Fightclub for Girlfight
By Amy Zimmer
Amy Baker is a tough girl. She is five-feet two-inches of muscle with a large Japanese-style tattoo of two fish on her right upper arm that must have hurt. On a recent Friday night, Baker brought me to her gym, the Waterfront Boxing Club located in the Financial District. "What's the most ridiculous sport for a woman to do?" she asks. "Fighting. Fifteen years ago, they'd say, 'Women can't box. It's unacceptable.'"
The locker room smelled delightfully floral. A woman fixing herself up after a workout, wearing a daringly low-cut black sleeveless shirt drying her long dark hair says to me, "You're gonna love it here-especially the guys. You're gonna love them, the best looking guys train here."
I was expecting something grittier, something closer to Diana Guzman's experience in the independent film Girlfight. When Diana joins a Brooklyn boxing gym, the owner hands her the key to her dressing room: a dingy custodial closet. She stoically suffers the indignities of the closet. After all, she has to pay her dues to triumph in this male domain.
Girlfight, released in 2000, ushered in a rising popularity of women's boxing and spawned the renovation of gym locker rooms across the country. Last year, the Waterfront Boxing Club, founded in 1997, had to build a new women's locker room to accommodate the increase in women's membership-currently, 35 percent of the gym members are female. The single shower no longer sufficed, so the gym added a new room equipped with four showers, fifteen lockers, a clothing rack, hairdryers, and a matching wicker set of hampers, chairs and mirrors.
More women have begun to don boxing gloves during the past decade. In October 1993, Dallas Malloy, a 16-year-old from Bellingham, Washington, won a lawsuit against USA Boxing, which lifted the ban on amateur women boxing. Since then, the sport has been growing steadily. (There are presently over 1,300 women registered with USA Boxing, and 39 countries have recognized female boxing programs.) Professional boxing, which has been recognized since the 1970s received a commercial boost after Christy Martin's long hard fight in 1996 against Deidre Gogarty following the brutally quick Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno heavyweight championship, landed her the cover of Sports Illustrated. But while omen's participation in sports, in general, has increased due to Title IX-the 1972 amendment Congress passed prohibiting discrimination against girls and women in federally funded education, including athletics programs-boxing, however, was one sport that was slow to attract women.
Baker started training at Waterfront in May 2000 after meeting John and Martin Snow who were delivering a lecture at the New School as part of a course entitled "The Art of Boxing." The brothers who are the trainers and owners recommended she come down for a free lesson at the gym rather than take the New School course. So Baker, and three of her girlfriends checked out the gym and joined shortly thereafter. Baker immediately started going five days a week (with occasional lapses).
"Boxing is putting me back on track," claims the 28-year-old who works in the marketing department at Harper Collins. "I never had any discipline. I didn't go to college. After high school, I moved out to California and lived this carefree lifestyle." And when she moved to New York three years ago, she continued her days and nights of hard partying, heavy drinking and chain smoking. But this has all changed, she insisted, as we chatted at a bar, Baker holding a cigarette in one hand and beer in the other.
"John will know right away that I've started again," and she swears that she will quit (again). "He tells me what to eat and I eat it. When I have a medical problem, he tells me what to do and I do it. It's a complete trust," she says of her relationship with John.
Before Baker starts the rigorous workout at Waterfront, John inspects her hand, which she injured last week-though not while boxing. She was doing backward handspring in a park.
John towers over Baker, and he has an incredibly large head, which looks at least twice as large as hers. His black hair, which is combed back from his well-defined widow's peak, sticks straight up, expanding his head even more. As he massages her hands, checking for a fracture, he looks at her intently. She stares back, waiting for his prognosis. He tells her she's okay, but should take it easy, and then he deftly wraps her hands.
"I watch over everyone, make sure everyone's okay. Life is stressful enough. Going to the gym shouldn't be," he says. John talks like a guru, espousing the wonders of boxing for the body and mind, and gym members like Amy talk about their transformations with the spirit of a Born Again. John tells me how a member called him the other week to let him know how much money he made at work thanks to boxing. Boxing equals success.
John and his brother Martin take great cares into making their gym a home for its members. "I want the gym to be like the neighborhood bar," John says. "You ever see that Jimmy Stewart movie You Gotta Stay Happy, when he goes and brings his wife back? It's kinda like that. We always bring people back into the gym." If a member doesn't show for a few days, the Snows call to find out what's going on. "Did you ever see Raging Bull? Well there's a scene when DeNiro's fighting Joe Pesci and there's a sign on the wall that says 'Gleason's Gym' [referring to the famed Brooklyn boxing gym]. I trained there," John said. "That place stunk so bad. You could choke on the sweat."
Waterfront is more glamorous than Gleason's. It has exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, state of the art exercise equipment and a soon-to-be opened floor with massage and acupuncture. Waterfront is a business, and they offer what will attract members, men and women.
John took all of the positives from his previous gym, and left behind all he thought was wrong with the training system there. He does not let anyone fight until they are ready and once they are, he creates a controlled environment, meaning inexperienced fighters only spar with people who know what they are doing. He trains the men and women the same way-to fight in the ring. (However John does have to do a few things differently for the women. Baker tells me, "When we have gloves on, he fixes our falling bra straps, he fixes our hair.")
"At Gleason's there were two women-an artist and a nurse. This was about sixteen years ago. They treated them so awfully. The artist wanted to fight, and she went into the ring and got beat up. I would never let that happen. How could they have let that happen? Why did she stand for that?" John is quick to point out that he does not want men or women to get beat up. He mentions Lynn Snowden Picket's memoir Looking for a Fight as an example of what he sees as a misconception of boxing. In her book, she states, "I'm full of rage and I want to beat someone up. I want to know what it is to have physical power over men. I want to inspire fear." According to John's philosophy, boxing should have little to do with violence and aggression. Boxers must learn technique, balance, endurance. (Baker had told me something similar.) John states, "If someone wants to train to street fight. They're outta here. I can tell within seconds."
Women's boxing is gradually gaining acceptance, especially in this day of sport-as-therapy, as trainers endorse the practice as an elixir to women who lack confidence. Boxing for Everyone, a videotape workout designed by Cappy Kotz, promotes the sport as increasing cardiovascular strength, maintaining emotional steadiness, and learning to defend oneself. On Waterfront's website, the gym upholds their program to anyone seeking to "maximize their abilities and enhance performance in all areas of his or her life."
"When I tell people I box, they ask if I do kickboxing or boxaerobics," she says referring to the typical exercise classes offered at many New York gyms which incorporate the latest craze of boxing elements (a punch here or a kick there) into their choreographed routine. "You have all women in a room moving mindlessly in front of a mirror with a skinny woman up in the front going, 'And a one and two,'" she says. "I do the real deal."
Two months ago, after having trained at Waterfront for over a year, Baker had her first sparring match. She faced an experienced partner-a 6'4" heavyweight, double her width. "He basically simulated a fight, of where his throws would be." She stayed in for two rounds. "It was the most physically excruciating thing I've ever done and after the first round I wanted to stop. My trainer took my pulse and told me to go back in." After the match, she stepped out of the ring and into the sweet-smelling women's locker room, and she vomited.