“Did you see how that guy grabbed my ass?” the brunette Budweiser Girl said, batting the eyelashes of her doe-like eyes.
I glanced over from where I was changing into my fight gear. The Budweiser Girls were perched at the row of porcelain sinks, staring into the large, continuous mirror as if it was a television. They wore red stiletto heels, and string bikinis with the Budweiser logo emblazoned across the chest.
“You’d think that being dressed in tuxes, these guys would be better behaved than that,” continued the brunette, adjusting her bikini bottoms. She reminded me of Princess Leia chained to Jabba the Hut: a bewildering mix of innocence, sexiness, and enslavement.
Held once a year in Lubbock, Texas, Night of Champions was the talk of the town. The money raised during the evening went to support local area youth programs, so, though the men were known to get rowdy during the event, everyone knew it was for a good cause.
“I know. Crazy, right?” said the Barbiesque Budweiser Girl. She had a tiny waist, long blond hair, and enormous breasts. “I’ve had my boobs grabbed more times than I can count already.”
“What’s going on out there?” I asked cautiously, pulling a groin protector over my underwear and then slipping silver and black satin shorts up past my flat-soled, calf-high boxing boots.
“They’ve completed three fights,” Barbie said in the monotone voice of a bailiff bringing a courtroom trial into session. “All young boys. The steak dinner has been served. Most of the men are already on their third or fourth drink.” She paused. The corners of her painted mouth turned upward in satisfaction. “At least we’re making good tips!”
“The place is pretty hazy,” Princess added, waving a hand in front of her face as if to ward off the fumes. “There’s a lot of cigar smoking going on.”
Great. Cigar smoke. That was not going to fare well with the nasty cold I was fighting. It was deep winter, the middle of January, and frosty-air morning runs had worked a number on my immune system. I struggled with head congestion, phlegm, and “the wheeze.”
Fixated on their reflections, the Budweiser Girls hadn’t registered who was talking to them. As I moved closer to the mirror to tie my black hair back in two tight ponytails, Barbie glanced up from her mascara. “Are you fighting tonight?” she squeaked, doing a double take.
Barbie froze, momentarily speechless, but Princess shifted her eyes to mine. “I’ve never seen women box before,” Princess said, holding my gaze. I couldn’t tell if she was fascinated or horrified.
“We’re the semi-main event,” I explained. “I’m fighting a local college gal that’s beaten me twice already.”
“Oh,” said Princess, pursing her eyebrows together. “That doesn’t sound fun.” She turned back to the mirror to apply a fresh coat of bright red lipstick.
Barbie began bouncing up and down on her stilettos. “I love the underdog!” she said, bubbling. “We’ll cheer for you!”
I smiled. Barbie’s enthusiasm was endearing, and I could use the support. I had come into boxing through a back door, starting out in Muay Thai, the brutal form of kickboxing that allowed punches, kicks, and foot jabs, but also elbows, knees, and body throws. Each of my previous endeavors, whether distance running, firefighting, or meditation, seemed to draw me closer to the martial arts. There was an intrinsic pull, a fascination. I took to Muay Thai as much for the spiritual discipline as for the physical. I wanted to push my will, along with my body, all of the way to its limit. I wanted to face my abhorrence of hitting, and of being hit. I wanted to understand what violence was. Was it the action, or was it the intent? I longed to stretch the boundaries of myself, in the context of another. But my reasons weren’t all highly evolved. I also wanted to dominate, to win. That, I knew, was for ego’s sake. It was my way into a world where I thought I’d be respected, and ultimately, connected.
I was moved by the pre-fight ceremonial dance of Muay Thai, the Wai Khru. I found it sacred to honor one’s teachers, one’s ancestors and the divine. There was also a release in offering up the results, no matter what they would be, and then battling without reservation. With Muay Thai, I thought I had found my path. But then, one day two years later a Western Boxing coach asked me to spar his fighter.
In boxing I found my beloved. The attraction, at first, was hard to define. Boxing was more sport than spiritual practice. It was ugly, with dirty edges. It reeked with the sweat of those seeking to escape economic desperation, familial violence, gangs, or drugs. Yet, it was filled with a simple grace. It was elegant, rhythmic, and hypnotic. It was transformative, and in that, it was clean. When I boxed it was as if I stepped into the cold river of history, of the working class and its dashed dreams, of the oppressed and their hope, of the haunted and the confrontation of their ghosts. The current carried me. I was becoming not just a boxer, but all the boxers that had come before me.
I won as many fights as I lost. I learned a lot. But as a path to connection, boxing had created isolation. Training, sparring, and fighting had replaced time previously spent with family and friends. Vacation days had been used for medical exams, weigh-ins, and fights. Or, if not for those, then for travel to Washington State, where I rotated in to care for my mom during her chemotherapy treatments. I lived a regimented life. I trained twice daily, six days per week, before and after work, holiday or not, birthday or not. Consequently I slept little, except during long car rides, or on airplanes. I was tired. Due to my “advanced age”—thirty-two years when I first stepped into the ring—I could not afford a pause. The upper end of the Open class in amateur boxing was thirty-four. After thirty-four I would enter the sparsely populated Master’s class, or would have to turn professional. Though turning pro was my goal, I knew that even in the pros most boxers retired by the time they had hit their mid-thirties. Time was fleeting, and so I pressed on.
Finding fights had not been easy. There weren’t many female boxers. My coach, Mario, insisted that we go on the road. We left New Mexico to secure fights, paying our way with the money we brought home from our day jobs. There was nothing to spare. Even the decision to buy a pair of regulation bottoms or a new set of shoes was weighed heavily beforehand. Satin shorts or spaghetti? Boxing boots or bread?
We abandoned our families for stretches of time, traveling to spar and traveling to fight. We flew to California to compete in a multi-day tournament called The Desert Showdown. We flew to Tennessee for The Double Dual. We drove to Arizona for the National Hispanic Games. We agreed to exhibition matches pitting me against heavier fighters, or professionals, or occasionally men. It was exciting. It was taxing. In the adrenaline of it all, I forgot to question whether I should have been in the current at all. What was the goal? I forgot. Staying afloat? Ride the river, then. See if it can take me all of the way to the sea. It led me to Texas, to this Night of Champions, where I was an underdog on the undercard. So, yes, I welcomed a personal cheerleader.
Mario and I had arrived at the country club earlier in the day. We drove past the guard station, past lush rolling fairways shaded by mature trees, past manicured gardens, and up to the front of the club building. Mario let out a low whistle.
“Will you look at that,” Mario said, truck tires crunching over the gravel of an expansive parking area. “Pretty fancy place.”
The fancy factor had been contributing to my growing sense of nervousness. Despite it being just minutes before 7:00 a.m., my skin was clammy and the fabric under my armpits was damp. Up to this point all of my fights had been in Boys and Girls Clubs, boxing gyms, community centers, school cafeterias, and American Legion buildings in great need of repair. The Lubbock Country Club sported one of the finest 18-hole golf courses in the area. Its banquet room hosted galas, weddings, wine tastings, and gourmet dinners.
We stepped out of the truck and moved towards the covered marble steps. A chandelier graced the entrance, hovering over an enormous plastic flower display. I felt transported back in time to an era of secret societies, class stratification, and servants. I was not in my element. The Lubbock Country Club looked like a place where young ladies curtsied in presentation to “polite society,” a place that would be home to a Cotillion ball, not a boxers’ brawl.
My eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the foyer. The walls were edged with wainscoting of aged chestnut and walnut. Large luxurious couches with supple brown suede rested in the dimly lit hall. There was a grand piano, and a richly decorated Italian armoire meant strictly for show. Portraits of past club presidents lined the wall, all of them white and male.
The manager of the venue greeted us. He was dressed in crisp suit pants, shiny shoes, a pressed white shirt, and tie. He was perhaps forty years old. He explained to us that Night of Champions was a black-tie, gentleman-only endeavor. Women, though occasionally invited to a dance or other function, were not allowed. The exception would be a handful of cocktail waitresses.
“I’m one of the fighters,” I said.
The manager narrowed his eyes. He shuffled his weight sideways to his other foot, and questioned, “You’re fighting?”
“She’s the semi-main event,” explained Mario.
“Oh,” the manager said. Two or three seconds passed. No one spoke. I understood the manager’s disorientation. Nearly every one of my boxing matches had been on a card where my name and my opponent’s name were the only female ones. Women’s bouts were still rarities, not the norm. The manager straightened his torso, smoothed his hands over his tie, and then nodded once. He waved his hand outwards in front of him as if inviting me to walk an invisible red carpet. “Welcome, my dear,” he said, “to the Lubbock Country Club.”
Mario and I strolled the long hallway, poking our heads around colonial-era six-panel doors fitted with bronze escutcheons. We saw area rugs in intricate oriental patterns. We ran our fingers over the shelving of ebony bookcases that were large enough to crush an entire family. In a room where narrow beams of light escaped partially drawn drapes we saw mahogany credenzas, and a black walnut hutch.
When the weigh-ins began just past 8:00 a.m., I was told that I would be weighed in first, “in privacy,” in the ladies’ room. The other fighters, boys and men, were to be weighed in together, in the banquet room. Following the weight master and the opposing team’s coach, Mario and I made our way to the ladies’ room. My opponent had not yet arrived. Her coach said it was okay with him if she didn’t witness my weight. He’d vouch for me. I stripped down to lightweight surfer shorts and a sports bra, and stepped on the scale at exactly one hundred and twenty six pounds—the upper limit as a featherweight. I was told that I was cleared to go eat breakfast.
With a modern technical college set on the edge of a collapsing boomtown, Lubbock had long been the regional center for education, health care, and commerce. Due as much to this central location as to the five major highways that forked out from it like spokes, Lubbock was known as “Hub City.” On our way into the hub, Mario and I were met by junkyards, migrant picker houses near collapse, and dusty red fields covered with brown cotton stubble. As one of the world’s leading cotton producers, Lubbock maintained a look that said, maybe, in a freak occurrence—perhaps one similar to the legendary 1951 “Lubbock Lights” appearance, where UFOs purportedly flew in a V-shaped formation over the town—all of its clothes dryers had burst simultaneously, exploding lint onto roadways and into ditches.
Main Street had a few stately businesses with brick faces recently renovated, interspersed with sagging boarded-up structures, where glass shards stood guard in windows long ago busted out. No eatery on Main Street was open on a Saturday, so we moved on.
Across town Texas Tech served as its own hub, long cement shopping strips and tight housing blocks spreading outwards from it. Edging the rows of condos and their uniform, close-clipped lawns were coffee shops, brewpubs, bistros, and bookstores. Each person passing by had a book bag, a coffee cup, a bicycle, or sometimes all three.
We ate breakfast in a quaint, French-style café with large windows and street side seating. Afterwards we passed a few hours watching Rocky Balboa at a local theater, losing ourselves in the story. The film felt profound, really, in the context of that moment. There, on the big screen, I watched an aging Rocky decide to step into the ring one last time, pitting himself against a much younger man, the Heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon. When Rocky’s own son challenged his decision, Rocky stated, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. Its about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward.” For a second it was like the world wasn’t so big and my life wasn’t so segregated. We shared something, Rocky and I. Our advanced age as fighters, maybe, or our determination, our stubbornness, our strength.
The announcer stepped into the ring during the intermission separating the main events from the earlier fights. It was then that the black-tie diners learned the 200-seat fundraising dinner had sold out. Tipsy, and feeling more brotherly than they had earlier in the night, the gentlemen raised their glasses in cheer, hugging each other. With the price of tickets ranging from $100-200 per plate, several thousand had been raised for charity.
Mario motioned me closer to the banquet room’s open doors. We waited outside for the DJ to start the music that would signal it was time for us to move to the ring. The first fights of the night had been accompanied by elegant classical music, but as the black tie bros became increasingly inebriated, and $100-dollar bets began waving in the air, the DJ had ramped up the music to match the mood. First it was Buddy Holly—Lubbock was the birthplace of the rock and roll legend—and then it moved on to blood-pumping Metallica and Slayer.
“Gentlemen of the club,” the announcer implored, starting with an urgent whisper, and then getting louder with each word. “Please focus your attention on the ring for our semi-main event, and the only female fight of the night!”
The gentlemen of the club belted out a boisterous mix of cheers.
“Hear, hear!” yelled some, as if they were old English aristocrats.
“Hell yeah!” shouted the others.
Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” began to play. My cue. Mario and I started through the doors, heading towards the ring. The dinner tables were covered in black linens. They held fine dishware, crystal water glasses, polished utensils, and the remnants of steak dinners. There were martini glasses, rocks glasses, and what appeared to be more cigars than a Cuban contraband seizure at sea.
“Red!” yelled a vociferous gent whose bow tie was cockeyed and whose messy hair angled upwards like a ski jump.
The red corner had been assigned to the out-of-state fighters, those from Oklahoma and New Mexico, while the blue corner had been reserved for the Texan team. My opponent originally hailed from New Mexico, but she—Kayla Combs—now attended college at Texas Tech. As a member of the Lubbock Warriors Boxing Club, she had been granted the heralded blue.
“Hey Red!” the bow tied man shouted again, waving a Ben Franklin in my face and practically blowing me over with the force behind his whisky breath. “My money’s on you Red!”
I kept my eyes on the ring. The aisle leading to the ring was quite narrow, and Mario and I had to squeeze our bodies between the suits.
“You’ve got this, Red!” yelled Ben Franklin, following me. “You’ve got this!”
We passed the ringside tables reserved for those fight aficionados who wanted to be blessed by the holy waters of punch-launched sweat and blood—they had paid a premium to be in the splatter zone.
We started up the steps into the ring, Ben Franklin trailing on our heels. A blue corner fan, beginning to look disheveled in his wrinkled tuxedo shirt, shoved Ben Franklin. “Blue! Blue! Blue!” he shouted inches from Ben Franklin’s face, effectively showering Ben Franklin in spittle. A well-cheered shoving match ensued. Onlookers elbow-nudged each other jokingly in the ribs, and waved their bills towards Ben Franklin and Wrinkles, as if all wagers were now on the two men.
The music changed to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” My opponent bounded into room and the tumult increased. Most of the men were standing, and of those, it appeared that 90% favored blue. I circled in the ring, shuffling, throwing punches, and staying loose though I was already warm. My eyes followed Kayla as she moved. She snaked through cigar haze and the most riotous crowd of my twenty-fight amateur career. The tuxedoed were toasting—occasionally breaking a rocks glass with exuberance—yelling, shouting, hooting, hollering, shoving cigars in each other’s faces, threatening blows, but then pounding each other on the back like buddies. As “Thunderstruck” hit its crescendo, I half expected the ringside area to degrade into a mosh pit.
Once Kayla summited the steps—her bulky, classic boxer’s form rippling towards the center of the ring—the referee called us together. He kept us separated at arms length. Long and lean, I towered over Kayla. Height could be an advantage in a boxing match. It put a shorter fighter outside the taller fighter’s reach. But I knew from experience that my lanky frame also tended to deter the judges. Once, a judge had gone as far as to say that he thought I looked better fit for the runway than the ring.
“We went over the rules in the dressing room,” the referee said, interrupting my thought. “I expect a good clean fight.”
“Don’t listen to him!” yelled someone from ringside. “Fight dirty!”
The referee repeated himself, accentuating each word. “A good, clean fight.”
“Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!” the chant rose from the crowd.
The referee increased the volume of his voice. “If I say break, head to a neutral corner and await my command. Now, touch gloves.”
Kayla and I touched gloves. We headed to our corners, and faced each other. When the starting bell sounded, I thought a linebacker was coming at me. Kayla charged as if she meant to catch me with her leading shoulder and drive me straight back into the ropes and then off the edge of the raised platform. A bubble of hyper-awareness shot out from me like a force field. Kayla and I were the epicenter. The crowd became a muffled sound, far away, in an unlit distance. I sidestepped and swiveled, catching Kayla with a left hook to the head. She spun back at me. I pounded straight shots right down the middle, as fast and hard as I could. She backed off, circled me, and then changed tactics. Pushing back in, she threw the vicious, yet messy, rapid-fire punches of a brawler. I got clocked in the head. My vision distorted, and I saw sparkles in the periphery. Shift it fast, or lose, I heard myself say. I bobbed under Kayla’s next punch and then circled to create distance between us. Kayla rushed to close the distance. I threw my right cross. It popped her directly between the eyes and sent her sailing backwards. She rushed again. I popped her again.
I could hear the smack of leather as my glove cracked her face. I could hear her boxing shoes thud on the padded canvas as she caught her balance and reversed, coming forward again. I could hear the air escape her mouth when her punches impacted my body. I even thought I could hear the pulse in her neck vein when I shoved her off of me, knocking her backwards again.
The bell sounded ending round one. My bubble of awareness let down, and the black tie roar came crashing back in at me like a rogue wave.
In the corner, Mario wiped the sweat from my face with a clean white towel. He told me to continue throwing straight down the middle, and to initiate every flurry. “She beat you in your other fights because she was quicker to the punch,” Mario said. “Not tonight, Clara. You’re upsetting her and it’s starting to show. She’s getting sloppy. She’s brawling, not boxing. Keep her on the outside. Don’t let her in.”
My breath came in loud rasps. The lights seemed too bright, and I thought I felt them searing my skin. The room roiled. I wanted out. I struggled to gulp down enough air. I had overexerted and I knew it. I felt frantic, like the one-minute break could never be enough. Mario saw it. He firmly grasped my shoulders with his hands. “Slow down your breathing,” he said. His eyes refused to leave mine. “In through the nose, one, two, three, four,” he counted. “Out through the mouth, one, two, three, four.” It was helping. He was getting in past my panic.
The bell sounded. Mario jumped down from the edge of the ring and took his seat. I swiveled and headed to the center of the ring, where I beat Kayla to the first punch. I forgot about everything, except her. I fired off straight shots, putting the full force of my hips, legs and torso into them. Kayla barreled forward and was battered backward.
The remainder of round two passed much the same. I kept Kayla on the outside where she was visibly frustrated. She never ceased coming in at me, and I threw fast and hard to keep her out. Several of my lead rights bludgeoned her nose. When my hooks connected to her jaw or temple, blood splayed out from her nostrils in an arc that was peppered with droplets of sweat. The spray hung in the air like flies before gently settling onto the floor of the ring, colliding with the half bare arms of the referee, or splattering across the white shirts of the front row fans.
During round three the crowd undulated, a dark mass that was moving somewhere beyond the bright spotlights. The men must have been cheering, but I did not hear them. Instead, I heard the wheeze of my chest, like a swarm of mosquitos. I heard the crack of Kayla’s right fist when it connected with my left ribs. I returned fire with an uppercut to the solar plexus. It buckled Kayla’s knees. She paused, and wobbled, but did not go down. In the next flurry of punches, she caught the underside of my chin with an uppercut that snapped my head back. It gave her the split-second she needed to get in. She bear-hugged my arms in the clinch. Leaning her full weight onto me, she sucker punched a tight left hook into my right kidney. I felt the energy leave me, pouring out through my feet and soaking into the canvas. I knew I had to get Kayla off of me, fast, or risk the next kidney blow ending it for me.
With a forceful shoulder-pop to Kayla’s clavicle, I succeeded. She was thrown off balance, and I launched backwards off my left foot. As soon as my right foot landed, I ricocheted forward again, connecting my right cross to Kayla’s forehead. The punch stopped her in her tracks just as the ten-seconds-out clanging of the cowbell signaled that the fight was about to end. We threw with final ferocity.
When the last bell sounded, I was spent. My limbs felt leaden. My chest heaved. I thought I had won, but I also wasn’t sure—the judges had betrayed my belief in myself before.
Mario removed my headgear and gloves. I joined Kayla in the center of the ring. The referee stood between us, holding our wrists down by his side. Drink glasses were raised in the air, in anticipation, with half of the crowd now shouting “Red! Red! Red!” The other half was still yelling for blue.
The announcer hushed the spectators by lowering his outstretched hand in a gesture that said to bring it down. “The judges have made their decision,” he called out. He read each of the judges’ scores. My eyes swept the room. The Budweiser Girls, five of them in total, were standing towards the back. Their attention was on the ring. I caught Barbie’s eyes. She gave me a thumbs-up followed by a pompom hand roll that ended in the extension of one fist up into the air. I laughed. I liked having my own dedicated cheerleader. My focus shifted to Princess. She looked nervous, her fingers clasped tightly together up by her chin. Was she worried for me?
Suddenly my right hand was jerked upwards by the referee. The announcer had just said that I had won. The Budweiser girls stomped their feet, jumping up and down and hugging each other. I gushed with pride, my face feeling simultaneously hot and chilled. I turned to Kayla and thanked her. From there I hustled over to thank her coach, then I rushed back to Mario.
Mario grabbed me and kissed me on the forehead the way that my dad always did. He patted me on the back. He stooped low, holding the ropes apart for me. I stepped through them, out of the ring.
“Great fighter you’ve got there, coach,” a balding, gold-toothed man said, grabbing Mario’s hand as we descended from the ring.
“Way to go, champ,” a raucous businessman said to me, breaking into a grin when my sweaty handshake slimed up his ring-clad fingers.
“My money was on you Red!” shouted Ben Franklin, pushing the others aside as he rushed towards me. “You didn’t disappoint!” He chest-bumped me like I had just scored a rugby goal, and then he ruffled my hair. “My fighter!” he proclaimed, pointing at me and looking directly at Wrinkles.
Wrinkles stepped between Ben Franklin and I, effectively cutting Ben Franklin out of the conversation. “Damn fine fight!” said Wrinkles, folding one of my hands inside of both of his. He leaned in closer, and whispered, “I should have bet on you.”
That feeling was electric. I had finally beaten Kayla and I had done it while suffering from a chest cold. Though my breathing had quieted down, I knew if that if I said more than a few words I might start into a coughing fit, so I just nodded.
It took a long time for Mario and I to make our way through the rest of the crowd. Once we did, I slipped into the ladies’ room to change out of my sweaty clothing. Alone in front of that lengthy, scalloped-edge mirror, it dawned on me. Unlike the Budweiser Girls, I had passed through the tumult like one of the guys. I stared at my reflection, checking out the scratches and light bruises coloring my face. My upper lip was beginning to swell, and dried flakes of blood extended from my left nostril. Earlier, watching the Budweiser Girls at the same mirror, I hadn’t feared the battering, or the way my body would ache the next day. Instead, I feared being manhandled and taunted amidst the press of tuxedos. It was a fear of being disrespected. Not disrespected because of the outcome of the fight, had I lost, but disrespected because I was a woman. Because I was a female fighter in a world where sex, and the sexualization of women, sells. But then I had let the worry go, and I had set to work, boxing. Doing what I loved. I fought my heart out, like I always did. In exchange, not one hand had grabbed my tits or my ass. Nor would it. I was treated like I was, a veteran of the canvas battlefield, a warrior.