Photo by Rod McLean
When she was young, Melissa McMorrow remembers her mother telling her "soccer is for boys." When her father convinced her mother to let their daughter play, it set the foundation for a lifetime of breaking gender stereotypes and barriers.
"My mom grew up in Brazil and was interested in soccer," said McMorrow, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in architecture in 2004. "We didn't own a television so she would borrow one and rig it up to the neighbor's cable in order to watch the World Cup. We lived in a Brazilian community in East San Jose (California) and I would go to the park and kick the ball around. I had never played any sports, but when I started playing in the neighborhood, people would say, 'Oh Melissa, you are good' and eventually my mother put me in a league for my eighth birthday."
Photos: Melissa McMorrow in her early years of soccer
She continued playing through high school and was recruited by some schools to play soccer in college, but she was more focused on academics. "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I would draw stuff around the house and was creative so I decided it was fun to be an architect."
One of the schools McMorrow visited on her college tour was University of California, San Diego. "It didn't have what I wanted to study, but I really enjoyed it," she recalled. "My parents didn't want me to go to school just to play soccer and they were worried because I liked (UCSD) so much."
Carnegie Mellon University
She visited Carnegie Mellon and realized that sports was not a focus there, but knew she could play and get a great education. "It was difficult at first because the program was not good when I got there. People would come to tryouts without a pair of shorts and I wondered, "What have I gotten myself into.' I thought people would be more serious."
Photos: L: Melissa McMorrow in high school; R: McMorrow at Carnegie Mellon University
In her first season on the team in 2000, the Tartans were winless in the UAA and 6-12-0 overall, but things were beginning to change. "Coach (Heather Kendra) was relatively new when I got there and she started bringing in her own people," McMorrow remembered. "My second year, we had quality and quantity in terms of recruiting and that brought greater success."
In her final three years on the team, the Tartans posted a combined 36-12-7 overall record with a 7-9-5 UAA mark and back-to-back trips to the ECAC Championship in her final two seasons. McMorrow finished her career with 25 goals and 19 assists, ranking her fourth in points and third in assists all-time at Carnegie Mellon.
In 2000 and 2001, McMorrow was the only Tartan player to earn UAA Women's Soccer All-Association recognition, being named to the second team in her rookie season and first team in her sophomore season. She added another first-team honor in her junior year and was one of four Carnegie Mellon players named to the UAA 25th Anniversary Women's Soccer Team.
"It was fun to be on the team and travel around," McMorrow said. "I liked working hard for sports and architecture. You have to put everything into both things to be successful and I thrive in those environments. I loved architecture school because it was all or nothing, all-consuming, and I really liked that."
At the time, there were not a lot of women in science and architecture programs at the school. "There was one physics major on the team and she told me there were only two women in the entire department," McMorrow commented.
The balance and high achievement spurred McMorrow on in college, but she found it difficult to replicate after graduation. "I got really frustrated with enjoying work after school," she stated. "I worked at a few firms for short periods and never felt like it was worthwhile. Carnegie Mellon gives you a lot of latitude and encourages you to use your brain, but I wasn't finding that same thing in the real world."
It turned out that McMorrow also missed the competition on the field. She played semi-pro soccer for a team in San Francisco that kept popping up and dying down. "I went to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and tried playing a season there for a team named Flamengo," she said. "One of the country's most popular players went back there to play for the men's team so all the women's team funding was cut. The level was not nearly as good as in the U.S., but it was a great experience."
The lack of quality play eventually took its tool on her. "Because there was no competition, I got tired of soccer," she stated. "It wasn't exciting anymore. I needed something new. I had looked for other ways to work out because I had no structure."
Little did McMorrow know how much a friend's invitation to attend a "fight party" would change her future. "I was not into boxing at all, but I went," she recalled. "I really liked it when I got there. Watching them fight, I got excited at the possibilities for me and yelled out, 'I could win' and people just looked at me."
"I started going to the gym specifically for boxing and I knew I wanted to compete," she added. She began boxing in March of 2005 and one year later captured the 2006 Northern California Golden Gloves flyweight title. Later that summer, she won the National Golden Gloves Flyweight Championship. In March of 2007, McMorrow won the USA Junior Bantamweight Championship although she had to climb in weight to do so since there were no opponents in her natural weight class, not an uncommon issue for her size (4-feet-10 inches and just over 100 pounds). She took the silver medal in the Junior Flyweight division at the USA nationals later that year, second only to 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza.
"As soon as women's boxing was turned down for the Olympics in 2008, I turned pro," she said. "It is frustrating that television in the U.S. doesn't see the same money and ratings for women's boxing as for men's boxing so they don't invest in it. Laila Ali (daughter of the late Muhammad Ali) was a huge draw. I think a lot of times the television audience will watch whatever you tell them to watch: 'I see this a lot so it must be the cool thing.'"
A consistent challenge for McMorrow's professional career mirrors that of her amateur career, finding opponents in her weight class. "I would show up at my weigh-in and find out that people lied about someone's weight," she stated. "Finally I took one of those fights in Nevada against someone who was much bigger, two weight classes above me. It isn't just the weight difference. There is a skill set that is different for someone my size."
In spite of the early difficulties, McMorrow was convinced she was going down the right path. "I found it challenging, but when things are difficult, it brings a greater reward when it finally does go the right way," she said.
Things did start going the right way for McMorrow as she fought for minor titles in New York. "I did fight for these random belts they made up," she laughed. "The titles may not have been a big deal, but going to New York City to fight them was. This was the first real competition I had faced and was a real transition point for me facing better fighters."
On June 24, 2011, McMorrow won the vacant USA New York State Female Flyweight title by split decision over Eileen Olszewski in Woodhaven. After another fight in New York and one in Mexico, where women's boxing has been gaining in interest, she was given the biggest opportunity of her career, a chance to fight for the World Boxing Organization (WBO) World Female Flyweight title.
Photo by Kim Land and Sean Grout
The bout took place in Frankfurt-Oder, Germany as she shocked the boxing world by dethroning the undefeated champion Susi Kentikian. "It is still the best moment of my boxing career," she said. "For me to take that title, the news outlets that do cover women's boxing broke open the flyweight division. She had held the title for so long and no one thought she would lose." Kentikian entered the bout 29-0-0 with 17 knockouts and the loss to McMorrow is one of only two she has suffered in a 38-bout career.
After her championship win, McMorrow signed with a German promoter, who put on a fight in Florida when she defeated Yahaira Martinez by technical knockout and on a really big card at the GETEC Arena in Magdeburg, where she earned a split decision victory over Nadia Raoui. "After that, they didn't put on any more matches as it was not working financially for them. They wanted me to have a rematch with Raoui, but she didn't want it. My contact eventually just expired."
McMorrow Boxing Photo Gallery (Being Updated)
She had to vacate the belt when she couldn't find an opponent within a year. "No one in the top-10 wants to fight me unless we have money, which we don't," she commented. "It is a losing proposition because it is a risky fight for them for little or no money."
McMorrow has fought just three times since her 2013 fight against Raoui, all of which were in Mexico. She did regain the WBO title with a split decision win over previously undefeated Kenia Enriquez on Feb. 28, 2015, but once again was not able to find another fight within the year.
However, she has secured a bout for later this month against Esmeralda Moreno (33-9-1 career record). The Oct. 22 matchup is scheduled to take place in Mexico City's Arena Coliseo, a legendary arena best known for hosting Lucha Libre events.
The same year she turned pro in boxing, McMorrow began working for Solar City, a California company focused on solar energy. "I had always been interested in 'green" and sustainable measures," she said. "Originally, clients had to pay to be green, but solar energy was making being green both affordable and sustainable. I did a lot of infrastructure work and that helped me progress with my career. They were very accommodating to me and my boxing career."
Her architecture work is atypical in that she does not design houses, but rather works with engineers, including semiconductor manufacturing. "Solar City semiconductor facilities have manufacturing plants and I was building those facilities, including one in California and another one 10 times that size in New York," she remarked.
After eight years at Solar City, McMorrow began working for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in March, where she serves as an architect on high-tech buildings. "We work on a lot of building types that have government restrictions," she commented. "Some of our work is on big bomb shelters and industrial work. I like that there is a lot going on since I am not into mindless work."
Future of Women's Boxing
"Women's boxing is becoming much more visible now, especially with Holly Holm's dual success in boxing and MMA (mixed martial arts)," she said. "There is a pot of money in women's boxing that could be made. There's money in the sport and we aren't getting any."
McMorrow is confident that women's boxing being part of the Olympics can bring about a huge change for the sport. "It has kids starting earlier to learn boxing and gearing for the Olympics," she stated. "The talent pool will increase dramatically. Little girls want to be gymnasts because they see them on television. Before that, who wanted to be a gymnast? That can happen with women's boxing too."