If you're anything like me and you were raised by movies, you probably grew up thinking there were two places for women in boxing: as the supportive wife of her American Dream-achieving fighter husband (every boxing movie ever), or paralyzed after a big fight and then suffocated by Clint Eastwood with a pillow (Million Dollar Baby). Neither option sounded good to me, and since I viewed movies as scripture as a child, I always shoved boxing into the "sports that aren't my thing" file of my brain.
Yet on one muggy summer day, I showed up at Mendez Boxing Gym, ready to remove boxing from the "nah" file. Specifically, I was there to meet Reese Scott, the creator of Women’s World of Boxing, a well-known New York women's boxing club. With its cinderblock walls, standard-issue gymnastic mats, and buzzing fans, the gym has an '70s YMCA feel to it. The operative letter being "M" — sweaty dudes in muscle tees fill the room, jabbing at bags like Rocky Balboa. "Where are the girls?" I wondered to myself.
When I spotted Scott, I immediately felt comfortable in the presence of another girl. (There were more of me! I wasn't an intruder!) She’s about my height, with tattoos snaking up her arm, a smile that could put Crest out of business, and a predictably strong handshake. That handshake seamlessly morphed into a hug.
Scott started her boxing club a little less than a decade ago with the hopes of providing other women with what she didn’t have growing up: a safe, non-judgmental environment to learn how to box. From just a day of training, I learned plenty about life, boxing, and the particular experience of women who dare to penetrate this male-dominated realm.
1. Your Boxing Stance = You Claiming Your Space
Before my own lesson with Scott, I watched her teach a youth workshop of about 40 girls. For the boxers-in-training — all from a young women’s mentoring and leadership organization called Power Play — the first order of business was learning how to stand. Her point of reference is perfect for any millennial feminist who lives on the internet and regularly engages with the MTA: manspreading.
“Know those guys on the subway?" she says. "The ones who spread their legs real wide and take up two seats? I want you to be like them.” Feet rooted at 2 o'clock, knees bent and head up, Scott models the proper boxing stance. “I want you to get comfortable taking up space.”
Even in 2016, a year when we’ll potentially be putting a woman in the White House, the idea that women should take up space is still a subversive one. However, when it comes to boxing, taking up the space is mandatory. If you don’t, anything can knock you down.
2. Technique Is Everything
Sure, punching is a great time, but to reap the self-defense benefits of the sport, learning the proper technique is key. That’s what Scott focuses on.
“It’s a great workout, it’s a lot of fun,” she tells me, “but at the end of the day... I want you to know what you’re capable of. I want you to know how to work your body to protect yourself and get out of tight situations.”
With the proliferation of more boutique boxing studios, the sweet science is seeing more female customers than ever before. But as my new boxing guru puts it, these studios (steeped in trendy fitness culture) might focus less on proper self-defense and more on calorie burn.
“With boxing being really trendy, they’re not even really teaching you the technique,” she says. “They’re not teaching you how important your balance is. They’re not teaching you the self-defense aspect of the sport, which is very important.”
These words about technique and self-defense resonate even in a progressive age. From the well-publicized burst in attacks on female joggers, to the specter of campus rape, the world is still a minefield for women who dare to move freely. By teaching women the technique of fighting and self-defense, Scott is making it easier for women to be secure, safe, and strong anywhere.
3. But Technique Is NOT Easy To Master
When you focus on your hands, you forget your feet. Correcting your feet, you might look down and drop your head. When you pick your head up, suddenly your hips are in the wrong place. Multitasking: It ain't for sissies.
What's more, fighting the urge to flinch is tough. My first attempts at retreating looked less like the floating of a butterfly, and more like the scuttling of a skittish cat. Luckily, for what I lack in precision, I make up for in spunk and sheer, bull-headed desire to impress the teacher.
With Scott's patient yet firm guidance, keeping my composure got easier and easier. Most importantly, I remembered to breathe and not get frustrated. She gave me some advice: “Try to remember one good thing you’ve done.”
"Punching!" I thought, mentally brushing off my shoulders. Look out world, I'm a boxer now...
4. As Expected, You Need To Work 10 Times Harder As A Woman In The Boxing World
Even with the Laila Alis and Ronda Rouseys of the world, the conventional wisdom is that boxing is a man’s sport. According to Scott, earning respect is paramount. But in order to do that as a woman in this male-dominated realm, you have to work 10 times harder than the guys.
“You have to do more," she says. "You have to stand up for your work and what you’re doing, and you have to learn how to bob and weave... You teach you how to treat you.”
In the beginning, it seemed like the deck was deliberately stacked against Scott, just by virtue of being a woman infiltrating the sacred brotherhood of boxing.
“They gave me to a trainer that didn’t want to train me," she recalls. Her peers didn’t make it much easier. “When I started boxing, the guys didn’t want me there. The things they would yell at me, they’d say, 'You don’t belong here. What are you doing here? This is a man’s world. Women don’t belong in a boxing gym.'”
But years later, nobody can argue with her dedication and skill. Since ’07, this powerhouse has trained over 1,200 women through a combination of group classes and private lessons. In the morning, she’s the first one in. People see how much of a pure, technical teacher she is. Men and women alike seek her out as a trainer. She plans to open her own boxing gym in the near future, and she's built her entire business with a staff of one.
And even if the odd person is still telling her that ladies don’t belong on the floor, the hate makes her great.
“I need those guys to try me, I need them to hate on me, I need them to call me bitch,” she says. “That fuels me, and that motivates me, and it reminds me to not get comfortable, and that my work isn’t finished.”
5. But You Shouldn’t Let That Stop You From Trying
“My least favorite thing people say is, ‘I’m not ready to train with you,' or, 'I have to lose weight to train with you,’” Scott says. Are the guys asking themselves these questions? Of course not. But as a woman entering what’s typically thought of as a sacred man’s space, there’s pressure to instantly be prodigy-level good.
“Women come in all the time, and we’re so critical of ourselves,” Scott tells me. The reality is, though, that male or female, you need to crawl before you can walk. The harder the learning process, the more satisfying the mastery of a skill is. She continues: “People say, ‘I can’t do this.’ But you know you can and that’s why you’re here. To learn. And I’m here to teach you.”
6. It Attracts A Variety Of Different Women
As Scott puts it, her clients are “some of the most diverse, supportive, eclectic, determined women I’ve ever met" and lists "attorneys, social workers, TV execs, editors, police officers, actors, models, educators, CEOs, creative directors, and students" among her clientele.
That’s the world Scott set out to create — a safe space of sportsmanlike fighting that celebrates the diversity of women from a variety of backgrounds and fitness levels, while meeting the human right to be treated with respect.
“When I decided to start my own boxing club, I decided to call it 'Women’s World of Boxing' because women come in all different sizes, all different ages, all different fitness levels, and I feel like in that world, we should all be accepted as we are,” she says.
7. The Value Of Having A Coach Doesn’t Disappear When You Graduate From High School
An afternoon of training with Coach Reese was like being back in the gym with one of my favorite coaches from high school. She has that magical thing that all great coaches possess — she can teach you discipline while making it seem like fun. When she directs you, you don’t feel singled out. You feel leveled with, like she’s letting you in on a privileged secret. She challenges you and pushes you to your fullest potential.
By the end of the day, I felt like I belonged on the bag, jabbing, crossing, and moving with ease. Any initial trepidation about learning to box had left me in the form of profuse, well-earned sweat. Strong in my budding boxing chops, and safe in my new ability to protect myself, I felt like I could enter any arena and make space for myself with confidence.
I couldn’t help but think that if I had a coach like Scott as a kid, it would have made all the difference. Maybe I would feel entitled to enter any space without platitudes. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to reflexively apologize, even to inanimate objects. Not by virtue of someone protecting me, but me being able to protect myself. But as I learned, it’s never too early or too late to learn how to bob and weave. The world is going to keep throwing all it has at you, so keep your head up, protect your target, and don’t flinch.
Images: Nebi Lika (9)