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Boxing and me …

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.

Female boxers in Afghanistan, Credit: Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

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.

Sumo wrestling

Sumo wrestling

I grew up in New York City in the 1960’s where the sports curriculum at P. S. 19 on 12th Street and First Avenue consisted of punchball with a pinkie (that’s a Spaulding pink ball) and in the earlier grades, we played dodgeball with a giant red rubber ball.   Where I lived on 12th Street, we also played other “gender-neutral” sports such as boxball or King.   The game was similar to handball, but played in a “box” equivalent to the squares on a sidewalk (one person to a square) against the side of a building.  Oh.  There was also stoopball where you’d toss the ball at the stairs on the stoop and count the number of bounces into the street before catching it as bases.

Bottle caps was another favorite that also used the concept of a sidewalk square as the boundaries for where we pushed the bottle cap with a flick of our fingers to different points on the square while attempting to dislodge our opponents’ bottle caps.  The secret to the game was in how much the bottle cap was weighted.  Serious aficionados would burn candle wax into a favorite bottle cap or two and kept them stuffed in a jeans pocket just in case.  This latter was mostly a boy’s game, but girls were always welcome to play.

The ubiquitous New York City street game was stickball.  Played in the street and based on baseball, the bat was a mop or broom handle and the ball was a pinkie.  This particular game was not as popular as others on my block as we had the luxury of a schoolyard across the street where we actually had room to play some version of a “proper” baseball, though it never really seemed to take off.

I bring all of this up having read the New York Times piece on the push to bring sumo wrestling and women’s sumo wrestling at that to the Olympics.  Along side women’s boxing which has already been given the nod by the Olympic Committee, the inclusion of these two traditionally male “combat” sports would represent an extraordinary turn of events in Olympic history, never mind in our conception of the meaning of sport.

Back on 12th Street, even boxing was a remote sports tradition, but given how fair we all were with each other when it came to the games we did play, I think we wouldn’t have minded giving sumo wrestling a go, though it’d have to have involved a pinkie.

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