of Alberta, I was gonna play basketball. I made the team, but I blew my ACL. So I had to find some other challenge as cross training… What made me want to continue in the sport, was the mental challenge, the emotional challenge... That was shocking to me. Every time I went into the gym, I wanted to learn more, I wanted to do more, I wanted to feel more.

It's 'I'll show you a move and see what you do, and I'm gonna try to find a different way to react.' I always say, when you get bitten by the boxing bug, people just yearn for it.

When you learn a little bit more, you realize it's not just two knuckleheads beating each other up, it's a chess match.- Jelena Mrdjenovich

Your career has kind of run parallel to women's boxing going mainstream. How is the sport different now compared to when you started?

I started in 2003, that was my first pro fight. I won my first world title in 2005, and this was when women were first getting acknowledged as world champions. I was the first ever WBC female super featherweight champion. The WBC has these conventions called A Night of Champions. They bring all the present and former champions together—it's in Cancun—you speak to the public, you take photos. [At my first one] I looked at these 50 past and present champions, and there were four females there. That was it... Fast forward to three years ago, the WBC had their first ever female world champions convention. And I was giving the greeting [address] to the convention, and there were 20-plus women there! To see the sport evolve from 2005… has been incredible. We've gotten these old school promoters now supporting women and believing in them and giving them the platform to be great.  

In spite of all that, you say in the doc that you still get some sexist comments from men...

It's not just men, it's women too. I shouldn't just say men. I get it mostly from men, but I do get it from women too.

What do you say in response to those comments?

I try to laugh it off, but you have people who are persistent. They're like 'Seriously, why do you do this? You should get into modelling or something.' Then I say 'Well, thank you for the compliment, but what I do as an athlete shouldn't have anything to do with how I look...' I always remind people that I'm great at what I do, and I've worked extremely hard. If you don't believe me, check out my highlight reel. I send them to YouTube.

Other than getting punched, what's the hardest part of being a fighter?

For me, it's believing in myself… believing the work I've done is enough. And don't get me wrong, I believe I'm the best in the world. I've put the work in, I have the accolades and the belts to prove it, but there's always that little bit of doubt. And that's where my trainer came in, and it took a lot of time, and he had to run my head through a few concrete walls to get it through, but once I started [believing in myself]… the sky was the limit.