Emily Klinefelter woke up in the hospital. She didn’t know what had happened but knew something was wrong. Her first thought was that she must have drunk too much after winning in her most beloved sport, boxing, and hit her head.
She was wrong.
The Iowa City woman – on the top of her boxing career, ranked third in the United States and number seven in the world by the Boxing Record Ratings – got hit hard in a match on a February night in 2011. She never had been knocked down, and suddenly she was in an Iowa City hospital, recovering from brain surgery. Tubes were coming out of her head, which had been shaved for surgery. Bandages hid a huge scar that today is almost covered over by her hair.
When her family told her that she wouldn’t be able to fight again, Klinefelter’s world fell apart.
Boxing is her life. Klinefelter, 29, started when she was 16 years old. She knew nothing about boxing, but tried it with her sister Katy and immediately stuck with it. “I loved the raw combat aspect, that is just you and another person going out in the ring, against each other,” she said.
She started to fight and rise in a professional boxing career, going from state to national to international tournaments. Adam Pollack, whom she eventually married – now they are divorced – coached her sister and her. “He took me from knowing nothing to 96 fights in total,” Klinefelter said.
But Christina Ruiz cut off her boxing career earlier than she expected.
Listen to Emily Klinefelter talk about her post-boxing life in this audio-slideshow. Viewer alert: Contains coarse language that some find offensive.
Inma Mateos audio slideshow/Special to IowaWatch
It happened in that 96th, and last, fight the night of Feb. 5, 2011. Klinefelter took hard shots from Ruiz, an opportunity Ruiz had often because Klinefelter was always on attack, taking every punch and turning it into an anger that helped her in her fights. Eventually, her brain couldn’t take the punishment anymore.
For the first time Klinefelter was against the ropes, staggering. After two more hits she fell down. She was out. The audience at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City watched as paramedics took Klinefelter to University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, where she spent one week before resting at home and returning to the hospital for a second surgery.
The dangers of boxing are known. In the last five decades, there were 421 reported boxing-related deaths worldwide. Two of every three of these deaths were attributed to head, brain or neck injuries; and another 1 percent was attributed to skull fractures, according to the Journal of Combative Sports.
One-half of boxing fatalities take place in the United States, the journal reports. None have been in Iowa.
Klinefelter still was in bed when she talked about a rematch, not listening to her doctor’s advice that she could never fight again, that she could never get hit again. “It just hurt my pride, more than anything,” she said.
Klinefelter fought with passion. She never backed down from a fight. She was tough. But she never learned how to defend herself, those who coached her in her fighting career said.
She always was on the attack and, as a result, she got hit a lot. “I think her injury was the result of her style of fighting,” said Morrie Adams, her boxing counselor at the time. “She was very successful being a brawler but eventually it caught up with her.”
The injury was one of the hardest things she ever had to face. She had been on the top of a fighting career for 10 years. “It was probably the most important thing in my life,” Klinefelter said. “It was what I spent the most time and energy on.”
Coaching became what she calls her lifesaver.
She wanted to stay involved in boxing after the injury, so she switched to coaching. She runs her own boxing club, ICOR, in Iowa City, where she has been head coach since 2008. Her current motivation isn’t fighting but teaching others the things on which she failed. She focuses her coaching more on boxing skills than on brawling skills.
She takes a lot of her competitive nature into her coaching, and has been successful. Mark Colbert, whom Klinefelter and Pollack trained, won in 2013 the Ringside World Championship, at 57, in the 165-pound Master’s division.
“I think she started to accomplish as a coach what she did as a fighter,” Damien Roth, one of Klinefelter’s co-workers at the ICOR Club, said. “You can see in the style of her fighters that she has trained them.”
Most of Klinefelter’s boxers are men and, at first, it’s hard for them to get to know her. But once they know her they find her to be intelligent and a good person to be around.
In the beginning, Colbert had problems being taught by a woman but that disappeared after he got to know Klinefelter. Now, he said, he feels like the most fortunate person in the world when he talks about his coach.
“She took the macho out of me,” said Colbert, “I was brought up that way and I liked it, I liked being macho, how that macho feeling, I loved that.”
Klinefelter has coached Zach Aschoff for three years, and has helped win several fights. “She is really patient, she is able to give students advice based in their strengths and weaknesses,” Aschoff said. “She finds time to give me one-on-one attention and with specific advice for my style of fighting.”
And while Klinefelter said coaching has saved her, her mentor, Adams, said she also has grown in one other important way. She is wiser.
“She is always being smart, but not always wise. She’s become wiser,” Adams said. “To me, intelligence without wisdom can be dangerous, and she is much wiser than she was.”
Author and photographer Inma Mateos is studying journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa through the International Student Exchange Program. She has a degree in information science and documentation from the University of Murcia in her home country of Spain. The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) published this story via IowaWatch.