Brijhana Epperson and Moragen Ferrell are the butterfly and the bee
Brijhana Epperson is just 12 years old, but she is already the only female Kansas City boxer in history to claim gold in a USA National Boxing Championship. A Junior Olympic champion among a pile of additional accolades, Brijhana’s nickname, “The Boxing Ballerina,” is both self-explanatory and an accurate description of her approach to the sport.
Her training partner, 26-year-old Moragen Ferrell, didn’t start her own boxing career until she was 20 years old. Now she’s tied for fourth in the USA Boxing Elite Women’s Rankings at 152 pounds and a silver medalist at the 2021 Golden Glove National Championships. Ferrell is looking for much greater success following a hospital stint earlier this year—a setback that left her unable to raise her arms above her shoulders for a time.
The story of how the pair met and became friends—and how Brijhana’s father, Courtney Epperson—helped foster a sisterly bond ultimately led Ferrell to leave her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her pursuit of bigger and better brought her, of all places, to Independence, Missouri. City Life Boxing Club is hidden there, and so is the key to her future.
The potential of the gym is unmistakable, a worthy match for Courtney, who coaches his children and Ferrell in this 2,400 square foot training center under the banner of Against the Grain, LLC.
Courtney’s close friends and fellow boxing coaches, Maury Williams and Tino Camacho, transformed City Life, which they jointly own, from a lowrider repair shop into a boxing gym starting in early 2020.
It is here where Brijhana and Ferrell continue to methodically practice their craft, waiting for the day they can do their part to breathe new life into the sport. Win or lose, the chance to promote boxing to women—who are so often discouraged from taking up such a historically male-dominated pastime—is worth the toil on its own.
The first true test of merit for this new alliance between Brijhana and Ferrell will come at the 2021 USA Boxing National Championships in Shreveport, Louisiana, from Dec. 5-11. Both have their eyes set on winning their respective brackets.
Left Hooks and Lowriders
City Life Boxing Club owes much of its aesthetic to the classic gritty, sweat-drenched imagery from boxing lore. The unmarked warehouse-style building is nestled away on a dead-end side street just north of West 23rd Street in Independence.
The gym doesn’t look like much upon first walk in. Instead, you’re immediately hit with the classic car smell of old leather, well-maintained machinery, and a mystery cocktail of chemicals.
The combat sport haven is hidden behind the reception area—complete with checkerboard tile and a glass case with boxing gloves and a few lingering car parts—and through the garage itself. A red 1976 Chevy Impala coupe sits parallel to two-thirds of a blue version of itself. A sherbert orange 1975 Cadillac Eldorado keeps watch closest to the door.
Past the vehicles is a children’s car racing-themed comforter hanging over a doorway. This is the last barrier before it becomes clear that this is no ordinary lowrider shop.
The sheer amount of equipment available inside makes it difficult to believe that the gym was put together in 2020. Dozens of bags of various sizes and weights, exercise equipment, and three treadmills are among the vast array. Then there is the ring itself, which sits just past the entryway in front of a set of lockers, and a red couch at the base of the ropes line the gym.
When Camacho decided to get out of the full-time lowrider business, he and Williams got to work revamping the warehouse into a place where they could train their younger sons.
“[Camacho] wanted to get out of low riding because he got tired of the long days and long nights. It’s less wear and tear on your body training boxers instead of working on cars,” Williams says. “It just took us about a year to turn it into a gym—after a lot of cleaning, scrubbing paint, welding, hauling equipment. We built our own bag rack in the back from scratch.”
Williams, a meat-cutter by day and youth boxing coach by night, brought the majority of the exercise machines from his own extensively stocked home gym. The final touch was added when he bought the ring itself from TITLE Boxing Club in Belton, Missouri.
Today, the gym serves as a refuge for a handful of elementary-aged would-be boxers who have nowhere else to go to begin their training, such as Brijhana’s 7-year-old brother, Jhoshua-David “Champ” Epperson. According to their father, Champ “came out the womb throwing combos.”
Courtney was invited to start training out of City Life Boxing Club by Williams and Camacho in 2020 when he was looking to begin Champ’s training earlier than other gyms would accept. It’s now grown into the ring of choice for Courtney’s athletes.
“The Boxing Ballerina”
On any given weekday around 4 p.m., Brijhana will be at City Life Boxing Club starting her footwork drills.
She sets everything up on her own and plays one of her favorite songs, “Dance Monkey” by Tones And I, on repeat as she goes through the routine alongside her younger brother, Champ. He is, of course, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Champ” on the back.
“Technique, elbows in,” Courtney says. The beat of the song loops endlessly but is never stale for Brijhana. Finally, a loud beep indicates a rest period.
“Hands up high, elbows in, strong wrists,” Courtney echoes.
Once the siblings are done with six passes for each exercise, they take a short break. In one of these fleeting moments of inactivity, Champ, a natural southpaw, takes a jab at Brijhana’s outstretched palm. She pulls it back, shakes it exaggeratedly, and smiles.
They do a few more passes before heading off for conditioning on the treadmills. Brijhana will be running 10 quarter-mile intervals. The 5’6” amateur boxer tiptoes around topics with quiet humility. Though ballet was her first sport, boxing has won out in recent years.
The seeds for this development were planted when Brijhana was just 4 years old, around the time when Courtney began teaching his daughter the basics of self-defense—something he’d decided he would do long before Brijhana could even walk.
She continued with ballet in addition to these lessons, but her careful footwork and attention to detail transferred spectacularly to the boxing ring.
By 2020, “The Boxing Ballerina” had already become the 2020 USA National Champion, in addition to earning titles at the 2019 Junior Olympics, the 2019 Eastern Qualifier, and the 2018 Regional Silver Glove Championships.
In 2028, Brijhana hopes to add an Olympic medal to that arsenal. The secret to her success lies partly in her natural, calm demeanor, which lends itself favorably to boxing’s bedrock strategy: hit and don’t get hit.
“She’s so laid back sometimes she almost looks lazy, but she is a quiet assassin,” says Courtney. “It might look to some like she’s not working but she’s really just calculating—trying to stay two steps ahead.”
Brijhana owes much of her success to this methodical approach. She has a keen understanding of the Philly Shell, a defensive style employed by the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. that trades some of its defense in pursuit of quick counterpunches launched off of evasive footwork.
“I’ll have one arm down, one hand up, and be blocking those shots coming to the head,” Brijhana demonstrates. “So I’m more of the calm, relaxed style, but Moragen has been teaching me how to get more aggressive when I need to. It’s probably one of my biggest strengths because I know I can just stay in the pocket and they tire themselves out.”
This deliberateness is carried over to her interests out of the gym. Sometimes on her lunch breaks, Brijhana will strum some of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” on her bass guitar. Her skills trend towards the fine-tuned precision she also displays in a match.
Courtney was intensely passionate about boxing from a young age and has also been known to play the bass from time to time. Like father, like daughter, as it were.
“Boxing was my first love, always,” Courtney says. He gravitated towards interscholastic sports after his father exited his early life.
It was four or five years ago when he had been making trips to compare local boxing teams. Brijhana remembers her eyes lighting up when she heard this.
“I said, ‘Oh, hey, so can I go?’” Brijhana recalls. “I had just been sparring with my dad. I went up to him at some point and said, ‘when am I going to be able to box anybody else. When I finally had my first fight, I remember I was so excited. I had these little tiny jitterbugs. The moment I stepped in the ring I knew it was where I belonged.”
Ferrell spent much of 2020 working in a Tulsa COVID-19 clinic, for which she was named a “Hero of the World’’ by the World Boxing Council and the “2020 Heroine of the Year” by Boxing Meets Beauty. After clocking out each day, she’d go home to help care for her sister, who was undergoing cancer treatment.
Ferrell spent that early winter training in preparation for the 2020 USA National Championships, originally scheduled for the first week of December 2020.
Around the same time the news broke that the event had been officially postponed to March 25, 2021, Ferrell was dealing with some serious pains that she initially thought were an athletic injury.
“I waited out going into the hospital and by that time I did, I couldn’t raise my arms or my head and could barely walk. I went and did blood work with my primary care doctor and the next day he said I needed to go to the emergency room,” Ferrell says.
Upon entering the hospital, Ferrell was in a septic state. Tissue on her pelvis had been riddled by a staph infection. With the staph already well entrenched in her bloodstream, the medical team elected for removal via surgery.
“It wasn’t in any of my organs, but they said if it had gone into my heart and they didn’t treat it, then it would have been fatal,” says Ferrell “I was on a PICC line of antibiotics for six weeks and after that, I started physical therapy.”
She was forced to sit out the 2020 championships out as she recovered—first for two weeks in a hospital bed, followed by three months of near-constant bedrest. It was during this point that Ferrell decided that her eventual return should coincide with a move she’d been contemplating for a while.
As she recovered, Ferrell felt the urge to uproot her life in favor of doing something new and exciting. In doing so, she made what may have been one of the most important decisions of her life: moving to KC.
“We went down [to Tulsa] when she got out of the hospital just to hang out,” Courtney says. “It was then that I just started dropping hints like, ‘If you don’t have anywhere to be, just come on up.’ We’d already established a relationship and had been traveling to spar with her for a while.”
Returning to boxing did not come easy to Ferrell.
“I remember starting the drive, and I couldn’t even run yet. My joints would pop and crack and I still had a very limited range of motion,” Ferrell says, raising her arms above her head. “If I even did this, I would cry.”
Ferrell initially got her start in Oklahoma City’s Western Avenue Boxing Gym while working towards her degree in business management from the University of Central Oklahoma. An experienced goalie and striker in soccer, Ferrell chose not to pursue the sport collegiately. She didn’t find boxing until her then-boyfriend urged her to come out and try it out at an OKC gym.
He was not very good. Ferrell, on the other hand, found that she thrived with a pair of gloves on. She stayed with boxing, but not the relationship, and thus “The Heartbreaker” moniker was born. Ferrell’s debut came in 2016. Since then, she’s won 14 of the 19 elite-level fights on her résumé.
After graduating, Ferrell made the move back to Tulsa, where she bounced around several gyms and decided to really give the sport the old post-collegiate try.
“I had two fights while I was in college, but then I was like, ‘I need to focus on school and stuff.’ But I still stayed in the gym,” Ferrell says. “When I graduated in 2018, I was like, ‘Let me see where I’m at with this.’ So I went out to a tournament to measure myself up and ended up winning all three of my matches and making it into the championship.”
In a way that echoes Brijhana’s own relationship with ballet, Ferrell’s time spent on the soccer pitch has bled through into her identity as a fighter.
“I always liked playing goalie because anytime the other team ran into the box, I’m charging for the ball and trying to scare the striker into missing,” Ferrell says.
In time, Ferrell has come to quickly find her footing again in the City of Fountains. Now a trainer at Mayweather Boxing + Fitness, as well as a personal trainer on her own accord, she’s usually in a gym whether she’s paid for it or not. She also frequents the roads, embarking on three-mile runs when weather and health permit.
“This is what I was praying for when I was sick. Even before that, when I was working overtime, saving money, knowing I needed to move out of Tulsa if I wanted to really take this seriously. As a female and being 25 at the time, I [was] like, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’ve gotta do it right now,’” Ferrell says.
The 5’7” pulverizer looks to December’s USA Championship as a chance to emerge from these immense setbacks as a much more disciplined boxer, with a whole new batch of tricks up her sleeve.
Sisterhood of the Travelling Gloves
Once Ferrell was cleared to start training at full capacity, her and Brijhana’s budding relationship as teammates, sparring partners, close friends, and confidantes continued to grow. It didn’t take very long for the many benefits of this new sisterhood to show.
“Both of us have kind of opposite fighting styles. We’re rough on each other, not negatively but positively,” Brijhana says. “I can feed off of her energy—she gets excited and will start singing and dancing in the middle of a competition.”
Ferrell calls Brijhana slick.
“Their fighting styles match their personalities. Brijhana is regarded as a more of a laid-back type of person,” Courtney says. “You know [Ferrell] has some of that, too, but she’s more about making her opponents do what [she] wants them to do, ‘And then I’m going to beat you up.’”
The three then share a laugh that can only be had amongst a group that has seen such things occur one too many times.
Ferrell summarizes the relationship with simplicity and unwavering sincerity: “What one brings to the table, the other one compliments.”
Even before they sparred together, the two impressed each other with their prowess in the ring.
“I had seen her at all these tournaments and she was just so technically sound, beating up all of these little boys flawlessly,” Ferrell says “Her technique is definitely there, and so she sharpens me up with that.”
Brijhana now has a positive role model in the mix. And Ferrell now has a new home and a new gym from which she can launch her post-pandemic career with some fancy footwork added to her arsenal.
Just how far they will go with their ambitions remains to be seen, but their prospects are immeasurably better for training with each other. Being able to share in and sympathize with each other through wins, losses, streaks, and setbacks have inevitably made them stronger.
A Championship Mindset
“Women’s boxing around here is not very popular. Both men and women’s boxing aren’t as popular in general,” says Brijhana. We have a few gyms around here but they’re not very competitive. So we’re really one of the few gyms that have a strong competitive team.”
Part of this can be attributed to the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and similar ultimate fighting leagues over the last two decades.
“A lot of female boxers have gone to the UFC because they’re paying better than professional boxing does,” Ferrell adds.
For coaches like Williams and Courtney, boxing’s status as perhaps the purest form of contact sport—as well as the most civilized—lends credit to the theory of its ultimate resurgence.
“I see boxing making a strong comeback because the UFC has basically flooded the market. I don’t even watch it anymore. The quality of fights have gone way down,” Williams says.
This dilution of participants often makes it difficult to arrange quality fights, especially for someone with a strong and often too-intimidating record to draw any worthy opponents.
“It’s a male-dominated sport. You get females here and there and then once they learn Brijhana’s or Moragen’s record, females don’t want to fight them,” Williams says. “But that’s just negativity—not only for them but for the females that could be fighting them. You don’t know where to gauge or judge yourself if you never go up against girls like that. It doesn’t hurt to ask, ‘Hey, do you mind if I come train with you?’ No one ever thinks to ask.”
The fewer potential challengers or sparring partners in the mix, the more difficult it becomes to compete and subsequently improve.
“I actually had to forge part of my entry forms. I had to add an extra loss just to get into the tournament with the minimum number of fights because I only had three fights at the time,” Ferrell says.
More participants, more fights, more opportunities. These are just a handful of reasons why the pair wants to promote the sport to other girls. Boxing isn’t for everyone, but for some who do take to it as a positive outlet, having had the opportunity to try it out could be a game-changer.
In June, Brijhana and Ferrell spent four days a week working with WIN For KC, a group advocating for athletic opportunities for girls citywide. While also on a full training schedule, the pair traveled to area schools and taught roughly 800 girls the very basics of their sport.
Brijhana was awarded the WIN For KC “Rising Star Award” following work she and Ferrell did over the summer with the organization. In 2017, Ferrell established a similar program back in OKC: Champ Camp, a youth mentorship program centered on boxing.
For the latest updates on Brijhana and Moragen at the USA National Championship, follow Against Tha Grain on Facebook.
City Life Boxing Club is located at 1125 Leroy Street, Independence, Missouri. The gym’s coaches host beginner sessions for children. The sessions are typically on Monday and Friday from 6-7 p.m. For more information on attending a session, you can reach City Life on Facebook.