Katie Dallam: Million Dollar Woman

Far from Hollywood, lives a disabled woman born in poverty whose dreams died in the boxing ring. Katie Dallam believes she was the inspiration behind the short story which led to Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning drama, Million Dollar Baby
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The Independent US

In the Clint Eastwood version, it was a disgraceful foul between rounds that sent the victim reeling, her head cracking on to a stool in the ring. In real life, it was different, a mismatched boxing bout with the underdog suffering a blizzard of blows to the head before the fight was belatedly declared over.

In the Clint Eastwood version, it was a disgraceful foul between rounds that sent the victim reeling, her head cracking on to a stool in the ring. In real life, it was different, a mismatched boxing bout with the underdog suffering a blizzard of blows to the head before the fight was belatedly declared over.

Before the Hollywood lawyers start drooling, this is not another case of a director knowingly stealing actual events and mangling them on the screen. The Oscar-winning film made by Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby, about women boxers was drawn from a short story written by the late novelist F X O'Toole. But there is someone out there, who has reason to wonder what inspired Mr O'Toole.

Meet 45-year-old Katie Dallam of Spring Hill, Kansas, who waited a while before watching the movie and found it equally disturbing, and reaffirming, when finally she did. The thing about it was this: the story of Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hillary Swank, and the story of her own life, ruined by boxing, are eerily overlapping. The big difference, of course, is that Ms Dallam is still alive. She is alive, but far from well.

Ms Dallam, an amateur painter and former addiction counsellor, has a brain that is more or less dead on its left side. She has enormous difficulties with short-term memory, often tangles her words when trying to speak, and sometimes has difficulty walking. She can no longer work, cannot drive for fear she will forget which way to go or where she even is, and is in the constant care of her sister Stephanie, a registered nurse.

The fictional Fitzgerald was a Missourian born into trailer-home poverty who in her early thirties sees a chance for independence in the nascent world of women's boxing. She eventually finds a trainer, played by Eastwood, who agrees to take her on and find her fights.

In the film (if you have not yet seen it, you may not want to read on) the trainer becomes a father figure to her. At its end, he is asked by her to unplug life support after the injuries from that last fight leave her paralysed from the neck down.

Guess what? Dallam was also from Missouri and similarly underprivileged. Aside from her sister, she had an older brother who used to batter her as a child and has died of alcohol and drug abuse. After years struggling with alcoholism herself, she finally earned a masters degree in counselling and began working for the state health department. But, just like Fitzgerald, she decided in her thirties that she wanted more. She already enjoyed working out and lifting weights and wondered about boxing.

In mid-1996, she approached a trainer of her own. After a bare six weeks of training, he started looking for someone she might fight. It was just one day after Dallam received her boxing licence, that she was put up for a bout in a firemen's hall in St Joseph, Missouri, against an opponent who clearly was the better contender. Her name was Sumya Anani, or Island Girl (she once lived in Jamaica), who, in the years since, has emerged as one of the biggest names in the sport.

On the night before her first - and only - fight the ill-fated Dallam was involved in a car crash. Neither she nor her trainer were seriously hurt but the mandatory physical exam before her bout was so basic it was not even mentioned, her sister, Stephanie says. The crowd in the smoky hall that night was baying for blood and putting down money on her almost inevitable defeat. The hall had been told she was 26 when in reality she was nine years older.

Stephanie remembers the night well, but Katie does not. For her, it is all a muddled haze of fists and sweat and spurts of blood and abject humiliation. What she does know is that everything about her life has been different since then. And everything has been harder. Boxing did not deliver what she hoped. For those curious, there is a video of what happened and it does not make for easy viewing.

Anani, who has a windmill style, flailing her fists against her opponents high and fast, smacked Katie's nose at the start, breaking it and starting the first flow of blood. In the second round, she continued to pummel her hopelessly inexperienced opponent, including one powerful, four-punch combination to the skull. By round three, the spectators were screaming for Anani to finish Katie off. It was a 12-punch fusillade to Katie's head in round four that finally prompted her trainer, Joe Gallegos, to throw in the towel and rescue the novice. Over the four rounds, Katie had been struck in the head 199 times.

Her face virtually pulped, Katie was in a bad way but no one apparently understood at first the extent of her injuries. She was helped back to her changing room by her trainer and by Stephanie and asked for an aspirin. But she was unable to swallow it and then lost consciousness. No one inside the hall saw the ambulance leave that night or had any clue what had transpired before them.

In the hospital, doctors found her head had filled with blood and fluid because of a torn vein inside her brain. They removed the top of her skull to drain the cavity and repair the vein. At first they were not optimistic she would survive.

Her sister remained by her bedside for days as Katie lay in a coma, linked to a ventilator and life support. Anani visited also, leaving a long and rambling letter expressing her regret at what had happened in the ring. It was three days before Katie showed the first signs of responsiveness. As she spoke her first words, she asked for family members who had died long before, including her mother. It quickly became clear that much of her memory was wiped clean.

What happened to Katie Dallam was virtually forgotten, except by those in the inner circle of women's boxing. But the release of the film, and its sweep at the Oscars last month - Swank won best actress and Eastwood best director - has jogged some memories.

The name Dallam is mostly invoked now by those defending the sport. Hers, the promoters say, was the only fight since women's boxing took off in America to end with an injury anything like as bad as that inflicted upon Fitzgerald in the film.

And indeed Dallam herself has preferred, until now, to stay silent about her hardships, concentrating instead first on rehabilitation and, more recently, on getting through each day, with the help of her sister's care and the consolation of painting. But this week, she and Stephanie came forward for the first time in years to discuss her plight in an interview with The New York Times.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Katie seems to have drawn strength from the film. "It was hard to watch, but it was good too," she told the newspaper. "I tend to be pretty hard on myself, when I can't remember things or I get lost. But after the movie, I thought, 'No, I've come a long way. I should focus on what I've achieved'."

The injuries suffered by Katie have had some of the same impact on her as the paralysis did on Fitzgerald in the film. Depression is a recurring problem and she takes pills daily to combat it. She is still painting, but rather than flowers or landscapes, it is mostly dark and grisly subjects that now adorn her canvases, skeletons dripping with blood, fantastical beats or human forms twisted in pain. And, early on, she also often wished herself dead.

Doctors had warned her not to allow her pulse to quicken, in case bleeding was triggered inside her skull. She responded by exercising vigorously. She would consider swallowing all of her prescribed pills at once. But she never succeeded in her quest for death, in part because a human's capacity to lie is located in the part of the brain that had died. She could not hide what she was trying to do. "She just couldn't lie," says her sister. "So when somebody asked her, she told them exactly what she planned to do. We moved her in with me that day."

Defenders of women's boxing insist that things have changed since that December night in 1996 in St Joseph. There are now far stricter rules aimed at avoiding the kind of mismatch allowed in the bout between Dallam and Anani. Weights of contenders must be more or less equitable, as in men's boxing, as must the years of experience.

For better or worse, Million Dollar Baby, in spite of its wrenching ending, is expected to spur new interest in the sport, which showed signs of entering the big-money mainstream at the end of the Nineties. In the same year that Dallam had her ill-fated fight, another woman, Christy Martin, emerged as the big new name in women's boxing when she appeared on an undercard to Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno in Las Vegas. She won, after a thrilling few rounds. The brouhaha it created landed her on the front page of the next Sports Illustrated. Three years later, fans were introduced to another female contender, Laila Ali, who burst on to the scene with impressive moves and, of course, as the daughter of Mohammed Ali, an extremely famous name.

But over recent years, the early fizz mostly left women's boxing. Crucially, it was never fully embraced by the main sports television interests. Now, the excitement may be returning. One woman promoters are eyeing more closely is Lucia Rijker. She helped give Swank the moves that made her so convincing in the film and who played the role of the growling fighter who lands the illegal punch on Fitzgerald that connects her spine to the stool beside the ropes, Billie the Blue Bear.

The ties between fiction and fact - between Million Dollar Baby and Dallam in Kansas - may be about to become even more eerie. As the boxing world contemplates the possibilities for elevating Ms Rijker to the bigtime, some have already identified the women she should probably fight first. It would be none other than "Island Girl", that is Sumya Anani, the athlete who sent Dallam to the edge of death nearly nine years ago. It is a night, by the way, that Anani say still haunts her every day. "Katie is always in my thoughts," she says.

The question of whether the character played by Swank was indeed modelled directly on Dallam may never be answered. FX O'Toole, who died in 2002, wrote dozens of short stories about boxing and none were published until 2000. There is no way of knowing when he penned the tale told in Million Dollar Baby.

Not that Dallam is especially bothered to find out. There will be no legal challenges against the O'Toole estate. Instead, she is taking from the film what she can. And, partly, that is solace, because even if the story is not quite hers, it might as well be and now she can share with the world.

"Kate lost so much she used to ask, 'Why am I here? Why did I keep living?'," her sister says. "But now, the other day, she said, 'Well, maybe this is why'."