Leslee Perella says she was a tomboy as a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh. That competitive nature serves her well today as she pursues a career as a professional boxer.
"I played a little bit of everything -- swimming, volleyball, cross country and track in high school and softball in the summer," Perella, who now lives in Baldwin, said while waiting to speak to the Holy Name Society of Mary, Mother of the Church in Charleroi. "I even tried (professional) football at one stage in my life. Was I a tomboy? I think that goes without saying."
Now 38, Perella is as feisty and fierce as ever, especially when she steps into the ring. She is the No. 4 ranked junior lightweight in women's boxing.
Not bad for a fighter who began her career at age 34 and says she fell into the sport "by accident."
"Boxing picked me, I didn't pick boxing," she told the Holy Name Society gathering in the church lyceum. "I went to Jimmy Cvetic's gym with the idea of getting in shape. That was it, I had no designs on becoming a boxer."
Perella, whose petite stature belies her toughness in the ring, recalls that the guys at the gym may not have wanted her there.
"I'm sure some of them resented a woman working out there," she said. "The trainers had very little patience with me once I started showing some interest in learning. They began having me spar against some of the boys and I was lousy. I got beat up a lot and I cried every day. Do you know how embarrassing it is to get beat by a 13- year-old boy when you're more than twice his age?"
Things got so bad, Perella said, that the trainers told her to "go back to swimming or whatever it is that you do. You don't belong here."
"But I kept coming back," she said. "I'm definitely not a glutton for punishment, but my pride was hurt and I've always liked to prove people wrong when they say I can't do something. I was determined to get better."
And improve she did. Within a year, Perella won city (Pittsburgh) and state (Pennsylvania) Golden Gloves championships.
"You know what happened?" she said, laughing. "The same guy who told to me to quit boxing because I didn't have what it takes to be successful asked me to be on his next card."
Perella made her professional debut against Ashlynn Johnson and pounded out a unanimous decision. She lost to seasoned veteran Shakurah Witherspoon in her next outing.
"That was only my second fight and Shakurah already had something like 60 fights," Perella said. "She's a very good boxer with a lot of experience."
Now 3-1-1, she trains at the Martial Arts Sports Complex operated by former Pittsburgh Steelers standout Craig Wolfley in Bridgeville.
When she's not training and looking forward to a shot at a championship, Perella, who has a daughter, works as a bartender at the Blue Note Cafe on Pittsburgh's South Side. That popular night spot and restaurant is owned and operated by Stockdale native Pete Gialames.
"Pete told me about Leslee, and we thought she would be a good speaker for one of our programs," Rich Saccani, of the Holy Name Society, said. "Charleroi has a long and colorful history of boxing and boxers in the amateur and professional ranks. Who can forget the Hilltop Athletic Club?"
Saccani and Jim Chacko, of the Holy Name Society, presented Perella with a commemorative Charleroi Cougars hooded sweatshirt.
"This is really neat," Perella said. "Maybe when I win a championship, I'll wear this in the middle of the ring. …