Cowardly Tonya puts skates on and flees

America at Large : Slightly over a year ago I had the misfortune to witness Tonya Harding's professional boxing debut, writes…

America at Large: Slightly over a year ago I had the misfortune to witness Tonya Harding's professional boxing debut, writes George Kimball.

"Fighting," if you can call it that, on the undercard of Mike Tyson's Memphis bout against Clifford Etienne, the disgraced Olympic figure-skater was beaten by a Mississippi girl named Samantha Browning, and most of us at ringside that night concluded, with undisguised relief, that we'd seen the last of Tonya.

Ten years have passed since Nancy Kerrigan, America's top skater, was kneecapped with a truncheon on her way out of a practice session on the eve of the US championships. Kerrigan had figured to be the country's top hope in women's freestyle skating, and fingers were shortly, and accurately, pointed at Harding. As the second-best American skater, Harding figured to profit most from Kerrigan's indisposition, and, as the plot unravelled, Tonya's bodyguard was convicted of having carried out the attack on orders from her then-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

The soap opera on ice became the most riveting story of the day. Kerrigan and Harding were featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

Both her ex-husband and the bodyguard served jail time as a result of the attack, but prosecutors were unable to immediately link Harding to the plot to incapacitate Kerrigan, and she was allowed to skate at the Lillehammer Olympics seven weeks later.

Kerrigan recovered sufficiently to perform, but had to settle for the silver medal. Harding broke a shoelace and finished eighth. The live broadcast of that competition from Norway remains the sixth-highest rated programme in television history.

Kerrigan subsequently married her agent, one-time tennis maven Jerry Solomon, starred in ice revues, cut an album and had a son.

The decade was less kind to Harding. She avoided jail through a plea-bargain, but was fined $150,000 and sentenced to 500 hours of community service. She was stripped of her 1994 national championship, and banned for life by the US Figure Skating Association.

She, too, recorded an album, which bombed. She was arrested three times for drunken driving, and two years ago she was cajoled into fighting Bill Clinton's one-time accuser Paula Jones on a made-for-TV "celebrity boxing" show. She won that fight, which inspired her to turn pro.

She was also divorced from Gillooly, who apparently got his revenge when an X-rated wedding night video starring himself and an enthusiastic Ms Harding began to surface all over the Internet. The footage demonstrated, if nothing else, that Tonya had more aptitude for indoor gymnastics than she did for boxing, singing, or, for that matter, driving.

Those of us who hoped that the beating she took from Samantha Browning in Memphis would have discouraged Tonya from pursuing a fistic career were soon proven wrong. She fought four more times last year, winning three bouts in Midwestern backwaters before taking on the more experienced Melissa Yanas in August. In a bout contested, appropriately enough, at a Dallas strip club, Yanas needed just 73 seconds to pound Tonya into submission.

Harding's sixth fight was scheduled for last Saturday night at the Oakland Arena. Guaranteed $12,000 to fight a young lady called Tracy Carlton, Harding blew into the Bay Area and made the rounds of radio talk-shows and newspaper sports departments. She spoke of her preference for boxing over skating because, she said, "it's all about me and the other person. It's who the better athlete is.

"Yes, there are judges," said Tonya, "but, if you knock somebody down, that pretty much says it all."

Those of us who have spent the past decade wondering what might have happened had Kerrigan simply approached Harding with a club in her own hand got a chance to find out last Friday. An audience of 4,300 had paid in advance to watch Harding-Carlton, but when the participants met at the weigh-in, Carlton frightened Tonya right out of the building.

As pre-fight trash-talking goes, the one-sided conversation wasn't particularly original. Carlton was heard to promise Harding "I'm going to kick your ass tomorrow night," so that much is indisputable. According to Harding's manager, Paul Brown, Carlton also said "I've seen you fight, and I'm going to kill you. I'm going to put a skate in your head."

Harding was, in any case, sufficiently shaken that she bolted out the back door without weighing in. Even when the California commission bent its rules and told her she could weigh in later, she refused, and by nightfall she was on a plane out of town.

Brown later claimed that "racial tension" and "death threats" had inspired Harding's flight, though if one boxer saying to another "I'm going to kill you" at the weigh-in constituted a death threat the jails would be full of prizefighters. Brown later amended his complaint to charge that promoter Donald Clark had refused to provide "extra security" for Harding after the threats.

"Why would I not provide extra security?" said Clark. "I'd already advanced her $2,000, plus free air fare, hotels, limos, and per diem for herself, for Paul, her bodyguard and her cut man. I'd already had paid for the Oakland Police Department to be at the fight."

Clark called Brown "a bald-faced liar". He stopped short of labelling Tonya Harding, but then he didn't have to. Without a club in her hand she's just like any other would-be bully: a snivelling coward.

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