Women In The Ring
Boxing has never been my favorite part of martial arts training. To get in the ring with the intention of hitting someone, as Catherine comments, is just not me—retiring, laid back peacenik that I am. But boxing is required at my school.
In 1987, I took up kung fu for the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" romance of it all, though the movie was not to come out until many years later. Girl fighters were cool. Weapons were cool. I practiced my sword katas and stick katas and whirled my nunchukas like I cared, but when it came to boxing I merely endured the ordeal. It was tiring, chaotic and just a tad silly. I mean, really, should evolved beings strive to punch each other in the nose?
And I still couldn't figure out the nuances of the rules. Some hits were okay and some were not. That was touch boxing. You scored if you were able to make contact. I didn't know we had another kind, but I had seen the gear. Big well-padded leather headgear and humongous gloves, not the light weight, foam and vinyl stuff of our intermediate training.
It took me weeks to get used to the additional half hour to 40 minutes. After so many years of one-hour classes, my mind needed to stretch to adjust to the long class time. The new class schedule also did not conflict with my other commitments. That meant two days more that I would be in class every month. But what really made the difference was that I had been riding my bicycle to class through the entire winter last year, rain or shine.
It was only two and a half miles, but it was enough to build up my endurance to keep up with my classmates. The ride home up the hill to my house was still a haul, but I didn't have to stand up in the pedals anymore. And I was riding a lot more to clients from the train. I felt tired much of the time. I wondered if I was wearing myself down, but then, after some months, I seemed to overcome it.
I was keeping up. Then the instructors decided to put us to the test. We had been doing advanced katas, choreographed routines with weapons or just empty hands. I had never been tested before by these instructors. The married couple, who had bought the school a few years ago, had arrived when I had just gotten my brown belt and they did not test their students when they gave out stripes to mark our progress. This test would require performing one of our katas solo in front of the class. I would have to show my stuff and once I was in front of an audience there was no way my pride would allow me to expose my shoddy half-baked work. I would actually have to practice.
I had learned, however, from my stint as program chair of my business organization that I could appear in front of an audience having only practiced the day before. I just had to be very focused in the short space of time before I went on. So I made sure I had the kata memorized. Before I was to go on, I watched the black belts go through their tests and made note of their style and energy to absorb what was expected. When it came my turn I marched onto the mat, projecting a warrior. Every move was executed with all the force I could muster and my fierce yells were uncompromised. No one in class had seen this Amanda before. It earned me another stripe.
Then I shrunk back to my usual laid back self, just showing up and going along with the program. One night, one of my instructors who was coaching the women in the class in a mass attack defense, asked me to "let it out". Let what out, I wanted to ask. It's not like I'm harboring a tiger in my tank.
"Just yell as loud as you can," she said.
"You mean now?" I asked, fully aware that the defense we were working on required full yells. I must be quite exasperating sometimes.
"Yes, now," she nearly shouted. So I recalled the days of my angry youth when I would yell at the top of my lungs while driving alone. She was satisfied with the results. Then just to make sure I had learned the lesson, she stopped me after class when I was back in my street clothes about to leave the building.
"Give me that yell again," she said. Now I knew what was expected and I filled my lungs to capacity and let out a yell so loud the whole studio looked up to see what was going on.
A few months later, it came to the boxing part of our training schedule. By now, I could endure the constant, on you toes, bouncing around as we shadow boxed and practiced hitting the bag. After some weeks, our head instructor announced that we would be putting on the heavy gear and would spar in three-minute rounds. No more would we just fight for a matter of seconds before someone got in a hit and the match was scored. Now we would just slug it out until time was up. But it was not required. This was a voluntary exercise. For some reason, probably because I wanted to try on the gear, I signed up.
We needed help putting the gear on because it had to be laced tightly to fit. The helmet made my nose feel in sudden need of itching. With the gloves on my hands I felt like I was carrying three-pound weights. They made my arms tired, but then I realized they were also weapons, heavy enough to give some oomph to our blows. We started out with just left jabs and still I was getting creamed. But I was used to it. I had always been beaten in touch boxing. And now I was being pounded by big heavy gloves making contact with my head. But suddenly I understood boxing. No longer was it about form, this was about fighting. Fighting until you got the better of your opponent. The long rounds testing our stamina.
At the end of the month, having built ourselves up to three, three-minute rounds, the head instructor announced a tournament. This meant we would again be performing in front of an audience, all eyes watching each pair duke it out. Well at least there was nothing to memorize. I signed up. The day of the tournament I wondered what, indeed, I had brought upon myself. I could even get hurt. In all my years of kung fu, that thought had never crossed my mind before, but a woman had been hurt once in a tournament. She had broken a bone and now refused to do any boxing of any kind. And we were required to sign a release form. I rode down to the studio, anyway, as a lamb to slaughter.
We were to be matched by age and weight. Nearly all the women outweighed me and were taller than me. Those even close to my age were black belts. That left the teen girls, particularly Kandace, a fierce fourteen year old whose father and older sister had also trained in the school. She had smugly delivered several blows to my head the week before and given me a look like she was wasting her time in this cakewalk.
That night she would receive her adult black belt in an awards ceremony, achieving the status of "triple gem" having also earned her child black belt and her teen black belt. She was at the top of her game. There was one thing I could do differently to further my game. I would take off my contact lenses. I had one fall out once, while sparring and had since been protective of contact to my face, not really going all out. That I would not be able to see much more than the fuzzy outline of my opponent would be the trade off.
The men boxed first. Our best fighters went at each other, boxing with all their might, until they were breathing hard. By the third round they could hardly shuffle and were hanging onto each other, delivering halfhearted blows with the other hand. I laughed. Obviously just getting through the match was the first test. The second being to stay standing. Two did actually stumble and fall, but continued. Then came the two women. Both were black belt instructors who had just received their first degree that night. I would never be in their ranks, I thought. Anne, the Australian with the rippling arms had come to class through most of her pregnancy and returned to build herself back up again. Both women boxed skillfully, agile to the end.
There were no other women fighting, just Kandace and me. I was surprised. Where did they all go? Our instructor mentioned the age difference between us (24 years) and asked us to decide if we wanted to fight each other.
"Do you..?" asked Kandace.
"Sure," I said before she could finish.
We had already fought each other so why not? We were the same height and weight. I contemplated what advantage my age might give me. Only a psychological edge that comes from maturity, perhaps, and she had no idea what the adrenaline of performance could do for me. She was not all that aggressive.
We suited up and entered the ring. I couldn't see her face at all or the instructor's when he called the match. We came at each other and started landing punches. I attacked her. She shot out jabs at me. I was parrying pretty well and my energy was good.
At the 30-second break we went to our "corner", a chair at the edge of the mat. Kandace had her father to coach her. I had one of the black belt women in my corner. She gave me a sip of water, told me how well I was doing and that I was landing a lot of punches and should try combinations of punches. Back in the ring again, I managed two punches at a time and we went at each other even harder. I could hear people cheering us on. Our styles were equally unsophisticated though I did manage to duck so one of her punches missed and I came back up hitting. I was beginning to breathe hard; she not at all it seemed.
Back in my corner again and now Anne, the Australian had come to cheer me on.
"You're doing really good with the jabs", she said, "keep up with the jabs."
"Now go in and win this last round," said my coach. Was I winning? Who knew? We went at it again, not so hard, resting a bit, bouncing around. I was breathing loudly, but at least I could still breath. Kandace landed a good blow. Then our instructor called the last 30 seconds. I lunged at her and started pounding, getting in at least four hits and she returned with equal fervor. The crowd cheering louder until the bell. It was over. Back to our corner to have our gear unbuckled. Then we were called to the center of the ring.
"I've never seen either of you fight this well," said our instructor, himself a world-boxing champion. Then he turned to me and said, "You're going to test for your black belt the next time we test." I nodded not sure what that would mean.
He announced the score. 29 to 30; each round is ten points. Kandace was the winner of the last round. We gave each other a perfunctory hug of good sportsmanship. I'm not sure if she liked me any better, but at least I had earned her respect. It was her father, who later came over to offer his compliments and his hand to shake. Others, too, told me how well I had fought. We had all fought with a lot of heart, we were told. Heart. That was an interesting word. As if we had given of ourselves.
I rode home hardly noticing the hill, high on adrenaline. Would I make black belt? Was being a fighter a good thing? I was already more confrontational as a person. Did the world need more fighters? I didn't know, but next month the school moves to another studio. It would be two miles further away. The extra four miles might just be the edge I needed. I would either be super woman or collapse into an asthmatic heap.