Boxing and me …
I’m at the official start of writing my thesis today. It is the culmination of my course of studies towards a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies. I bring it up because my thesis topic is Boundaries in motion: Women’s Boxing. The study will take a look at how women’s boxing is changing notions of the meaning of being “female” or in other words, what women are and what they are capable of.
Having been born in the mid-1950’s in the era of girls wearing dresses all the time — and I mean all the time — the idea of athleticism, muscles and so on were a seeming anathema. To the extent that there were “Lady” athletes that were at all visible to my young eyes, they seemed to only be slim-hipped tennis players, figure skaters, skiers and gymnasts — and while there were women’s roller derby, softball and bowling leagues, those sports were barely a blip on my consciousness.
Muscle-bound women were certainly viewed as something other — and in remembering back to my early childhood years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, organized sport itself was entirely non-existent except for boy’s basketball and boxing at the local Boy’s Club on Avenue A and 10th Street. The sports I played, such as they were consisted of punchball (with a spaulding ball or a pinkie), Newcomb (with a giant red playground ball), King (or Chinese handball), bottle caps, stoop ball (a pinkie bounced off a stoop, with a “base” counted for each bounce before the ball was caught), playing catch, riding a bike, roller skating (with metal skates attached to my sneakers) and general chase games.
The fact was, these weren’t even considered sports. These were things we just did either during recess (punchball and Newcomb and chase games) or as general play on the block. My only experience of “organized” sports was at camp, and having gone to a “leftie” summer camp, our idea of sports was groaning through hot afternoons on the sports field playing pathetic versions of baseball (and fighting off the gnats), with some passable basketball thrown in, albeit mostly among the boys.
Getting back on topic, as a young girl, I loved boxing, but had no clue that it was ever something that I could actually do. I didn’t get to watch the sport much, so as a substitute, my brother and I watched professional wrestling with the likes of Bruno Sammartino and Gorgeous George.
By the mid-1960’s I was a confirmed boxing fan of Mohammad Ali and remember names likes Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston as icons to be venerated though I never actually saw them fight until much later. I just liked the idea of them and learned names from the snippets of conversation between men and boys on my block.
Fast forwarding to what seems like a million years later, it took me until 1996 to actually walk into a boxing gym. Having done so, and like many men and women before me, I fell in love with boxing almost to the point of tears at just thinking about it. In those early forays, I used to keep a log of punch counts (so many punch combinations x so many repetitions per round) and would get all sorts of heart fluttery every time I got near the gym.
More to the point, it began to change how I felt about myself. I was 42 then — and in decent enough shape for someone who’d never been athletic except for stints of hour-long runs a few years before. Beyond the improvements in physical conditioning, it felt great to feel my own power, something I’d spent a lifetime denying. The most liberating sensation, however, was the physical act of hitting — and I mean really hitting with all the force and torque of my body. That was something I’d been denied all my life — the freedom to let things go with an explosive pop accompanied by a guttural grunt of release.
That certainly wasn’t in the manual of things girls could do when I was growing up and how extraordinary that I was 42 years old before I was even aware of having missed out.
In thinking about my own experience, it occurred to me that other women, younger or older, athletes or non-athletes, may also undergo transformative experiences as they box. Those experiences have multiplied times all of the women who participate in the sport whether as professionals, amateurs or recreational boxers like myself. Somewhere buried inside of those experiences are the transformations that affect how everyone sees and thinks of women who box and whether those interpretations are positive or negative, the changes that women make for themselves are here to stay.
Maybe that’s why I smile so much every time I read about the Afghanistan Women’s Boxing Team.