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Already a national champ, Niagara Falls boxer has 2020 Olympics in her sights

Mikiah Kreps stands in the far corner of an old warehouse, beyond the black curtain, folding chairs and boxing ring, and sips on her second Pedialyte of the day.

This one is strawberry. The first was mixed fruit.

“I like that they have less sugar than Gatorade,” she says.

Kreps fasted until after 11 a.m. weigh-ins to ensure she made the cut, then feasted on Greek yogurt, fruit, vegetables and pasta. She has sweet plans with friends at a local restaurant later this evening. Kreps scrolls through photos on her phone, stopping on a screenshot of a monstrous milkshake.

It’s topped with a cinnamon roll.

“That’s for after the fight.”

Kreps, 22, is a reigning national boxing champion at 119 pounds, having won the USA Boxing Elite National Championships in December in Salt Lake City. She is ranked the No. 1 female in the country in her weight class. But on this mid-April night, the Niagara Falls native moves up to 125 pounds to defeat Casey Costanzo by split decision, 3-2, in the New York State Golden Gloves championships at Buffalo RiverWorks.

Kreps’ victory against her former teammate and longtime sparring partner earns her a trip to the National Golden Gloves tournament Monday through Saturday in Chattanooga, Tenn., and somewhat surprisingly, her first state title.

Kreps’ mom and manager, Deborah Fields, won three.

Like mother, like daughter

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Deborah Fields, left, a former three-time state Golden Gloves champion, wraps the hand of her daughter, Mikiah Kreps, before a recent bout. (Jason Wolf/Buffalo News)

Fields, 47, was known as “The Knockout Nurse,” in part because she’s actually a registered nurse, in part because, well, the first part speaks for itself.

Her grandfather, Frankie Eagan, was a local pro fighter in the 1940s, but Fields was 30 years old when she first stepped in the ring. Her husband Michael, Mikiah’s father, fought in toughman competitions, and after losing to an opponent who knew how to box, Fields convinced him he needed to study the sweet science.

They turned to local trainer Ray Casal, now in his 47th year in the sport.

“And Deb ended up being the fighter,” Casal said. “She was more of a brawler type, but she got in the ring and she was tough as hell in there. I was in her corner. Deb wanted to take your head off.”

Fields fought regionally over the next six years, winning far more often than she lost, often sparring with men to prepare for bouts.

Fields said she was never hurt in a fight, but once broke her nose during an afternoon sparring session.

Casal set it into place in the ring.

“I put my two pinkie fingers up her nostrils and straightened it back out,” Casal laughed. “That’s funny she remembers that. Of course, she does. She screamed.”

Fields went to work that night at the hospital with bloody tissue paper crammed up her nose. She went for an X-ray during her break.

“And I followed up with the doctor and he said, ‘Whoever reset it reset it perfect,’ ” Fields said. “I woke up the next day with raccoon eyes.”

First fight

Both of her children, Michael Jr. and Mikiah, learned to box.

Mikiah, the youngest, was 5 when she first joined her mom at the gym.

She was 9 when she first climbed through the ropes to fight – and beat – another girl in Salamanca.

“I was like a little bull, coming forward,” Kreps said. “We had it on tape, but an old VHS player ended up eating it and messed it up. I remember the boy before me was my teammate, and I remember having to put on his sweaty headgear, and I was like, ‘Ew, what is this?’ It was all hot.”

It was common for fighters to bring their children to the gym.

“A lot of our kids trained,” said Blanca Cruz, a family friend who has fought Fields and sparred with Kreps. “I think it gave them a good role model. Staying focused, as parents, we still had to work, we still had to take care of them, we still had to also train, which showed them responsibilities and how to get out there in the world to do what you want to do.”

But at the time, it wasn’t easy to find a fight for a little girl.

“It took almost a year to find one,” Casal said, “because nobody else was really training girls.”

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Mikiah Kreps, shown here at the Gonzalez Boxing Club in Niagara Falls, is hoping to make the 2020 USA Olympic team. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Fields eventually walked away from the sport rather than turning pro, the end of her fighting career hastened, she said, by a knee injury she suffered at work and the split with her husband.

Kreps turned to basketball. She didn’t box again until she was 15.

Back in the ring

Mother and daughter were lured back to the sport in 2010 when Stacy Robinson, a fellow former fighter at Casal’s Boxing Club – who had been in Kreps’ corner for her first fight as a little girl – opened his own gym and asked them to help.

Fields assisted on a volunteer basis. Kreps led a women’s exercise class. It wasn’t long until Kreps was back training at Casal’s.

In 2014, Kreps won a Golden Gloves national championship in the youth division at 141 pounds.

But soon after, Kreps left Casal’s to test other gyms in the area.

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Boxer Mikiah Kreps puts some time in on the punching bag while being watched by trainer Hector Alejandro at the Gonzalez Boxing Club in Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“For our own reasons,” Fields said. She makes it clear there’s no hard feelings.

“I won all three of my titles with Casal’s Boxing. I owe a lot to Ray,” Fields said, “and Mikiah and I appreciate him. We love Ray Casal and we love his gym. We’re friends. That’s where it all began.”

Eventually, Fields chose to become her daughter’s coach.

They began traveling nationally.

They hired a personal trainer, Serafino Giambattista.

Kreps has a key to practice any time at Gonzalez Boxing Club in Niagara Falls.

Boxer Mikiah Kreps shadow boxes in a mirror during her workout at the Gonzalez Boxing Club in Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“In a way, it was good for Mikiah,” Casal said, “because her mom goes to all these tournaments, she raises money and they have a good relationship. And she knows her stuff. So why not? You know?

“It’s hard for me sometimes, and other coaches, to go with one person. We’ve got to take a team sometimes, to raise money to take a team, and I run a business so I’m doing five classes a day, teaching 70 people. So it’s hard sometimes for me to get away to these tournaments. So it was a good thing for her and her mom. I think it was the best thing for her. And I root for her all the time.”

Kreps enters tournaments as “unattached,” as opposed to hailing from a specific gym.

“I’ve worked with tons of coaches,” Kreps said, “and I’ve learned things from every coach. I kind of just take everything in. That’s why I feel like I’m such a well-rounded fighter.”

Golden dreams

Kreps is setting her sights far higher than this week’s National Golden Gloves tournament.

She wants to fight in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And it’s a dream that seems attainable. But since 119 pounds is not an Olympic weight class, she’ll need to qualify at either 112 or 125.

Kreps reached the quarterfinals of the 125-pound bracket at the 2019 USA Boxing Western Elite Qualifier in March in Reno, Nev., losing to the eventual tournament champ.

She must finish in the top two at either the Eastern Elite Qualifier in October in Columbus, Ohio, or the National Police Athletic League Championships in November in Oxnard, Calif., to qualify to participate in the 2020 Olympic Trials in December.

Boxer Mikiah Kreps jumps rope during her workout at the Gonzalez Boxing Club in Niagara Falls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

After the Olympics, Kreps plans to turn pro.

But now she’s focused on her next fight, against another Golden Gloves state champ, and should she win, advancing to fight another, and then perhaps another, until adding a Golden Gloves national title to her growing résumé.

Oftentimes, Kreps doesn’t know much, if anything, about her opponents before stepping into the ring. She’ll get her first look at the 125-pound bracket Monday, after weigh-ins.

“You don’t know who you’re going to fight,” said Don Patterson, president of Buffalo Golden Gloves. “It’s the luck of the draw. But she’s one of the people to look out for. When she gets to the tournament, trust me, everybody knows who she is.”

'Just the beginning'

Back at RiverWorks, before the state title fight, Kreps sits backward on a folding chair as her mother wraps her fists.

Kreps wears “USA” printed across her black shirt, a permanent scowl and her hair pulled tight in two French braids. Fields twists the tape between her daughter’s fingers. But Kreps points to her knuckles. She wants it off, to start over again.

Some debate ensues before the scissors appear.

“The apple don’t fall far from the tree, you know what I’m saying?” said Alvin Gibbs, a former fighter and local trainer. “Heart, just like her mama.”

They move away from the crowd, to a quieter area of the building, where competitors warm up before heading into the ring.

Boxer Mikiah Kreps wraps her hands before her workout. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Soon Fields is raising her mitts and Kreps unleashes a series of combinations, her gloves striking the targets.

Pop-pop-pop! Pop-pop-pop!

“When I first started working with her, she was 155 pounds,” Giambattista said. “Now she’s fighting at 124 and she’s jacked up and she’s ripped and she’s super strong. Pound for pound she’s probably one of the strongest women I’ve worked with. … She’s up there with some men as far as strength.”

He is made aware of Kreps’ planned “victory meal,” that monstrosity of a milkshake topped with the cinnamon roll.

“Oh, she’s definitely got to enjoy. You’ve got to balance it out,” he said. “When you’re super disciplined like that all the time, you can cheat a little bit.”

Kreps goes the full three rounds with Costanzo, a longtime sparring partner who fights out of Casal’s gym. But there are no friendships in the ring.

Kreps bulls in and works her opponent from close range, delivering head and body shots with a style reminiscent of her mother, onlookers said. She takes plenty, as well, and after three rounds they embrace.

“We have a split decision,” the announcer bellows. “The winner of the 125 Open Division Final …”

There’s a pause for dramatic effect.

“In the red corner, from Niagara Falls …”

The ref lifts Kreps’ arm in the air, handing her a trophy, title and trip to the national tournament.

“This is just the beginning,” Kreps said. “It’s something to say I accomplished when I win the big tournament. Of course, any win’s an accomplishment, but bringing home that national title, going up against the best in the country and bringing it back, that’s going to be the plan. We’re going to treat ourselves now and get right back in the gym tomorrow.”

She hurries out the door with friends. Her milkshake awaits.

•••

BUFFALO GOLDEN GLOVES

2019 NATIONAL TEAM

Men

108 pounds: Marcus Floyd Jr. (Buffalo), reached 2017 semifinals at 114 pounds.

114: Samir Alowbali (Buffalo), lost split decision in finals last year.

123: Alex Castellano (Buffalo), first time.

132: Joe Reed (Buffalo), twice fought at nationals at 123.

141: Jessie Noble IV (Rochester), first time.

152: Charles Garner III (Buffalo), fought at nationals three times at 141 and 152.

178: Elijah Austin (Niagara Falls), first time.

201+: Nolan Smith (Niagara Falls), reached tournament last year but hurt sparring.

Women

125: Mikiah Kreps (Niagara Falls), ranked No. 1 at 119 by USA Boxing.

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