World champion boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich calls Edmonton home
While talking to local champion Jelena Mrdjenovich in her favourite salon, I can’t help but notice the well-placed shiner beneath her left eye. It’s the mark of a boxer and she wears it with pride. Her left hand is also bleeding a bit, but it’s not from boxing.
“Yeah I got this from doing the dishes the other day. Life has been busy and a little ridiculous, so I try to super-speed everything and I cut my finger on a knife. I’m so smart,” Mrdjenovich laughs.
With the premiere of her documentary, Jelena, in less than a week and a rematch fight for the world featherweight championship in less than six weeks, you could say Mrdjenovich’s life has been hectic.
“When I’m in training for a fight I usually shut everybody out, but with the premiere it’s been kind of a happy distraction. After the premiere, I’m going dark. When you’re fighting and training you have to stay extremely focused. I mean, someone is trying to knock you out.”
With 317 rounds in the ring, 37 wins, 19 of them being knockouts, and both championship belts, Mrdjenovich still continues to hold her position as the unified world champion in the featherweight division.
She faced the same “happy distraction” six months ago after being introduced to Pollyanna Hardwicke-Brown, founder and creative director of local boutique video production Gruvpix Inc. Hardwicke-Brown had the idea to make a documentary about the 34-year-old’s extensive boxing career and upcoming featherweight title belt fight in Cergy, France against Gaelle Amand.
“I was getting ready for my fight and I told her that I didn’t really have much time, but that if they wanted to come in and be a fly on the wall then it was cool,” Mrdjenovich says.
Gruvpix Inc. had previously produced their series Against the Ropes, which journals the lives of local amateur boxers and staff members of Panther Gym.
“We wanted to kind of take the boxing thing to the next level with a feature-length doc. It all came together quite quickly. We basically pitched Jelena the idea, she said yes, and we embedded ourselves in her training camp and started filming the next day,” director Ryan Nortcott says.
The film is a happy marriage between Mrdjenovich’s grueling preparation for her fight in France, with some footage of old fights for a historical context, but also her relationship with her family and other important people in her life.
One of the most compelling relationships explored in the film is with her soft spoken, yet intimidating coach, Milan Lubovac, who still in his old age, is a champion kickboxer in his own right.
Lubovac has been with Mrdjenovich since she began boxing at 19-years-old, always being the driving force who pushes and critiques her every move in the ring.
“He’s like my second dad. He started training me as a favour to my dad, but he can still teach guys how to kick,” Mrdjenovich says.
“After a few amateur fights he was kind of like ‘amateur is bullshit. Lets just go pro.’ Once I went pro and had like three or four fights, I remember him telling me that if I continued to work hard that we could have a world title. In two years he was right.”
Throughout the film Lubovac constantly spars with Mrdjenovich telling her to ‘remember the left hook’ or go for the body.
The two also spar verbally outside of the ring, which is just as engaging to watch as the fights. Sometimes these little verbal spars make you forget you’re watching a documentary.
“We wanted the filming to feel as natural as possible. We try to blend in and capture the action and make it feel completely organic,” Northcott says.
Capping at a run time of one hour and 15 minutes, Jelena’s pacing is an alluring burn that touches on a multitude of relatable human themes the champion has had to overcome in her life.
These themes came through in post production, but also the three hour long interview Northcott had with Mrdjenovich before much of the movie was even filmed.
“There were definitely ideas that we had that we thought needed to be explored so it wasn’t just a boxing story. Thats a huge part of it and there’s lots of action with the fights, but we wanted to show some of the hurdles she had to overcome,” Northcott says.
The movie touches on a low point in Mrdjenovich’s career during 2009 to 2011 when she lost five of seven fights and ultimately her title belt.
“That was a shitty time. It was extremely demoralizing. I didn’t think I lost all those fights. Most were decided through a split decision. That’s why I always go for the knockout,” Mrdjenovich says.
“We wanted to show a little adversity and the resurrection of her career after those fights,” Northcott says.
It wasn’t the first time Mrdjenovich had faced adversity. Early on in her career, many people thought of her as kind of a side show who would fade into obscurity.
“People were like ‘Oh here’s this girl who want to box. She’s kind of pretty and young so let her try.’ Guess I proved them wrong,” Mrdjenovich laughs.
Northcott hopes Jelena will be a film accessible to not only boxing fans, but anyone who enjoys a great story.
“We have this world champion in our backyard and she calls Edmonton home. That’s a rare thing,” Northcott says.
I ask Mrdjenovich if she ever gets angry during a fight.
“I try not to. Usually I’m focusing on getting that knockout,” she says.
“But yeah. I’m French, Irish, and Serbian. So when I get mad I’m like an atomic bomb.”
Tues, Apr. 11 (7 pm)
Garneau Theatre, $15