“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain
In February 2009, just before my 35th birthday would’ve made me ineligible, I faced off in a public boxing ring with a woman 20 years my junior and at least 15 pounds heavier. I was aware of the lights boring into us from the high ceilings and the screaming crowd, but I focused only on this behemoth against the opposite ropes, who stared me down with just as much determination and confidence as I was trying to muster and fake. I was nervous, but not about getting hurt. I couldn’t lose. I wouldn’t lose.
I’d started this journey two years earlier, in the middle of losing my marriage, house, and cat: the only things that had made me feel grounded over the past decade. Instead of continuing down the street to the city hospital to check myself in for depression, I stopped at the boxing gym, which I’d never been in, but which beckoned with a digital sign promising confidence and empowerment. The gym was empty except for Asa, the 19-year-old Columbian kid not much taller than me who would become my trainer. He gave me a free, private workout, and I walked out full of endorphins and hooked on a sport I’d never enjoyed watching. For the next two years, I spent three hours, six days a week doing crunches, push-ups, squats, bag punching, and ring work. I hadn’t pushed my body this way since I was a ballet dancer in my teens, and that was the opposite of empowering. In the dance program at my high school, at 5’2 and a maximum of 100 pounds, I was constantly told to lose “just five more pounds” and that my body didn’t naturally conform to the required shapes. I failed because my body failed.
Boxing gave me back control of my body, as well as my anger and empowerment over its expression. Ultimately, exercising that empowerment would add to my first misdiagnosis, Bipolar 2 (because boxing equaled mania for a 5’2 woman, apparently), but that’s on the doctors not the sport.
Once in the ring, I could see only her eyes and the blue gloves that marked her as my opponent. My gloves matched the red flames that shot up the sides of the black shorts Asa lent me. She looked like a typical “mall rat,” as I described her later, but a big one. The rules stated there couldn’t be a weight difference of over 9 pounds, and we were weighed separately with only our trainers in attendance. I had spent two months trying to gain weight in order to qualify for a category with another available fighter. My co-workers called me gnat weight, and they weren’t far off; I was originally 110 pounds. I had to be 119 in order to qualify for this fight. That night, they recorded my weight as 119 and hers as 128. Those of us behind the scenes understood what was on the line: the headlining and final event – GIRL FIGHT – heavily promoted and sold out. We also silently understood my opponent was not 128 by any stretch of the imagination.
I came out blazing, as was my style. I always let my opponents size me up, or in my case down, then caught them off guard by moving in aggressively right away. My initial move was double jab, right, left hook – boxing 101. The strategy was then to go low. But the problem with hitting fast and hard is that some people will hit back hard and fast. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get hit.
Mallrat immediately caught me with a jab/right while my gloves were lowered. I heard the low ‘ooh’ of the crowd’s imagined pain, a sensation I wouldn’t feel until after it was all over. But the intensity of the muffled thuds to my head through the leather headgear was its own kind of pain. During all my training, I’d never been hit so hard. My first spar, over a year prior, ended when the other fighter quit during the first round. I took photos of her bloodstains on my gloves. I’d sparred with plenty of experienced teenaged boys, who make perfect, but easier, partners because they were still growing, boxing since they could walk, and didn’t want to hit a girl too hard.
Mallrat pummeled me during the first round. The referee stopped the fight after a particularly long series of blows, counting to eight, before letting us continue. It was considered a technical knockdown and only three were allowed before the fight was decided by technical knockout.
I needed the break. I went back to my corner where Asa urged me to get low and keep my damn hands up. I nodded, trying to slow my breathing while swallowing the water being squirted through my mouth guard. The bell rang and we advanced to the center of the ring again. As soon as I squat down to prepare for an unexpected attack to her body, I could feel the burn in my legs, exactly where the flames licked my thighs on Asa’s shorts. I moved forward anyway, concentrating only on her kidneys and the roar of the crowd as their underdog pushed Goliath backwards and against the ropes.
I had her! All I needed to do was apply a few straight rights to the head and she’d be down, not just technically but literally. But that’s not what happened. I’ll never forget her face. Mallrat looked me in the eyes with the ferocity of a mother about to lift a car to save her child. She dropped her arms and shoved me away from her. It’s that moment I remember again and again – the moment her hands were down, her face exposed, victory still possible. But I also remember absorbing and interpreting her expression. I remember thinking she looked how I felt, recognizing that she had a reason for fighting, too. What was it? I hesitated.
In a split second, she was back in control. With knees wobbling from fatigue, I retreated. My labored breathing echoed inside the suffocating helmet protecting my brain. The fight was stopped again. I knew I was toast. Asa spoke urgent words calmly into my ear. I’d had her against the ropes, get low again, go for the body, the body, the body.
I never hit the mat. I did not fall. I would repeat that afterwards when people, who were there or heard about it, expressed horror at much bigger she was, how hard and many times she hit me.
It was not my will or strength, determination or grit that failed me in the end. It was my body. I did not have the physical endurance to finish. I knew it was over before it was over. I was tired. I was done. For the first time during the fight, I took my eyes off my opponents’ and glanced at the referee. He gave me my final eight count and stopped the fight.
The photograph taken just after Asa pulled off my headgear shows me smiling. I remember feeling disappointed but happy. Mallrat may have won, but I hadn’t fallen. I had taken the beating of my life, but kept fighting.
Actually, it wasn’t the beating of my life. But no one knew that. Even the one or two people in the audience who knew I’d been savagely beaten before didn’t really know.
In the days afterwards, people expressed shock at how I’d withstood such a brutal beating and kept on fighting. But I resented those who seemed to feel sorry for me. They didn’t understand I was just doing what I’d always done. I’d achieved my goal: survive without giving up the fight. For me, it was a way of living. I wasn’t used to winning anything. I have no collection of trophies declaring me the victor over others. I’m a survivor, and my primal instincts needed to be reminded during a time I was losing all my tangible securities, which back then was all I had.
Recently, a woman I’m getting to know through a family relation asked about a tattoo she spied the corner of, on my left bicep that says, in script, Brooklyn Bomb. That was my boxing name. Though self-given, it caught on. Well, part of it. Inside gyms and at matches, people would call out: “Brooklyn!” in their version of a Brooklyn accent.
I explained to the woman that I’d gotten the tattoo during a time when I trained in boxing and left it at that. A few hours later, the woman announced I’d been “a boxer” at a small dinner party of intellectual elites. I choked slightly as the table grew quiet and heads turned toward me, eyes questioning, ‘Why?’.
“Well,” I said, thinking, ‘how do I explain without explaining the whole thing and without being judged?’ These were not people who even watched boxing, but it was an interesting nugget to reveal about a relative from the eccentric side of the family during a lull in conversation about art and politics.
I remember inhaling and seeing a reel of memories scroll across my brain, rolling backwards and ending with first boyfriend punching me, and me hitting the floor, immediately curling into a fetal position with my arms covering the sections of my head I’d learned are most vulnerable specifically for this reason. He kicks me anyway, the exposed parts of my neck and back giving in to the bottoms of his steel-toe boots. I give in because I know I can’t win. I can’t beat him. He is too big, too strong, too dangerous. I don’t yet know to get low and aim for the kidneys. I don’t know how to protect my face and roll beneath an opponent’s punch and come back with a straight right. No one is there to stop the fight and give me an eight count. I surrender until he stops.
I exhale and answer the dinner guests waiting to be entertained.
“Boxing is like a physical game of chess,” I say. The guests nod at each other. They know chess. “But, it’s an even better work-out.” I looked at the ladies. “You should see my back muscles.”
The dinner guests smile and raise their glasses. A happy ending.
For me, it’s not so simple. Each time I go home, to the old neighborhood, to visit family, I’m hyper-alert. He could be here. I know he’s still around. I have the boxing combination in my head, carefully choreographed, that would get him on the ground after which my attack would immediately disqualify me in the ring. I know the words I want to say to him by heart. I’d need to remember to begin accumulating enough saliva in my mouth to spit on him as my final act before making my get-away. But I also know that I could see him, even lock eyes with him, our shared, secret memories bouncing back and forth, unseen as they’ve always been, our eternal connection. Then in an instant, he could be gone, having walked past taking the moment of opportunity with him. And by the time I muster the courage to turn around it will be too late. It depends on the day, the time, the weather, my frame of mind.
I will be triggered. That is the only thing I know for sure. What I don’t know is my response: Fight, freeze or flight. I don’t think that is something I can prepare for mentally like I would for a fight in the ring.
Only I truly understand that I won something far more valuable than a trophy in the ring that night. I won a chunk of survival that I would need when C-PTSD began to take hold in the coming years. I was still boxing when my best friend, Beth, committed suicide, although I quit soon after. C-PTSD is like a 1,000-pound mallrat in the ring. Beth was the first of many triggers that would pummel me in the ring over the next few years. But I had allowed my body to engage in one of its most primal instincts – to fight, which we all do everyday in various forms, of which hurting others unfortunately seems to be the most common. I learned to fight and fight back, and I believe those mental skills helped me stay alive through the deaths of five more of my closest friends: two more suicides, two addiction-related deaths and of one cancer. I also got through homelessness and physical illness related to C-PTSD. The victory? I’m still alive. The women who died were the strongest women I’ve known, stronger than me, I thought. But then again, what is strength? The voice of suicide is strong. It was stronger than Beth (46), Elizabeth (42) and Jody (46). Addiction is a coping mechanism for trauma, at least in the case of Katherine and Jennifer, both of whom ‘hit the mat’ at 40 and 47, respectively. Hallie died of lung cancer at 40, like her mother, but experienced trauma in childhood, also. Whether or not the trauma, which she calmed with her own addictions, contributed to her death is best examined with help from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestseller, ‘The Body Keeps the Score’.
I’m doing a different kind of training now, one that won’t further damage my neck. Finding a good therapist, which took years, was just as hard as training for the ring. Putting my trust in her and the process, and continuing even when I feel like giving up, takes just as much strength as it did to keep going that night in the ring.
So, today is my trophy. I am living. I am writing.
And you should see my back muscles.