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My 9/11 …

World Trade Center, view from New Jersey

Twenty years has passed in the blink of an eye since the events of September 11, 2001, and yet we also have all of the extraordinary moments that we have lived through year in and year out since then.

I have raised a child, completed my BA and MA, published a book, started and retired from a 15 year successful career with the City of New York, nine plus years of which were spent with the special people of the NYC Fire Department in the post-9/11 culture of camaraderie and pain that is unique to the FDNY.

In that latter realm, I have had the honor of christening the fireboat Three Forty Three, a 120 foot vessel that graces New York Harbor having been named to honor the men and women of the Department who lost their lives in the horrific events of 9/11.

Each of us who survived the events of that day has our own stories of what has happened to us over these past twenty years.

We also never forget where we were and what we were doing on that beautiful Tuesday morning.

Yet we move forward, feeling the holes in the sky as deep scars on our collective psyche, and for many of us when looking at the reconfigured landscape of towering buildings, no longer seeing it as a symbol of home.

For New Yorkers, in my case a multi-generational denizen of the City, 9/11 carries special resonance and pain. Most of us knew someone who perished or in playing the six degrees of separation game someone who knew someone and so one. For some of us the loss remains unbearable and still we persevere.

I remember Peter “Pete” Mardikian.

He was 29.

He had been married for just six weeks–a wedding I’d been invited to but couldn’t attend in his wife, Corine’s hometown in Ohio.

Pete worked for me for a while at Imagine Software before a promotion that saw him working for one of the partners, Scott Sherman. We’d spent a great time in London together, all of us ensuring our software product didn’t crash and burn at the turn of the New Year on January 1, 1999.

Le Meridien Hotel Bar, Piccadilly, London

Along with others of our colleagues, Stephen Klein, Karen Rose, and Mark Lipsits among them, we’d meet up at the end of our long work days and sit up talking about the meaning of life until well past midnight at the bar of the Le Meridien Hotel off Piccadilly Square. As this was long before the days of smart phones and Instagram feeds, there are no photos to smile at documenting our moments together nor memes captured from Scott’s brilliant stories that had us reeling with laughter nor our wonderment at Stephen’s instance that we enter “drift time.”

So those remembrances have to live inside. In our collective hearts. In how we laugh about that time at the bar on the infrequent moments we meet up or pound out notes on Facebook.

But it’s without Pete.

Without his special brand of magic and sweetness. Without him as a 49 year old, perhaps a father a couple of times over, regaling us with the firsts of those kinds of experiences: first birthday, first day of kindergarten, first white belt ceremony … and so on.

At the 9:05 am moment in the 9/11 Timeline records, it is noted that Peter Mardikian called his wife on one of the few working phones. He was on the 106th Floor of the North Tower attending the Risk Waters Group Conference at Windows on the World. One other of our colleagues, Andrew Fisher, 42, also perished, and a third colleague in attendance left mere moments before the first plane hit the towers to go back to the office to pick up something.

Pete’s funeral at the St. Vartan Cathedral an Armenian Church on 34th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan created levels of pain I did not think were possible.

All of us, his family, his colleagues, his friends were crushed beyond measure. We saw in Cori a figure of strength and fortitude we did not think possible and in our own grief looked to her to model how to endure his loss.

I spent most of my time with Scott. Both of us were 47 years of age. We were bereft at the notion that someone with so much left of his life could be lost. We felt like helpless parents with inconsolable grief at the notion that our bright, brilliant boy with a limitless future had perished so horribly.

He was our Petey. Our pal. And in those moments of pain we had to reconcile what life meant. How we could go forward. How we could separate our anger and the sense that life was not worth living in the presence of such horror. How to navigate those moments to get to the pivotal point where we were choosing to live. To experience grief as it is and then go on to live life as best we could.

Any loss is grievous. The loss of 2,977 in one day was incalculable for New Yorkers and incalculable still as we viscerally reconsider how it unfolded and the many permutations that have affected our world in the aftermath of 9/11. Those memories form indelible pictures that hit the senses in waves that strip us bare again. Causing that gulping feeling of a gut punch one never fully recovers from.

All we can do is continue to live our best lives if not for ourselves then for the those we lost.

May the memory of those who perished be for a blessing.

Last rounds of the year …

I had a good boxing workout this morning at Gleason’s Gym, aided by the fact that I had a decent sleep for a change.  My work out was my favorite, four rounds of shadow boxing, four on the focus pads with my trainer Lennox Blackmoore, four rounds of the double-end bag, and finally four rounds on the speed bag.

There was something comforting about being back to “normal.” Yes, I tried to keep to my “wear a mask at all times” mantra, even in a gym where everyone is vaccinated, but it was still pretty hot and humid, and eventually took it off in the midst of my rounds with Len because it was getting too hard to breathe.

If that is the worst I ever have to deal with — all I can say is wow, what a great life.

And really, as I am at the start of the rounds of examination I will go through over the next ten days starting with tonight’s first night of the Jewish New Year’s process and ending up with breaking the Yom Kippur fast, the workout I had today was just a light flurry of facing up to moments of truth.

Because that’s really what it is all about anyway.

Avoiding the easy path of cheating at solitaire.

You know … pulling from the deck when you’ve already lost … as if no one will notice!  Kind of like that. And it’s the same thing in the ring. You can throw the jab with authority and energy, mindful of your stance, of how you move forward, of how you hold your opposite hand to protect your head. Or not. One gets you to the truth of your capabilities and of what you need to do to improve, and the other cheats it.  Doesn’t get you forward at all. Says, I’m pulling from the deck.

We all do it … all the time, whether knowingly or not. The trick is pushing forward anyway. Owning up. Facing those demons of crap you pull, mostly on yourself, but to others as well, and understanding what the motivations were, how you got there in the first place, and what you can do to make it better. To manage the process of moving forward with your life.

Jewish New Year, Tashlich, or the throwing off of sins symbolically by tossing pieces of bread. Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, 1909, Photo Credit: The Bowery Boys

I do have it in mind that in Jewish tradition, this next ten days is a process of unburdening and in so doing, sealing our collective fates for the next year. Will you live? Will you not? Will it go easy or hard?

I’m not certain that I buy into all of that, but I do believe that our actions foretell our futures. That cheating at solitaire doesn’t mean we have “won” our games, only that in so doing, we have denied ourselves the satisfaction of the real wins when they finally come, whether that is throwing a jab worthy of it’s name or facing up to the myriad of truths that life throws at us and coming through it a more enlivened human being.

I wish everyone sweetness, peace, and an easy passage to the enlightenment that living in truth can offer.

Happy New Year – Shanah Tovah!

Being in it…

Having just lived through the effects of the post-tropical Hurricane Ida from the safety of my 4th floor apartment in Brooklyn, I can say that while life can be a wild ride, our reference point will always be the determinant for our perspective unless we fight to see it otherwise.

Sure, torrential rain, high winds, flying debris, but hey, I was nicely tucked in with my husband Jed. We were glued to Hulu binge-watching the first three episodes of Only Murders in the Building, so what did we care until we started to feel a few drips on our head and realized we had quite the leak coming through the brickwork by the window.

And isn’t that the way? We go blissfully about our daily lives even through downpours that seem biblical in nature, while passing a pithy quip or two, but otherwise remaining unaffected, well that is until we are right in the middle of whatever that drama is.

A drip from the ceiling. A flooded basement. Subway stairs that look like class 5 rapids. Downed trees and power. And on and on.

And in the aftermath, in the sunrise that is clear with air as fresh as it can be, even as we assess, perhaps in tears for our losses, or annoyed that we no longer have the convenience of say the nearest subway stop on the corner, but of having to hoof it, is it then that we know we are in it?

Part of the larger story?

Have “skin in the game” so to speak?

Whether it’s understanding that our climate change future is now or masking up to protect someone from a raging virus or helping out a stranger who is struggling to cross the street, our participation, our understanding that we are in it is what makes us part of the human chain.

I am as my brother and sisters in the literal sense of having siblings — but I am also as all my brothers and sisters, those who suffer and those who have joy.

Planet Earth

Perhaps I am in this mode because we are so close to the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and all of the incumbent self-reflection of the season. Whatever the reason, I am struck by my connectedness to the people around me and beyond. Knowing that whether we want to be or not, we are all in it.

Our connections to each other are real and important.

How we treat those relationships and how we strive for the betterment of other human beings is, at the end, the testament of who we are. What our passage on our beautiful blue marble of a planet will come to mean.

 

And continue to box …

I am in week 19 of my campaign back to physical fitness at Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym after a long pandemic induced hiatus — and wow do I need it.

Okay, yes, the COVID-19 pounds.

The stress of the on-going pandemic. 

A plethora of incredible change in my life like retirement and my daughter graduating college and moving into her first apartment.

But it’s also the stress of seeing my husband living with a degenerative brain disease. Called Frontotemporal Degeneration or FTD, it saps the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain in particular, affecting behavior, language, or movement, and as the disease progresses short-term memory. The horror of it is its insidious onset usually starts at an earlier age–and progresses relentlessly with no known treatments that stop or slow the disease.

Far from wanting a pity party, the infusion of whatever self-care I can muster, including the opportunity to get down to the gym to work out is the best present I can ever give myself.  

Beginning with my 15 minute or so walk to the gym, I begin to destress, thinking of all the things I want to work on for that day. From “keeping it neat” to quote trainer, Don Saxby, to working the counter shots to the body that I practice on the focus pads with my trainer Lennox Blackmoore

Lately, it’s been about the telephone–keeping my hands up like earmuffs to not only protect my head, but to better position myself for throwing what ever punches are called or when working the bag to practice neat and tight jabs, rights, hooks and upper cuts.

I’m also working on stamina ’cause at 67 and having not exercised for the better part of a year, whatever fitness I had went out as the calories packed on.  

But mostly, going to Gleason’s Gym connects me to the larger community that is boxing from the camaraderie of what I call the #AMBoxingCrew to knowing that just by being there I am supporting the efforts of others. 

Boxing has been a part of my life for 25 years. It is has given me strength, health, the sense of my own place in the world, and ultimately the courage to move forward no matter what the obstacles are. It’s also uncaged my sense of being and though I may try to give back through my support of women’s boxing, it always seems that I am on the receiving end of the brilliance that is the sport.

And so, I continue to box … for what I can only hope will be the next 25 years.

___

For further information on FTD, I recommend The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration:

http://www.theaftd.org/ 

 

 

 

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – January 18, 2021

What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., make of us today?

ZUMA Press/Newscom/File

We have undergone a violent insurrection at our nation’s Capital Building by those intent on not only impeding the acceptance of the Electoral College vote that saw President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris winning the election, but one that showed a resounding 306-232 win. Those perpetrating the attempted coup and their enablers also came to the Capital with murderous intent seeking out the Vice President and the Speak of the House for assassination.

A man of faith, Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence saw him to lead a movement for Civil Rights and go on to embrace anti-war sentiments, social justice, the rights and plights of the poor, and the deeply rooted fractures and faults of the American experiment that were rooted in slavery. That Dr. King persevered through beatings, imprisonment, and attempted assassinations before finally succumbing to a white supremacist’s bullet is a testament not only to his faith but in his belief in democracy.

On the cusp fo inaugurating the nation’s first Female, Black, South-Asian Vice President, let us consider how Dr. King’s legacy has fueled our sense that justice must come for our experiment to succeed. Now more than ever, that project is in peril and it is up to all of use to fight for the “liberty and justice for all” that continues to allude all of us.

Dr. King’s 1967 speech at Stanford University is as potent today as it was 54 years ago. We must overcome.

 

19 Years ago today

19 years on …

The World Trade Center was my point of reference from the first time I spied the towers in the fog looking south on Sullivan at the corner of Bleecker in Greenwich Village.  I was with my father, with whom I used to roam the City on our occasional Sunday’s together. The towers had been on our radar all through its construction. We’d pass by the towers first as a hole in the ground and then as partially constructed buildings as we peered up from under the old West Side Highway on one of our jaunts through the docks on our way to Battery Park.

That night, with the windows illuminated in shrouded light felt magical and has been a point in time I have always treasured.

When I gaze on the City now, I feel the holes in the sky as a huge ache in my heart.

It happens whether I am looking across from the vantage point of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or most recently from the vantage point of the Rockaway Ferry looking across towards Manhattan just past the Marine Park Bridge.

Our nation, our citizenry, our sense of who we are as a people have undergone many, many transformations since the ill-fated morning of September 11, 2001. Some have been for the good, but much, as now, has been fraught with conflict, fear, dislocation, and the kind of damage that can take generations, if ever, to heal.

I can only offer my fervent hope that we will persevere to better days.

COVID-19 Morning

Does art flourish in a catastrophe?

Does fear and panic? That in the throat kind of hysteria that sees boxers pounded down to the ground, only to shake it off and dance across the canvas in a flurry of inwardly rhythmic feints and jabs to get through the round?

I’m not so sure.

And yet I feel awakened.

For two days now as I’ve squelched down panic I’ve felt a sense of joy.

I read it in the faces of people I’ve passed in the streets.

In the way the servers hand over packages at the market.

A determination. A grit. An adaptation in the now that creates something.

That claims the present as a prospector would a piece of a stream.

Here is where I stand those faces say. My domain. My six foot circle that enshrines me in hope and destiny.

remembering martin luther king jr. – january 20, 2020

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. – January 20, 2020

“For years now, I have heard the word ‘wait’ … this ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

To understand Dr. King is to know the record of his work. “King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis” was released in 1970. It carried the raw pain of his terrible loss a mere two years before along with a clear understanding of the arc and breadth of his work for civil rights and social justice — fights we engage in today with a renewed urgency for action to overcome the ills of racism, intolerance, fascism, anti-immigrant fervor, anti-semitism, the denial of LGBTQ rights, climate change denial, and on and on.  Now as then we are called upon to witness and fight against justice denied.

Helen Joseph, the Iron Lady–getting ready to rumble

Helen Joseph, the Iron Lady–getting ready to rumble

Helen Joseph, Mendez Gym, October 9, 2019, Photo credit: Malissa Smith

First of all let me introduce myself, my name is Helen Joseph, “The Iron Lady,” the Princess of Africa, former IBF champion, former GBU champion, present WBF champion.”

So begins my interview with Helen Joseph, (17-3-2, 10 KOs), who will be facing former WBC champion Delfine Persoon (43-2-0, 18 KOs) on November 11, 2019 at the Versluys Dome in Ostende, Belgium, contesting for the WBA World Female Super Featherweight Title.

I’ve come to Joseph’s gym, Mendez Boxing located in the Flat Iron district of Manhattan to spend some time with her. A busy gym on a Saturday morning, the rhythms of jump ropes hitting the flooring, the “thud” of boxers’ gloves hitting pads, and the “thwack” of gloves on bodies are all in counterpoint to the ever present beat of music piping through the speakers.

The boxers at Mendez are young and old, professional, amateur, and novice, male and female and everything in between—all of whom are in constant movement: working out on heavy bags and double-end bags, working out in one or the other of Mendez’s two rings. Trainers standing poised on the aprons to offer encouragement, coaching, or shouting instructions, such as “bend your knees.”

Joseph, who is 30 years of age (to Persoon’s 34),  is well into her 10th round of jumping rope when I arrive, skipping with ease and constancy until the last thirty seconds of any given round when she speeds up to double or triple her time. In between rounds she shadowboxes.

Watching her work, it is plain to see that her body is indeed iron. The sinews of her muscles are defined and lean as she bounces lightly from foot to foot, her arms punching with ease, her hands flicking out to her own inner rhythm. Embracing her is like embracing a hardened living machine of efficiency and stamina and intention, all punctuated by the sweetness of her smile as she says hello. But make no mistake–she is iron, forged by a difficult childhood in her native Nigeria, the untimely death of her mother, the tough love of her grandmother and her early boxing coaches, all sustained by a fierce belief in herself, her faith in God, and her sense of destiny.

“I am not afraid of any girl,” she says, “because I know I work hard … and it would take a very long time to defeat me so easy.”

By now, we were speaking of Delfine Persoon.

“I don’t believe she’s going to beat Helen Joseph,” she says, “…this fight’s going to be a kind of surprise fight for people to really know who is Iron Lady, that name is not just [an] ordinary name, now I want to go to the ring to prove it more to the world that is all … so I am well ready and that fight is going to do a lot for my profile.”

Danny Nicholas & Helen Joseph, Mendez Boxing, October 9, 2019, Photo credit: Maissa Smith

Joseph trains under the leadership of Dell Brown—with able assistance from Danny Nicholas who stands in for Brown whenever he is unavailable. Joining Nicholas after completing her warmup, Joseph prepares to enter the ring for 12 rounds of sparring with three different sparring partners—all men.

Under the watchful eye of Nicholas, Joseph spars her first three rounds with Duwaun White. A trainer himself, his game plan is to get Joseph to spin out from a come forward pressure fighter, mimicking what he knows about Delfine Persoon’s awkward style of boxing and wide punches. Throughout their three rounds, Nicholas peppers Joseph with instructions from the apron:

Duwaun White & Helen Joseph, Mendez Boxing, October 9, 2019, Photo credit: Malissa Smith

“Fire back with him. Break his rhythm, break his rhythm.”

“Step and move, step and move.”

“Move, move, move, Helen!”

“Too big, too big”

“Circle and punch, circle and keep punching, don’t let him back you up.”

Of her boxing style, White says, Joseph is “working on punching in the middle” between when a punch comes in and out, and “is one of the hardest hitting boxers I’ve ever met, especially for her size, she’s hit me harder than some grown men have hit me. Between her punching power, which is God given, … [her] tremendous heart, she is not going to quit, yeah,” he continued, “she has a lot of dog in her.”

Callan, who sparred with her for two rounds, came out exhausted saying, “I literally am afraid of her. I have so much respect for her abilities, and she’s got a winning left, man!.”

Her third sparring partner, Maurepaz Auguste, a former middleweight kickboxing champion echoes her two other partners, “She hits hard from side angles, and is relentless too, she just keeps coming.”

Most impressive is Joseph’s stamina in the 12th round, when she releases a barrage of multiple combinations from all angles and levels that overwhelms her opponent. Smiling afterwards, and breathing as if she’d just gone for a light jog, everyone around the apron is impressed and in awe of her abilities.

Danny Nicholas & Helen Joseph, Mendez Gym, October 9, 2019, Photo credit: Malissa Smith

In speaking more about her upcoming fight with Persoon, Joseph likes that she comes forward and comes to fight. “I love people who fight me. I love to fight people who came to knock me down. I don’t like to fight people who run away, who don’t want to feel what I have. I love her style, because her style is the best I love to fight with.”

When asked what her game plan is to defeat her, Joseph says, with a coy smile, “Her secret is in my heart so when I get to the ring, I will let the world know her mistakes, I know a lot about her, her pattern is the kind of pattern I love to fight. That will be a good fight for me.”

While Joseph speaks of her commitment to boxing, she’s also had a hard road in the sport. Known for her strong skills, work ethic, and heavy hands, she is often overlooked for fights by better known boxers who are looking for opponents to come into the ring to lose–a hard reality of the business side of the sport for male and female fighters who have not been able to crack the elite levels. Joseph, while working with her team to gain entry into more fighting opportunities, trains as if each day is the day before her next ring encounter. This means being fully prepared mentally and physically at all times so that she is ready to do battle no matter how many days, weeks, or months notice she has.

“I love this game so much,” she says with a smile, “and I am ready to fight every month, every week, I love boxing more than everything else apart from my God … I want to be the world’s best, that is my dream. I am not going to discourage my dream no matter how long it takes me to have a fight … And here I am today and I never gave up on my dream and I am fighting.”

Helen Joseph, Mendez Boxing, October 9, 2019, Photo credit: Malissa Smith

Thinking it through some more she says, “To be a boxer is not easy. Look at my friend Claressa [Shields], it’s not easy work to get to that point. When you see a boxer like that pray for them, appreciate them, because they have to work day and night.”

She feels no differently about her opponent, Delfine Persoon. She has worked hard and earned her place as a champion and has nothing but respect for those efforts, for all of the hard work to be in that place. But still, Joseph wants more. She not only wants championships and titles, but the acknowledgment of those efforts by offering up her commitment to the sport as an example for others to follow; to have others admire her skills and prowess in the ring as something to emulate or to have a fellow boxer say, “oh I love that move,” and then go to the gym the next day to try it out and make it part of their own repertoire of boxing tricks.

Joseph is always ready. Her dream a part of her daily being and aside from her deep faith in God, her sense of destiny in the sport is what keeps her going no matter whether she has a fight in her sights, or if she is working to keep herself in shape for calls that never come.

When she climbs in to the ring on November 11th, her belief in herself, her trust in her team, and her sense of her own place in boxing will see her to no doubt “surprise the world.”

What does it all mean?

What does it all mean?

I guess you could say I’m in a mode.

My personal world is rife with complexities and when I look around me to the world at large I feel roiled by the political landscape, our deeply troubled future as citizens of a rapidly changing environment on a planetary scale, not to mention, the myriad of problems associated with poverty, sexism, racism—and in fact all of the –isms.

Yet I am still here as we all are.

Here and facing choices as simple as what to wear to work or how to fit in the gym time—to the bigger questions we tackle related to the health and well-being of our families, our neighbors, and those extensions of ourselves that we count as having the same importance of those near and dear to us.

Perhaps I am thoughtful because on the Jewish calendar of my heritage it is the eve of another New Year.

This one, 5780, feels big.

Perhaps it’s because it ends on a round number – or perhaps it’s because this year is particularly big in my own cycle of new years having turned 65 this past June.

So yes, it’s loaded.

Loaded with my personal turmoil as I contemplate what my future looks like and the meaning of getting older—while tinged with that ever hopeful patina of faith that the future will bring about a better world no matter the challenges.

The sages of Jewish lore deemed the period of the New Year as a time to set the past aside to move forward to what is fated for the coming year. The High Holidays are thus an interregnum of sorts: a liminal world of becoming bounded by the foibles of one’s life on the one hand and a future state of more perfected beingness on the other.

That perfecting process, that transition to being one’s best self can take many forms. It can be as simple as casting aside one’s sins in the water as so many crumbs of bread—or the challenges one encounters on a deeper dive into one’s psyche where in a determined fashion, one truly examines one’s crimes and misdemeanors and devises a plan of action to face the meaning of those truths in order to move forward.

Both are easier said than done as we are all very, very good at cheating at solitaire. And it is that instinct to cheat. To not work through the necessary stages that is the most hurtful of all to ourselves.

In my late 30s I went through a time of deep spiritual crisis.

In those years I could not fathom what it meant to be.

In my search for meaning I clung to many things as a symbiote: my job, my relationships, my feelings of despair, even my own suicidal ideations as some sort of badge of singularity in the world.

I was able to work through that period of my life with a mixture of luck, a very deeply buried survival instinct, excellent psychotherapy, and an awareness that all the cheating, all the time I’d spent burying my demons were what was causing my crisis in the first place.

As I dive into the liminality of another New Year process, I carry with me a remembrance of that period in my life. And while it is distant and remote to the person I became afterwards, I know that in shedding that skin, it still remains a part of who I am. The difference is that in facing the truth, no matter how raw and awful it is, one has the chance for redemption and a forward momentum into the next part of one’s life.

So even though I have my doubts for the future, the work itself is one’s purpose, what I like to call the daily something. And while getting it right is a moment to moment thing, playing out one’s hand without cheating makes it all worth while in the end, even if it seems you never can “win” the game.

 

18 Years On

18 Years on …

 

I find that extraordinary.

My daughter went from having her first week of Pre-school to being a junior in College.

 

And our world

So much meaner

With boots on the ground and lives shattered and destroyed

For what?

I can’t remember why

Just the pain of the hole in the sky.

 

Remembering martin luther king jr. – january 22, 2019

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. – January 22, 2019

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life’s work was to right the wrongs of injustice wherever he found them. In so doing he became the conscience of a nation. On October 26,1967, six months before his assassination, Dr. King was in Philadelphia where he delivered a speech to the students at Barratt Junior High School. The speech was entitled “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” and in our current body politic, Dr. King’s words resonate as never before.

Shelly Vincent: Fighting For The Positive

Shelly “Shelito’s Way” Vincent is a force of nature. Sporting tattoos, colorful hair, and a personality to match, she has pushed the boundaries of gender norms in a sport that is unforgiving at best when it comes to female participation in the sport.

Standing all of five feet tall with a nearly perfect record of 23-1 save for her one loss to Heather “The Heat” Hardy (21-0), Vincent’s outsized personality and constant motion in the gym gives her the appearance of someone much larger.

I had the opportunity to spend much of the day with Vincent a couple of weeks ago in Cranston, Rhode Island as she was winding down training for what will be the biggest, toughest ring battle of her life as she squares off against Hardy.

Billed as Hardy-Vincent 2, the pair will open the show on HBO Boxing’s last regularly scheduled boxing broadcast – in itself a remarkable feat as their fight will be only the second bout featuring female boxers shown on HBO during its long history. A championship battle, they will fight for the WBO Female Featherweight title belt at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater on Saturday, October 27, 2018.

The pair last fought in an historical bout in Brooklyn in 2016. Later dubbed the female fight of the year, it was also the first bout contested by female boxers broadcast by Premier Boxing Champions. Coincidently, their fight was on the same day Claressa Shields won her second Olympic Gold medal, something not lost on either fighter as they continue to push for legitimacy in the sport.

For Vincent, however, the “road” to the fight itself had been hard fought—and in the best tradition of boxing’s outlandish rivalries, Vincent had been calling out Hardy for years on social media and in person at Hardy’s fights to not only take her on in the ring, but to help build up the profile of their eventual contest.

She’s also had to fight hard for the rematch something she said she’d been promised, but as it was not forthcoming, Vincent was not shy about pushing for it, even “crashing” one of Hardy’s MMA bouts to press her case for the rematch.

Hanging with Vincent and her trainer, the highly regarded Peter Manfredo Sr., who has been training Shelly and acting as her ring guide for the past several years—one got the sense that while Hardy is a nemesis of sorts, there was also a begrudging respect that had begun to form, not only as fighters, but as women pushing the boundaries of a sport that doesn’t really seem to want them in it.

Still, of the first fight, Vincent voiced a number of issues that she felt hamstrung both fighters—but more so, herself.

“We only had three weeks to get ready, which means we only sparred about—six times, if we sparred to the max.”  The shortened time frame made cutting weight that much harder, and with the need to sell tickets ever-present, a mainstay for women if they want any chance to fight on a card, the pressure was immense. Vincent also owned to a certain amount of chaos in her life at the time that made focusing difficult.

For this fight, she and Hardy have had plenty of time to have a “camp,” and while Vincent’s life has had its ups and downs since the first contest, she is quite alone now and able to stay focused for the work ahead of her.

“You’re going to get ten today,” Manfredo said, as Shelly nodded wrapping her hands with practiced competence,  “The is the last day for it, for so many rounds.”

Camp has been good, a mixture of highly focused work with Manfredo at the gym in Cranston, and a lot of work on her own at all hours at the Seven Beauties Gym in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.  “To tell you truth, I haven’t been focused on anything but training, I don’t care about the promotion, I don’t care about nothing this time, and usually I’m the opposite.”

“I just want to focus on winning,” she went on to say, “Because she’s not beating me. I mean, I know I won that [first] fight. I didn’t back up once, I was landing body shots, I was landing combinations. She hit me more than I’ve ever been hit, but she didn’t hurt me … and I hurt her a few times. I mean she was hitting me with pot shots.”

In speaking more about the upcoming bout I asked her what she thought of their promoter, Lou DiBella’s likening their upcoming battle to the famed Gatti-Ward fights.

“I remember those fights. And they’re laying up in their hospital beds next to each other after. But you know what, it’s not going to be Gatti-Ward no more, after this it’s going to be Vincent-Hardy. It’s going to be the girl thing, it doesn’t have to be Gatti-Ward – let it just be us. When you think about it … when I beat her, ‘cause I’m beating her, then when we have the trilogy, that’s the first visual to a female trilogy and we can be remembered with those great trilogies.”

The rhythm of our day together was to have included Vincent’s training and sparring, followed by an interview with Manfredo and then with Vincent herself, but as I was beginning to interview Manfredo, he received word that his father passed away. It was a terribly emotional moment and after he left, Vincent and I sat down to make sense of it all in a life, that for her has been filled with tragedy, abuse, self-destructive acts, and the hard work of redemption.

“Family gotta come first, that’s like my father for real … I know he cares about me, outside of the ring, you know.”

The last thing, Manfredo had said to me was, “Shelly is really focused for this fight, the most focused I’ve ever seen her.”

Sharing this with her, Vincent nodded, and said, “Wow, he said that, he’s my father for real.”

Her own father disappeared from her life early on, and over the last few years she has felt the strength to share the horrific abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather and the experience of being raped at the age of thirteen. That is not something one just gets over and looking back on it she said, “I always wished I had somebody to talk to and I could have expressed all that stuff, because I feel I could have been a different person. So I always said, if I ever — because I thought I was going to be dead, but if I wasn’t dead or whatever from drugs or alcohol, I wanted to be that person for as many kids as I could, so that’s really why I walk out with the kids, and I remember before a fight, why the fuck I’m doing this.”

This mantra of sorts has pushed her to activism and has led her to be a role model for young kids who might otherwise go down a destructive path. She herself has had stints in prison for drugs and fighting, and wonders at times how she ever survived it, but of everything she’s experienced in her life, she credits boxing for showing her a path towards recovery.

“I didn’t get into boxing to turn pro, to make no money, not even to fight. I got in it to channel my depression and anger, and everything I had built up inside of me because that was the only time I wasn’t depressed because I felt that I was fighting back. When I fight … that’s why I wear the straight jacket, because it’s to symbolize the way women are tied down in sports, and me trying to break free of my demons and finally fighting back.”

Vincent has not been shy about revealing her sexuality as a gay woman, nor being clear that her appearance is her way of expressing who she is—and while she feels strongly that being outside of the “norm” of how women should look has her hurt, she is adamant that her self-expression is an important symbol of fighting back.

That self-expression includes a myriad of tattoos on her body and around her neck. The tattoos mean everything to her and taken together are her life.

“The right side is the dark side, the middle is change your world, and the positive comes out on the the otherside … Everything has a meaning on me, it’s not just there to be there, it’s like telling a story, if I was to die or anything, you could tell, it’s like you would read a book.”

Her story includes her boxing heroes, Ali, Tyson and Marciano, her mother, girlfriends, her nieces and nephews, and around her neck, the story of coming to 10-0 and what it symbolized to her as a moment of breaking free.

Still, she fights through depression as an almost daily battle to be reckoned with – making the boxing itself the easiest part of her day. In focusing for this fight, she has worked hard to strip away things to their core even eschewing some of the heavy weight training she has done in the past to focus on speed, stamina, and a fighters acumen for knowing how to play out her upcoming ten rounds with Hardy in the ring.

Whatever else is happening in her life, even the suddenness of Manfredo’s father’s death; right now, the upcoming bout with Hardy remains her focus. She visualizes the WBO title belt around her waist, as well as a third battle to round out the trilogy—only this time in her backyard. She also understands that at 39 years of age she is fighting against time.

Vincent knows this is the fight of her life, and if there is such a thing as a sisterhood of the ring Vincent and Hardy have much to share, as survivors, as activists in the sport, and as individuals who have figured out the best way forward is to come at life on their own terms as fighters.

Will this be another fight of the year – yes absolutely, but win, lose, or draw, what we can be assured of is both Vincent and Hardy will leave it all in the ring.

 

Melissa St Vil – Refocused And Ready To Rumble

Stepping into the Joe Hand Boxing Gym on North 3rd Street in Philadelphia, on Saturday, the week before her co-main event fight at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, I knew I had arrived at the right place when I heard boxer Melissa St Vil exclaim, “heeeeyyyyyyyy” in her beautiful high-pitched voice.

She gave me a warm hug and then lit up with a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. Dressed in lime green workout clothes, and sporting pink compression knee highs, she quickly turned back to the heavy bag and began circling with a succession of jabs and straight right combinations, high and low jabs, and heavy-handed body shots that landed with thudding precision.

Her manager and trainer, Brian Cohen stood by, with pads at the ready, as he called out, “Thirty seconds, Mel.”

Turning around from the bag to face him, St Vil threw punches in combination in response to his calls focusing on upper cuts and hooks to the imagined body of her opponent. Attacking each task with focus and force, St Vil, executed Cohen’s commands: “Power, Mel, power,” he said, before switching it up to “speed, speed.” St Vil, every bit the champion, continued to respond with precision as if she was on a seek-and-destroy mission.

At 35, Melissa St Vil (10-3-4), is Haiti’s first female boxing champion—along with being one of a rarefied group of Brooklyn’s professional female boxing champions sorority, a group that includes Alicia Ashley, Heather Hardy, Ronica Jeffrey, Amanda Serrano, and Alicia Napoleon. She’s also been a road warrior, fighting and winning in such places as Auckland, New Zealand, where she became the WBC Silver Female Super Featherweight champion, and Chengdu, China, where she not only retained her WBC title, but also added the International Boxing Union, World Super Featherweight Title over Katy Wilson (18-1 at the time of the battle).

Most recently she traveled to Kulttuuritalo, Helsinki, where she fought Eva Walhstrom for the WBC World Female Super Featherweight title. While she lost the fight 95-95, 97-93, 96-94, she was able to put her opponent on the deck (though ruled a slip by the referee), and otherwise showed grit and a fearsome barrage of fighting power against the long odds of battling a champion in her hometown.

In the current calculus of rankings, St Vil is ranked number one and according to her, Walhstrom has to be willing to fight her, “or they’re going to strip her.”

St Vil is no stranger to adversity or challenges. With a professional boxing career that began in 2007, she has not only fought against opponents in the ring, but against the changes in momentum and fortune that have beset female boxers in this era. She has also had to fight against her own demons of abuse and hardship, not to mention the notoriety of her experiences fighting and living in Las Vegas when she came into the orbit of the Mayweather family.

Her recent loss to Walhstrom also brought about some deep soul-searching, which has resulted in a renewed commitment to her boxing. As part of that process, she decided to take a break from her long time trainer, Leon “Cat” Taylor.

While still very close with Taylor, St Vil, sought out her former manager, Brian Cohen, to help refocus her career and bring her to the next level. That change has already brought about results with a new promotion deal with DiBella Entertainment—beginning this coming Saturday, September 29, 2018—not to mention her boxing debut in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

According to Brian Cohen, she has “done really well in ticket sales,” which, he feels will make Lou DiBella very happy.

“This is the first time she’s fighting in Brooklyn, the first time she’s selling tickets … so this is a big deal for her, and she’s such a road warrior, this is what she deserves and this is what she needs. And, I’m proud of her, she put in a tough camp … and I’m very happy to be back with her.”

Brian Cohen went on to speak about her upcoming bout saying, “What I hope to achieve, is the recognition and the respect she deserves. She’s been fighting her whole life and hasn’t gotten the breaks she so well deserves … what people are really going to see is what Melissa St Vil brings to the table.”

Cohen also brought out the fact the St Vil is rated number one for the WBC and is the mandatory for the IBF as well, which should mean a chance for even greater opportunities. “That, along with having the “horsepower” behind her of a promoter like Lou DiBella, something St Vil has not had in her career, should help propel her towards a title opportunity in the near future.”

Brian went back to working with St Vil as she completed her training circuit, and after lunch at a local diner, he drove us to his home in South Philly, a cozy split level with an outdoor space that looked out on an unobstructed view of the Phillies stadium. After a few minutes, Melissa St Vil and I went upstairs to talk in Brian Cohen’s office—the afternoon light soft through the windows. After settling in she began by speaking about her journey in the sport.

“Boxing was my savior,” she said, “I came up in an abusive household and when I found boxing, I knew, this is where I belong.” Taking a moment, she reflected, “Being in the gym, it took me to a different place and I just felt good in the gym.”

With eleven years of professional boxing behind her, St Vil is now looking forward to her next challenges. As she talked more I could see that she was not only feeling confident, but in heading to the relative quiet of Brian Cohen’s home and her hours at the gym every day, she’d had the chance to revel and delight in her boxing, away from the realities of her life in Brooklyn. The training regimen had also brought her a new understanding of her boxing. “Coming here,” she said, “being in a peaceful space, being around people with good energy, and staying focused has made a big difference.”

Her time in Philly has also given her the chance to go back to basics and under Brian’s careful tutelage; she’s been refining her boxing skills. “He corrects my feet, tells me when my hands are low, tells me how to turn the jab, and he’s even there when I hit the speed bag and when I do my sit ups,” she said.

Having that attention has allowed her to focus more on her boxing, but more importantly, she feels that he is there to support her when she’s in the ring.

“My sparring has been good work,” she said. And in speaking about Brian’s role she noted that he’s been helping her understand how to really engage with her opponent. “I’ve just been discovering my eyes and what it means to sit down on my punches in the ring. I’m discovering my jab and what my jab can do.”

St Vil has also been discovering how to relax in the ring. “Yes relax,” she said, “relax, use that jab, and realizing that everything’s coming.” She can also hear Brian telling her “don’t rush it … use that jab, sit down on your punches, and he’s right there watching everything, from my feet, to my hips, to my head movement, to my eyes … and telling me, ‘don’t go out there and waste punches, pick your shots and box, you fight when you want to fight, everything doesn’t have to be such a hard fight.’”

“My whole boxing journey was a bumpy road …” St Vil reflected, but now as she put it, “I’m fighting in Brooklyn for the first time, I have a promoter for the first time, so I feel like my time is now, and I’m ready.”

When I asked her what she saw for herself in the future, St Vil’s smile broadened and she said, “For right now I see myself going straight to the clouds, all the way up.”

As she spoke she raised her arms above her head and with exuberance said, “Because now we have a plan, I’m not just going out there, with people saying, ‘hey do you want to take a fight?’ Okay … ‘Who’s your manager?’ I don’t have one … and so on.”

After another moment she said, “I have always had faith in myself, because I know what I can do, if I have someone who can believe in me and show me and help me on the right path. I can do anything.”

When asked what the secret to success in the sport is, St Vil put it this way. “You have to have a good team that knows their stuff.”

The difference now, is that St Vil has a team.

 

 

The hole in the sky

Seventeen years today…

I chose to remember joy, even though my heart aches for the losses.

For the hole in the sky.

For the people I mourn.

For an America that was less fractured by revenge, less intent on unraveling progress, less mean in its pursuit of something tangible that has seemingly been lost.