Move Over, Rocky Balboa --- Our Reporter Dons Gloves, Lands Jabs, Stays Up; Plus, She's A Girl!
By Wendy Bounds
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
10 September 1999
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
NEW YORK -- In a sweltering warehouse gym beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, I stand clad in shorts and a tank top, plastic mouthpiece clenched between my teeth. It is a languid Friday evening in June, and instead of a glass of wine I clasp two cherry-red boxing gloves, 10 ounces each. A leather mask covers my head, and I am sweating.
The announcer's voice rises over the 200 people gathered around the ring: "Wendy Bounds is a 27-year-old reporter at The Wall Street Journal representing Gleason's Gym." It's my first fight, and people cheer -- but not for me. They just like watching a women's boxing bout; it's sexy and different. I know this.
This is the moment I believed I needed -- the moment I trained for a year to have. I climb through the ropes and stand on the blue mat, which is spotted brown from the blood and sweat of those before me. My coach Tony is whispering last-minute advice: "Keep your hands up. . . . Use your jab . . . ." I barely hear him.
What do I feel?
Fear. I feel pure, wide-eyed fear.
You can still get out of this.
I'm hot. Sweat drips down my cheek.
My mother would kill me if she knew where I was.
The bell rings.
"Why are you doing this?" My friend Lauren, an editor at Mademoiselle magazine, asks over dinner. It's two weeks before the fight. "I mean, what do you get out of hitting people and being hit?"
Everyone asks the same question, particularly my parents. It's definitely not the prettiest time in boxing's history; people can still vividly recall Mike Tyson chewing off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear two years ago. And there's always the latest scandal from promoter Don King.
Yet more women from all backgrounds are embracing the sport, including Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila, who recently announced she intends to turn pro. Indeed, more than 500 women now box professionally worldwide, according to women's boxing promoter Event Sports in Los Angeles. Two years ago, such bouts were virtually unregulated with grossly mismatched fighters of different weights facing off in the ring. Now the fights are virtually the same for both sexes, except that women wear chest protectors.
The amateur ranks, meanwhile, are only swelling faster, as gyms and ultrachic clubs across the country increasingly tout boxing as a superior workout. Just last month, the first women's national Golden Gloves amateur championship was held in Augusta, Ga. and female boxing shows promise to become an Olympic sport by the year 2004.
Still, the brutal stereotypes persist -- and not without reason. Unlike other one-on-one sports such as tennis, there is a palpable element of physical fear to boxing. The opponent's sole motive is to punch, hurt and knock you down. Managing that knowledge and the ensuing apprehension is half the fight.
Yet through the fear comes the empowerment so integral to the sport's lure. You enter the ring alone, you come out alone (unless someone is carrying you). There are no teammates to fall back on, no ball to dribble, no emergency timeouts to regroup. Everyone who climbs through the ropes battles his or her own demons.
I first met my coach Tony Canarozzi on a chilly Tuesday morning in 1997. My best friend had taken a boxing lesson the week before, and he couldn't stop talking about it.
What was the big deal? I wondered.
Inside the gym, the smell of sweat and leather mixed with the din of physical power was unlike anything in my then-pristine world as a fashion writer for the Journal. Tony, whose powerfully built arms were thicker than my thighs, looked me up and down. He didn't have to speak; his smirk said it all.
Skinny blonde girl wants to box? This oughta be good.
Truth be told, at 5-foot-11, 127 pounds, there is little about me that is physically menacing. I lift weights, but I certainly don't look like I'm capable of kicking anyone's anything, anytime soon. I've always been thin, a lucky thing now but a curse growing up. In junior high, my basketball coach called me "Bones," and the toughest girl in my class once pushed me against the lockers, simply because she could. These wounds of our youth are slow to heal, I've discovered.
Which is why when my right hand first slammed into Tony's pads that morning, and the impact made his eyes widen and his lips mutter "not bad" that I knew I would keep boxing.
Twice a week before work, I would run through the bowels of the financial district to the gym, passing traders and bankers in the early morning light. There, I would jab and hook until I could barely lift my arms to shampoo my hair. A boxer since his youth, Tony was the toughest person I'd ever known. He would work out 16 rounds before I arrived, go another set with me, and continue through the morning. With him, I found an identity, a strength, far beyond what other people expected of me. I wanted to please him more than any coach or editor I'd ever known.
As I progressed, Tony finally hinted that he wanted me to spar. At first I demurred. What was the point? I asked. Deep down I worried I wasn't good enough. But one cold Saturday morning Tony stuck a mouthpiece in my jaw and strapped headgear on me. "Let's just move, kid," he said. To my surprise, when he hit, I hit back.
I'd never been struck so hard by another person. And there was something about it that made me feel terribly alive.
I stand in my corner watching my opponent, a pretty, young Irish woman named Ruth, enter the ring. She is several inches shorter than I, but more muscular, and has fought seven fights. When we shook hands earlier, I thought, "Maybe we could be friends." Seeing her stare at me now, face distorted by her own mouthpiece, I don't think so.
In these exhibition sparring matches where both men and women fight for three two-minute rounds, there are no winners or losers, at least officially. But the blows and bloody noses are real. So is the thud of the less-skilled being knocked to the mat.
It's time. What have I done?
The first step toward her is hardest.
Ruth comes fast with her jab. I hit back, and within seconds I've forgotten what Tony told me and let her come too close. She strikes hard in my stomach, which isn't protected, making me grateful I've firmly secured my navel ring with duct tape.
Then she lands a blow to my forehead. I step back and adjust my headgear.
"USE YOUR JAB!" I hear Tony yell from the corner.
I do, and for a minute it seems to work. My arms are long enough that if I keep punching, she can't get near me. But my apprehension exhausts me. Sixty seconds into the match, I drop my hands, and she punches me square in my left eye.
I'm going to have a black eye.
Pause. We circle.
Maybe a black eye will look cool.
It hurts. A lot.
The first round ends. I stumble over to Tony. He removes my mouth piece and squeezes water down my throat.
"This sucks," I blurt.
"You're doing fine. Just keep your hands up and your elbows in. And stay back."
I can't imagine doing this two more minutes, much less four. Staying back does help. And later, when I watch a video of the fight from the safety of my couch, I'll realize I even managed a few shots myself, though she definitely lands most of the sharp blows.
Around and around the ring, I finally grow dizzy and fatigued. It is clear she is the better fighter technically. Had this been a real match, I would lose.
At the end of the third and final round, I'm breathing hard and my arms are shaking. While there is no black eye, it will be weeks before I can wear a baseball cap on my sore head. Still, I haven't been knocked down. Nor am I bleeding. And thankfully, no one has to carry me out of the ring.
I would like to say I had an epiphany right then -- that my childhood insecurities suddenly drained onto the gym floor. But the truth is, I was confused. Unsure about what I'd accomplished, if anything at all.
Unsure if I'd fought tough enough.
The next morning, I returned to Gleason's for my regular Saturday lesson. Climbing the stairwell, the familiar slaps of punching rang like a dream from the night before. Did I want to go back in there?
The men of the gym lounged around a table talking, as they did every weekend. I entered and glanced over sheepishly. Bruce, the gym's president spoke first: "Hey, nice fight last night." Another fighter named Domenico, whose nose looks like a Picasso, was there. He pointed at me. "She was a good fighter. You didn't do bad at all."
Then across the gym, I saw Tony staring at me beside the ring. I straightened my back and walked toward him. We locked eyes for a moment. Then he squeezed my shoulder and parted the ropes with a grin.
"Come on kid, let's go."
I picked up my gloves. And I got back in the ring.