It’s the first day of the 1994 Chicago Golden Gloves boxing competition. Young pugs amble through the main entrance of Saint Andrew Gymnasium on Addison. In the middle of a basketball court stands a boxing ring surrounded by rows of folding metal chairs, pull-out risers, and balcony grandstands. The gym will hold more than a thousand people by tonight’s 7 PM bell.
Boxers are lining up for the weigh-in. Many stop to stare at the ring, which is bathed in yellow sunlight streaming in through high windows. Most of these boxers are amateurs, fighting for their first time before paying customers.
One boxer walks into the weigh-in room. On the boxer’s right calf is a rub-on shamrock tattoo.
“What weight?” asks a Golden Gloves official. “One nineteen,” the boxer says, stepping on the scale. “I hope.” The official looks at the scale’s dial and announces, “One twenty-five.”
“Oh,” the boxer says in a small voice, “I’m going to cry!”
It’s a tough break for Meghan Janda, a 17-year-old who will be in the first group of women boxers competing in the Golden Gloves tournament. If placed in a higher weight class, she’ll be among the lightest and weakest in her category. She puts on a sweatshirt and nylon running pants and starts sprinting around the gym. There are two hours left in the weigh-in session, and Meghan’s trying to sweat off enough weight to make the 119-pound class.
“Wait, wait, whoa!” her club manager yells. “You ain’t gonna lose six pounds right now.”
The weigh-in official comes out of the room to watch this teenager bent on losing a half dozen pounds by dinner. The official shakes her head as the boxer approaches.
“I’m getting my period,” Meghan tells her. “Does that count for anything?”
“Baby,” she says, nodding toward the ring, “if you’re on your period, now’s not the time to go up there.”
Meghan puts on her coat, grabs her bag, and runs out the gym door, promising to lose the weight before today’s weigh-in is finished. Of all the things great fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard or Muhammad Ali had to worry about–broken jaws, detached retinas, scrambled brains, getting drafted–the onset of menstruation was never one of them.
For 66 years the Golden Gloves has been a male-only tradition, a masculine rite of passage for many inner-city kids. Champions like Leonard, George Foreman, and Leon and Michael Spinks cut their teeth in Golden Gloves bouts in different cities across the country. The tournaments have been dominated in turn by the Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks, and Puerto Ricans. And now, unlikely as it may seem, the time may have come for women.
Last year a Washington state court ordered USA Boxing, the organization that controls the amateur game, to open up the Golden Gloves to females. And in January it was determined that Chicago’s Golden Gloves would be the first major tournament in the nation to have a women’s competition. With the preliminary bouts scheduled for mid-February, there was much to learn in a short time.
Meghan Janda and her friend Carrie Law wait for their trainer in a cold second-floor room at the Chicago Fitness Center, a storefront health club near Wrigley Field. It’s the dead of winter, only one week before the start of the Golden Gloves. The club’s windows are fogged over from steam heat, while outside snow swirls in a howling wind. Meghan and Carrie take turns looking into the room next door, which is packed with sweating men sparring and flailing at a couple of heavy punching bags.
Meghan and Carrie pass time by butting each other with their heads and shoulders like baby rams–to achieve what, they don’t know. They simply have to compete. Neither can shoulder the other out of the way. Carrie, who has studied martial arts, pulls back and tries to show Meghan how to improve her footwork. “You got it all wrong,” Carrie says, breaking into a little grin. “You hooker!”
Meghan giggles, and Carrie pivots gracefully on her left foot, delivering a gentle karate-type kick to the side of Meghan’s head.
“Hi girls,” says trainer Chris Kreuz-Christopher as she climbs the stairs, eyes bright and manner confident. Chris is the Women’s World Boxing Association lightweight champion, a lean and sinewy fighter with long, curly blond hair, at once fetching and threatening. “What are you waiting in here for? All the stuff’s in the other room.”
Women boxers may conjure images of burlesque queens and bikini-clad attractions at sleazy suburban bars, but this is the real thing. Chris Kreuz-Christopher is bringing the largest contingent of female boxers to the Golden Gloves, the members of her Tough Enough boxing club. Some have been with Chris since last September. A few put on their first pairs of boxing gloves within the last couple of weeks. The lessons are intensive.
The men must finish sparring before the women can begin their workout. This gang of tough guys, the Monday-night boxing class, ignore the intrusion of sweet-faced teens and desk jockeys in their 20s wearing Reebok aerobic shoes. But these women have already learned how to snap an opponent’s head back with a flick of the right hand, and how to duck under a right cross and pummel a belly with a quick combination. Chris and her club are here to stay.
Her troop includes Tracy Desmond, a DePaul University senior who hopes to join the Peace Corps; Nadine Wasserman, at 29 the oldest of these boxers, who’s on the curatorial staff of the Museum of Contemporary Art; Sarah Lahalih, a senior at Lane Tech High School, who must hide her boxing from her strict Muslim father; tiny Sandra Gutierrez, also a Lane senior, whose eggshell confidence demands more care than a boxing coach is willing to give; serene Carrie Law, a student at Saint Benedict High School; and Law’s best friend and classmate Meghan Janda, a hyperachiever willing to work harder than anyone to reach a championship bout. They’re joined by a half dozen other women who attend these sessions with differing degrees of regularity and success.
A middle-aged Chicago police officer watches in the corner, his hands behind his back, his speech right out of a Damon Runyon short story. He’s Marshall Christopher, Chris Kreuz-Christopher’s husband, who hopes to steer his wife to national acclaim as the greatest female boxer of all time. Marshall’s banking on Chris garnering some free publicity for coaching one of the first female teams in the history of the Golden Gloves. He says publicity is almost as necessary to a boxer as a good left hook.
Chris leads the women through a few minutes of jumping rope, and then they shadowbox while running in place. After the opening exercises, most of the group look wiped out. But Chris is relaxed and breathing easy.
The women chat while waiting for the sparring to begin. Meghan asks Sandra Gutierrez, “Did you see your picture in the newspaper today?” Sandra makes a bitter face and sticks out her tongue. Meghan ducks low and launches a series of fake punches into Sandra’s belly.
The first spar is between Carrie Law and Sarah Lahalih. “OK, you guys,” Chris says, “go light. I don’t want you killin’ each other.” It’s a warning she repeats again and again. Novice boxers have a tendency to swing wildly, which accomplishes little except to exhaust the fighter throwing the punches.
But Chris has trained her boxers well. Sarah and Carrie keep their fists up and wait for the best opportunity to punch. They step in close to deliver the basic jab-cross-hook combination. Chris reminds the fighters about this sequence so often that it becomes a mantra–“You guys! Jab-cross-hook!” It’s beautiful in its simplicity: A right-handed boxer leads with her left hand, shooting it straight into her adversary’s face. The jab is immediately followed with a right cross, bringing up that lower right hand into the opponent’s jaw. Then she shoulders a quick left-hand hook into the side of her foe’s head. The entire process should take perhaps one and a half seconds. Chris celebrates as Carrie performs it perfectly on Sarah: “Boom, boom, boom. That’s it!” The jab-cross-hook combo can knock a person unconscious; it whips the opponent’s head straight back, then right to left, causing a bone in her skull to pinch her brain stem.
Carrie hits Sarah with a sweet hook in the third and final round (all spars and Golden Gloves fights last three rounds). Sarah drops her hands and shouts, “Fuck!” She looks like she wants to jump out of the ring. “Come on!” Chris yells. Sarah mutters, raises her hands, and steps back into battle.
Sarah swings a roundhouse right that catches Carrie flush in the mouth. Carrie drops her hands and falls backward against the ropes, breathing hard. She pivots and leans her chest against the ropes. Chris waves at Sarah, who’s already advancing, eyeing the kill. Chris puts her arm around Carrie to console her. Carrie shrugs her off and punches the wall a foot and a half beyond the ropes. Sarah also puts her arm around Carrie.
Later Carrie asks Meghan, “Did you see me get coldcocked?” Meghan grins and nods. She examines Carrie’s fat lip almost enviously.
Next, Tracy spars with Sima Patel, a tall, dark Indian teen from Regina Dominican High School. Tracy’s fast and disciplined; she has studied karate for more than two years. She dances circles around a flat-footed Sima, who moves in long, slow strides.
Deep in the third round, Sima is winded. She steps back and raises her hand. “Wait,” she calls out, struggling to catch her breath. “I’m sorry.”
“You can’t do that in the ring,” Chris shouts. “If you want to stop, clinch.”
The spar resumes, and Tracy lands a big right. Sima gets angry and pounds on Tracy, swinging like a windmill. Chris stops the fight. “If somebody lands a good one, don’t get mad,” she says. “Keep your poise. It’s a sport!”
The bell rings, and Sima and Tracy touch gloves, congratulating each other at the end.
Once the sparring is over, it’s time for calisthenics. Not one student can keep up with Chris. Each time she finishes a set, Chris must wait for her huffing and puffing charges to catch up. “You gonna let this old lady show you up?” Chris asks, laughing.
Next to Tracy, Meghan probably is the best athlete of the bunch. “I have two brothers, and they’re not athletes,” she says. “You’re supposed to have an athlete in the family–that’s me.” Meghan’s an honors student, a starter on both her school softball and basketball teams, and each morning she attends meetings of the student council and environment club. “You have to have goals at 17,” she says. “If not it’s, like, sit on a couch all day.”
Meghan learned about Chris’s boxing classes through Carrie Law. Carrie went to a few sessions and came back with glowing reports. “She was telling me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to come to this class,’ and I’m like, ‘All right, cool. I’ll try anything.'”
Meghan started training with Chris last fall and now has become an integral part of the club, teaching basics to new students and taking over the class when Chris is unavailable. “A lot of people just go when they want to, but I go every single week,” Meghan says. “I just love it. At first I didn’t know Chris. Then she started driving us, and now she’s my idol. She’s awesome. She’s a person to look up to. Even if I didn’t box, she’d be someone to look up to.”
Meghan Janda was born in Evanston, but her family moved to the neighborhood just north of Lane Tech when she was a little girl. Her father Tony is a woodworker, creating signs and statues for many north-side bars and stores. Her mother Pat is a credentials coordinator for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Meghan has attended Saint Benedict’s since first grade, and she hopes to go to Northwestern to become a psychologist. She’s on a scholarship at Saint Ben’s, and part of the deal requires her cleaning a classroom every day. She often finishes her task early, earning a few extra minutes to study in the clean classroom. Boxing has helped Meghan, a vegetarian who reads Edgar Allan Poe and writes poetry. She suffers from bronchial asthma and just last fall came down with a case of mononucleosis, but her arms are strong and her wind has improved because of the training.
Meghan’s like most teenage girls; she goes on dates and enjoys parties on weekends. But sometimes those activities seem too mundane for her. She’s bored by schoolmates who talk of nothing but boys, and she doesn’t want a boyfriend who demands to see her every day of the week. She also tries to distance herself from other temptations. “We go to a party, and there’s pot and drinking,” she says. “That’s the way it is now. My parents trust me because they know I have all this stuff to do. They know I have control of my life right now. I have to.”
It’s Tuesday, six days before the preliminary bouts. Kreuz-Christopher is at another gym teaching a boxing class, but Marshall is here, more of a cheerleader or chaperon than a teacher. He’s put Meghan in charge of leading calisthenics.
Sandra Gutierrez comes in late. She’s much smaller than the others, looking waiflike in her gray workout pants, oversized white T-shirt, and green baseball cap worn backward. By the time she’s ready to warm up, the others are already wrapping their hands. Hand wrapping is a time-consuming ritual. A wrap is a red elastic bandage, many yards long and about an inch and a half wide. It has a little loop on the end where the boxer sticks her thumb. The wrap is then taped around her hand and each individual finger, transforming a collection of tiny bones, muscles, and ligaments into something solid, like a club. It protects the fist during a punch.
Sandra jumps rope alone, a bit clumsily. She tosses the rope aside and quickly wraps her hands. Then she returns to jumping rope. She trips. “I wish I was coordinated,” she says with an embarrassed laugh. Jumping rope isn’t easy when her hands are wrapped.
Meghan and Carrie wait patiently for the others to finish wrapping their hands. Carrie is taller than Meghan and more guarded. Meghan is garrulous and quick to smile. She wears her rich, copper-colored hair in a ponytail. The radio plays “These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs.
Meghan smiles. “Remember this song? Our summer days.”
“Yeah,” Carrie says as she begins to dance, not like a boxer but like a teenager.
The others pick up jump ropes and use the songs as timers. Sarah Lahalih complains about having to wear rubber bands on her braces. “Someday I’ll have nice teeth and I’ll be happy I did this,” she says.
Marshall has been silently watching the boxers warm up. Suddenly he makes an announcement: “Meghan’s gonna fight first on the 14th!”
Meghan’s jaw drops. She gulps and says, “Aw shit!”
A University of Chicago student named Jacqueline Ta will be her opponent in the first fight. Meghan’s already heard a few things about Ta. “How much did that Oriental girl weigh?” Meghan asks, her voice involuntarily rising a full octave.
“Your weight,” Marshall says.
“She’s good,” Meghan says.
“Don’t worry. You’ll run right through ‘er.”
Meghan nods but doesn’t seem convinced.
Marshall sidles up next to me and whispers, “These girls just know this.” He jabs repeatedly with his left fist. A right-handed boxer always jabs with the left hand. “The guys do this,” he says, throwing an array of hooks and crosses. “When the girls get in the ring, it’ll be a free-for-all. Chris was never in a free-for-all.”
Not even her first fight? I ask, surprised.
“She was disciplined,” Marshall says sternly, as if I’d insulted both her and him. He was Chris’s first boxing trainer.
Marshall tells Meghan to tighten up the workout. “Give ’em a good aerobic thing.” She orders the boxers to begin a sort of skip-and-dance drill to improve their footwork.
I ask Marshall if Chris was ever defeated.
“Yeah,” he says with a sour look on his face. “She got her nose broke. Bleedin’ all over. She won the fight, but you know how people are. A pretty girl bleedin’, they go, ‘Oh my God!’ Lemme tell ya: Chris won that fight.”
Chris’s fighting career was born not long after Marshall’s was laid to rest.
“I’m from Little Italy, Taylor Street,” Marshall says in the living room of his and Chris’s northwest-side apartment. “I was boxing since I was five years old. In that area either you were a policeman or a syndicate man. Hardly any doctors or lawyers came out of that area. If you didn’t know how to fight, you were in trouble.”
Marshall’s father and an older brother were boxers. His father boxed in the Army and was a Golden Gloves champion as a young man. When Marshall was 12, his father brought him to the neighborhood Catholic Youth Organization, where the youngster fought under Tony Zale, onetime middleweight champion of the world. Marshall showed some early promise as an athlete. He earned a football scholarship to Gordon Technical High School, but he soon discovered the priests expected him to crack open a book now and then. Marshall was kicked out during his sophomore year for engaging in one too many fistfights. “I was brawn all my life,” Marshall says. “I never had the brains.” He ended up graduating from Wells High School, but he lacked direction. “I was a Taylor Street bum. I wasn’t focused. I wanted women and ’57 Chevys. That was it.” Hanging on street corners, Marshall expressed himself through vandalism. “We used to break windshields,” he says. “I used to bust windshields with my hands. Used to wrap ’em up with towels and punch the windows.”
Boxing gave Marshall discipline and kept him from a career as a hoodlum. He also gained a broken nose and fractured one hand or the other five times. He says his hands are too small for his upper body strength; they’d break easily when he put too much into his punches. He fought a few times and was encouraged by his coaches and trainers.
Marshall joined the Chicago Police Department in 1968 and came to the conclusion that he wasn’t going anywhere as a boxer. “I was never a great fighter,” he says. “I was an amateur fighter. I didn’t like to get hit. I like to give the punches, but when I got hit I used to back away. Now Jake LaMotta? He used to drop his hands and make guys punch him because he had that instinct where it didn’t bother him. He had no fear. If you have any type of fear in this game, get out. Fear is everything. When I used to get in the ring, I was scared to death! Whoever says they weren’t scared to death is fulla shit. You’re scared. Then once you start goin’, you know scared isn’t gonna make you win. Because when you’re scared, your legs are weak, and you’re not gonna win. . . . You’re never gonna be a champion. You’re gonna be an average pug like I was.”
In the 70s Marshall turned from fighting to teaching and promoting. “I wanted to be on the other side,” he says. “I was tired of gettin’ my ass kicked and makin’ other people money.”
Marshall taught male-only boxing classes at Degerberg Academy and the Lakeshore Athletic Club. “A girl come up to me and says, ‘I’d like to get in your class.’ I laughed. I actually started from this girl at Lakeshore. I put her in the class. She had as much guts as the guys and she tried her best. I started a woman’s heavy bag. Then I started puttin’ ’em in. Then I had a show at the Lakeshore with two women. It was the best fight.”
That was 1984. A year later another woman tapped him on the shoulder. “I was doin’ shows with this other girl I used to go out with, Kristin,” Marshall says. “I did a show at the Limelight, and Chris was in the crowd. She came up to me, says, ‘I’d like to try that.’ Now, she’s a pretty little girl with these big green eyes. I said, ‘Gimme a break!’ I gave ‘er a card. She followed up. She came to my apartment; I used to live on Fullerton and Clark.
“She came up and she had a girlfriend with her. I took an interest in her girlfriend because her girlfriend looked like a big amazon. I said, ‘Chris, you could work in her corner.’ Chris gave me this mean look. She says, ‘I ain’t workin’ no one else’s corner. I want to fight.'”
Chris was already one of the top female high school athletes in the area. Unlike her future husband, she readily admitted mixing brains with her brawn. At Bremen Township High School in south suburban Midlothian, she was a National Honor Society member all four years, and she was named Bremen’s female athlete of the year in 1983. She earned a four-year softball scholarship to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she graduated with degrees in criminal justice and physical education.
Marshall trained Chris for her first fight, coincidentally against that same “amazon” friend. “Chris almost killed her,” Marshall says. “Chris made her pee in her pants!” Marshall pops a tape of Chris’s first fight into his VCR.
After that first fight Marshall started making big plans for Chris. “She’s competitive,” he says. “Chris hates to lose. When you hate to lose, you’ll do anything to win. Chris, when she gets in the ring–I hate to say this, it’s my wife–she would think nothin’ of killing you, maiming you. She wants to hurt you; that’s the killer instinct. A lot of fighters are softies. George Foreman was one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. But George Foreman didn’t have that killer instinct. Rocky Marciano would want to kill you. Chris would want to kill you.”
Marshall and Chris, with an easy 20-year age difference, married in August 1990. “Me and Chris are the best of friends,” Marshall says. “I don’t think marriage works on all this lovey-dovey shit. First of all, you gotta be the best of friends. We love the same things. That’s me; that’s the way I would be as a woman. We’re so close together, we do everything the same.” Marshall manages Chris’s career and handles her publicity. He has turned over coaching duties to the LaCassa brothers, Pat and Primo, a couple of noted trainers from back in the Taylor Street neighborhood. The LaCassas have handled Chicago pros Luke Capuano, Mark Bodzianowski, Lenny Lapaglia, and Louie Lomelli.
Marshall shepherded Chris through a spotless record as a professional fighter. She remained unbeaten through 17 fights. Then the bubble burst last year when Chris lost a split decision. Of the three judges, only J.B. Stewart, president of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation, had her ahead on points.
Marshall put Chris on a grueling schedule this spring to make up for that single loss. She was slated for 13 fights before the summer, and she started working with the LaCassa brothers. “I babied her a little too much because it was my girlfriend and my wife,” Marshall says. “Now Chris doesn’t get babied.” Her record today stands at 30 wins, one loss.
Marshall’s now fine-tuning the appearance of his meal ticket. “What Chris brings into the women’s boxing is brains, brawn, and beauty. Chris sells with her looks, and she’s the greatest. Her looks bring you to watch her, her skills make you leave happy.” He’s counting on her sex appeal to promote the sport on television, and he’s certain a big boxing promoter like Don King is on the verge of putting up a million-dollar purse for a pay-per-view women’s fight. “I don’t think Chris’ll ever lose again. She’s goin’ for a million-dollar fight. Everyone knows Chris. If you go to Vegas, New York, Japan, anyplace, they know who Chris is.”
Back at the Chicago Fitness Center, Meghan leads the boxers in an endurance drill. Each fighter must pound the heavy bag with rapid-fire rights and lefts for 30 seconds at a stretch. A half minute may seem like a short time until it’s spent pounding a heavy bag nonstop. There are five boxers here tonight but only four pairs of gloves, so they take turns acting as a timer.
Nadine Wasserman is just getting over a bad case of the flu, but she’s still pounding on the heavy bag. “Nadine,” Marshall says, “don’t wear yourself out!”
Nadine stops punching and breathes heavily. Marshall tells her to shorten her swing. He says he used to knock opponents out with his flick of a left hook when he was a young amateur boxer. “The roundhouse ain’t gonna do you nothin’,” he says.
Marshall drops a few bons mots for the rest of the room. “Endurance,” he says with no preamble. “Thinking when you’re gonna punch. . . . Don’t panic–then you’re gonna lose.”
He’s silent for a moment, but pipes up again after watching another boxer strain her way through the 30-second drill. “Endurance is everything,” he says again. “They’re gonna come after you like windmills. . . . There’s fighters that’ll run the whole fight with jabs.”
The boxers gather around to listen to these pearls. Suddenly Marshall barks at them. “Whaddya gonna do? Stand around all night?” Meghan tells the boxers to do push-ups.
Marshall asks me, “You know why Rocky Marciano was the greatest fighter of all time? Because he worked out all day long.”
As soon as Marshall leaves, the boxers relax and stop working out. “D’you know how many times I work out a day?” Sarah Lahalih asks no one in particular. “Three–gym class, softball practice, and here.”
Meghan clears her throat. “Um, please,” she says, directing the group to start sit-ups. The karate class across the hall screams in unison.
The boxers hang around the gym after the workout is over. I hold the heavy bag while Meghan does the endurance drill. She moves the bag with each blow, but her speed is more impressive than her strength. She turns beet red after 25 seconds.
The radio DJ says tomorrow’s windchill will be seven degrees below zero. “Minus seven,” Meghan says. “No school tomorrow!”
“Whaddya talkin’ about?” Sarah responds contemptuously. “There’s gonna be school.”
The boxers pair off to work focus mitts, which are round, disklike pads with little yellow dots in the middle. One boxer wears the mitts while the other aims to pound the dots. The punchers wear soft, small workout gloves.
Tracy Desmond walks into the room. She’s late because she was in the karate class across the hall. Marshall doesn’t think much of karate. “A good boxer can beat these kickboxers any day,” he said earlier, nodding in the direction of the class across the hall. “Boxers know how to get hit. You hit these guys, they go . . . ” He acts like his legs have turned to rubber and a dumb expression crosses his face.
Tracy has a brown belt in karate. She’s already had a lengthy workout, but she picks up a rope and starts jumping. She jumps rope almost as well as Chris. The other boxers put on their coats to leave, but Tracy begins working on the heavy bag. Her punch is strong; the heavy bag swings each time she hits it. Then she practices leg kicks. She effortlessly kicks as high as her own head.
It’s Wednesday afternoon. Today’s session is early because a camera crew is here to tape an interview with Chris for the Lifetime cable channel. Chris wears a white Tough Enough T-shirt and black tights. She frets about her hair, asking is it curly enough? is it too curly?
Carrie comes in after 3 PM. She looks around the room and then walks directly to Chris. “Is Meghan here?”
“No,” Chris says, “not yet.”
“Why?” Chris asks.
“She left after seventh period,” Carrie says. “Some guy picked her up.”
The interviewer, a woman named Beverly, sucks in a bit of air. “Ooh,” she says, smiling. “Some guy picked her up. She’s not gonna be here!”
Chris looks concerned and doesn’t share Beverly’s amusement. Neither does Carrie.
Chris sits in her assigned spot, and Beverly looks at her on the monitor. “It’s good,” she says. Sandra Gutierrez looks over Beverly’s shoulder to see Chris’s image. “Yeah,” she says, “looks good. Your hair looks good.”
Chris is nervous and talks a mile a minute, whistling her words. She tells Beverly she works out two hours in the morning and three hours in the evening each day. While the camera crew sets up, Beverly decides to focus on Sandra as a representative student, asking a camera operator to take incidental shots of her.
Meghan finally arrives a half hour later, and the taping begins. Beverly asks Chris about Sandra. “She’s tough,” Chris says, and Sandra smiles embarrassedly, looking at the rest of the boxers.
All the boxers don black Tough Enough T-shirts before working out for the camera. Four of the boxers spar single rounds. Sarah’s expression changes whenever the bell rings to end a round. It’s hard to tell whether she’s relieved or merely taking off her game face. Later Chris spars with Sarah and draws blood. “Hey,” Chris says sweetly, “you got your first bloody nose.”
Meghan and Carrie must leave the workout early to play in a Saint Benedict basketball game against Saint Gregory. Meghan has psyched herself up for the challenge of guarding an enormous player on Saint Gregory’s team.
Tracy says she received a phone call that morning, but the caller wouldn’t identify himself. “Hey, you’re the boxer, aren’t you?” he asked, breathing heavily and grunting into the phone. “I saw your picture in the paper.” Tracy figures he must have looked up her number after seeing the two-page Sun-Times feature on the Tough Enough club. Asked if the call scared her, she shakes her head and says, “Naw.”
Chris pulls Tracy aside. There’s been a change in plans. She tells Tracy she will be in the first fight Monday. “It’ll be history,” Chris says. “We have confidence in you.”
“Fine,” Tracy says.
“You have no problem with it?”
“None,” Tracy says. “No.”
Tracy turns to leave, but when she reaches the doorway she turns and abruptly bows, as she was taught to do in karate class.
Tracy Desmond was born in farm country, moved to the inner city, and hopes one day to travel overseas. Her father, once the De Kalb County clerk, is now vice president of a company that manufactures ballots, polling booths, and other election supplies. Her mother is a school district superintendent. Before her family moved to De Kalb, Tracy attended a small town high school with a class of 23. She says she wasn’t athletic. “I was a geek. I played in the orchestra–French horn and the trumpet. I went to band camp. I was the antithesis of the jock woman in high school.”
Tracy says she dreamed of being a lawyer or a politician, “until I discovered that in politics and law, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I wanted: to help people.”
After graduating from De Kalb High School, Tracy earned a Rotary Foundation scholarship, which enabled her to study in Colombia. She learned to speak Spanish fluently and stayed for a while with a family related to the Medellin chief of police. She was allowed to shoot automatic weapons in target practice at the Medellin police barracks. She stayed in Colombia for a year and wished to stay longer, but her parents wanted her to return home.
Tracy enrolled at DePaul University as a freshman at the age of 19 and majored in international studies. She looks to graduate this fall or winter and then hopes to join the Peace Corps.
Before she left for Colombia, Tracy worked as a runner at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. There she met a fellow named Yatsunori Matsumoto, who was newly arrived from Japan and spoke little if any English. Matsumoto was working hard to start a dojo, or a karate academy, here in Chicago. He became Tracy’s sensei, or teacher (literally, “one who was born before”). Tracy never had any interest in the martial arts before she met Matsumoto. Although she’s reluctant to talk about it, she had a change of heart after experiencing a situation in which a strategically aimed kick might have come in handy. “I wanted to develop my ability to defend myself,” she says.
Matsumoto taught a form of karate known as shidokan, which includes bare-knuckle punching. Tracy has occasionally put on gloves and fought with her sensei. “Punching has always been my weakest point in karate,” Tracy says. “I could never box. I was so bad that I would literally be crouched in the corner. Sensei would say, ‘Get up! Get up!’ I would cover my head with my back toward him closing my eyes. He’d say, ‘You’re not making an attempt here; you’re just quitting!'”
With her brown belt in karate, Tracy has reached a level of expertise second only to the black belt. She suffered her first blow to the face while testing for one of her belts. She caught the bell ringer flush in the nose. “I didn’t see the punch coming. I remember shaking my head and not being aware of things for a second or two. Then as soon as my awareness and consciousness came back, I wanted to go out and kick some ass,” she says, laughing.
Tracy could probably slaughter me, even though I’m twice her height. “That’s right,” she says without a trace of conceit. “It goes beyond that, not just for the physical but more of a healthy mental and spiritual sense. People can tell by the way you hold yourself. If you know the skills, you’ll illustrate that through your person.”
Her training has already proved valuable. One night Tracy was walking home in her Taylor Street neighborhood. A man jumped her and dragged her into a gangway. She was able to fight him off and then run to a neighbor’s house. She never looked back to see if he was following her.
While training at the Chicago Fitness Center, Tracy would occasionally see Chris Kreuz-Christopher. Then one day in January, Tracy opened the newspaper and read about the new women’s competition in the Chicago Golden Gloves. She contacted Chris and soon began training with her. “She’s a great teacher,” Tracy says. “I have a lot of respect for her.”
After Wednesday’s workout is finished, Sandra Gutierrez confides in Chris. “I don’t know why it is,” Sandra says, “but my confidence is down.”
Chris is taken aback. “I can’t believe that! You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You’re terrific.”
“Well, at first I felt real confident like I could do anything,” Sandra says. “But the last few times I’ve been in the ring, I don’t feel that way anymore.”
“You’re doing real good,” Chris says. “You’re one of the best.”
“I don’t know,” Sandra says. “Maybe I’m doing too much. I’m doing this, I work out at the health club, some nights I don’t get home till 9:30. Then I have to eat, maybe talk on the phone a little bit, then I have to do homework. I don’t get to bed until 12:30, and I have to be up at 6:30.”
“You did a lot more than usual today,” Chris says. “I was harder on you, y’know, for the camera. Maybe you should take it easy when you come in tomorrow.”
“OK. It’s just that this is so weird, losing my confidence the week before the fight.”
“Don’t worry,” Chris says. “You’re gonna win. You are good.”
NBC and CLTV camera crews are at the Chicago Fitness Center for the Thursday night workout. As soon as I walk in, Marshall pulls me aside and whispers in my ear. He tells me to get a photographer here as soon as possible to take pictures for this story. “I tell you this as a friend,” he says, “they all might not be here long. Somebody gets beat, she might not want to come back.”
After sparring with Sima Patel, Chris hits the focus mitts for an NBC promotional spot. She does a lightning quick jab-jab-hook-jab combination, then looks into the TV camera and says, “I want you, Johnny B.!” Chris and Marshall are milking a feud with radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier. Chris fought at the China Club the same night Donny Osmond boxed with WLUP’s Danny Bonaduce. Brandmeier acted as master of ceremonies and apparently made some disparaging comments about the skills of women boxers. Chris took it personally and challenged Brandmeier to a fight. So far Brandmeier hasn’t responded, but it’s all show-biz silliness, of course. Chris could probably hold her own against most professional male boxers in her weight class.
Later Meghan works the focus mitts. She grits her teeth and puts the force of her whole body behind every punch she throws. Meghan and Carrie’s basketball team walloped Saint Gregory’s yesterday. “We won,” Meghan says with her usual exuberance. “68 to 39!”
“No,” Carrie says calmly, “68-31.”
“Yeah,” Meghan says undeterred. “You remember that big girl I told you about yesterday? Six foot three? We fouled her out. It was awesome!”
Sima and Carrie are throwing an old, taped-up medicine ball to each other. The karate class across the hall is finished, and Meghan notices one of the students leaving, a handsome guy Carrie likes. Meghan shoves Carrie toward him. “Box out!” she says.
Carrie strikes up a conversation with the karate student. She’s also taken some karate lessons. She asks him about t’ai chi. They converse easily. Somehow Carrie has transformed herself from distant and cool to coquettish, yet she’s still bold and confident. Sarah and Sima watch her silently. After Carrie is finished talking to the karate student, Sima giggles and says with envy and respect, “I love the look on your face when you do that!”
Chris tells the boxers that tonight’s workout was easy because of the TV cameras. “But tomorrow,” she warns, “I’m going to work you real hard.”
Friday is another afternoon workout session and once again a big press day. Many of the other female entrants in the Golden Gloves are here to work out for local papers and TV stations. Officials from the Golden Gloves and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events also are in attendance. It’s a special day; Sandra is wearing lipstick.
A fellow named Jack Cerny, a boxing instructor at Brooks Park, brings two of his charges, a sullen-looking brick wall named Dina Hukic, who will fight in the 175-pound division, and pretty Jennifer Florsani, an aspiring model who looks too fragile for the game. Marshall tries to persuade Dina and Jennifer to wear Tough Enough T-shirts for the cameras, but they aren’t enthusiastic about the suggestion, nor are they wild about the idea of working out for photographers. Neither was told to expect a workout session and neither brought sweatclothes or hand wraps.
Jack Cerny is shaped like a fire hydrant. He’s a stocky guy with steel gray hair and a gravel voice who loves to talk boxing. He expounds on female boxers: “I think within two months, two-and-a-half months, they’re OK. But experience is everything. But I got one girl–gimme some time; she’s got heart.” He stares, almost lovingly, at Dina. “Oh, she’s good. She’ll clock you. Just put down Jack Cerny says, ‘I got the light-heavyweight champ.'”
Jack puts on the focus mitts and orders Dina to give a demonstration. She hits the mitts hard. The Tough Enough boxers take a break from their focus mitts to watch her, silently, in awe. Dina blows air out every time she hits; she sounds like a charging bull.
Massive Irma Keefer and wiry Nancy Loew arrive together. They are so confident they almost swagger. They’re an interesting match: Irma, black and tipping the scales at over 200 pounds, and Nancy, white and just over 100 pounds. They train at Maywood’s Superkick Gym, and both are reputed to be tough as nails.
Jacqueline Ta arrives, led by her trainer, former local lightweight contender Joey Ruiz. Monday’s opponents, Ta and Tracy, greet each other warmly when they are introduced.
CNN cameras arrive 45 minutes late. All the boxers work extra hard on the focus mitts for the national TV crew. Sandra’s working hard too, but her punches sound like pitter-patter.
Meghan and Tracy spar for the cameras. Every time Meghan steps in close, Tracy returns a flurry of hooks. Tracy seems more willing than other female boxers to go for the face. Tracy and Meghan also are an interesting match–Tracy is fast and smart, while Meghan is tough and brave. “Meghan’s a brute,” says Nadine Wasserman.
The CNN crew asks Chris to hit the focus mitts that Jack Cerny is wearing. “OK Chris,” Marshall says, “Show us what you got!” Chris hammers the mitts, and Jack nods approvingly.
Joey Ruiz works Jacqueline Ta on the heavy bag. “I make her work hard,” he says. “The girls, they want to work hard. Hey, they’re mean! Some of them are meaner than the guys! Yeah. Hey, don’t get a girl mad at you; she’ll be mad forever. It’s in their nature. They’re meaner than guys.”
Sima Patel tells a story about Golden Gloves registration day. One guy was teasing her as she waited in line. When she reached into her bag and pulled out her mouthpiece, he said, “Hey, you’re too pretty to box. You should be puttin’ makeup on, not a mouthpiece.”
Lois Berger of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, the cosponsor of the tournament, appears to have dressed for the occasion. Wearing huge sunglasses and a flashy dress, she resembles a tout’s moll in a 1950s fight film. “Look at that pretty face,” she says, holding Irma Keefer. “I’m afraid for all your faces. You girls aren’t really going to hit each other in the face?”
“Watch me,” Irma says, grinning. “Whatever’s open, I’m goin’ for it!”
Tournament codirector Jack Cowan joins Chris, Marshall, and Lois Berger as they crowd around a roster list, speculating on future matchups. So far the only sure thing for Monday night is the Ta-Desmond bout. There’s a good chance Dennise Willis of Columbus Park will be in the other first-night women’s fight. Willis carries an enormous reputation into this tournament. She’s in her 20s and is reputed to be good enough to go pro right now.
Meghan and Sarah hang around the periphery, saying they want to box Monday. Marshall nudges Meghan hard and gives her a dirty look. He later lays into Sarah. “I’m mad at you,” he says. “Keep your mouth closed. Don’t get yourself stuck in a trick bag. ‘I wanna fight! I wanna fight!’ They’re gonna put you up against that Dennise, and she’ll kill you!”
A few minutes later he talks to Carrie, Meghan, Sandra, and Sarah, who have been standing around speaking in hushed tones about all the good boxers they’ve seen here today. “You guys, you know what? You lose one fight, you’re out. That’s it! You lose, you don’t go to the Horizon. That’s where all the cameras are.”
Once the press leaves, the Tough Enough club begins to work out in earnest. Sandra says she’s afraid of going up against Nancy Loew. “Don’t say that,” Chris says. “She’s good, but that doesn’t mean anything. You gotta have confidence. When I was at UIC, we would go up against better teams and we would win because we had confidence. Don’t ever say that somebody’s better than you are.”
Sandra then spars with Nadine, who’s still breathing loudly because of her recent illness. Sandra hits Nadine with a big, loud cross. She apologizes. “Don’t say you’re sorry,” Chris yells. “This is boxing!”
During a break, Chris says, “You know, you guys were all saying how good those girls looked on the bag, but you don’t know what sparring experience they have. It’s all different once you get in there.”
The rest of the Tough Enough boxers tease Meghan about the Mickey Mouse socks she’s wearing. Meghan grins embarrassedly. Chris asks Meghan for her opinion of today’s staged workout. “I finally got clobbered today,” Meghan says. “I’m glad.”
I ask Meghan why boxers don’t hit the heavy bag with their bare fists. “Oh God, you’ll kill your knuckles,” she says. Then she shows me a swollen, discolored knuckle. “See this? I just hit the bag once without a glove on yesterday. This is what happens. Doesn’t hurt, though.” She walks away with her coat slung over her shoulder and without turning back says, “Nothin’ hurts.”
It’s 9 AM Saturday. Meghan, Nadine, Carrie, and Sima look bleary-eyed. Chris is talking about Jack Cerny’s girls.
“You think they’re good,” she says, “but they’ve been sparring with guys. It’s like you guys sparring with me; I take it real easy. Guys’ll go like me, easy. You guys have been sparring with each other. You know what it’s like to get hit. You hit one of those girls and they won’t know what to do.”
Meghan says she weighs around 120 pounds, and she wonders if it would be better to go up to 125. If she stays in the 119-pound weight class she’ll have to fight Tracy or Jacqueline Ta.
“Gain some weight if you want,” Chris says before going downstairs to speak with the club manager. “Get some of that cookie-dough ice cream.”
“I think you should stay in the higher end of your class,” Nadine says.
A man working on the heavy bag offers his advice. “You don’t want to be the lightest in your class. You’ll be faster and lighter than anyone but you won’t punch as hard as anyone else.”
Meghan considers their tips silently.
After 90 minutes of calisthenics and sparring, Marshall comes in carrying Saturday’s Tribune, which has a story about the women competing in the Golden Gloves. It has a picture of Jennifer Florsani, from Brooks Park. “She backed out!” Marshall says, gloating. “She came in yesterday, saw you guys spar, and she was scared!”
“Really?” Meghan asks.
“Yeah,” he says with a wink. They surmise Jennifer didn’t want to endanger the face that earned her the Tribune photographer’s attention.
Marshall’s in a good mood. He teases Nadine and calls her “my Jewish bomber.”
Two teenage girls from Bridgeport come into the gym after reading newspaper stories about Chris and the Golden Gloves. One of the girls has her father in tow. She’s pumped up and ready to join the group right now, but her father looks nervous. After Sima and Carrie are finished sparring, he picks up Carrie’s glove and feels it. “Lots of padding,” he says. “That’s good.”
The girls’ enthusiasm is contagious. The gym’s atmosphere is electric. The music’s loud, the chatter excited. Monday night is only two days away.
Chris has the boxers punching focus mitts and the heavy bag. “Faster,” she says. “Elbows in. Don’t stand around. Come on–boom, boom, boom!”
Then Chris directs the boxers to lie on the floor. She drops the medicine ball on their stomachs. “Tense up,” she says. “Resist it! That way you’re tougher when you get hit in the stomach.”
Once the session is over, Meghan puts on a homemade dress to show it off. It’s made of a black fabric printed with yellow flowers and green leaves. The skirt ends four inches above her knees. Marshall huffs, “What the hell you got on?”
“I’m a model,” Meghan jokes as she sashays around the gym. She looks ridiculous with her hands still wrapped and her trunks showing underneath her skirt.
Chris tells Meghan to get ready. She’s driving them to a sporting goods store where they can buy chest protectors.
Monday is finally here. It’s a little after 3 PM in the nearly empty Saint Andrew’s gym. Weigh-ins are scheduled between 3 and 5 PM, and boxers trickle in throughout the two-hour period. Carrie’s been waiting for 15 minutes. She’s still wearing her Saint Benedict uniform, a plaid jumper.
On her way to the weigh-in room, Meghan drops her boxing license, a small booklet resembling a passport. Before she can pick it up, I notice she has a holy card stuck between its pages.
Nadine holds her hand over her belly and smiles wanly. She’s trying to persuade both Marshall and herself that she’s well enough to box tonight. Marshall isn’t totally convinced. “If your heart’s in it,” he tells her, “do it. If your heart’s not in it, don’t do it.”
Meghan learns she’ll go in the second bout if Nadine declares herself unable to fight.
Dennise Willis, the hotshot boxer from Columbus Park, comes in at about 4 PM. She’s pretty, with skin the color of burnt sienna. She’s wearing numerous earrings, and her hair is cut so short she’s virtually bald. I’m told a boxing official mistakenly directed her across the hall to the men’s weigh-in room.
Nadine inspects the required chest protector she bought from a concessionaire set up on folding tables on the south side of the gym. The protector is composed of two white plastic, conelike shells connected by elastic strings. “That’s hard,” she says. “That’s going to hurt more than protect.”
Carrie and Sarah fill their mouths with bagels after weighing in. “This is us in our natural state,” Sarah says.
At 4:30 PM Nadine, Sima, and I walk to a restaurant on Lincoln Avenue for dinner. There aren’t any other female contenders in Sima’s weight class, and she’ll win a trophy by default. She may fight someone from another weight class as an exhibition bout at the Rosemont Horizon on April 4. Nadine’s jittery, wondering whether she should eat or not. If she eats, shouldn’t she eat light? Would a salad be too heavy? She opens and closes her menu a number of times. Finally the waiter looms over the table, and she must decide.
She asks if the dinner salad is too heavy. No, he assures her. A busboy places a basket of bread on our table. She reaches for a slice, then quickly withdraws her hand. “No bread for me,” she says.
Through all this, Sima has been prattling on about school, her new boyfriend, and a host of other typical teenage concerns. Nadine eats her salad, nodding occasionally. Sima isn’t eating and toys with the cherry tomatoes in her salad. “You know what,” she says, “I don’t want this.” She looks at Nadine, who is cleaning up the last of her salad. “Do you want it?”
Nadine, her mouth full, nods and gestures with her fork–put it here. She polishes off the second salad and sits back to take a breath. “I’ve got my appetite back,” she says. She excuses herself to make a phone call to make sure her mother is coming tonight. Apparently Nadine has decided she’s well enough to fight.
Nadine took up boxing as a way of releasing tension while working on her master’s thesis. She’s the youngest of four daughters born to a Hyde Park psychiatrist and a homemaker who made “wearable art.” Nadine’s mom used to bring her to protest rallies. “It was a given that we would go to college and we would go to summer camp,” Nadine says. “We had ballet lessons and flute lessons. We had all these amenities.” The prospect of little Nadine Wasserman growing up to be a pugilist was highly unlikely. “I’m a pacifist,” she explains. “We were pacifists. We always said, ‘We don’t believe in war.’ We marched all through our childhood–against the war, against the draft, against the electric chair. Down the line activists. So I never had the occasion to hit anyone. I never want to and I never wanted to. I’m not that competitive. Winning isn’t that important to me.”
Nadine graduated from Kenwood Academy on the south side and then went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she studied art history. “I got married the minute I graduated,” she says. “That was rocky. He was a water skier.”
The newlyweds moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the summer after Nadine finished school. They worked at a tourist attraction called Water Circus the last year it was in existence, earning enough money to buy two motorcycles. “One of my dreams was to tour the United States on a motorcycle,” she says. “Once we got married I kept telling him, ‘This is something I have to do. I’ve wanted to do it since I was 12 years old.’ He decided he would like to do it too. We went through 16 states and about 16,000 miles. It was absolutely incredible; nothing like it on a motorcycle.”
When winter came, Nadine and her husband ended their trip in Santa Fe and returned to Madison. Nadine enrolled in graduate school and she eventually earned a master’s degree in Afro-American studies with a concentration on art. She also ended her rocky marriage. “I started boxing when I was writing my thesis because I had a lot of energy. I needed to get out a lot of aggression. I would go to the gym religiously. I was the only one who was there all the time. I loved it. The workout made me feel so good. It’s the only workout that I’ve ever loved,” Nadine says. The only drawback to her Madison gym was the fact that she was the only woman donning the gloves there. With no one her size to spar with, she gained no experience hitting or being hit. She was what Marshall Christopher would characterize as a “gym rat.”
After three years of graduate school, Nadine stayed on in Madison to work in a hospital. “Then I decided I mostly had been in Madison for nine years and I didn’t want to make it a decade,” she says.
Nadine moved back with her parents in Hyde Park almost three years ago and promised them she would take another hospital job within six months if she didn’t find anything in her field. As a precaution she took some health classes at Harold Washington College. The first Monday after she moved back to Chicago, she called the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art and asked her if she knew of any jobs opening in the local gallery scene. By chance the MCA was looking for a curatorial assistant. Nadine applied for the job, but someone else was hired. But she wasn’t discouraged. “I proceeded to hound her for the next six months,” Nadine says. “She would laugh about it later, saying she couldn’t leave her house without thinking I was hiding behind the bush.”
Six months later another curatorial assistant position opened up at the MCA, and Nadine was hired. She told some of her coworkers about her interest in boxing, and one of them showed her a newspaper story about the Tough Enough team. She’d already heard of Chris and had seen her fight once at Saint Andrew’s gym. At that fight she met Marshall, asked some questions, and took their business card. But she never picked up the phone until she saw that newspaper article.
“Marshall answered and he said, ‘Come down to the gym tonight because they’re doing a piece for Channel Two and you can meet Chris,'” Nadine says. “She was very friendly and she invited me to work out with them. That was it.”
Why would a pacifist art expert want to lace up the gloves? “With boxing it’s sort of the same thing as motorcycling,” Nadine says. “Maybe there’s a bit of the counterphobic in it. Also maybe a little bit of the need to individuate, as my father said again and again. Also a constant search on my part for things that are uncharacteristically female.
“I like to think of boxing as a very cerebral sport and a very graceful sport. I see it less as about violence and more as about competition and personal challenge. You get in the ring with someone who is your gender, your weight, your size, who hopefully has the same amount of training. You go hand to hand. You have no weapons. You have only your body. It goes back to nature. You’re out there against another person. That’s what’s also intriguing about the open road–woman and machine, the pioneering myth, the myth of the cowboy, the individual against the elements. You put yourself in a situation where you’re forced to survive.”
One Saturday morning only a couple of weeks before the preliminary bouts were scheduled, Marshall pulled Nadine aside. “Marshall said, ‘You want to be in the Golden Gloves?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve never even sparred with anyone!’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re gonna win!’ He really fired me up.”
Back at the gym, Meghan’s riding high. After having tipped the scale at six pounds over the 119 weight class, she was weighed in again while we were at dinner, and she came in at 119 and a half. She’d gone to a Bally’s sauna room, wore sweat clothes, and did jumping jacks and ran in place. She lost six pounds in 25 minutes. Now she thinks she probably will fight. If so, she’ll miss Saint Benedict’s big regional playoff basketball game tonight. “That’s the only thing that scares me,” Meghan says, “facing my coach.”
Meghan doesn’t know it, but Nadine is telling Marshall she may as well fight tonight as next week. “I said I could do it,” Nadine says later. “I’m not going to feel any better in a week.”
The news is no disappointment to Meghan. Now she can channel her enthusiasm toward the big basketball game. “I’m the smallest power forward in the state,” she says excitedly. What’s her secret to playing a position normally associated with wide bodies? “Box out, box out, box out.”
A short, redheaded woman stands at the entrance to the gym, looking for someone. “Hi, mom,” Nadine says.
Eileen Wasserman’s face is stone-cold serious. She has the expression of a woman sending her daughter on a dangerous voyage. She looks Nadine up and down, asking “What are you wearing tonight?”
“These,” Nadine says, fingering the material of her boxing trunks.
“Are those the shorts I bought you?”
Like many of the other boxers on the Tough Enough team, Sima says she’d prefer to see Meghan fight Lucy Quinonez and rack up a clean sweep for the club tonight. Everyone’s confident Tracy can whip Jacqueline Ta. They’re not so sure about Nadine. Sima whispers into Nadine’s ear, “Are you sure you want to do it? Meghan says she’s confident against this girl.”
Nadine looks Sima in the eye. “I feel good about this,” she says.
The stands are filling up. Luckily Eileen Wasserman has claimed a chair a couple of rows back from the ring. Nadine is pacing nervously. She eyes an empty seat next to her mother and sits down. Eileen leans toward her daughter and asks, “Shouldn’t you be warming up or something?”
“I don’t know, ma,” Nadine says impatiently. “It’s OK!”
Eileen shrugs her shoulders.
It’s 7 PM. Ring announcer Ken Fletcher invites all the female boxers to come up to the ring. “History is being made tonight,” Fletcher says as the women file up the steps to the ring. His announcement is greeted by a loud cheer from the crowd. As the boxers duck through the ropes to enter the ring, a few men start to whistle. Soon the entire lineup of boxers is serenaded by a chorus of wolf whistles. Each boxer is introduced and steps forward. Not surprisingly, the biggest cheer is for Jennifer Florsani, the aspiring model.
Fletcher asks the audience to stand for the national anthem, and a recording of Whitney Houston plays for the packed house. Fletcher then asks for a moment of silence to honor Stan Berg, the longtime Golden Gloves director who died last year. An eerie quiet fills the gym while the timekeeper rings out a final ten-count for Berg.
The apron around the ring is swarming with still photographers and camera crews from all the local television stations as well as CNN. The boxers have to elbow a path out of the ring.
Finally the ring is cleared, and the first bout can begin. It’s a matchup of 165-pound males in the senior novice division, a black guy versus a white guy. They come out swinging. From the first blow it’s obvious that the cheering is divided along racial lines.
Eileen Wasserman watches the fight, her mouth agape. As the fight wears on, the boxers hit harder and groan louder. Eileen holds her hands to her face. “Oh,” she cries. “Are the girls going to do that to each other?”
The bout card taped up on the back wall of the gym says Tracy’s fight with Jacqueline Ta will be fourth tonight and Nadine’s match with Lucy Quinonez will be sixth.
During the second fight Tracy’s already warming up for her battle. She hits the focus mitts that Chris is wearing. While she’s throwing punches, Chris notices Tracy’s T-shirt sleeves get tangled up in her swing. Chris immediately calls for scissors and cuts the sleeves off.
Marshall introduces a short, tough-looking customer to Tracy. It’s Pat LaCassa. He wears a pancake hat, and his beard is trim. His eyes are hard, and his mouth’s a slit. “A true world champion,” Marshall says, nodding toward Tracy, whose shoulders are being massaged by Chris. “He’s gonna be in her corner.”
It’s almost time for the first woman’s fight. Eileen’s tone takes on a new sense of urgency as she watches one of the boxers in the ring get his bell rung. “Are they going to let that girl hit Nadine in the head like that?”
Now it’s time for the women. “For the first female bout in USA Boxing history,” Fletcher says, dramatically drawing out every word, “we have boxing in the red corner, representing Davis Square Park, let’s have a big hand for Jacqueline Ta.” Jacqueline steps out of her corner and raises both hands to a chorus of cheers and whistles. “Her opponent,” Fletcher continues, “boxing in the blue corner, she’s wearing the solid black trunks, she represents Chicago Fitness Center, let’s have a nice hand for Tr-r-r-a-a-acy Desmond!” Tracy hops from toe to toe, her baggy T-shirt flopping, her headgear pulled so low her eyes are barely visible.
The bell rings, and one fellow yells, “Awright! Let’s rock and roll!” The fighters circle each other, afraid to make the first move. Finally they exchange ineffectual jabs. Another guy shouts, “Put some weight behind those punches!”
Tracy is dancing so vigorously she appears to be riding a horse. Their tentative manner begins to enrage some of the fight fans who already were annoyed by the sight of women in the ring. “This ain’t shit,” a guy says. “Damn broads.”
Eileen scolds him. “No sexist remarks!”
“I want some boxing,” the guy responds. His friend nods in agreement. “This ain’t no boxing. I’m just seein’ some butterflies up there.”
The fight lasts into the third round, but calling it a fight is generous. Jacqueline should win a trophy just for answering the bell to start the second and third rounds. Tracy is pounding her senseless. By the time the last round is half over, Jacqueline’s eyes are glassy and she wobbles on her feet. Three times the referee gives Jacqueline a standing eight count. Each time Jacqueline comes near Tracy to throw a punch, Tracy hits Jacqueline first. The referee’s decision to end the fight 29 seconds into the third round is an act of compassion.
The fighters go to the back of the gym to have their gloves and wraps removed. Jacqueline’s face is swollen. Joey Ruiz hugs her and attempts to shield her eyes from the TV camera lights.
Tracy’s surrounded by reporters, answering their questions with a radiant smile. She laughs easily. “Do you have a boyfriend?” one reporter asks. Tracy coughs nervously. “No,” she says.
Later that evening I ask Tracy why the question made her uneasy. “It was inappropriate,” she says. “The reporter was trying to get at one of two things: was I straight or gay, or did my boyfriend give me permission for this.”
Now Nadine and Lucy Quinonez stare at each other from their respective corners of the ring.
It’s hard to tell who’s braver or expends more energy during this bout, Nadine or her mother. Eileen clicks snapshots and runs around the ring, working at least as hard as any of the professional photographers here tonight. Lucy hammers Nadine’s face. “Nadine isn’t being aggressive enough,” Eileen says between the first and second rounds. Nadine rallies briefly in the second as Eileen screams herself hoarse and folds her hands as if in prayer. By the time Lucy rams Nadine into the ropes for the third time, Eileen can see the writing on the wall. She asks, “Why isn’t it over already?” Both boxers look exhausted as they slog through the last moments of the third round. The bell rings at last, and Eileen cheers. “Thank God!” she says, running to Nadine’s corner after the referee raises Lucy’s arm. Eileen snaps countless photos of Nadine, all the while congratulating her. Sure to show up in her mother’s photos is Nadine’s nose, an aquiline protrusion transformed by Lucy’s punching into a baby eggplant.
As Nadine walks away from the ring, two women yell at her from the crowd, “Yea, Wass!” Nadine thrusts her hands in the air triumphantly and yells back, “I lost!”
Chris unwraps Nadine’s hands and tries to console her even though she’s in no need of consolation. “I know a lot of guys that would have got out of there,” Chris says. Marshall chimes in, “Be proud, kid. I’m very proud of you.”
Jack Cerny grabs Nadine by the shoulders. “You gotta fight,” he says, unaware that this was the first and last fight Nadine will ever have. “You fell into her trap. You gotta hit, hit, hit!”
A gang of reporters and a Channel Seven camera crew corner Nadine in the makeshift dressing room. Eileen catches up with her before the TV interview begins. She points at Nadine’s nose.
“It’s not broken,” Nadine assures her mother.
Eileen remains unconvinced, looking at her daughter with a mixture of love and reproach. “Aw, she got a little bump on the nose,” Jack Cerny says to Eileen, before launching into a technical explanation of why Nadine lost and how she could have triumphed. He illustrates his lesson with fake punches into Eileen’s face and midsection. Eileen nods and smiles.
Nadine concludes her TV interview by saying, “I’m glad I did it.” After the reporters leave, Eileen approaches Nadine and softly asks her a question. Nadine says, “Mom! If it was broken, I would know it! It’s just bruised.”
Tracy is still entertaining well-wishers. Everyone loves a winner. Nadine’s much smaller court includes some friends from the MCA. “I had a good time,” she says. She holds a bag of ice to her nose. Water drips in a puddle at her feet.
“Your daughter’s got a heart of gold,” Marshall says to Eileen. Eileen nods and asks, “Do you think her nose will go down?”
It’s Tuesday night, a half hour before show time. Sarah Lahalih and Sandra Gutierrez pace nervously around the gym. Both are slated to fight; their hands are already wrapped. Neither Chris nor Marshall has arrived yet, and the two boxers appear adrift without them. “Where is everybody?” Sarah asks.
So far the stands are only a quarter full. The opening night electricity is gone, and the excitement over the historic first female bouts has faded. Yesterday’s big media presence has also vanished.
Sarah and Sandra joined the Tough Enough club together. While the two first met as freshmen at Lane Tech, they didn’t become close friends until senior year, after discovering they both liked to work out. The two now share lunch periods at the Lahalih house, about a block away from Lane.
Sarah heard about Chris’s boxing classes last fall, and her curiosity was piqued. “I’m always coming up with little things for me and Sandra to do,” she says. She’d already suggested rock climbing and hang gliding, so one evening at their health club she pitched the boxing idea to Sandra. “She said, ‘Sarah, would you stop it! You always come up with these things and we never do any of them,'” Sarah recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s do it then.’ We left the health club and went to CFC. That was that.”
Sarah never liked competitive sports, but boxing changed her aversion. “Now it took me over,” she says. “I compete in absolutely everything. Everything’s a bet–‘I’ll beat you in this, I’ll beat you in that.’ Terrible.” Boxing became just another arena in which to test herself against other players.
But Sandra Gutierrez had yet to come to grips with her distaste for team playing. “I do a lot of things outside the school, but I was never interested in actually being on a team,” she says. “I’d rather just do it when I feel like it.” Sandra had tried to join a couple of teams in high school. In her first two years, she tried cross-country, then track. Both times she held herself back, practicing with the team but not committing fully to her teammates. “Maybe it has to do with me wanting to be my own boss,” Sandra says. “I want to do things when I want to do them and how I want to do them. It was really hard for me at first. Cross-country was the first thing I’ve ever been involved with where I had to work with a team. It was new. At first I didn’t like it very much, but I got to appreciate it afterward. There are some good aspects about it, I guess. I don’t think I got into it the way everyone else did. I tried it. I don’t think I’m going to be part of any more teams.”
Sandra didn’t have a problem with joining the Tough Enough club because boxing let her be on her own. But she did have to change her mind about the sport itself. “I’d always thought that boxing was a sick sport,” she says. “I would think, ‘What’s the point of it? People go in the ring and beat the crap out of each other, and what are they gaining from it?’ I formed an opinion about it before I really knew anything about it.” After a few months of hitting the heavy bag and sparring, Sandra started to like the sport. “Now I can sit and watch a fight and enjoy it,” she says. “I never expected to enjoy boxing.” Then one day she heard about the Golden Gloves. “When Chris told us about the Golden Gloves we still didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We were just like, ‘Yeah, OK, we’ll do it!’ We jumped into it. It was rough.”
Sarah Lahalih had another obstacle to overcome before she could fight in the tournament. She was certain her Islamic father wouldn’t allow her to compete, so she kept her involvement a secret. “Arabs don’t think that women should be doing a lot of things,” Sarah says about her dad. “He grew up in Palestine. The women there cook and clean and have babies and take care of their husbands. They don’t drive, they don’t have jobs. As much as I disagree with him in that aspect of his life, I have to respect it because that’s the way he grew up.”
One Saturday morning the Tribune ran a big spread in the sports section about the Golden Gloves. Big as life on the second page was a picture of Sarah. Her father walked into the kitchen while the rest of the family ate breakfast. In his hand he carried the Tribune. He sat at the table and opened the paper. “He was looking for how to spell a guy’s name,” Sarah says, cringing at the memory. “So he’s paging through everything. Me and my mom are biting our nails. He stopped on the page of our article and my stomach . . . you know! And he just turned it! He didn’t even look at it.”
Nadine’s here to watch tonight’s fights. Her nose now looks like it accounts for a significant portion of her weight. “My mother has been crying since ten o’clock last night,” she says. “She’s traumatized.” Nadine reports Eileen offered some advice after yesterday’s fight: “‘You’re too old for fighting now. Now’s the time to have babies.'”
Tonight’s program is delayed 15 minutes. Only one doctor is here, and he’s still busy giving prefight exams in the men’s locker room. By the time the proceedings get under way, the stands are half full. Sarah’s scheduled to go ninth, against Meghan’s school chum, Carrie Law. Chris has decided to prepare Carrie and work her corner. Marshall has tabbed Leo Podgorski, the boxing coach from Portage Park, to handle Sarah. Leo works with Sarah only a few minutes before he discovers a flaw in her technique. He tells her to punch more with her entire body rather than depending on arm strength alone. She hardly has time to notice her pal Sandra is already walking toward the ring for her fight.
Chris drapes her arm over Sandra’s shoulders and whispers soothingly in her ear. The sleeves of Sandra’s T-shirt almost touch the tops of her gloves. A woman in the crowd shouts, “Good luck!” A man tells the guy next to him, “Look at that little one. I could take ‘er!”
Sandra’s opponent in the 106-pound weight class is tough Nancy Loew. The muscles don’t exactly bulge on Nancy’s thin frame but somehow it’s obvious she’s strong. Her arms and legs are veined, and the tendons near her knees and elbows stand out like wire cables. Five television crews have arrived in time for this fight. They crowd around the ring’s apron, causing spectators in the first few rows to crane their necks and shout, “Down front!”
The bell rings, and within ten seconds Nancy knocks Sandra on her butt. Nancy’s confident, and her reach is much longer. Sandra can hardly connect when she swings at her.
Sandra receives standing eight counts in the second and third rounds. After the referee calls for the ring doctor to check on Sandra, a man yells, “Hey, lookit Beavis and Butt-head up there!” Another man says to his friend, “They’re fuckin’ this whole game up. They get more exposure than Evander Holyfield.”
The fight is mercifully stopped near the end of the third round. The cheers for Nancy are almost grudging, as if she bullied a plucky little kid.
Sandra’s silent as her red gloves are taken off, her lip and nose bleeding. Meghan hugs her. “I sucked,” Sandra says quietly.
Carrie Law and Sarah Lahalih are being taped and gloved for their fight. In keeping with their personalities, Carrie’s in an almost Zen-like state as Sarah bounces on the balls of her feet. “I can’t see very well,” Sarah says through her mouthpiece. “I took my contacts out.”
“Remember,” Chris says to Sarah, “sparring is sparring. This is a fight.”
The eighth bout is announced. Carrie and Sarah will go on after this one. Leo Podgorski grabs a folding chair and scolds Sarah for wasting her energy. “Sarah!” he shouts. “Stay off your feet.” Even after she sits down, Sarah can’t be still, shifting her shoulders, looking right and left. She eyes Carrie walking around freely, and looks at Leo. He shakes his head. “Let her walk around.”
Leo offers Sarah advice in short bits: “There’s no friends in the ring. . . . Fight clean and keep your hands up. . . . Keep your feet wide. . . . Keep your elbows in.” Chris starts rubbing Sarah’s shoulders. Leo says, “I finally got Sarah to settle down.”
Now it’s time for the ninth fight. Chris and Pat LaCassa are in Carrie’s corner; Leo’s alone with Sarah. The bell rings, and Carrie dances to the center of the ring, almost doing a shuffle like Muhammad Ali. Sarah backs her into a corner. Both fighters miss with roundhouses. Carrie swings a vicious right cross, knocking Sarah down. Sarah gets up immediately.
Between rounds Leo squirts water into Sarah’s mouth. He holds the spit bucket under her chin, but she swallows the water. Leo shakes his head.
Sarah shows a lot more brains in the ring. Even after Carrie bloodies her nose, Sarah hangs in, sending Carrie into the ropes three times in the third round. As the fight draws to a close, the two start to slug away at each other. The crowd roars its approval. The final bell sounds to a huge cheer. This has been the best women’s fight yet, possibly even the best fight overall.
Both boxers are spent. Their coaches remove their headgear. The crowd buzzes as partisans anxiously argue the finer points of each fighter. It looks like a toss-up; either one could win. The referee beckons Sarah and Carrie to join him in the center. He holds their hands as announcer Ken Fletcher climbs into the ring. Pausing for effect, Fletcher scans the judges’ scorecards and nods. Carrie and Sarah, both breathing hard, shuffle impatiently. Fletcher asks the crowd for a hand of appreciation for both fighters. When the applause dies down, he starts, “The winner on points . . . ,” pausing for the echo of his voice to disappear, ” . . . Sarah Lahalih!” The crowd erupts in a mixture of boos and whistles. Meghan, seated with Carrie’s cheering section, holds both hands to her mouth and falls back into her chair. She then leaps up and runs toward Carrie, who’s downcast. Meghan holds her around her waist as they disappear into the locker room.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s grinning. James Dixon, a boxing coach from Fuller Park, grasps Sarah’s hand and says, “Good girl.” Jack Cerny stops by to whisper congratulations in her ear. She smiles as he launches into a technical lesson, demonstrating with mock punches into her midsection.
Sarah’s eyes are on the crowd, searching for her family. She finds them waiting in some seats near the ring. Her kid sister Michelle is beaming. Sarah goes immediately to her mother and kneels at her feet. Her mother appears to be on the verge of tears. Sarah places a hand on her mom’s knee. “I thought I lost it when I fell,” Sarah says, smiling.
Chris comes by to offer congratulations. “I feel dizzy,” Sarah tells her, “but I’m OK.”
“That,” says Chris, “was the fight of the night.”
Sarah and Sandra compare their swollen lips. Sandra is still holding ice to hers.
Meghan later tells me that she and Carrie fled to a bathroom stall once they got to the locker room. They held each other and cried.
Marshall says, “This fad that’s goin’ on now with women’s boxing, it ain’t gonna last. You just watch next year. How many women are gonna want to come up here and get their faces beat in?”
Pat LaCassa adds his two cents. “Carrie won,” he declares. “Don’t get me wrong, that other girl hung in there, but I don’t see how they could give it to her. Now, that girl . . . ”
“Yeah, Sarah. She’s gonna have to go up against that Dennise. She’ll get killed. What Marshall should do if he thinks Carrie is better is have the other girl . . . ”
“Yeah, Sarah. Have her claim an injury, then Carrie will have to go up against that Dennise. But now that other girl, Sarah? She’s competitive too. She thinks she’s good. She thinks she can beat anybody. Who knows now? Maybe she can.”
There are no Tough Enough fights scheduled for Wednesday’s card, but Nadine, Sarah, Tracy, and Sima are still in attendance. Although she emerged the winner in last night’s bout, Sarah paid a price. “I didn’t feel anything at all last night,” she says. “But this morning, I started feeling things, then I’ve been feeling more little things all day.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, and there are dark smudges on the foreheads of many people in the crowd as well as in the ring. There are no camera crews and few reporters due to the absence of female bouts.
Tonight’s first fight is eventful. Both boxers are powerful sluggers. In the second round one delivers a big cross flush to the other’s face. The poor soul is out before he hits the canvas and remains unconscious for a few minutes. While he lies face down, the Tough Enough boxers watch silently as the ring doctor and the fighter’s trainers tend to him. Finally the groggy pug is helped out of the ring. Sarah and Sima look at each other without exchanging a word.
After an unseasonably balmy weekend, the temperature on this Monday evening has dropped back down to normal winter cold. Last week’s rendition of the national anthem by Whitney Houston has been replaced with a recording by Wayne Messmer of Cubs and Blackhawks fame.
Carrie and Nadine are here to see Meghan take on Lucy Quinonez. Carrie seems rankled when asked how she felt after her fight with Sarah. She seems to think anyone with a brain would know she wasn’t punished in that fight. “I feel fine,” she says. “I was never hurt.”
Nadine has no pretensions about her fight with Lucy. She’s happy just to have walked into the ring. She laughs about her coworkers holding a contest to come up with a nickname for her. Her favorites include Bulldog, Boom Boom, and Rough Pea. (“They found it in the dictionary,” she says. “It’s actually a pea.”)
Meghan’s high on adrenaline. She races around the gym wearing an Everlast jacket that Chris gave her. Eventually she’s led to the locker room to change into boxing attire. She emerges wearing green trunks, a Tough Enough T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and Chris’s boxing shoes. She has a slight cut on her right cheek, the result of shadowboxing without gloves on.
Meghan gets her hands wrapped at the glove table. She looks focused. Both Pat LaCassa and his brother Primo will be in her corner. They supervise her wrapping and taping, and occasionally offer bits of advice.
Meghan stands up to dance and shadowbox. Chris notices Meghan’s T-shirt is too big and floppy–she might get tangled up in it when she punches. Chris tries to secure the shirt by taping it in back, but that remedy isn’t good enough. Chris becomes frustrated and tears the shirt off. Meghan stands alone near the busy glove table wearing only a black athletic bra. She modestly holds her gloved hands close to her chest while Chris searches for a smaller T-shirt.
Once in uniform, Meghan’s transformed from an embarrassed high schooler to an aggressive athlete. She pounds the focus mitts worn by Pat LaCassa. “Yeah, yeah, that’s it,” Pat says approvingly.
Meghan later notices the height of her trunks isn’t right. She tries to raise them, but is hampered by her gloves. She rolls her eyes. Carrie steps forward to adjust the trunks and hugs Meghan for good luck. “You’re gonna do it, right?” Carrie says. Meghan nods while gnashing her mouthpiece.
Chris adjusts Meghan’s headgear and warns her about Lucy’s strong jab. She demonstrates how to duck and come up with a jab-cross-hook combination.
“Wanna see her punch?” Pat LaCassa asks a friend. He puts up his hands and Meghan pounds them. The pal shakes his head and whistles.
Meghan can’t stand still. She jostles her headgear with her gloves. Once in the ring, she hops and shadowboxes in her corner as she’s introduced. The crowd cheers and screams.
Lucy comes out slugging in the first round, and Meghan takes a standing eight count. By the second round, Meghan appears winded, perhaps due to her asthma. She turns her back on a Lucy combination, an unpardonable sin. Boxers who turn their backs should be immediately disqualified. The referee inexplicably lets Meghan off with a warning. In the third round, Meghan gets slapped with another standing eight count, and Lucy later knocks her down to her knees. But throughout the fight Meghan has maintained her capacity to punch hard. The third round ends with an exclamation mark. Meghan begins hammering her opponent. Lucy doesn’t back off, but she clearly cannot earn more points with her tired jabs. The cheering rises to a crescendo as the bell rings, ending the match. Lucy lacks the strength to stop one final cross after the bell.
The crowd erupts when Meghan is awarded the split decision. She hardly has the energy to celebrate, her cheekbones and forehead reddened, a bit of blood on her chin from a cut lip. She climbs slowly down from the ring and is immediately pounced on by a Channel 44 crew. She has a hard time catching her breath to answer their questions.
Pat LaCassa pulls Meghan close and yells, “We’re changin’ our name to Too Tough!”
While Lucy talks to Channel 44, Jack Cowan puts a hand on Primo’s shoulder and says, “You got a gift.”
Meghan’s family and friends wait for her near the glove table. “I’m shakin’,” her mother, Pat, says. Her father, Tony, sympathizes. “That was too close for me.”
Lucy comes to the glove table in the company of her trainer. She seems to be in great spirits despite her loss. A man in the crowd yells to her trainer, “You got robbed, buddy!” The trainer only shrugs.
Pat Janda can hardly contain herself. “She is tough,” she says of Meghan. “I said, ‘Don’t let ’em hurt your nose before the homecoming dance.’ She’s still my little girl.” Pat sees Lucy at the glove table. “Is it OK if I go up to her?” she asks. Pat shakes Lucy’s hand and congratulates her for a great fight. Lucy accepts the kind words with grace and a bright smile.
But Lucy’s friends don’t take the loss as well, according to Meghan and Sarah. In the locker room after the fight, a half-dozen girls circled Meghan and Sarah menacingly. “Let’s get ’em,” one said. Another wrapped a chain around her fist. Fortunately someone slipped out of the locker room and got word to some cops in the gym, and the rumble was averted.
While Meghan is in the locker room, Pat LaCassa explains to her parents what she did right and wrong. Primo elbows his way into the conversation. “She won big time,” Primo says. “Big time!”
At the end of the night Meghan’s cheering section waits for her near the entrance to the gym. Someone asks her father, “How’s she getting home?” Her father says, “There’s a big limo coming for her!” They share the laugh of winners.
It’s the last day of preliminary bouts, and there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground outside Saint Andrew’s gym. Sarah and another Tough Enough member, Mia Lonnfross, are both on tonight’s card. Mia’s been forced to take it easy since pulling a muscle a couple of weeks ago. “I started out in this late,” she says. “There was so much to learn. I wanted to catch up as fast as I could. I was sort of panicky, so I did too much.” She says her side still hurts and she had to go to the hospital for the pain Saturday night. But she’ll fight despite the pain.
Sarah’s family (minus her father, of course) is here to cheer her on once again. Her 19-year-old brother, Michael, has a theory about why she’s a winner in boxing. “Me and my friends used to beat her up all the time,” he says. “I guess it paid off.”
The night starts with a controversy. Sarah’s weight has been challenged by Donyel Taylor and James Dixon, the trainers of her opponent, Keshia Watson. Taylor and Dixon, boxing coaches from Fuller Park, agreed to let Keshia fight Sarah even though the Tough Enough boxer is in a weight class just above her. After watching Sarah fight against Carrie last week, the trainers suspect Sarah may weigh even more than the five pounds reportedly separating her from Keshia. They wonder if Marshall and the officials are pulling a fast one. “I’m willing to give her [Sarah] the five pounds,” says Taylor. “But it looks more than that, and that’s not fair.”
Marshall isn’t happy about his honesty being impugned. He says he brought Sarah in at 3 PM to have her weighed. “I did it to please them guys from Fuller Park,” Marshall says. “Everybody’s cryin’ like little babies. Now they wanna weigh ‘er again? That’s bullshit. They don’t want to fight? Don’t fight.” Neither Taylor nor Dixon personally witnessed that weigh-in, so their doubts remain. But Jack Cowan overrules their challenge. “The boxers aren’t obligated to weigh in every day,” Cowan says. “Just on opening day and at Rosemont. So everything’s OK. Sarah and Keshia are going on.”
Dixon’s hot. He says the Chicago Golden Gloves officials bow down before Marshall and Chris, and anybody else can go to hell. He also raises the issue of racism, not an unreasonable concern considering the ardor with which the predominantly white crowds cheer on white boxers against blacks. Dixon says, “I hate to be looked at like I’m a nigger piece of trash.” Taylor’s a bit cooler, accepting the weight disparity. “We’re gonna eat it,” he says. “We’re gonna be all right.”
Sandra Gutierrez returns to Saint Andrew’s gym for the first time since her beating at the hands of Nancy Loew. She’ll watch the fights tonight, but she won’t come again. Her absence will be notable when the Tough Enough team reassembles for regular workouts after the preliminaries are over. “Oh God, that was probably the worst feeling in my life,” she says of last week’s bout. “I’m normally a very shy person. Stage fright. I don’t like being in front of a crowd, period. I had to go up there and get my butt kicked in front of a crowd of people.”
Sandra had seen Nancy’s steel-cord arms the day Nancy came to the Tough Enough workout to meet the press. Sandra knew she’d be in for a rough night if she was slated against her. “I didn’t invite anyone because I already knew that it was going to be a tough fight,” she says. “I knew it was going to be bad. I wasn’t looking forward to have people see me get beat up. That’s something that I wouldn’t have wanted to see.”
Nancy walks past us on her way to the ring. Sandra nods at her and is greeted by Nancy’s determined stare. There doesn’t appear to be an ounce of fat on Nancy’s body. Sandra says, “I felt like I wasn’t really given a fair chance.”
Nancy mauls Mia Lonnfross in the fight before Sarah and Keshia’s. Mia probably wishes she’d stayed in the hospital Saturday night. It’s not a pretty sight.
Keshia Watson enters the ring for the next fight and is introduced even before Sarah climbs through the ropes. She bows down on one knee and crosses herself as her big cheering section roars. Keshia opens like a madwoman, ceaselessly slugging Sarah. “I sure wouldn’t want to meet her in an alley!” Sarah would say a few days later. But Sarah weathers the onslaught, and her superior skills take over. She roughs Keshia up in the second round and moves in for the kill. Sarah hits Keshia with a point-blank jab. Keshia loses her mouthpiece. (She may have spit it out–a common tactic to take a break from a beating.) Sarah goes to a neutral corner while the referee replaces Keshia’s mouthpiece. The crowd starts to shout for the ref to stop the fight. Keshia absorbs countless hits in the final seconds of the second round, but she throws her own punches in slow motion. The bell rings, and she wobbles back to her corner.
The referee asks Keshia, “You all right?” Keshia doesn’t answer. He repeats, “You all right?” Once again there’s no answer. James Dixon insists that Keshia is fine and orders her not to speak to the referee. The ref tells Dixon to shut up and asks Keshia a third time if she’s all right. Keshia mumbles. The ref raises his arms and waves, calling the fight between the second and third rounds.
Dixon goes ballistic. He leans over the ropes and screams at the referee. He yells at the crowd, appealing his case. He turns back to the referee to give him another earful, but the din of the crowd drowns out most of his hollering. “He begged her to quit!” he screams. A couple of guys pull Dixon out of the ring and down the stairs, but then he runs to the glove table, screaming to anyone within earshot. He sprints back to the ring just as the next fighters are being introduced. The crowd boos at Dixon’s histrionics. He finally goes back to the glove table, tears streaming down his face. “That ain’t right,” Dixon cries. “He begged her to quit!” Donyel Taylor’s also visibly upset, but not as demonstrative as Dixon. “She did not say she couldn’t go on,” he says, appearing on the verge of tears.
Anthony Stewart, a champion Golden Gloves boxer, takes Keshia by the hand and leads her to the chief referee at the scorer’s table. Stewart won the 178-pound division last year and is a big favorite this year. He pleads Keshia’s case, saying she didn’t indicate she was unable to continue. “This is boxing,” Stewart says later. “Give both people a chance. Every time the white girl hit Keshia, the crowd goes wild. If the crowd ain’t with you, who’s with you?” Stewart smells a conspiracy. “It’s about names. They know Chris Kreuz’s name. She’s the world champion. Why didn’t the ref go up to the other girl? Both girls were exhausted.”
Chief referee Geno Rodriguez comes to the glove table and says, “Rematch the fourth of April. It is my decision. The ref asked her three times. She did not respond. He thought stopping the fight was for her safety.”
Keshia sobs and stands off to the side, holding the trophy she won as the uncontested 125-pound champion.
Sarah has sneaked out of the gym. “We wanted to get her out of here,” Marshall says. He doesn’t object to a rematch, possibly because that will make it impossible for Sarah to have to fight Dennise Willis at the Horizon on April 4. He and Chris both figure neither Sarah nor Keshia wants to fight Dennise. “She’s practically in my class,” Chris says. “No one wants to fight her; they’ll get killed.”
The preliminaries are over, and the winners have little more than a month to prepare for the championships at the Rosemont Horizon. It’s late afternoon in the second-floor boxing room of the Sheridan Park field house. This is the old Italian neighborhood, Taylor Street. Pat and Primo LaCassa run their boxing club out of this room. There are two heavy bags and a speed bag opposite a small sparring ring. In the middle of the room, a shiny bumper sticker reading “Byrne ’87” is pasted to the wall. The LaCassas have a couple of prized pupils in the ring today–Chris and Meghan. Pat leans on the ropes while Primo hangs a yellow cord bisecting the ring from neutral corner to neutral corner. Chris and Meghan do an agility drill utilizing the yellow cord. One boxer dodges left and right, ducking under the cord, while the other one chases her throwing punches. Meghan’s training for her championship fight with Tracy at the Horizon. Chris has an upcoming series of matches in South Carolina. Marshall’s hoping to beef up Chris’s record to put her into position for a big pay-per-view fight at the end of the year.
Pat puts on the focus mitts, and Chris hits the pads, each blow sounding like a small explosion. She does the jab-cross-hook combination so fast I can hardly link the sounds to actions. Pat leads Chris through a five-round drill with the focus mitts. “She’s gotta be as strong the fifth round as she is the first round,” Pat says.
Pat and Primo play good cop/bad cop. Primo’s the tough guy; he tolerates no lapses or mistakes from Chris. He hollers his criticisms, occasionally shaking his head in disgust. Then Pat gives encouragement, soothing Chris, sotto voce, when she corrects her mistakes.
Someone asks Pat, “You dig up that girl, that moolenjohn?” He’s using the American bastardization of the Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, a term commonly employed around Taylor Street to identify African Americans. It’s gotten around that Dennise Willis might be willing to spar with Chris, but so far several dates have been broken. Pat says he hasn’t had any luck trying to set up another time. “She’s scared,” Marshall says. “She won’t come.”
Primo laces up the gloves on Meghan. “Thank you,” she says sweetly.
“Get mad,” Pat tells her. “Who made you mad today. Think of that.”
A young kid named Louis, another of the LaCassa pupils, watches Pat work with Meghan in the ring. “Save somethin’ for me,” Louis says.
“I got plenty for you,” Pat says. “Yeah, I got a lot for you.”
“She gonna go five?” Louis asks.
“Naw,” Pat says. “Just one. She can’t go that far.” Then he turns to Meghan. “Whaddya think? Can you do three? Can you do two more?”
Meghan looks wounded. “Yeah,” she says. “Let’s go.”
“She looks good, don’t she?” Pat says with a smile. “She’s gonna look better when I’m done with her.”
Pat snaps at Meghan for every misstep, warning about her biggest mistake during the preliminary bout. “Remember, never turn your back!”
After the spar, Marshall puts his arm around her. “Meghan,” he says, “you’re lookin’ good. One day you’re gonna be comin’ at us.” She grins, knowing exactly what he means; one day Meghan just might fight Chris as a pro. “She’s gonna be a champion,” Pat says. “My champion. You and me, eh Meghan?”
Pat saunters over to Chris, who’s punching the heavy bag. “She’s gonna break her wrist punchin’ that hard,” he warns Primo. “She’s gonna knock that girl’s block off in South Carolina.” Primo holds the heavy bag as Chris punches. He can hardly keep his feet planted. He keeps the bag steady, but the chain connecting it to the ceiling quivers violently.
Pat works focus mitts with Louis while Meghan jumps rope. “Meghan,” Pat says, “you’re gonna throw so many punches at that girl, she’s gonna think she’s surrounded. Her mother’s gonna wish she never went into the ring.”
Primo leaves Chris at the heavy bag to greet Luke Capuano, a former fighter in the LaCassa stable. “Hey Luke,” Primo says, “howya doin’?” They kiss each other’s cheeks.
Pat gives Chris tips as she shadowboxes. Meghan stops jumping rope and watches silently from a distance, gleaning information. Pat walks away from Chris and informs Marshall that his wife is gaining the arrogance of a champion. “She’s so perfect,” Pat says, “I can’t tell her nothin’.”
Primo orders Chris and Meghan to begin calisthenics. They start with 100 sit-ups. “I gotta get a ring name for Chris,” Pat says to Primo. “I got it: White Dynamite! That ain’t racial, is it? She’s white, ain’t she?” Chris doesn’t break a sweat, and Meghan tries hard to keep up, huffing and puffing.
Chris and Meghan lift up their legs for Pat and Primo to hold. They try to sit up and touch their toes. “Hey Pat,” Capuano yells, laughing, “watch what you’re lookin’ at!”
“She’s a baby,” Pat huffs, holding Meghan’s feet. “She ain’t got nothin’ to look at.”
Marshall’s parents drop in for a visit. Marshall asks Chris to do two minutes on focus mitts. “Chris is ready to fight a man,” Marshall’s mother says.
“She’s gonna have to fight a man,” Pat says, dead serious. “No girl’s gonna get in there with her.”
Once the calisthenics are over, Meghan asks Pat, “Now what do you want me to do? Run six miles?”
“No,” Pat says. “I want you to lay down on that mat over there.”
She looks at the mat near the wall, then turns back to him apprehensively. “That’s right,” Pat says. “I want you to work with the medicine ball.”
“No,” Meghan protests.
“Yeah,” Pat says.
“Get over there!” Pat snarls. Meghan walks slowly toward the mat. “You and Louis’ll do it. I’ll tell you what, Louis’ll do it first.”
Louis lies down, and Meghan straddles his hips, holding the medicine ball in her hands. She jams the heavy ball into his belly again and again. Each time she hits Louis’s belly, he blows out air. “That’s so he don’t get the wind knocked out of him,” Pat says. “See? That air’s gotta go somewhere.”
After Meghan has her turn on the mat, she goes back to Pat. “Want me to do more?” she asks.
“You did enough for today,” he says. “You come back tomorrow, you do more hittin’.”
“I feel good today,” Meghan says.
Meghan looks so disappointed that Pat caves in. He directs her to punch Louis in the belly, another drill for tightening the abdomen. Louis holds Meghan’s shoulders at arm’s length as she pounds his belly. He grits his teeth. “Come on,” Pat barks. “Hard, Meghan! That’s Tracy you’re hittin’!”
“Tracy’s laughin’ at you,” Louis says.
“Get mad,” Pat orders.
Louis can take no more, but Meghan’s pumped up. She dances around the room. “You know,” Pat tells her, “Tracy beat the best fighter in the tournament–Lucy.”
Meghan reminds him that she beat Lucy, not Tracy. She yells, “I’m the best fighter in the tournament!”
Marshall sniffs. “Cocky, eh?”
“She’s a champion,” Pat says. “Irish Dynamite.”
Pat pulls out airline tickets for this weekend’s trip to South Carolina. He quibbles with Primo about who will drive to the airport. The brothers swap traveling stories and brag about their exploits as towel thieves. Once Pat filled his bag with so many towels he had to leave a drawer full of clothes in the hotel. Later they’d collected so many towels from different hotels that a bellboy once mistook their room for the linen closet. “Oh,” the bellboy exclaimed, opening their closet door, “so that’s where we keep the towels.” Pat said, “The hell you do.”
It’s five days before next week’s championships at the Horizon. Chris is still clobbering pretenders down in South Carolina, so Meghan’s in charge of the workout. In less than two months Meghan’s matured from a teen jock to a leader. She’s picked up a lot from the LaCassa brothers. She pushes and barks. She wears focus mitts while Sarah punches, improving their footwork. When Meghan moves to her left, Sarah should move to her right, but for some reason Sarah can’t pick it up. “I’m going this way,” Meghan says. “What are you gonna do?” Sarah hesitates, so Meghan shows her exactly what to do. When Meghan makes her move, Sarah shifts tentatively. “Not like this,” Meghan says, mimicking Sarah’s mincing steps. “Like this.” She dances smartly to her right.
Mary Ann Zoellner spars with another boxer named Kerry who’s too old for the Golden Gloves tournament. Mary Ann rarely attends any of the regular Tough Enough workouts, and I get the feeling she doesn’t fully understand what goes on in a real fight. “Now no hard hitting,” Kerry says before stepping into the ring. For her own safety Mary Ann should spar with someone else. Trading softies with Kerry isn’t going to help her prepare for her fight with tough Nancy Loew. The two spar, and Mary Ann restricts herself to love taps. “Take it easy,” Kerry complains. “Not so hard.” Mary Ann is obviously nettled; she wants to lay it all out, hit and be hit.
After three rounds the two unlace their gloves. Kerry says, “I hear Nancy doesn’t hit that hard.” It’s a mystery where she got that information. Certainly not from Sandra, who’d have had a hard time saying anything through the bulging lip she received compliments of Nancy.
Sandra hasn’t attended any Saturday morning workouts since the preliminaries. She’s still resentful, wondering why she was stuck with Nancy Loew when Nancy also fought Mia Lonnfross. “I don’t even think Mia was in my weight class,” Sandra says. “I don’t know how she fought Nancy because the last I heard was that Mia was 119 pounds. That’s what makes me wonder about Nancy–whether or not she was really 106 pounds. It makes me question it because Sarah fought Keshia, and they weren’t in the same weight class. I’m thinking maybe Nancy wasn’t really in my weight class, maybe they just made me fight her because Mary Ann wasn’t fighting.”
Mary Ann Zoellner is a 25-year-old producer for the Jenny Jones Show. She became interested in boxing after Chris appeared on Jones’s TV show. Mary Ann’s friendly and comfortable with reporters, and a number of the Tough Enough boxers notice that she seldom appears at regular workouts unless there’s a camera crew in the gym. Marshall’s PR mind may be at work here, making sure his Jenny Jones connection fights at the Horizon to assure another spot on the show for Chris.
There’s no proof that Marshall slated Mary Ann so cleverly, but Sandra has no affection for Marshall or Chris. “This business basically only supports the winners and it’s pretty much to hell with the losers,” Sandra says. “I really resent how they made me feel. After the fight I felt really bad about myself; I was really disappointed. They built this confidence up inside of me–‘Oh yeah. You can do it!’ You begin to kind of believe it after a while, after you hear it constantly. After I lost, I felt bad enough as it is. Then I started thinking about who I was put up against and did I really have much of a chance. I started appreciating what I actually did out there, the fact that I had the courage to go out there even after seeing this woman. A lot of other people wouldn’t have had the courage to go out there and fight her. Just looking at her is intimidating. You can tell she is rough. She has this look on her face like she doesn’t care what she’s going to do to you.
“I started thinking about it and I said, ‘I should be proud of myself.’ After I began to feel good about myself, I talked to Marshall and he totally got me down again. He made a comment like, ‘She wasn’t really that tough, was she?’ You could tell that they expected me to win, and they looked down upon me because I didn’t win. It made me feel bad. I think Chris felt the same way because, as my trainer, she should have encouraged me a little bit. She didn’t say anything about it. She didn’t say anything about the fight at all. I think her not saying anything is just as bad as saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t do well out there.’ It was bad for me. I really did need assurance.
“It makes it hard for me to think I can go back to boxing. I want to. I enjoy the workouts. It’s been really difficult for me because psychologically this really did damage me. The fight disturbed me. The attitude of my trainers disturbs me. Everything’s different now. Before I felt like I had a goal. Now I don’t feel like I have a goal anymore. That’s why it’s been so difficult to go back. Something doesn’t feel right. I’ve been feeling like an outsider since the fight. I just don’t feel like I’m a part of it anymore. It’s a really bad feeling. I was injured more psychologically than physically.”
Working out at the Chicago Fitness Center, Sarah shakes her head. “Everybody loses at some time. I thought she [Sandra] was stronger than that.” Sarah says she’s disappointed in her friend. “I’m sort of mad at her. She should have come back. Why didn’t she come back? Carrie Law lost, and she’s always here. I agree with what Marshall said. He told me the other day that they had to work with the girls who were going to go on to fight. That makes sense.”
All the boxers here are talking about Monday. The weigh-in, everybody’s certain, is scheduled between 2 and 4 PM at the Horizon. Mary Ann might have trouble because she’s just been promoted at her job and can’t take any more time off. She wonders if she can weigh in after 4 PM. She misses Marshall being around to clear things up. “Why’d he have to just up and leave like that?”
“Well, his wife needs him,” Carrie says. “She’s in South Carolina. Been down there quite a while.”
“But what about us?” Mary Ann asks.
“I wouldn’t want to be out there alone,” Sarah says.
“She doesn’t need him all that bad,” Mary Ann says. “She’s knocking everybody out in the first round.”
“I’d want my husband out there with me,” Meghan says, zipping up her coat.
* * *
It’s Monday afternoon at Chris and Marshall’s apartment on the northwest side. The artifacts of Chris’s sporting life are scattered throughout the place. A welcome mat is printed with boxing gloves next to the words “Kreuz ‘n Christopher.” Chris’s letter jacket from Bremen High School is displayed in the living room, hanging opposite her championship belt. There’s no end to the boxing-related kitsch. Chris’s Alfa Romeo is parked on the street outside; its license plate reads “SHE BOXS.”
Sarah and Meghan sit on the living room couch and complain that they’re starving. Both are worried about their weight and have fasted since yesterday. Meghan must lose a half pound to remain in the 119 weight class. Sarah says she’s hovering around 129 or 130 and must get down to 128 for her exhibition fight with Keshia Watson. If she weighs more she may be forced into a match with Dennise Willis. She last ate yesterday at 2 PM. Meghan’s fast has been a bit rougher. She had to forego her mother’s traditional Easter Sunday dinner. Meghan fingers her gold necklace, a gift from her mom. The pendant has two tiny boxing gloves.
There are four Tough Enough boxers scheduled to fight in championship bouts tonight: Meghan Janda versus Tracy Desmond; Sima Patel against Caryl Dennis of the Apache Boxing Club on North Broadway; and Mary Ann Zoellner versus Nancy Loew. Marshall leads Meghan, Sarah, and Sima out of the apartment. “We got three winners here,” he says.
Our entourage must squeeze into two cars. That includes the boxers, Marshall and Chris, a neighbor, a friend of Sima, and Marshall’s younger son Joey. Marshall and Chris take the boxers in their car. “We gotta pump ’em up,” Marshall says.
The weigh-in room is located in the bowels of the Rosemont Horizon. Tournament codirectors Mike Pernick and Jack Cowan sit at a long table with judge Noel Schiff. “We’re gonna put the girls on between 7:30 and 9, basically the peak area,” Cowan tells Marshall.
This one room serves both males and females. Meghan’s told she may have to weigh in wearing only her underwear. “Seriously?” she asks Sarah and Sima. “We gotta strip in front of the guys? Which I’m not gonna do!” But no one asks them to strip down, and the three boxers preserve their modesty by weighing in fully clothed.
Sarah comes in at 131 pounds. Marshall insists that she be weighed a second time wearing only her trunks. Jack Cowan is mystified, thinking Sarah wants to fight in the 132-pound class. “What’s the point?” he asks. “She made it.”
“Jack, just trust me,” Marshall says. “Do it for me, OK?” Jack accedes with a sigh, and Sarah weighs in the second time at 130 pounds.
After the weigh-ins are over, Meghan quickly makes a turkey-on-rye sandwich, taking the ingredients from an old-fashioned metal lunch box. She and Sarah run to an unoccupied locker room down the hall to pig out. Moans and giggles emanate from the room as they stuff their faces. With her mouth full of food, Meghan points out a superhero on her lunch box named the Scarlet Witch. “That’s me,” she says. Then she points to a winged, fairylike creature called the Wasp. “That’s Sarah.”
The doctor arrives at the weigh-in room and calls for Meghan and Sarah to complete their prefight exams. “Can I bring my sandwich?” Meghan asks. Ring announcer Ken Fletcher, already wearing his tuxedo, notices the girls eating during their physicals. “Don’t eat too much,” he cautions. “Remember Roberto Duran. ‘No mas, no mas!'”
Meghan and Sarah are so full they can’t even eat another chocolate kiss. Someone suggests they take a stroll around the stadium to help their digestion. “Good idea,” Meghan says. But the walk turns out to be anything but leisurely. They’re too excited; their pace is nearly a run. They go down to the floor of the stadium and stand next to the ring, surrounded by more than 14,000 empty seats. They put their hands gently on the ring mat, as if touching some dangerous animal in repose. “I can’t believe how small this ring is,” Meghan says.
Marshall, Chris, and Pat LaCassa huddle in the hallway. Marshall’s wearing a black satin baseball jacket with an airbrushed portrait of Chris’s face and the words “Tough Enough” on the back. Pat grabs Meghan by the shoulders and introduces her to several men in suits. “You wanna see a champion?”
Pat later tells Meghan, “The one thing I want you to remember tonight–don’t listen to what anybody else says. You know what to do. We told you all you need to know. The rest of these people can go to hell.” He pauses. “And another thing–I don’t care if there’s 10,000 people out there screamin’ your name–block ’em out!” Meghan’s eyes bulge. “It’s just you and the other fighter,” Pat says. “You do that and you’re a winner.”
Meghan gulps and says, “Just like fighting Louis, right?”
“That’s right,” he says, patting her on the back. “You’re a winner.”
Chris watches the line of contenders parade into the weigh-in room. “Everybody here is shittin’ in their pants,” she says. “It’s not that they’re scared; it’s nerves. Floyd Patterson says, “If you tell any boxer to fight, he’ll jump in the ring. It’s the waiting that’s the worst.’ Floyd Patterson says the waiting was so terrible for him his mouth would be dry by the time he got in the ring.”
Several bouts get dropped from tonight’s card. Sima’s opponent doesn’t show up, so she wins a trophy by default. Sarah won’t fight tonight either because Keshia Watson stayed home. Keshia’s trainer James Dixon shakes his head. “It’s not fair, forcin’ a young girl into things like this,” he says. When Jack Cowan learns that Keshia’s not here, he wants to pit Sarah against powerful Dennise Willis. “Oh no,” Marshall says. Later Dennise stands alone with her hands wrapped, all dressed up and no one to fight. She has tears in her eyes. “I just want a chance to show what I can do,” she says.
A dozen young kids, all around ten years old, hang on bars over the entrance to the main floor of the arena. They call out to those wearing trunks. “Hey, you a boxer?” The boxers smile shyly and nod.
It’s 7 PM. Golden Gloves officials arrange the boxers into two lines, separated by sex. The fighters shadowbox, hop in place, or dance while waiting. A Marine Corps color guard leads the two lines out to the arena. The Rocky theme song blasts over the PA system. The procession hits the glare of the stadium lights and moves a bit faster. Spectators scream when their favorites, friends, or relatives are introduced.
Meghan and Tracy will fight fourth. Pat LaCassa tapes Meghan’s hands and cuts the sleeves off her red Golden Gloves T-shirt. He steps back to admire his handiwork and decides the job isn’t finished. “Lemme cut some more off,” he says. “Shows off your muscles.”
At the glove table, Chris massages Meghan’s shoulders, whispering something into her ear. Meghan grins. Tracy stands behind them, wearing a black karate association jacket draped over her shoulders. She hops from foot to foot, then stops suddenly. Taking two deep breaths, Tracy closes her eyes until the glove man calls her name.
Meghan’s entourage–Chris, Pat and Primo, Sarah, two photographers, a reporter, and a TV crew–marches back to the locker room. Meghan heads for the bathroom and accidentally encounters a hefty man peeing at the urinal. “Oh, sorry!” she says blushing. Meghan walks briskly out of the locker room and up through the tunnel. The entourage follow but can hardly keep up. It turns out she’s only fetching a special mouthpiece. Camera strobes flash as she digs into her gym bag. “Fer chrissakes,” Pat moans, “these broads can’t go to the washroom without photographers following her.”
At last it’s time for Meghan and Tracy to fight. Meghan’s in the red corner, Tracy’s in the blue. The bell rings, and Meghan opens with a jab. Then both unleash a small flurry of punches. They dance and wait each other out. Meghan steps in with lefts and rights. Tracy cradles her head, warding off Meghan’s blows. Tracy’s strategy seems to be one of attrition and patience. She jabs constantly, keeping Meghan away and doing a bit of damage with each punch. Meghan then ducks low and attempts to pepper Tracy’s body. Tracy proceeds cautiously, while Meghan, the asthmatic, starts to look winded. Meghan suddenly lands a huge right, eliciting the only big cheer of the first round. Both boxers have stayed true to form: Meghan the brawn and Tracy the brain.
During the break a young woman in a bathing suit and tuxedo jacket circles the ring with a card held high, announcing the start of round two. A woman judge says, “I wish they had round men for the female bouts.”
In the second round Tracy backs Meghan into the ropes, but Meghan smartly pivots out. Tracy then backs her into the opposite ropes. Meghan’s hair band falls off, and the ref stops the action, thinking it’s a mouthpiece. Discovering his mistake, he flings it away and signals the boxers to resume the fight. Tracy delivers a series of tough combinations. Her mouth’s open, and she’s glaring. Meghan’s the toughest boxer Tracy’s ever fought. Tracy might be smart and quick, but Meghan carries a sledgehammer in her glove. Tracy’s breathing hard. Meghan takes a lot of punches, but doesn’t turn away. While her stubborn determination heartens her corner, Meghan’s getting clobbered. The momentum clearly swings to Tracy.
In the third and final round, Meghan comes out with a right-left-right combination. She’s punching and pushing Tracy around the ring. Then Tracy answers with a flurry of quick punches. They’re not as powerful as Meghan’s, but what Tracy lacks in pure muscle she makes up for with speed. Meghan has blood on her top lip. Tracy bobs her head, her eyes locked on Meghan’s face. A reporter says, “Man, that gal in blue has got a stare, doesn’t she?”
This fight just might be better than the exciting contest between Sarah and Carrie in the preliminaries. At the end of the third round, both of Meghan’s lips are bloody, and she’s totally out of breath. Tracy may have been breathing hard earlier in the fight, but now she looks calm and rested. Perhaps that appearance will influence the judges. The referee leads the boxers to the center of the ring. The ring announcer waits for the crowd to quiet down. “The winner is . . . ,” and the referee raises Tracy’s arm even before her name is called.
Meghan’s shoulders sag visibly. She runs into the locker room and almost collides with one of the card girls, who’s been in the bathroom fixing her makeup. “I’ll be a minute, honey,” the card girl says. When she finally looks at Meghan’s face, she gasps and runs out. Meghan looks in the mirror and cries, “Oh shit! Look at my face!”
Pat goes into the bathroom and closes the door behind him. I hear him say, “You got nothin’ to be ashamed of.”
“Oh shit,” Meghan says again. “I look like Sandra.”
“You fought a great fight,” Pat says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Finally Meghan emerges from the bathroom and collapses into her father’s arms, crying. Tony Janda strokes her hair and whispers, “Now it’s on to med school.”
Meghan puts a bag of ice on her lips and turns her back on the photographers. She spies Chris and runs to hug her. She whispers something, and Chris jumps back, holding Meghan by the shoulders. “What are you sorry for?” Chris asks.
Pat gives Meghan a gift. It’s a jacket with LaCassa’s Gym printed on the front and the nickname Pitbull on the back.
Mary Ann is ready to go out to fight Nancy Loew. She wears Meghan’s bloodstained headgear. The fight doesn’t last long. A friend of Mary Ann later tells her she did well. He was being charitable.
Finally Meghan is ready to see her family in the stands. She says to Sarah, “Come with me,” and they lope up the aisle, their shoulders almost touching.
Marshall’s sitting in the stands. Though he’ll continue to work with Meghan in the months ahead, at the moment he’s disgusted. I say good-bye and ask what’s next for the Tough Enough boxers. “What do I care?” he says. “I’m through with these girls. I’m sick of losers. I don’t want nothin’ to do with losers anymore. I got a champion!”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.