My husband really gets into it about jazz drumming and race over at Do the Math.
Tonight he plays in the solo piano showcase at the Village Vanguard, part of an exciting week of programming coordinated by Jason Moran to celebrate the 80th anniversary of that hallowed dive. I used to be scared to go to the Vanguard because the owner was so mean. Now it's my favorite place to hear music. I guess it wouldn't be a treasure if it didn't have a dragon.
Thanks to everyone for your support about the fire. Still no progress on our place, and we've got crash pads lined up through April.
When I walk in the door of the boxing gym, I always feel better. I never know what kind of questions the young people will ask me. I've got a poetry student, a meditation buddy, an aspiring essayist, a kid slogging through pre-calculus, and yesterday Donovan brought in some linear equations. Meanwhile, our elite fighters continue to kick ass in the Golden Gloves. Last night Chiquito made it to the finals at the Barclays Center. Shu Shu is in, too. Tonight Africa, Big Black, and Omar fight.
As Ray Arcel told Thomas Hauser, "The important part of boxing is not that youngsters realize their dreams, but that they can dream. Every day in the gym they're somebody special. They're a fighter."
All press is good press, and so I was happy to see the Atlantic paying attention to my grimy, girly corner of the sporting world. Kate Jenkins's sympathetic piece looks at the pressure on women fighters to market themselves as sex symbols, yet there is an odd way in which the piece is itself evidence of the problem it decries. If we want people to take our sport seriously, we need to get the details right. Here's a list of the errors I saw, beginning with the two most obvious, the rankings.
"Tori Nelson, ranked #1 in the US and #2 in the world"
WBAN has Nelson #2 in the US and #4 in the world; Boxrec has her #1 in the US and #3 in the world
On Tyreishia Douglas: "Currently, she’s the #1 ranked female bantamweight in the world"
Douglas is a flyweight not a bantamweight. WBAN does not rank her, and Boxrec has her at #18 in the world.
The rest of these points are debatable, but I still see them as inaccurate:
"She estimated that the winnings for equivalent male fighters start off between $20,000 and $30,000."
Tori is a 13-0 welterweight. It's hard to find "equivalent male fighters," because at 13-0 most male welterweights won't yet be fighting for titles, but this figure seems too high as a starting point. Local promoter Felipe Gomez of New Legends Boxing estimates that a man with that record could pull $4,000 for an 8-rounder on the cheap end, $6,000-$12,000 if TV is involved. Al Haymon guys, Olympians would be pulling much more.
"Then she added, referring to the men, “Maybe I gotta fight them to make that.” I don’t doubt she’d do it. Nelson, like nearly all female boxers, began training by sparring almost exclusively with men. There are still so few women in the sport that the training gyms pair men and women out of necessity."
Boxing is one of the most strength-intensive sports. Pee wee boxers might spar members of the opposite sex but competitive adult women are generally paired with men for technical sparring only. When elite women are paired with men for open sparring, there will be a weight advantage accorded the woman. Women don't need to be able to beat men to be serious athletes.
"The trainers, in turn, know what the promoters are looking for and are likely to select their fighters with that knowledge in mind...Because of a perceived lack of interest in women’s boxing, trainers, managers, promoters, and sponsors are all reluctant to work with women."
True of the business-side people, not of the trainers. All the trainers I know (including myself) love training women. Most trainers these days make their money off white collar clients anyway, and women are good for business. I called Gleason's Gym, where pro Kiesher "Fire" McLeod-Wells told me they have approximately 80 trainers, nearly all of whom have female clients. Church Street Gym reported eight trainers on staff, plus independent contractors, none of whom discriminate against women.
On Douglas's loss to Esparza at the 2012 Olympic Trials: "White believes Douglas is a stronger fighter than Esparza, but she told me Douglas’s managers couldn’t raise enough money to make her an appealing candidate. (In cases like Douglas’s where there is no knockout, the winner is determined based on the judges' assessment.) Many of the people I spoke with implied that for the cash-strapped Olympic team, a boxer with financial backing is an asset."
Esparza beat Douglas 32-17 in the Olympic Trials. As I reported from ringside, the lopsided score did not reflect the strength of Douglas's performance, but Esparza was still the clear victor. This decision had nothing to do with sponsorships and everything to do with Esparza's superior ring generalship and conditioning. This was a double-elimination tournament, and Douglas's first loss had come earlier to Christina Cruz of New York, a fighter who moonlighted as a waitress to make ends meet. The winners of the other two divisions, Queen Underwood and Claressa Shields, were also cash-strapped.
"The media has disarmed Esparza, reducing her from a skilled athlete to just another frivolous female celebrity."
Jenkins does to Esparza precisely what she criticizes others for. There is no mention of Esparza's recent gold at the Women's World Championships in Korea, nor is Esparza interviewed in this piece, despite being the most thoughtful and quotable of boxers. Moreover, not all media have taken the reductive approach: Sue Jaye Johnson at WNYC, independent journalist Raquel Ruiz, and Girlboxing's Malissa Smith have all written about Esparza's achievements from a pure boxing perspective.
"Even for the rare sex symbol like Esparza, it’s hard to sustain a lucky streak. Once Esparza leaves the Olympics to go pro, Nelson speculates that her sponsors will drop her."
Esparza's bone structure may be due to luck, but nothing else about her career is, and why should we believe Nelson's mildly embittered speculations about Esparza's sponsors? As Mikaela Mayer - a technically excellent and physically beautiful boxer sponsored by Dr. Pepper - once told me, it's hard work to close these deals and to maintain your performance under the added pressure of corporate patronage. Dealing with suits takes a certain decorum and reliability in short supply in boxing gyms. Why didn't Jenkins interview some of the A-siders who could have spoken from the inside about the devil's bargain of sexing up yourself to sell?
"The addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic lineup ultimately means little if the boxers still can’t expect to make a living as professional athletes afterwards."
The addition of women's boxing to the Olympic lineup means everything in the world to those of us who care about the sport. Christy Halbert, whose advocacy helped secure the Olympic inclusion, told me, "Not every woman boxer wants to turn pro. The fact that women can now be Olympic boxers has changed their lives. There are women in other countries who have money they wouldn't have if they hadn't won a medal. It can be a life-changer, not only for the boxer but for her whole family."
Claressa Shields, reigning Olympic and World Champion, came to visit my gym yesterday!
Bottom row (Left to Right): Nyisha "Siyah" Goodluck, Me, Little Nick Scaturchio, Claressa "T-Rex" Shields, Chris "BHopp" Colbert
Top Row: Tara Ciccone, Mo, Hamza Alhumaidi, Reshat "The Albanian Bear" Mati, Coach Aureliano Sosa, Richardson "Africa" Hitchins, Bruce "Shu Shu" Carrington, Jr, Akil "That Guy" Auguste, Coach Hilergio "Quiro" Bracero, Derrel "Bro Man" Williams
I was so happy watching Claressa shadowbox in the ring while the kids gathered around asking about her fights and her training. I consider this Darshan for my boxers. Claressa is the best woman in the world at what she does, perhaps the best woman boxer ever. Seeing that can change you.
It's been a rough fall. Over at our gym blog, I've posted a tribute to a young man who was shot to death in Brownsville.
I haven't been doing much writing, but I have essays coming out soon in Penthouse Forum and the Threepenny Review. Here's hoping Claressa was Darshan for me, too.
I'm calling it quits for the summer before I head to MacDowell for five weeks.
Please read my open letter to Gennady Golovkin over at Stiff Jab; he might be my new favorite fighter.
Saturday I headed to Atlantic City with these Russians to see light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev knock out Blake Caparello in two. My report is here. Lovely to see Sparkle Lee making the right calls. It was the only time I've seen a woman ref such a high profile bout.
This is the new Wonder Woman costume. Pretty sure I hate it, although I'd also like to own it. For Wonder Woman's roots as a symbol of "feminist bondage utopia" check out Philip Sandifer's fascinating critical history.
Here's one of Debi Cornwall's shots of Atlas Cops and Kids cleaning up at the New York tournament. We took home the Best Team Trophy and a well-deserved Best Coach Award for Aureliano Sosa.
Photo: Will Hart, HBO
It's boxing season! I've been doing a lot of fight coverage lately for Stiff Jab. Last week I checked out the press coference for Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto, which is set for the Garden this summer.
Photo: Rich Kane, Golden Boy
In a dark Times Square bar, I listened to Bernard Hopkins, newly dubbed "The Alien," hype his upcoming title bout with Beibut Shumenov. Long may you reign, Alien!
And over the weekend I tagged along with some Russian buddies to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to watch young Slava "Czar" Glazkov take down the aging Tomas Adamek in a great night of fights that also featured beautiful boxing displays by South African-Malawian Isaac Chilemba and a still-sharp Kermit Cintron.
Now it's back to work at Atlas Cops and Kids, where we have nine boxers still in the running for the Golden Gloves finals at the Barclays Center, including Earl "Flash" Newman, the defending heavyweight open champ, who makes his tournament debut tonight at Bishop Ford.
All photos courtesy of Raquel Ruiz, except where noted
Congratulations to all the 2014 champions, and thank you to the boxers, trainers, fathers, refs, judges, bartenders, pit bulls, labrador retrievers, ice-covered pine trees, and friendly people of Spokane. At the bottom of this post, I acknowledge some people who have been especially kind and inspirational.
This was a light year, perhaps because of the lack of headgear for the men, the decline of regional programs, or just because everyone is too broke to schlep to Spokane.
Here's a recap of my tournament coverage for Stiff Jab:
DAY ONE: The Headgear Issue
It might be a while before I get out to another tournament. There's a way in which the story I was following - the Olympic debut of women's amateur boxing - is over. Now we go back to the perennial tale of women athletes trying to make it work in an often indifferent world. Mark Ortega's nice piece on Mikaela Mayer highlights this struggle. Kind of gives you the blues.
Pro boxing gives you the blues, too, but it's more of an aesthetic, impersonal depression. At pro fights, you aren't helping trainers with the spit bucket, dancing with the refs in the disco, and giving the boxers lifts to the airport. The experience of covering amateur tournaments is at times confusingly intimate. Sometimes I feel like I need headgear, too.
I am there as a witness, not a judge.
Amateur boxing has now moved to a pro-style, 10-point must system, which is a good move. Although I prefer boxers to sluggers, I do think the weight of blows needs to be considered, as does willingness to engage. The 10-point must system won't stop superior boxers from triumphing, any more than it kept Sweet Pea or Willie Pep down.
If a boxer is moving laterally, she should be scoring much more often than her opponent. As Naazim Richardson once said to me, "If you have to stop to throw a punch, you're not a boxer." The onus is on the stick-and-move boxer to prove that she has control of the rhythm of the bout and to display excellent defense in the exchanges.
Defense is still sadly lacking in the women’s game. Defense is what makes boxing beautiful and gives fighters long careers.
One thing to note about the new rules is that, of five judges at ringside, two cards are randomly thrown out. Thus it is quite possible to lose a fight by a 2-1 split decision but win it 3-2 had all the cards had been considered. (This system was put in place to make it harder to bribe judges, although it just means you would have to pay off four judges instead of three. Azerbaijan should find the cash somewhere.)
Using the figures from the USA Boxing press releases, I count 144 bouts that went to the judges. A third of these, 49 bouts, were split decisions. This percentage was lower in the preliminaries, when there were many mismatches, but it climbed to as high as 50% in the semis and quarters!
No one likes being judged. Although I agreed with the wins for Queen Underwood and Malik Jackson, does Mikaela Mayer deserve a simple “L” for her disciplined boxing, or Shawn Simpson for his slick counterpunching? The more hoops AIBA jumps through to produce a fool-proof judging system, the more we reveal judging's essential emptiness.
This reminds me of what W.G. Sebald wrote in Austerlitz about castles. I'm going to type out this long passage, because typing out the work of masters is good for a writer in the same way that watching tapes of the greats is good for a fighter:
Yet, he said, it is often our mightiest projects that most obviously betray the degree of our insecurity. The construction of fortifications, for instance - and Antwerp was an outstanding example of that craft - clearly showed how we feel obliged to keep surrounding ourselves with defenses, built in successive phases as a precaution against any incursion by enemy powers, until the idea of concentric rings making their way steadily outward comes up against its natural limits. If we study the development of fortifications from Floriani, da Capri, and Sanmicheli, by way of Rusenstein, Burgsdorff, Coehoorn, and Klengel, and so to Vauban and Montalembert, it is amazing, said Austerlitz, the persistence with which generations of masters of the art of military architecture, for all their undoubtedly outstanding gifts, clung to what we can easily see today was a fundamentally wrong-headed idea: the notion that by designing an ideal trace' with blunt bastions and ravelins projecting well beyond it, allowing the cannon of the fortress to cover the entire operational area outside the walls, you could make a city as secure as anything in the world can ever be. No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and seigecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, reduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan:
a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately stikes the layman as an emblem of both absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power. In the practice of warfare, however, the star-shaped fortresses which were being built and improved everywhere during the eighteenth century did not answer their purpose, for intent as everyone was on that pattern, it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will naturally attract the largest enemy forces, and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive, so that in the end you might find yourself in a place fortified in every possible way, watching helplessly while enemy troops, moving on to their own choice of terrain elsewhere, simply ignored their adversaries' fortresses, which had become positive arsenals of weaponry, bristling with cannon and overcrowded with men. The frequent result, said Austerlitz, of resorting to measures of fortification marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration was that you drew attention to your weakest point, practically inviting the enemy to attack it, not to mention the fact that as architectural plans for fortifications became increasingly complex, the time it took to build them increased as well, and with it the probability that as soon as they were finished, if not before, they would have been overtaken by further developments, both in artillery and in strategic planning, which took account of the growing realization that everything was decided in movement, not in a state of rest.
(translation by Anthea Bell)
Covering all these tournaments has been more educational than grad school and slightly less expensive. I would like to thank some of my professors...
Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson
THE BOXERS: Thank you for risking your bodies for our enjoyment, and thank you for showing us what strength looks like in a woman. Christina Cruz was the first boxer I interviewed, and it is thanks to her that I got into coaching again at Atlas Cops and Kids. Champions Marlen Esparza and Queen Underwood are great ambassadors of the sport who have not stopped pushing themselves to improve.
Thanks to Pat Manuel for the ride to Oxnard and all the laughs. I wish him luck on his quest to make the men's team for Rio, not only because it takes great courage to be a trans athlete but because he is a very good boxer, pure and simple. What happens outside the ring is only interesting if what happens inside the ring is beautiful.
On that note, I am grateful for the inspiration of Tiara Brown, Claressa Shields, and Mikaela Mayer, the three US women whose boxing I most admire.
Christy Halbert knows more than anyone else about women's boxing, and she has been a great mentor to me. I have learned so much from watching Al Mitchell and Jason Crutchfield corner: in addition to their technical knowledge of the sport, these men love their fighters like sons and daughters. I wish I spoke Spanish so I could chill more with Coach Pedro; I think he is good for our program and I hope he stays and helps us rebuild it. And I am blessed to be in the gym every day with Aureliano Sosa, who is steadily churning out champions at Atlas Cops and Kids.
I took this picture of little Reuben at one of our club shows
THE BOXING FAMILY:
It takes a village to throw a tournament. I first met Rowdy Welch when he was working the glove table at the Trials, and he has steadily fed me hysterical pull quotes and old school boxing wisdom. Delilah Rico is a warm, motherly presence who tells it like it is. Vivi and the crew at the Spokane Quality Inn Valley Suites were incredibly kind and made this trip financially feasible. And the love David Esparza, Mark Mayer, and Hazzauna Underwood show for their fighting girls is a beautiful thing to witness.
I never imagined I would meet so many great writers on this road. What a pleasure to watch Ariel Levy work. Like most boxers, she is far more dangerous than she appears. Sue Jaye Johnson is a profound storyteller who works equally well with images and words and noticed Claressa before anyone else. I am grateful every day to work with Gautham Nagesh and Anna John of Stiff Jab, a blog whose high literary standards I admired long before I was invited to contribute. And what can I say about Raquel Ruiz, except that she is a miracle. Save up for bail money when I come to Sacramento.