Just after my fight with Tanya Lohr in October, I decided it was a wise idea to start training in boxing as a supplement to my Muay Thai training. There’s a boxing gym semi-near to my house and super near my work. I’d been to this gym before, maybe a year ago, looking for one-on-one boxing lessons and it was made clear to me at that point that this gym is intended for “at risk” youth of Newburgh and my association with the club was inappropriate at best. I don’t think the gym owner, Ray, is against women in any direct way, but he does not have a vision of women training in his gym, probably for a number of reasons.
When I came back to the gym this year I made my case to Ray as best I could that I just want to learn boxing. I’m not looking for him to “adapt” his techniques or teaching to the fact that I fight in a different discipline (I can do that for myself) and that I want to learn and train in the gym as a member. Ray signed me up and I started coming by every night I could for training.
It has not been simple. The gym is in many was like a Muay Thai camp in that it’s filled with kids who are both too old and too young for their ages; kids who don’t want to be there in a heroic way, but don’t want to be outside either; it’s full of boys who make it through their days by inflating their egos to a breaking point around the soft centers of their insecurities; and it’s all boys, who don’t think of this space as a place that should be shared by a girl. Probably there are a lot of legitimate reasons why it would be good to keep it all boys, but none of them are good enough to keep it so.
From the start I’ve been largely invisible. This has a lot to do with my disposition, which is quiet, unassuming and introverted. I keep my eyes focused on my own business and work hard. In between rounds I will watch trainers with the kids in order to get instruction – very little is offered to me, so I learn by proxy – but during rounds I am intently busy with my own work. I’m sure this is uninviting on a number of levels. I do not project “help me,” either in a cute girl way or in a have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing sense. Same as Thai camp, if I ask, I receive. However, there is something psychologically and emotionally unjust about having to ask when so many of the boys are offered help whether they want it or not.
I’ve made incremental progress during my time at the boxing gym. I’m a point of interest whenever it comes up among all the kids that I’m a fighter. They think I’m exotic and don’t know what Muay Thai is, so it’s often assumed to be MMA, which I’m quick to correct. The trainers notice that I work hard and commend me for it, but don’t see it as enough to be a “serious” student requiring attention to develop into something great. When I came in two days after my last fight with a dark black eye and a cut on my face, I was suddenly and immensely popular. Lots of the kids would sneak over to me during rounds and ask how it had happened, if I’d won, how many fights do I have and all this. I think it had a bizarre effect of making me more reasonable or viable as a boxer in the minds of both students and trainers at the gym – but it did not result in an improved generosity of time and tutelage.
In the past two weeks there have been a few large steps forward for me. One trainer has begun inviting me to do padwork on an at-least weekly basis and two of the other trainers have begun correcting technique on my bagwork or showing me exercises to improve my general speed. Just before my fight yet another trainer held mitts for me, saw something in that and gave me a conditioning session (during which I impressed him with being stronger than he’d assumed) and he offered to take me on as a student. Unfortunately, that fell through due to timing with the fight and training schedule, but he’s been talking to me a lot more in this past week in a way that could lead back to this kind of invitation again. And two weeks ago another girl happened into the gym and Ray, completely unexpectedly (well, not completely) approached me somewhat excitedly to say that he may have “found a sparring partner” for me. Unfortunately, this girl is not sparring partner material, but it opened the door to the possibility of me sparring at all and Ray agreed, abstractly, to let me spar the boys as well.
After a week of informing every person I came in contact with at the gym that I wanted to spar, I finally walked confidently up to Ray and said, “I’d like to spar on Friday.” I’d been watching the sparring a lot (the kids are getting ready for the Golden Gloves preliminaries, so there is sparring on Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and had kind of become friendly with a few of the guys. One even asked me when I was going to “get in there?” and I almost shouted that I wanted to spar immediately. After a lot of waiting, today was my day.
It almost didn’t happen. The kid who several of the trainers had suggested as a partner is a 15-year-old, shorter than me but about 15 lbs heavier and the usual catalyst for the bloody noses of the other kid in the gym his size. I’d watched him spar and even given advice to the chronic bleeder regarding how to handle a southpaw, and was pretty sure it was a good start. He’s slow, a brawler, and cocky. I had no emotional interest in embarrassing him or anything like this, but when I was being gloved and greased for the ring I was told by a number of people to “light him up.” Apparently his antics don’t make him very popular. He didn’t want to spar with me at all. He threw a little fit when he found out he was sparring me. He said that he “doesn’t hit girls,” which made everyone laugh. I didn’t want to instigate anything or antagonize him, although I had a couple of choice insults and chides running through my head. I just smiled and kept wrapping my hands. Everyone made fun of him, saying he was scared of being beat up by a girl, etc. I think there was some truth to this. He’s known for a couple of days now that there was talk of the two of us sparring and I’d caught him in the mirror watching me shadow. I look good in shadow and I punch the bag hard, so it can be deceptive. His fit lasted only long enough for me to finish my wraps and then he was getting geared up with his snit on the back burner. We went to opposite corners and my corner said, “don’t let him bully you.” I almost laughed. “How hard do we go? 40%? 60%?” Coach laughed and told me that this kid doesn’t know how to pull punches and has no control, so once I feel it, I’ll know how hard to hit back. Fair enough.
I was surprised by how tame the power actually was. This kid looks like he’s throwing bowling balls because his partner gets a bloody nose instantly, but I only got a few knocks that pushed me anywhere at all. I tried to stay active and work angles, but my head movement isn’t in place yet for sparring. I got in a few liver shots on the left and rocked him hard with jabs when I went southpaw (apparently he doesn’t have much experience against a southpaw), but as the rounds progressed I must confess that he got better and I got worse. I was trying too hard to do something fancy and Ray kept yelling at me to let my hands go. I did once or twice, but generally I was a two-shot savant and didn’t utilize my significant cardio advantage. What was nice though, was that it was so much fun and I really, really enjoyed myself. My corner kept yelling, “That girl loves to fight!” When I did, once or twice, get my head knocked back by a strong punch, someone (including the kid once) would ask me if I was okay and I’d grin so big my mouthpiece almost fell out and say, “I’m great!”
I’m not sure how this kid felt about the sparring in terms of what he’d expected, but I think generally he looked like he had control most of the time and certainly had no reason to be embarrassed by having sparred a (gasp) girl. We touched gloves between each round and after the last one, and he shook my hand before leaving the gym a few minutes after our rounds. I continued working out, spending 5 rounds on the heavy bag and getting a lot of good tips from two (2!) trainers, and some more for the Mexican bag as well.
I watched the rest of the sparring when the next lot of kids came in and Coach from my corner kept talking to me (at the side of the ring) about what was going on in the ring, clearly seeing me as both a student and someone who he could gripe to about his kid not listening. When his fighter came back to our corner he got an earful from Coach, and then, during a lull before the bell, I stepped up and told him that his ducking was really working – he just disappeared and the other kid had no idea where he was, though he kept getting hit when he popped back up without having thrown anything at the body. He needed to throw some punches while he was down there, I said. He nodded and the bell rang. Within a few seconds he was following my advice and doing great! I promised myself then to be better at responding quickly to my corner’s words because a) it’s useful and b) it feels awesome when someone listens and succeeds as a result. Eventually the other kid got wise to the ducking and started uppercutting, but that’s the nature of fighting – you adapt, or your opponent does, and you have to find a new advantage.
Another kid I’ve been watching for a week now went in for sparring next and I was really excited to see him do well. He’s not bad at all, but he has frustrating habits (very similar to my own, which might be why they’re so frustrating) of throwing only one or two punches and backing up, or only moving straight in or out. Today he threw multiple combinations a number of times and backed his opponents up; he still spent most of his time fulfilling his usual errors, but he looked much, much better. After all the rounds I stopped by the open bathroom door where he was poking at something on his face in the mirror and told him that he looked so much better than he did on Monday, “you look great,” I said. He smiled big and said “thanks.”
A minute later I was taking off my hand-wraps and he came over to me, asking if I really meant it. I expressed in a few words exactly how he was better and he got that grin again. I asked if he could feel a difference in the ring. He said, “no.” He knows he’s his own worst critic, so he mostly just feels frustrated by what he’s not doing. Ooooh yes, I know that feeling. He said, “I mean, maybe if I saw myself I’d be able to tell.” So I promised I’d bring a camera on Monday so he could see. Coach came over and gave him a short lecture on how he was still not throwing enough punches or moving enough, then told him that he should do better because he’s tall for his weight. I chimed in, “I’ve fought tall… tall sucks,” and he smiled again. Coach slunk away and I gave this kid the same advice I would give myself – maybe I was giving it to myself? – and made sure to shake everyone’s hand before I left.
It is still a boy’s club. I do make progress every time I go to the gym, in little ways. I’m by no means “one of the guys” and never will be. As a kid, I grew up as the only girl and the youngest with three older brothers. I wanted to blend in, be invisible among them as one among brothers – but I wasn’t, ever. I was the sister; the sister and because of that I was both invisible in my exclusion, yet also hyper-visible as something precious, something of unique value. And that’s not a bad thing.