'Jelena's kept the sport alive': Edmonton-based boxing champ honoured on home turf

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'Jelena's kept the sport alive': Edmonton-based boxing champ honoured on home turf

Growing up, Jelena Mrdjenovich never dreamed she could be the best in the world at anything.

And if she did become the best in the world at something, she wouldn't have guessed it would be boxing, a sport that she didn't even discover until university. 

The reigning World Boxing Commission and World Boxing Association unified female featherweight world champion, now 34, was honoured Monday night at the Chateau Nova Yellowhead by the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission with the 2016 International Boxer of the Year Award. 

"To be honoured in Edmonton by these people who have been there since Day 1 is always incredibly amazing," said Mrdjenovich, who first won the award back in 2005 when she won her first world championship. "The belts are awesome and I cherish those, but this also gets set in the mantle with the belts."

The Edmonton Combative Sports Commission formed in 1920 around professional boxing. It now includes professional wrestling and professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as well. 

Executive director Pat Reid, a former boxer himself, said while all three sports have always had a strong presence in the city, Mrdjenovich has brought a lot more attention to it. 

"Jelena's kept the sport alive in Edmonton," Reid said, crediting Mrdenovich as a major draw on the card when there are fights in Edmonton. 

"A lot of people who follow professional boxing certainly know her," he said. "The events that KO Boxing puts on at the Shaw Conference Centre are always sold out and Jelena's usually one of the mainstays."

Hard work pays off

But Mrdjenovich, who currently holds the World Boxing Commission and the World Boxing Association titles in her weight class, said it wasn't always that way.

She was a 19-year-old student basketball player at the University of Alberta when she tore her ACL. As part of her recovery, she began dabbling in boxing. 

"The minute I stepped in the boxing gym, I just fell in love with the sport," Mrdjenovich said. 

Breaking into the community wasn't easy. 

"When I started in boxing I wasn't the biggest fan-draw. I sold tickets to put myself on shows," Mrdjenovich said. "My trainer vouched for me and he's been beside me every step of the way, but it was a hard-fought battle to get people to want to support me."  

In the 12 years she's been on top, Mrdjenovich, who trains locally at Panther Gym, has made an effort to extend herself to up-and-coming talent.

"If you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want," she said is the message she wants to send out to young boxers. 

Mrdjenovich's personal story captured the attention of Gruvpix Production, an Edmonton-based company chronicling her career in a documentary, Jelena, set to premiere to a small crowd on March 31 and on TELUS Optik TV April 1. 

Grupix's Ryan Northcott was impressed by the name Mrdjenovich is making for herself in a male dominated sport. 

"To have such an elite athlete in our backyard who is legitimately the best in the world at something is very rare," Northcott added in a text message. 

Mrdjenovich will be defending her two belts in France on May 18.  

​"Jelena, she's the Wayne Gretzky of boxing," Reid said. "She's the individual who everybody identifies with as a world champion."

Twelve other awards were handed out for boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts at the national and international level. Three were lifetime achievement awards.

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell