By Joe LacdanMarch 18, 2019
FORT MEADE, Md. -- As the two-time national middleweight champion, she has fought some of the world's best boxers to earn a No. 3 international ranking.
But for a long time, Army athlete Naomi Graham had to fight her toughest opponent -- herself.
Before the staff sergeant rose to the top of USA boxing, she had to overcome a mindset that began well before she ever set foot in a ring.
She was too nice, a coach had told her when Graham began training in 2014.
"You would never know that she's a boxer," said USA boxing assistant Joe Guzman, a former Army heavyweight competitor.
To become competitive in the ring, especially for the Olympics, she needed to be tougher, Guzman would say.
Graham speaks courteously and answers questions politely. In middle school, she allowed bullies to taunt her and get in her face. She never flinched, as her mother told her to avoid physical altercations, and instead tell a teacher or administrator when confronted by other children.
But one day Graham had enough. Another student threatened to fight her. Graham responded by hoisting the girl up and tossing her over a table.
"People started to leave me alone after that," she said.
As a teen growing up in the outskirts of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Graham admittedly followed the wrong path after her graduation from Pine Forest High School in 2007. Instead of attending college courses or finding work, she enjoyed going out and spending time with friends.
Her mother, Bertha Clark, decided to show her some tough love and told her to move out of the family home. With no plan and no car, she found herself homeless in 2012, walking the suburban streets with a blanket and a few belongings.
She went to her friends' homes asking for assistance and a place to stay.
Finally she decided to take matters into her own hands. One day while walking through a neighborhood southwest of Fayettville, she noticed an abandoned one-story house. Graham entered the backyard and found the backdoor unlocked.
She spent almost a year sneaking back into the abandoned home and sleeping in the back bedroom at night. She ate with friends when invited, but she used food stamps to get by.
One winter evening, she shuddered under her blanket in deep thought. Sitting in the darkness beneath the winter cold, she made a silent promise to herself.
"I was crying and I was basically saying, 'this can't be it for me,'" Graham said. "'I know there is more to me than this.'"
She had already committed to joining the Army, but at that moment she vowed to use her Army enlistment to make a better life for herself.
She thought about her family's struggle and how some of her siblings and friends failed to graduate high school.
She left for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in 2013 the following February, following her family's footsteps. Her sisters and her mother all served in the Army.
The Army assigned her to Fort Carson, Colorado, home of the Army's World Class Athlete Program. But to qualify for acceptance into the program, she needed to build her boxing resume.
While attending an All-Army camp in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, she met Guzman. A veteran fighter at heavyweight, injuries forced Guzman into an early retirement.
Guzman took Graham under his wing. He saw Graham's raw power in training sessions. He marveled at her incredible reach.
With her combination of length and strength, Guzman realized he had a budding prodigy.
Most noticeably, Graham's long reach gave her a devastating jab. In her first competitive match at a Fort Carson gym, she won using only that punch.
"I could tie her right hand behind her back and (she) just beat people with her jab, that's how good it is," Guzman said.
During one bout early in her career, Graham fell to the mat, physically and mentally drained. She didn't have the energy to throw a punch. Coaches rushed to her side, giving her water and energy drinks. Eventually she took a blood test, which revealed an iron deficiency.
She struggled with her endurance and keeping her defenses up. But she gained confidence from her natural physical ability.
"She had the potential," Guzman said. "One of the biggest things that she battled was just the mental part, you know? Any sport -- especially a combat sport -- a lot of times frustrations and emotions can take over you and affect your performance."
At 5-feet-10-inches, Graham's uniquely proportioned frame and lanky arms enabled her to overpower her opponents from a distance.
As she learned under Guzman and the USA boxing coaching staff, she began to dominate opponents competing for the All-Army boxing team. She took the national spotlight after she joined the WCAP program.
GRINDING HER WAY
Graham had a quiet confidence as she approached her boxing training years later. She knew she had the strength to become a competitive fighter.
But Guzman and her other coaches noticed some weaknesses. She struggled with defense and often took unnecessary hits. She lacked aggression, fighting tentatively instead of attacking in a flurry.
"The mindset, that's something she had to control," Guzman said. "That's something you can't teach."
As a teenager, she attended the professional fights of her older sister, Rachel. She sat ringside analyzing her sister's technique and studying her opponents.
Though Graham struggled with aggressiveness and defense, Guzman never had to question her work ethic.
She attacked her drills relentlessly, and willingly responding to Guzman's harsh criticisms.
Guzman's coaching style clicked with Graham. He used a disciplinarian style and held Graham to rigorous military standards.
Guzman had learned under the tutelage of legendary boxing coach Al Mitchell and four-time Olympic coach Basheer Abdullah, who retired in 2011.
"These are kind of godfathers to me in the amateur game when I was coming up," Guzman said. "I kind of built my philosophy off them. I was always strictly about military. You're a Soldier first, athlete second. Remember that, don't forget that."
Guzman overcame the odds as an undersized heavyweight fighter. He said he once competed for nearly a year with two torn ligaments in 2008. He finished third in nationals that year, the same year he qualified for the Olympic trials. But his body could no longer take the physical toll and he had to retire at 29.
Perhaps Guzman's style rubbed off on his new pupil. Graham often will spend hours perfecting and honing one technique, whether keeping up her hands while punching, or working on her quickness and footwork. She attacked training vigorously, running hard in the mornings and sparring in the afternoons. She pounded her fists until she succumbed to exhaustion.
"She tried everything," Guzman said. "The physical part -- she never quit; she trained her butt off. She worked hard -- really pushed herself to her limits; really tried to get the best out of everything."
With the 2020 Olympics approaching in Tokyo, Graham has tightened her training regimen. She prepares most of her meals, eating steak or baked chicken with mixed vegetables for sustained energy. She strictly monitors her rest to recover properly. She takes iron supplements, too.
Last November, Graham's rise in the sport earned her recognition at the international stage. She faced Olympic-level competition at the 2018 World Championships in New Delhi, India.
In the first round, Graham defeated her Russian opponent easily and officials called the match early after her opponent suffered a cut to her lip. She rolled past a German competitor in the second round and then faced No. 2 seed Qian Li of China.
Graham admittedly didn't have her best fight. She didn't start strong and lost the first round. Graham won the second round, but fought Qian evenly in the third. Judges awarded the final round, and the match to Qian.
USA boxing coaches preach winning the first round and starting matches fast. Guzman said that in 80 percent of amateur fights, the winner of the first round wins the match.
"I really felt like I didn't win the fight because of me," Graham said. "I feel like I didn't start off fast enough like I did in my other fights, which of course is a mistake I won't make again."
Still, her efforts earned her a bronze medal and her highest finish at the world championships.
She followed that performance by repeating as national champion at middleweight in December. Then Under Armour named her its Elite Female Boxer of the Year.
In February, Graham won a gold medal at the 2019 Stranda International Boxing Tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria.
If Graham can medal at the world championships again this fall, she will achieve another milestone: an automatic berth to the Olympics.
"[Going to the Olympics] means so many things to me," Graham said. "I'd be proving a lot of things to myself, that anything you put your mind to, you can do it."
Graham never forgot the promise she made to herself that winter night in 2012. Joining the Army instilled a discipline she admittedly lacked as a teen. The Army gave her the platform to jumpstart her life. She is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in medical studies and will earn her associate's soon.
"The Army saved me," Graham said. "[It] gave me reason, discipline, dedication, and leadership. The Army gave me purpose; I felt important and like I am a part of a bigger picture."