That’s me in the gold and black, in one of the happiest moments of my fighting career to date.
It was a tremendous honor to be invited to box as the Main Event against Mischa Merz, an undefeated national champion with a 13-year-long fighting career and dozens of fights. People laughed with me when I wryly told them I was undefeated too; my first fight was six months ago, but I did win. It seemed clear to them that I’d been invited in order to give the champion an easy win during a fight timed to celebrate the launch of her second book on boxing.
I don’t think she would tell you that anything about the fight was easy. I certainly wouldn’t.
My trainer, Bonnie “Queen B” Mann, the woman who taught me the joy of the ring, moved home to New York two weeks before my training for this fight was slated to begin. It was about the same time I went through a job shift from full-time corporate employee to part-time contractor working from home. I was still trying to figure out how to cope with all of that when I got injured during the very first sparring night of my training-without-a-trainer.
A fighter’s relationship with her trainer is a delicate thing. The sport in which we compete is harsh and frequently brutal. The disciplines are unrelenting and there simply are no short cuts. A boxer’s physical conditioning must be top notch, but her mental state is even more critical. A trainer must learn precisely what it takes to bring the best possible performance out of a fighter who is under heavy fire. The bond that is forged can be powerfully intimate, because during the course of training many deep vulnerabilities – both physical and mental – must be exposed to the light, examined in painful detail, and rebuilt into stronger and better shapes that can withstand the force of a dangerous competitive storm.
A week after my rough start, I met Jason “Jay Fury” Abraham. He’d trained and taught in Atlanta’s Decatur Boxing Club with Terri Moss, the promoter of this fight, who had contacted him about my situation. Jay was living near me in Raleigh and was willing to help me train.
For five weeks we studied my opponent, built a strategy, and trained three or four times a week on specific boxing techniques. I ran and worked weights on my own as well. At least once or twice a week Jay geared up and we sparred. Hard.
Jay is about six feet two, maybe 180 pounds; a daunting opponent in the ring. He talked me through the panic I felt during an onslaught of his hard, rapid punches. He taught me how to repel or smother an attack and made me practice getting into and out of a clinch with him. He timed my sprints. He made me work angles, cut off the ring, and keep my feet and head moving. He controlled his power but never let up. He continually noted my improvements and built up my confidence.
But the pressure of the looming match was unrelenting.
A couple of times I felt my composure fracture. About two weeks before the fight Jay was putting me through some complex combinations on the pads. Over and over again I failed to get the sequence, placement, and power right. Finally I accidentally cracked him hard across the mouth, instantly drawing blood. He scowled and made me finish the combination correctly and I fought back tears of frustration.
“I can’t do this, Jay. I can’t,” I told him, spinning away from the pads he still held in front of me.
“Look at me,” he said quietly. I turned reluctantly back. My eyes were drawn to the blood smeared down his chin, blood I’d drawn because I’d missed the focus mitt and bashed him in the face. I turned away again. He swiped irritably at his mouth.
“No, I mean it,” he said. “Look at me. I’m telling you that you can do this. And you’re not leaving until you tell me the same thing. Say it. Say ‘I can do this.’ Say it like you mean it.”
He pushed my shoulder with one of the mitts. I couldn’t meet his eyes. “Say it,” he repeated, getting louder, and the only way I could avoid a complete dissolution was to yell at him.
I banged him in the chest with my gloves. “I can do this damn thing, Jay,” I cried, tears barely in check.
“Damn right,” he muttered. “Now do that combination again. Slower, but use your power.”
And I leaned back into my training.
And for the first time in my life I began to wake up at night from dreams in which I was fighting, and fighting well.
Weigh-Ins and Wild Bill’s
On the day before weigh-ins I drove the seven and a half hours to Atlanta, weathered the drying out to cut weight and the general circus of weigh-ins, medicals, and meeting my opponent for the first time. It was long past midnight before I finally I took two sleeping pills in order to get some rest.
Jay had told me he was going to come to Atlanta the day of the fight. I’d never had a trainer with me for a fight; I hoped Jay would make it but I knew there was a chance that I would be alone again. I did my best not to think about it as I headed to the venue with all my gear.
Getting in was its own battle.
All the front entrances to Wild Bill’s were blocked as race cars screamed and smoked around a makeshift circuit in the parking lot. Girls in bikinis competed for attention from hundreds of onlookers at a big racing exhibition going on where our fights were scheduled to happen in just a few hours.
Driving to the back of the building I saw the parking lots were jammed with cars and people; there wasn’t a spot anywhere to be found. I checked the clock on the dashboard. “Just drop me at the rear loading dock,” I said to my husband, “but don’t block that ambulance. Looks like they’re hauling someone out.”
They were. Someone said there were MMA fights going on inside the building as well.
I pushed past dozens of bouncer types and hardly glanced at the sign that said “Absolutely No Entrance” to enter the dim loading cavern at the rear of the building. I saw a sheet of typing paper taped to a nearby door that read “Blue Corner.” Behind the door was a water heater and a mop bucket. Three more turns and three more “Employees Only” and “No Entrance” signs, past a wall of plaster prints of the hands of bands that had played the venue: 38 Special, Skid Row, Rihanna, Big & Rich, Jackyl… I trailed my hand along them, then ducked through an industrial kitchen, before finally making it to the rear entrance of the Crown Room, a lounge where we’d been told to gather at 4 pm.
I didn’t immediately see anyone I knew.
I tossed my gear bag down and settled down on a worn velour couch to begin the part of boxing that I hate the most: waiting.
Jay’s Arrival, the First Warm Up
I called Jay and learned he was only minutes away; he’d been driving since early that morning. My heart sang as I threaded my way back through the maze and the milling groups of people. When I finally found him I threw my arms around him and hammered him crazily on the back. I was awash with nerves and fear and gratefulness that he was here.
“Hey,” he grinned, once I finally turned him loose.
“Hey, yourself,” I replied. “Welcome to the zoo.”
“Thanks. Let’s kick some ass,” he said mildly, as we headed in together.
I’m not entirely sure that I navigated the next hours of craziness gracefully. I felt like a speed boat banging wildly across chop. I was working hard to keep my heart rate down, to not let my attention get drawn into the dozens of mini-dramas that played themselves out continuously around me.
Soon I began to believe I was both freezing and suffocating in the dark gloom of the building and I finally asked Jay to walk outside with me. He saw my distress, and as we made it out onto the loading dock in the sunshine he started talking in a low voice.
“I want you to relax,” he began, turning me around to face him. “Tune all these people out. Let your shoulders down. You’re going to sit down on your punches, keep your knees flexed and stay on your toes. Be mobile.”
I could feel myself instantly drawn into the rhythm of our training. The concrete beneath my feet was familiar and welcoming; Jay and I had never trained in a gym; all of our work had been in gravel lots and on concrete slabs.
He began to call shots and I responded, sinking my fists into his open palms, slipping past his jabs, shaking out the stress and relaxing into his easy pace. Once I was warm and relaxed again, I was ready to go back inside. There were still hours to go.
The Blue Corner Ready Room
Just within the rear entrance was a storage space defined by a white nylon parachute hanging like a curtain from the ceiling and enclosing a halfhearted circle of metal folding chairs. It also included the “Blue Corner” sign on the broom closet. Someone directed us there, so Jay and I took some seats as corner men arrived to begin wrapping the hands of the fighters.
I sat idly until the warmth of our work in the sunshine drained away. I decided to do some stretching on a ratty gray blanket printed all over with the phrase “Property of U-Haul.” A few minutes later another boxer asked if he could share the blanket.
“Sure,” I said. “The blanket makes a better yoga mat than this grimy floor.”
“I know,” he replied amiably, moving through his own series of stretches, “that’s why I brought it.”
“Oh,” I started, caught off guard. “This is your blanket.”
“Yep,” he grinned.
I looked down again but suddenly cut my eyes over to grin back. “Well, actually, it’s the property of U-Haul. I’m sure you’ll be returning it to them later.”
We both laughed.
The Red Corner Ready Room
It wasn’t long before someone came and told us we were all in the wrong place, and we shuffled dutifully to another storage space, this one filled with platforms, amps, cables and mic stands.
I saw my opponent walk past and we exchanged waves and eye-rolls.
I sat or stood for a while in the swirling chaos, not speaking. Jay talked casually to many different people, lots of whom recognized and greeted him enthusiastically. Periodically I would check to make sure he was still around, and always he was there, just within sight or reach. Often he would tip his head in my direction as if to say, “I know. Waiting sucks. We’ll get there.”
I began to withdraw into a mental blank space to try and buffer myself not only against all the noise and activity outside my head, but also against my own inner turmoil.
It wasn’t working.
I could feel the noise, the chatter, the crowd, the music, and worst of all the inner strain bearing down. Finally I dragged a chair to face the wall, plugged in my earbuds, and drew my hoodie over my head. Jay cut off a conversation with another fighter to take up a position just behind me, bodyguard fashion, to create a barrier between all the activity and my chair; a protection against intrusion.
But my playlist wasn’t working. I’d chosen songs to be peaceful and calm – Paul Simon, Manhattan Transfer, and even Luciano Pavarotti. But none of it could drown out my thoughts, which were constantly drawn toward the coming battle. I longed to hear heavy metal. I needed MPowered by Sidelines