feature | Mischa Merz

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


Mischa Merz steps back into the ring

I was already over the hill when I came to Brooklyn’s famous Gleason’s gym, although I hadn’t ruled out a sparring session or two.

But I’d heard some horror stories about sparring in America from Songul ‘Diamond’ Oruc, one of the pioneers of women’s boxing in Australia. She’d spent a few hard years in the late 1990s fighting there, mainly on the west coast, and had once warned me that sparring sessions were like territorial wars. She had eventually wearied of the broken noses and the stress.

Located in a part of Brooklyn known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass), a once-treacherous industrial wasteland now rapidly gentrifying, Gleason’s is the oldest gym operating in America.

Since it opened its doors in 1937, it has been the location of twenty-nine movies, including the Martin Scorsese classic Raging Bull, and the home of luminaries like Muhammad Ali, Jake La Motta, Mike Tyson, Zab Judah and many more.

The gym’s owner for the past twenty-six years, the urbane Bruce Silverglade, has managed to move with the times – holding art shows and staging events that combine boxing and chamber music. And yet he has also preserved something of the old-school boxing tradition: the unwieldy chaos that is a feature of most gyms peopled by so many disparate and driven individuals. Silverglade’s smooth but firm presence has a catalytic effect, bringing cohesion to what could so easily disintegrate and fragment. While loft apartments are selling to Manhattan yuppies for millions, inside the gym a certain shabby charm has been preserved.

The layered archaeology of fight posters, photographs and magazine clippings tells the full story of Gleason’s trajectory. But the electrifying energy of the place keeps you from looking at the walls long enough to piece together a narrative. The images dissipate as the living art of boxing, practised at its highest level, unfolds around you at the sport’s epicentre. Without question, the most compelling story goes on from morning to night in the four full-sized rings constantly in use with people shadow-boxing, sparring and punching pads, with one ring near the entrance preserved for wrestling.

Aside from the sheer scale of this New York boxing mecca, what surprised and excited me most was the number of women inside the rings – and, indeed, on the posters. I mean women fighters: not boxacisers, not decorative side dishes to the main course, but genuine competitive athletes, more skilled than most Australian male boxers. Once that would have sounded like an affirmative action overstatement. Now it’s a simple fact, so vivid and palpable that it made me wonder if perhaps boxing was indeed more suited to women than men, despite centuries of discourse to the contrary.

I’m used to walking into a boxing gym and receiving a lot of sideways glances, and I have been to many gyms along Australia’s eastern seaboard over the past ten years. I am always acutely aware that I am an oddity: like snow in the suburbs, something that does happen, but rarely. At Gleason’s I was noticeable more for my peculiar accent than my gender.

I knew, because I had been following women’s boxing online for more than a decade, that the sport was bigger in the US than in Australia, but I really had no idea of the scale. Silverglade, who sat at the top of the stairs at what looked like a prop desk from Hill Street Blues, told me there were 300 female members of the gym and thirty of them were active fighters.

It looked like more than that to me. It looked like women’s boxing had reached critical mass and was now normal in America. No-one turned a hair.

Since Silverglade sanctioned entry to women in 1986, his gym has become well known for its female champions – amateur and professional. I had already made email contact before I arrived with Alicia Ashley, a Jamaican-born bantamweight world champion whom I had watched boxing on YouTube with giddy admiration. She was one of a group of five reigning female world champs in the gym, including Maureen ‘Mo’ Shea who had recently defended her unblemished record at Madison Square Garden – where every male boxing champion of note has appeared in the past hundred years since John L. Sullivan became the first heavyweight champion there, in 1882. Mo had also been Hilary Swank’s sparring partner as she prepared for Million Dollar Baby.

The first female sparring session I witnessed was between two of those champs: Belinda ‘Brown Sugar’ Laracuente, a Puerto Rican still in her twenties yet a veteran of forty-five professional fights; and a warhorse from White Plains, Ann-Marie Saccurato. I stood in dumb awe as I watched Belinda goad and move with the kind of slippery evasion of which only a handful of Australian male boxers are capable. Ann-Marie was, by contrast, a classic pressure fighter with an intimidating physical presence, a long torso that rippled with muscles. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I watched them. I felt a little shudder of vindication as I recalled how harshly female novice boxers had been judged when they had entered the ring so poorly schooled that it was sheer guts that got them through. Now I was seeing how women looked when they had been given the kind of attention and attained the kind of experience that men take for granted.

I turned to Alicia and asked ‘Are all the women here this good?’ and she threw her head back and laughed. She reminded me that they were world champions, after all – the best of the best. Banners around the gym, hung up high in red and black lettering, testified to the fact.

I imagined sparring with these gals and looking like a hack by comparison. It wasn’t pain that worried me so much as humiliation. I imagined punching thin air as they slipped my attempts to make contact and countered with flurries that I wouldn’t see coming. The mere thought made my heart race. This was, as Australia’s one-time IBF world champion Robbie ‘Bomber’ Peden described it, ‘the big pool’. I didn’t want to look like dog paddle was the best I could manage.

Gleason’s is also the same location where that icon of American letters, Joyce Carol Oates, researched her famous 1987 essay ‘On Boxing’. It was in this place twenty years ago that she concluded, ‘Boxing is a purely masculine activity and it inhabits a purely masculine world … Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.’ With due respect to Oates, one of my literary heroes, I couldn’t help thinking how monumentally wrong she was. So many assumptions about gender that she made in an erudite, compelling piece of writing were just blown to dust. And in the very same place in which they had been formulated!

It gave me a strange and eerie feeling, and demonstrated that so little is fixed in what we call culture. An idea that seems immutable and true in one era can sound laughable to the next generation. Maybe now the opposite could even be true. Boxing might be for women and about women. How else could small-statured people, who weigh no more than a jockey, exhibit their physical power? Most sports favour height and size. Boxing is matched by weight and the smaller divisions have always been the most exciting.

Alicia Ashley weighs somewhere in the low 50 kilogram region and exemplifies all that is graceful and elegant about modern-day boxing. She is like the love child of Sugar Ray Robinson (who famously quit boxing to become a dancer) and Josephine Baker. She moves with a seamless dancer’s grace; her toes, unlike most fighters’, turn out and her back is ramrod straight. She came to New York on scholarships to study with dancers and choreographers Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey before injury propelled her into pugilism when her brother and current trainer, Devon Cormak, convinced her that her speed and flexibility would easily transfer.

Her fighting name is ‘Slick’ for a good reason: she is one of the finest female fighters of her generation. I had already seen Alicia humiliate the German champion Alesia Graf in a YouTube clip of their title fight and would go so far as to say she was one of the best boxers I’d ever seen of either gender.

I had planned to train with her during my time in New York and hopefully learn a thing or two. But, on my first day, she had to go to Manhattan for sparring and so I was matched instead with Hector Roca. The Panamanian veteran trainer, and one-time cycling champion, is known not just for the boxers he has trained, like the legendary Arturo Gatti and Buddy McGirt, but also for his brushes with Hollywood fame. He’d trained Hilary Swank, whose picture is plastered on the chaotic walls of his mouse-hole office, for Million Dollar Baby. He’d worked with Russell Crowe onCinderella Man and didn’t have a good word to say about him.

‘What about Clint Eastwood?’ I asked, as he wrapped my hands, which made me feel a little like a celebrity myself. Hector stuck out his lower lip and said of Clint: ‘Very dry. You do this, go there. Nothing.’ Already I could tell I was going to have trouble understanding his accent.

But before I knew it Hector took me through some punches. He wanted loose and fast, and I had to fight my instinct to hit the pad so hard he would be astonished by my power. But Hector wasn’t interested in strength. He wanted speed.

‘No,’ he said, deadpan. ‘Joo pushin’. Relax, play wid joo hands.’

I strained to follow his commands and began to worry that he might think that all Aussies were as thick as Russell Crowe.

But Bruce reassured me. He told me he’d had whole conversations with Hector, whom he’d known for thirty years, and sometimes wasn’t sure himself what they had been about. Yet almost everyone to whom I spoke credited him with laying the foundations of their boxing technique. When I asked him what he thought about women boxing, he impressed upon me the sheer redundant nature of that question.

‘We all human’, he said. ‘Man, woman. No difference.’

Yet the question about whether women should or shouldn’t box, and whether it is more or less dangerous for them than men, is getting asked often enough. The International Olympic Committee still cannot bring itself to include women boxers in the Games in 2008. It seems to me that boxing won’t make it into the modern era until they do.

After Hector, training with Alicia was a little like getting my hearing back, although it mightn’t have seemed so to her, since I was again battling my instincts to hit like a train while she told me repeatedly to be fast and loose. It is the downfall of Australian boxers to assume that power is the winning ingredient over speed; it is also part of some people’s body chemistry and psychology. In my own case, I think I try to hit hard in part because I am a woman and, since I began boxing, it has usually been a man holding the pads for me. I want them to know that I’m no powder puff. And, like a kid, it gives me a little thrill seeing them ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ when they feel my strength.

At Gleason’s no-one gave a toss.

After our second or third session Alicia held my gaze for a few extra seconds and said, ‘Do you spar?’

In boxing, sparring means many different things to different people, depending on a gym’s culture. It can be anything from friendly tippy-tapping to trench warfare, so I mumbled my answer: ‘Well, yes, but …’

In truth, I spar just about every week, but on home turf I know the unwritten rules and, more importantly, I know my sparring partners. Here, I didn’t know if Alicia meant for me to be target practice for Ann-Marie before her upcoming title fight with ‘Raging’ Jessica Rakoczy or wanted me to help a beginner learn the ropes.

In the meantime, training alone one afternoon, I got an offer from Raul Frank, a top ten rated IBF light middleweight originally from Guyana. My years in boxing have also taught me that it’s safer for a woman to spar with a man than another woman, even if he has gone twelve rounds with Vernon Forrest twice for a world title. Raul’s chivalry was switched on and, after three or four light rounds, he said to me: ‘You should fight. You’ve got the talent. You just need some conditioning.’

Flattered and panting I thanked him but declined the offer to run with him around Prospect Park, which would give him the chance to discover exactly how out of condition I was. Although I’ve never stopped, I had, at that stage, slowed right down. My routine had been pared back so much that I was almost ready to surrender to Father Time.

Next time I saw Alicia, she said, ‘I hear you sparred Raul.’

‘Oh,’ I said sheepishly, ‘he was just playing with me.’

She smiled kindly and said, ‘That’s what we would all do.’

I didn’t know whether to be reassured or insulted. But Alicia’s thousand-watt smile didn’t seem to be hiding any ulterior motive or implying anything snide. She was merely telling it like it was. World champs had nothing to prove against middle-aged, slightly out of condition journalists from Australia.

Our next training session, she strapped my hands into 16-ounce gloves, lent me a head-guard and shaped up to me in the ring herself. A natural southpaw, she was kind enough to spar with me in orthodox stance and at least give me a sliver of a chance. I had imagined that I wouldn’t be able to lay a glove on her and had told her that many times. And she smiled as if she knew I was right.

I had spent my hours at Gleason’s trying to secure a sound underdog position for myself, letting everyone know that I was old, unfit and had only Australian championship titles, compared to the many pairs of national and state golden gloves and regional, national and international titles that seemed to belong to everyone else.

‘But you Aussies are tough,’ said Melissa Hernandez who had just recently secured the world featherweight title.

‘But you guys are good.’

‘Nah,’ she said, sounding like a character from West Side Story. ‘We’re not that good. We’re flashy, is all. We like to show off.’

And that was true. Each day seemed like a fashion parade for most of the professionals at Gleason’s. There were so many colours and styles of boxing boots and bandanas and training gear it felt like we were in the Adidas Superstore on Broadway, instead of the former mean streets of waterfront Brooklyn.

Alicia hit me with the lightest of controlled taps and, when I returned fire and tagged her, I think we were both a little shocked. The sparring session continued for a few rounds and I felt myself reaching another level just being in the same ring as her.

She told me to come back Saturday and mix it up with a group.

I have a photo of myself with my sparring partners of that day – Camille Currie, Melodie Yam and Alicia – in the dark interior of Gleason’s. Compared to them I look like I have climbed out of a tanker of milk: I’m so white. And I like to think I did all right for a white girl. A tiny glove mark was forming on my cheek and I started to lament the fact that I wouldn’t have Camille’s long reach and athleticism to test me back home, nor Alicia’s speed and finesse to emulate, nor Melodie’s determination to counter. And there were many more women to spar and so many more opportunities to improve. I could have sparred with a different woman every session, whereas in Australia I had sparred with the same woman each week, a multiple Australian amateur champ called Flic Purdie. This went on for a couple of years. It was like a hundred-round fight with week-long breaks in between.

Only occasionally would there be another woman for me to mix it up with. Often they were beginners and I had to hold back. The best matches I could find, aside from Flic, were teenage boys whose muscle density was often on a par with my own. They hadn’t yet caught on to the adult male game of chivalry and, more than anything, didn’t want to look like they were being beat up by a girl in front of their friends. And so they were genuinely competitive.

While I was fighting I usually had to imagine what my opponents would do since I could only mostly find approximations. In New York I would never run out of women with whom to spar: infinite variations of style, experience and weight divisions as well as unequivocal confirmation of what my own gender was capable of in the ring – something so often the subject of guesswork.

If only I could stay! It seemed like such a luxury, while for men who box, it is a given to test themselves in these realistic encounters which, to me, have become so much more the essence of the sport than the sanctioned fight. I’ve always felt more at home and done my best boxing in the gym.

On my final training session with Alicia, she told me that it was all a matter of ironing out the glitches, that with a little more time, I would reach that next level.

By that stage, Ann-Marie was greeting me with hugs, I had bought Belinda’s old boots from her – and she had signed them for me – and Raul was calling me ‘champ’.

While Alicia was talking, I was distracted from what she was saying by yet another boxing genius with the speed of a wizard when I heard her say, ‘I mean, you move great.’

‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘who moves great?’

‘You do,’ she said.


‘Yeah, you!’ she said, smiling that million-dollar smile. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard. After all these years of struggle, of trying to look convincingly like I knew my craft, after all the black eyes and broken noses and crises of character and doubts about my athleticism and courage, after all the dodgy judges’ decisions and thousands of kilometres of bitumen and concrete I had run; after all the niggling injuries and frustrations, to hear the female equivalent of Floyd Mayweather Jnr tell me I ‘move great’ was perhaps the greatest reward of all.

And with those words echoing in my head I am starting to plot my comeback … to Gleason’s, that is.

Like I said, I’m already over the hill.

Mischa Merz’s 2001 book Bruising will be republished, with additional material, by Vulgar Press in 2009.
© Mischa Merz
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 15-19

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