Historically, boxing is not a hobby for the ladies. But suddenly, women's boxing is becoming the fastest growing sport in the world, spurned by a recent media blitz coinciding with the Hollywood hit Million Dollar Baby, in which Hilary Swank dukes it out in the ring with the help of paternal curmudgeon Clint Eastwood. And out on 82nd and Russell, at the Grand Avenue Boxing Gym, things are no different, as women train alongside men in preparation for the Oregon Golden Gloves--the biggest event in amateur boxing.
Started in 1926, the Golden Gloves is a series of tournaments taking place in 87 cities across the country, culminating in a national championship to be held this May in Arkansas. The winners will then have the opportunity to go on to the Olympics.
"A hundred percent of the best boxers on the planet have come through the Golden Gloves," says Fred Ryan, the gym's owner and manager. "The best boxers out of the United States--Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Rocky Marciano--are all Golden Gloves champions. It's very prestigious."
Twelve winners and two coaches will move on from the Oregon event (this Friday and Saturday at the Milwaukie Elks Lodge) to the Western Regionals in Las Vegas in mid-April. This weekend's match-up also serves as a fundraiser to help pay the competitors' expenses-- everything from plane tickets to hotels and meals.
"It's a big event for these kids," Ryan says. "A lot of them have never been on a plane before."
As the opening date of the competition draws near, the tension mounts, and the gym fills with sweating bodies and the percussive sound of speed bags echoing off the walls. There's plenty of training to be done.
A WOMAN'S PLACE
As women filter into the gym for Grand Avenue's women's boxing class--a two-hour workout three times a week--they chat and tease each other good-naturedly as hands are wrapped and warm-ups begin. Once everyone's assembled, they plunge into the workout--each class a surprise package of training techniques that develop endurance, skill, balance, and strength. This can include stair drills, a range of abdominal exercises, balancing a medicine ball while running a course laid out on the floor, footwork, jump rope, light weight lifting, and of course, bag work. No two classes are alike, and can range in intensity--but none could be described as "low impact."
This is where a lot of women boxers start out, their interest piqued by the search for a good workout that boosts confidence and never gets boring. "Circuit training," as it's called, operates on a buzzer system, working one activity nonstop for three minutes straight, with one-minute intervals of rest. The classes are varied and require enough concentration so the two hours fly by, and your entire body is challenged.
"It's a tremendous workout, and all of America is looking for the next great training program," says Julie Bishop, the class's instructor, explaining the phenomenon of boxing as the latest hot fitness trend. "And it's like learning a foreign language--your mind is stimulated because you're learning a new skill."
For many women, the exercise and personal satisfaction that come with it are addictive enough. Not everyone gets the bug to fight competitively--there are those, however, whose exercise interest quickly develops into an interest in fighting. Paula Girard, a young boxer who began in the women's class just this past summer, now trains six days a week, for two to three hours, and will have her first bout at this weekend's Golden Gloves event.
"I never knew much about boxing, but I thought it was kind of cool, so I tried it," she explains casually.
Dalia Mendez, on the other hand, has only been training for less than three months, yet already aspires to box professionally.
"I came in because I want to fight," she says with determined frankness. "Boxing represents fighting in life. I've fought really hard in life, so now it's boxing. Getting hit gets me going--not in a 'mad' sort of way, but it reminds me of things that motivate me. I look forward to doing this professionally. It's like a dream."
THE BEAUTY'S INSIDE
"Amazon." "Dyke." "Manly." "Tomboy." The stereotype of the woman who would enter into such a violent sport goes something like that. Bishop alone could blow this theory out of the water. The petite, pretty blonde has been boxing for nine years, competitively training for five, and as she puts it, "I still have all my teeth intact." But like any woman who helps pave the way in a traditionally male-dominated arena, she had to earn the respect of those who didn't take her seriously.
"People said 'girls shouldn't be doing that,' or 'why don't you try cheerleading?'" she recounts. "I've gotten a black eye and people would think I was the victim of domestic abuse before they'd think I was doing something like this." Part of this resistance to women in the ring seems to come from a misconception of the sport itself, which is just that--a skilled sport, not an excuse to put someone (or yourself) in the hospital.
"I think it's totally cool that if I needed to take someone I could--but that's not why I got into it," explains Girard. Bishop also stressed that boxing doesn't have to be an "emotional journey."
Naturally, there is some danger of injury involved, but none of the female competitors are particularly worried about the possibility of cosmetic damage.
"How much I want this totally overrides that," says Girard. "Beauty is on the inside, so I don't really care," concurs Mendez. And Bishop is more concerned about hurting her opponent. "Especially if they aren't of equal skill," she says. "That was the main thing I had to overcome; to realize it was their responsibility to defend themselves, as well as my responsibility to defend myself."
THE ARENA OF TRUTH
Currently women's boxing is becoming less and less of an oddity, with public shock and disapproval dwindling. While both Bishop and Girard have experienced at least some resistance to their endeavors ("whether it's because I'm a girl or because they're just jerks," chuckles Girard), Mendez claims she hasn't really gotten any flak.
"They think I'm brave," she says of her family's supportiveness.
Boxing writers are fond of calling the ring, "the arena of truth"--a place where a fighter reveals what he or she is truly made of, exposing strengths, fears and that intangible thing known as "heart." Regardless of the many reasons why, it's certain that women infiltrating the boxing ring is a progressive and exciting step in the sports world--for both themselves and spectators. Not to mention providing another arena in which females can prove themselves as capable as the guys.
"There are plenty of guys who don't like to be hit," smiles Mendez. "That alone is something to be proud of."
Catch the Golden Gloves this Friday and Saturday at the Milwaukie Elks Lodge, 13121 SE McLoughlin Blvd, doors 6 pm, $15-20 Friday and $25 for seating on Saturday or $15 for standing room only. Call 255-4240 for tickets.