Friday, June 01, 2012

An Olympic Debut and THE BOXER'S HEART

In case you haven’t seen the headlines, Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza will have the distinct honor of fighting for the gold in the 2012 London Olympics.  While these young American ladyboxers will certainly be proud to sport the red, white, and blue of the U.S. flag, they will be representing more than just America this summer; they’ll be throwing punches for women everywhere.  As the 2012 Games close in, excitement over the debut of women’s boxing as an official Olympic sport is at an all-time high.

To celebrate this globally historic moment, Overlook Press has published THE BOXER’S HEART: A Woman Fighting by Kate Sekules (see book trailer here). This brilliantly candid memoir tells the story of how a young writer moves to New York City and rises through the ranks at the famed Gleason’s Gym to box professionally.  Competing in the debut women’s bout at the Legendary Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, Sekules is very much a part of the female fighter’s legacy.

Join Kate Sekules this evening, June 1, at BookCourt in Brooklyn for a reading and discussion at 7 PM. For those of you unable to attend, please enjoy this excerpt from THE BOXER’S HEART, which describes Kate's first day of training at Gleason's.

I’m sure Terry chose this picturesque time of day deliberately—prime pro training time, before the amateurs and “white-collar  boxers” get here. In the shadowboxing mirror, I see me jumping rope surrounded by trainers  with their fighters, fighters with their trainers, and I feel at home, forgetting  that I am different  and that maybe I can’t have that.  Presently,  I’ll find  out  where  the  boxertrainer   frame  warps and where it remains solid when the boxer is me; but just now, I’m enjoying the new sights, new possibilities. I never imagined there’d be palpable love here.

Everyone is wobbly, because the mirror,  far from being fog-free top-to-toe, is the Mylar funhouse  kind, has dried sweat on it, and is duct-taped to the wall in sections, so in this one I’m giraffe, in that one, elephant.  Having  a fat fit in this thing  is impossible. Anyhow, I’m already away on an I’m-a-real-boxer-now trip, since I’m good at jumping rope, turning it with flicks of the wrist, alternating feet, cross- ing arms, in a loose rope-in-front style I copied from a skinny Rasta who trains at Allstars, the amateur gym I attend  in London. Boxers glance my way. Someone says, “You done that before.” I’m glad when

Terry reappears and we go into the old Crosby Street routine, which seems inferior now to the boxers’ training sessions, though the gist of it differs not at all. Like Stephan said, all of boxing is four punches, jab, right, hook, and uppercut.  And chess is six pieces, and computing is two digits, one and zero. It’s what you do with them. I shadowbox. Shadowbox- ing relies on imagination. Your reflection is your opponent, or when you do it in the ring, you raise a phantom opponent to dance in front of you. The boxers whip their torsos side to side, have their heads on springs, catch a punch with a glove, make a rib shield of their elbows, fold themselves down, wrap themselves up, eat the whole ring in one shuffle and step. It looks beautiful. I, by contrast,  have glue on my soles and lead in my arms. I feel exposed, the only person here with no  clue what an opponent is like. Padwork  is better.  Terry brings the mitt down for each strike so I sound major, as loud as the guys. I’ve got my guard up, ready to defend against ridicule, but instead a man with an early Beatles moptop  comes over and watches intently.

“She notta sa bad,” he tells Terry.
“Kate’s cool,” he agrees, holding the pads for another  one-two.
“She gonna fight?”
“We’ll see.”

“I want to,” I add between combinations.
“She oughdda fight. She hit hard.”

I love this guy. He is maybe five-foot-three. His hands, encased in silver tape, look like they’re wearing badly forged medieval armor and he has deep crow’s-feet from his sole facial expression—a smile to melt winter.

“Yeah, woman! You godda fight.” We continue padwork to the bell, but Terry doesn’t introduce us.

The bell is king. At the Manhattan gyms, it was a door-buzzer sound from  a red  box with little  flashing bulbs like a lie detector. Here it’s a bigger box mounted on an iron pillar with a piercing elec- tronic bweep bweep bweep, and three traffic signal lights: green for work, amber for thirty seconds to go, and red heralding the one-minute rest.  Everything, but everything, in professional boxing occurs in three-minute increments.  Everything, that is, except women’s bouts, where the bell goes after two minutes. (Amateur boxing also differs— from one-minute rounds for juniors to three minutes for the open category.) After three rounds of padwork, I move on to the heavybag, or I try to. They are all in use, pummeled till they swing like corpses on their chains, half a dozen slim leather cylinders, a fat canvas one, and an obese black one called SuperBag. When my turn comes, Terry stands beside me and tells me what punches to throw in what order, and again I feel uncomfortably green. Hey, I scold myself, these are pro boxers, not competition; learn from them. I use them as patterns on the double-end bag and the speed bag, getting more from them than from Terry. He’s training me a little differently now, the empha- sis more on form than aerobic conditioning, and I am grateful for the close attention and proud to be first and only female he’s brought to Gleason’s, but I can’t help noticing he is distracted. What he is here, after all, is a boxer.

“Terry, will I be able to spar soon?” I ask.
“I think we can do that,” he says.
“Who will I spar with?” “We’ll find you someone.”
I can’t admit this to Terry, but I still don’t fully understand what sparring is. At least I know it’s practice fighting, but I don’t get how you gauge how far to go, how hard to hit, or how the trainers regulate the action, and the action here isn’t making it any clearer. Three rings— the fourth belongs to Johnny Rodz’s Unpredictable School of Pro Wrestling—are alive with the sounds of sparring: guttural exhalations, slapped leather, stentorian admonitions from the ropes. It’s the first time I’ve seen fighting up close, and the noises are squishy and snuffly, nothing like the clear metallic cracks on movie soundtracks. When someone connects with an uppercut, there’s a muted splash. A blow to the head clicks on the headgear, or is a wet rag on the face. Patterns form in the breath whenever a punch derails it from the engine regularity—whiffle begets snort, pchew-pchew begets hmph—and their
satin trunks swish and their boots bang through the canvas and make a blunt  drum  of the hollow ring. “Get him back, Jemique!” “Body! Body! BODEEE!” Trainers are furious spouses, taking it personally when their fighter does a dumb move. Then one session will suddenly pull the whole gym around it like a birthday  cake, and  the yelling keeps climbing to higher  registers, the pace escalates, every punch spraying a sweat fountain; someone bleeds; everyone screams advice; until a Latino guy with a walking stick—his name is Sinbad— just lets rip, topping out the racket: “Ayeeeee! Ayeeeee! Ayeeeee!”

When a session is done, the combatants embrace.  Even if it looked like war, they do this, and the pack dissolves and the next pair steps in. I am thrilled by the whole thing. It doesn’t strike me as vio- lent. I see it as an abstruse language that I know slightly, as if I were in Tokyo after a year of Japanese lessons—my accent is convincing, I smile and nod, but, frankly, I haven’t a clue what they’re going on about. It is clear that the only way to get the subtleties of sparring is to spar, but even then, the rules may bend for me. I want no special treatment. In London, I learned to play pool to burst the ennui of pub blokes when a girl stepped up to the table—the way they wouldn’t even bother watching a girl’s shots. I thought beating them at their own game struck a blow for all women, and I thought so all over again with Sam and my softball swing, and with Sam not wanting to be “pussy-whipped.” Now I’m thinking it again. Let me spar, let me learn, let  me  show  what  women  can  do.  This is funny, because nobody’s telling me I can’t.

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