Boxer Melissa St. Vil packs a special kind of punch. “I mean a lot of things for a lot of different people,” she ruminates on a rainy night in Manhattan’s Overthrow Boxing Club, where the New York native’s punching bag is getting a rare breather. “That’s a lot of pressure. But with these gloves on, I become Super Mel.”
It’s also St. Vil’s journey as a survivor of abuse in the sport, and the way she’s shared it, that’s made her such an industry game changer. “The boxing world can be like a pit of snakes,” she says. “I ran into all the wrong people. I’ve grown from that. But I stepped over a lot of hurdles, girl.”
The most publicized of those hurdles came in 2009, when St. Vil was assaulted and hospitalized in Las Vegas by her former trainer Roger Mayweather—uncle to Floyd Mayweather Jr.—who pleaded no contest to two counts of battery. He served no jail time, and St. Vil found herself in a different kind of fight, battling not only for her voice to be heard, but also to be taken seriously. “I had just won a fight in New Mexico. A tough fight. How was it that I was fighting on Friday, back in Vegas on Saturday, and in a hospital bed on Sunday? I thought, This isn’t right. I’m gonna fight for my name … And I’m gonna be the last woman he ever puts his hands on.”
Today, St. Vil is back in the ring and leading boxing and self-defense classes in New York. She’s collaborated with NO MORE, an international coalition combating domestic violence and sexual assault, and spoken to women at a World Boxing Council event about her experience. “And look at all this stuff we’re seeing on the news right now about Time’s Up, about ladies fighting together. It’s inspiring.” She brings up the economics of abuse and the degree to which it entangles both “personal and professional” struggles for women. “Female boxing is already so unrepresented, and for a while people wouldn’t [book] me for fights. They didn’t want to ‘get involved’ with this scandal,” she explains. So when St. Vil steps into the ring, it’s also to become a visible ally to survivors of abuse who have felt isolated by their pain.
“I also grew up in a violent household,” she says. “I’m lucky that boxing has been this escape from feeling small, from the rage and confusion. My dream is to help these ladies tap into their own mental strength.” St. Vil started training in her teens, after following her cousin inside a warehouse that ended up being a boxing gym: “Me being nosy, I went down there and loved it—stuck on me like a tattoo.”
But what St. Vil calls being nosy, most would call determination: A world champion with multiple titles to her name, she may be headed into her best year yet. And last fall in Brooklyn, she was the only competitor to leave a boxing official momentarily speechless. “When you go to the weigh-in, officials will ask how to introduce you to the audience, which includes what you’re wearing,” she says with a smile. That night her armor of choice was a vibrant reflection of the self-worth boxing has instilled in her over the years, and she took the stage in a kaleidoscope of sequins visible to the very last row. Her introduction?
“‘Killer Mel, wearing the rainbow.’”