The Journeywoman

No one ever said being a professional boxer would be easy, but for the sport’s women, it seems almost impossible—and rarely worth it.

Amelia Schonbek is a journalist who has written for...

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“Keep working, Little Bit, keep working!” shouts Delen Parsley. Little Bit, also known as Kristina Naplatarski, is in the ring with a championship boxer, and things aren’t looking good. It’s the second round of her quarterfinal bout in the New York Daily News Golden Gloves, and the eighteen-year-old featherweight from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, isn’t throwing enough punches. Though Kristina has been training as a boxer since she was thirteen, this is only her third amateur fight: until she reached the age of eligibility, seventeen, she wasn’t allowed to participate in adult amateur bouts. Her opponent, Amanda Isaac, on the other hand, is two weeks shy of her 28th birthday and has years of experience on the amateur circuit.

Kristina is 5’5” and generally boxes at 125 pounds. She was given her nickname the first time she walked into Gleason’s gym as a scrawny seventh-grader who had just been jumped at school. Teen girls don’t often take up boxing—it’s far more common for women to get into the sport in their twenties—but from her first session, Kristina knew she wanted to train seriously.

In the ring, in silky red shorts and a blue jersey, her stance is wide; she no longer looks little. Isaac throws a pitter-patter of punches: left hook, uppercut, left hook, cross. Jab, jab, Kristina responds, and Isaac jumps backward. “Back her up!” someone shouts from the bleachers. The day’s fights are happening at a Catholic boys’ school in Bay Ridge, and the gymnasium is full. The crowd murmurs softly; spectators eat hot dogs and chase babies as the boxers alternately step forward, feint, and jump back. The audience begins to whoop and yell only when one fighter or the other pounces, the volume rising with the intensity of the punches.

Kristina throws a cross, pauses, then a jab. “There you go!” yells James Thornwell, who, with Delen, is working Kristina’s corner. “Get her again!” But then Isaac lands a swift combination; a well-aimed hit knocks Kristina’s head backward. The ref signals a standing eight count, meant to give an overwhelmed boxer a moment’s pause. She follows Kristina back toward her corner and lifts two fists in front of her face. One by one, she counts off thumb, pointer, middle finger, until she reaches eight. Then she waves the fighters back to the centre of the ring, yelling, “Box!”

How did an eighteen-year-old with only two fights under her belt wind up facing a former champion in the first round of a major boxing tournament? If Kristina and Amanda Isaac were men, it would never have happened. But women’s amateur fights are often mismatched, one of many dysfunctions that have plagued the sport since women were first allowed to fight competitively in the mid-‘90s. Two decades later, women’s participation in boxing remains low, from the professionals, where women are barely paid to enter the ring, down to the amateurs, where there are ongoing challenges recruiting women to compete. Low participation means that at the amateur level, the field is continually unbalanced: a few very experienced fighters dominate the sport, meeting the same opponents over and over, frequently with the same outcome. It seems that what the women’s amateurs do best is produce a long line of journeywomen: skilled boxers who nonetheless have little hope of winning their fights or advancing in the sport.

Kristina and Amanda Isaac move back toward the center of the ring. Kristina lands a low shot, jogs forward, then hits with a jab. But she continues to take more punches than she throws. A few moments later, the ref gives Kristina another standing eight. If she receives a third, the fight will be finished.

*

Several weeks earlier Kristina climbed into the ring at Gleason’s and began to shadow box. It was just before noon, and the gym, which occupies the second floor of an old warehouse building, hadn’t yet filled up. A few guys ran on treadmills along one windowed wall; across the room, others skipped rope or worked at the ancient, duct-tape-swaddled heavy bag. There is never any music playing at Gleason’s; the only soundtrack is the bell that rings every few minutes to signal the beginning or end of a round; the slap of hands hitting the speed-bag; and an intermittent chorus of voices shouting for a guy called Chicken, whom nobody can ever seem to find.

Kristina jabbed and ducked in quick, staccato flashes, brow furrowed and jaw set. Soon Delen Parsley, whom everyone calls Blimp, put on a pair of mitts and joined her in the ring. He is very tall and very wide, and he towered over her, yawning, while she whaled on him until she tired herself out. “It’s raining men!” Blimp belted. Cross. Jab. Jab. Duck. “Hallelujah!” Cross. Jab. Kristina held her focus, face resolute. Her Golden Gloves fight was just weeks away, and she was starting to get nervous.

Kristina knew that, with only one year of amateur experience behind her, she was liable to meet an older, more seasoned opponent in the Gloves. But she was trying not to think about it, focusing instead on being as prepared as possible. She didn’t stop moving when the bell marked the end of her round, going through her patterns a few more times to be sure her muscles would remember them. “I try to just think about putting in the work,” she said later, once she had hit the speed bag and finished her conditioning. “But it’s intimidating. I’m by far the youngest.”

Kristina will tell you herself that she is not a naturally talented boxer. As a child, growing up in Greenpoint, she evaded her mother’s attempts to get her to play sports. She was always a smart kid, and by the time she reached middle school, she was completely bored. She was enrolled at IS 318, on the border of Bed-Stuy and Bushwick—Jay-Z’s old middle school—and she started acting out. “We had the pretty girls and all that, but at the top of the social ladder was whoever could fight,” she remembers. Kristina was often teased about not being strong. “I hated people underestimating me,” she says. “I used to pick fights just to prove that I could fight.”

One day, in grade seven, Kristina picked a fight with the wrong girl. The girl was considered really tough—the type you wouldn’t want to mess with. During lunch, she began throwing glass bottles at Kristina. When Kristina asked her to stop, the girl denied she had done anything. Kristina kept calling the girl out, and they started to argue. The bell rang before anything more could happen. But after school, outside the slice shop on Broadway where everybody hung out at the end of the day, Kristina saw the girl walking toward her, with backup. “Everybody was there. Everybody,” Kristina says. She was up against the window with nowhere to go. “I saw that she was going to hit me. Before she could, I hit her first.” But then, Kristina did something stupid. She stopped to think. “I was like, Oh my God, I did not just hit her.” The girl grabbed Kristina by the hair, pushed her onto her stomach, and dragged her into the street. She pulled out clumps of Kristina’s hair while two friends kicked her. Security guards came running from the school, and the girls scattered. Nobody Kristina knew stepped in to help her.

Kristina’s mother was teaching at a drug rehab centre at the time, and not long after the fight, Kristina visited her at work. All her mother’s students had heard that she had been jumped. One of them, a former boxer, suggested that Kristina try the sport. “I was like, ‘No, why would I box? I’m the least athletic person you’ll ever meet,’” Kristina says. But the idea stuck in her head. “I kept saying to my mom, ‘I think I want to box.’” Her mother didn’t take her seriously at first. But Kristina kept bugging her. A few weeks later, her mother took her to Gleason’s—the only place she could find that would take a young girl.

“It was a weird experience, to come to the realization that I can punch somebody, and it’s okay here. It makes you feel very powerful, to have the ability to punch right in the face.”

The first time Kristina sparred, “I got in the ring, and I was, like, Really, you want me to hit her in the face?” Kristina remembers. “Then after I hit her a few times, I kept hitting … It was a weird experience, to come to the realization that I can punch somebody, and it’s okay here. It makes you feel very powerful, to have the ability to punch right in the face.”

Boxing quickly became her reason to get out of bed in the morning. She began spending all her spare time at the gym, waking up while it was still dark to get in workouts before school, and giving up weekends to boxing. “They had to yell at me to take vacations. I just loved training,” she says. Her restlessness and problems at school went away; she stopped fighting with her mother. None of that was as interesting as what went on in the ring.

*

At Gleason’s, Kristina is known to be a gym rat. “All she does is go to school and come here,” Blimp says. “She works hard.” Kristina’s mother often has to force her to leave the gym. But hard work alone isn’t enough. To get ahead, Kristina needs opportunities to fight—a lot of them. And in the world of women’s boxing, those opportunities are few and far between. That Kristina is fiercely devoted to her sport is clear, but no matter how hard she trains, she will probably never make a living in the ring; this fact is evidence of the persistent problems surrounding women’s participation in boxing. The issues begin at the top, in the pros, where a longstanding stereotype that women’s fights are second-class keep them from being aired on TV, meaning that female fighters have no chance of earning the six- and seven-figure salaries that men do. The effects trickle throughout the amateurs down to the lowest levels, where recruiting young girls to take up boxing has always been difficult.

For men, the whole of amateur boxing is an extension of their training: As I wrote in the New Yorker, tournaments are meant to give an up-and-coming boxer a place to learn and perfect his skills, all while building up a solid record that will draw the attention—and the money—of professional promoters. The amateur-to-professional cycle moves quickly in men’s boxing, and is roughly aligned with the Olympics: men hope to make the cut for the Games, but if they don’t, they move on to professional careers, making room for another group of young amateurs to come up behind them.

Once they’ve turned pro, men get paid a lot of money in return for taking the risk of entering the ring. The undefeated Floyd Mayweather, who is generally thought to be the best boxer in the world, is also the highest paid athlete in the world; he earned nearly $200 million dollars when he fought Manny Pacquiao in May. Like so many things in the boxing world, fighters’ pay is not standardized, but losses always mean less money: undefeated fighters are compensated highest. But beyond that, things are less solid. A boxer’s purse—the base-level payment he receives for taking part in any individual fight, whether he wins or loses—is negotiated by his manager or promoter. What a fighter is worth at any given moment is dependent on promoters’ entirely subjective opinions of whether audiences are interested in watching him fight, or how likely he is to put on a good show. On top of this, a boxer’s contract can sometimes stipulate that he earns a percentage of the fight’s pay-per-view or ticket-sale revenue on top of the purse. Even for bouts much less anticipated than Mayweather-Pacquiao, male boxers routinely make tens of thousands of dollars.

Female pros don’t come near earning these numbers; many of them can’t even quit their day jobs to train full-time. Networks refuse to air their fights, most likely due to outmoded thinking rather than the public’s disinterest in women’s boxing. Without that exposure, women’s earning potential remains low and promoters are wary of taking them on. And promoting your own fights is like a full-time job in and of itself, says Heather Hardy, a former national champion who has an undefeated pro record. Hardy generally makes around $25,000 for a title fight. Before she started working as a trainer in addition to fighting, she held a number of office jobs to support her athletic career. “I’m not like the guys who roll out of bed at two o’clock and spend three hours at the gym and then go home,” she told me. Despite the fact that she is one of a handful of female fighters under contract with a promoter, and that her fights draw huge crowds, she is still responsible for selling her own tickets.

Even when women do negotiate higher fees, they sometimes have trouble actually getting paid. Alicia Ashley, a four-time world champion, secured a $30,000 purse for a recent title fight. (The organizer initially offered $12,000; for the same fight, a male boxer would expect to make at least $100,000.) After the fight was over, though, “they only gave me $20,000,” Ashley says. “It took me maybe four months to get the other $10,000, and it’s only because the sanctioning body got involved that they paid me.”

Given that women also tend to fight less often than men over the course of a career—the field is smaller, and therefore it can be hard to find opponents without travelling abroad to countries where boxing is more popular—there’s little incentive for talented amateurs to enter the pros.

A better option for the most gifted women is to travel the international tournament circuit, and, counterintuitive though it is, make amateur boxing a career. USA Boxing, which is part of the US Olympic committee, gives each member of the national team an honorarium of anywhere from five hundred to two thousand dollars a month, and flies team members to competitions around the world. Some athletes have the option to live for free at the team’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, where they have access to complimentary training, sports medicine, physical therapy, and the like. The top boxer in each of the three weight divisions in which women can compete in the Olympics is also given health insurance. In the absence of a viable professional option, some members have remained on the women’s team for the past decade. For much of that time, team members weren’t even able to compete in the Olympics—women’s boxing wasn’t recognized as an Olympic sport until 2012. Now that they are actually able to compete in the Games, rather than just train and hope for the best, many women, both on the national team and off, have one more reason to stick around in the amateurs. “I mean, that’s every athlete’s dream, going to the Olympics,” Hardy said.

This situation isn’t bad, if you’re one of the top amateur women in the country. But if you’re Kristina, or one of the many other young fighters trying to get ahead, it’s brutal. In amateur tournaments, male boxers are separated into two divisions, by level of experience. To ensure that bouts are relatively well matched, those who’ve had fewer than ten fights compete in the novice division, and those with ten or more compete in the open division. But organizers say that there aren’t enough female entrants to justify two divisions, so women are all grouped together. This means that a woman fighting for the first time could be up against an opponent with dozens of fights behind her. The more practiced fighter knows how to respond to a range of different circumstances. “There’s no panic in the fight for her, where she’s saying, Oh my God, what do I do?” Kristina explains.

The impact of these mismatched fights on the women’s sport is huge. Hardy told me that some up-and-coming female boxers are understandably put off knowing that entering a tournament may well mean that they have to fight a champion in the first round. And a coach may not want to risk her boxer getting injured when matched with a much stronger opponent. When the small women’s boxing field acts as a disincentive for new fighters to enter the ring, the sport’s dysfunctions become self-sustaining.

Those who do decide to fight are faced with tough strategic choices: in particular, which weight class offers them the best shot at a well-matched fight. Many trainers believe that a boxer should fight as close as possible to her stable training weight, so that she doesn’t have to add or drop several pounds in the lead up to competition. “When fighters have a lot of pressure to lose weight, they tend to diet the wrong way too quickly and get weak,” trainer Ryan O’Leary said. “It’s dangerous.” (Researchers have found that rapid weight loss can lead to a number of physiological and psychological problems, among them serious dehydration, decreased athletic performance, confusion, an inability to focus, rage, and depression.) But in women’s boxing, where one fighter can dominate a weight class for years, sometimes a first-timer’s odds of winning are slim in her preferred class. It can be wise, if the field in a lighter class is wide open, to drop weight and fight there, rather than risk facing a much more experienced opponent.

There are those, of course, who want to win so badly that they’re willing to risk getting overmatched in a tournament. “At the end of the day, if you really do want to fight, you don’t care how many fights your opponent has had,” boxer Jenn Chieng says. “You can either deal with what you have in front of you or not.” Women who have that intense desire to fight are the only ones who would be willing to put up with the challenges the boxing world presents to them. “We haven’t gotten to the level where we’re earning the same respect as the men, so a lot of amateurs, myself included, are discouraged from turning professional,” Heather Hardy says. “People say, you know what, you’re going to have to work two jobs to support your family, you’re never going to be able to do it, it’s going to be a rough road. They say, don’t count on boxing for your life.”

“We still have these notions of chivalrous behavior: I can’t see a woman be brutalized, I can’t see a woman get hit. There’s a squeamishness about it that is conflated with domestic violence, with the opinion that a woman should be a woman, with confusion about the meaning of gender in the post-modern American world.”

At some point, Kristina knows she’ll have to choose between training seriously and graduating college. She wants to study international relations, which does not lead to the type of laid-back job that she would need in order to be able to keep boxing competitively once she graduates. And she doesn’t want to become one of the many women who put in hours at the gym without a fight to look forward to. But working her way through the amateurs can feel like an exercise in futility. A few weeks before she was scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves, Kristina learned that Christina Cruz, the most decorated boxer in New York City, had registered to fight in her weight class. Cruz’s presence in the class meant that some of the women who had registered probably wouldn’t show up to their preliminary fights. The chance that Kristina would be able to use the Gloves to get a few solid bouts under her belt became even slimmer. She thinks a lot about what she’d do if she got to the point where going pro was an option, wonders if she’d be willing to risk it. But sometimes it seems like even making it that far will require an impossible amount of luck. Neither choosing a boxer’s life nor leaving it behind feels right.

*

Why haven’t women boxers made it by now? It’s an issue that perplexes nearly every fighter, trainer, and official I spoke with for this story, and Hardy is not wrong when she says that it has something to do with respect. I posed the question to Malissa Smith, who has written about the treatment of women boxers throughout history. “We still have these notions of chivalrous behavior: I can’t see a woman be brutalized, I can’t see a woman get hit,” she says. “There’s a squeamishness about it that is conflated with domestic violence. It is conflated with the opinion that a woman should be a woman. It is conflated with a lot of confusion about the meaning of gender in the post-modern American world.”

Women have boxed since the 18th century. For nearly that long, men have wondered why women would even want to fight (to say nothing of whether they should be allowed to do so). At some point a persistent opinion took hold that women who like boxing must be damaged, the victims of abuse. It’s the troubled girls, according to the stereotype, who box. In 2012, as female fighters were preparing to compete in the Olympics for the first time, a scandal erupted at USA Boxing when the then-head of the organization, Hal Adonis, told the New Yorker, “Half of our girls have been molested; half of our girls are gay.” The International Amateur Boxing Association demanded that Adonis be fired for, among other things, “inappropriately associating child abuse with the sport of boxing.”

But even before Adonis’s comments, that connection proved difficult to shake. It is hard for us to imagine that a member of the gentler sex simply wants to fight; better to believe that she feels impelled to fight back. This perspective also serves the purpose of minimizing women’s boxing, pushing it out of the realm of sport and into the more emotional territory where society tends to think women’s concerns belong. Female fighters see their male counterparts lauded for bravery in the ring, and paid substantially for it. And though women train alongside men and spar with them, when they enter the ring, women are treated differently. Spectators nit-pick over whether women’s fights are less interesting than men’s. Officials suggest that female fighters compete in skirts. Commentators ask whether women’s boxing can “offer anything more than a vehicle for progressive gender politics.” Given the persistence of such opinions in the sport’s mainstream, it’s no wonder that female fighters are often still treated as a marginal subset of the boxing world.

*

The morning of her Golden Gloves fight, Kristina and Blimp left Gleason’s and drove toward Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Jay-Z poured out of the stereo, but neither boxer nor coach was talking. In an effort to make weight, Kristina hadn’t had anything to drink since the day before, and ate only half a piece of toast for breakfast. “I’m so thirsty,” she said, sitting in the car and waiting for the gym to be unlocked. She held a liter of violet-coloured Pedialyte between her legs, to drink as soon as she got off the scale. Finally, the gym doors opened. “Knock yourself out,” Blimp sang to Kristina as she stepped out of the car, laughing. “Knock yourself out, knock yourself out!”

Golden Gloves bouts are matched by random draw, so Kristina didn’t yet know who she would fight that afternoon. But she knew she was the least experienced boxer registered, and the youngest. In the previous year’s women’s 125-pound class, the fighter with less experience lost in every single bout. When she drew Amanda Isaac, Kristina looked worried. Isaac frequently spars with Heather Hardy, and Hardy had told Kristina to watch out for her. Her brow was furrowed as she chugged the Pedialyte, and then sat down so Blimp could wrap her right hand, and then her left, in thick white gauze.

When her hands were wrapped, Blimp followed Kristina back to a small corner of the gym where she could warm up. “Little Bit, don’t over-think it,” he said. “She’s not that good.” He helped Kristina into her gloves and headgear, then draped a blue satin robe over her shoulders. Top 40 blared out of the speakers until someone pulled the plug; the gym fell silent as the fighters walked toward the ring. They climbed in, touched gloves, and retreated to their corners. Just outside the ropes, an official steadied a large old bell with one hand, raised a hammer, and hit.

The gong reverberated through the air, but the crowd stayed quiet as the two boxers approached one another, moving forward and back, each looking for an opening. Isaac’s first punches were strong, and by the second round, after the two standing-eight counts, Kristina was pausing more than she was hitting. This didn’t bode well for her chances: amateur bouts are scored based on the number of punches a fighter lands, rather than how strong the hits are; the more punches you throw, the better. “One-two!” Blimp called, over and over again, prompting Kristina to throw a jab, then a cross. By the end of the second round, Kristina had avoided a fight-ending penalty, and she survived the third round in much the same way. But surviving wasn’t good enough. She only had two more minutes to show the judges what she was capable of.

The final round began, and Kristina, seeming to realize that it was now or never, came out aggressively. She hit Isaac with a right hook, backing her toward the far corner. But when Kristina picked up the pace, Isaac met her, throwing a series of swift punches. They were fixed in place, pummeling each other, as the bell rang.

Kristina walked back to her corner, and pulled off her headgear and gloves. When the ref called the two women back to the centre of the ring, and lifted Isaac’s hand high above her head, Kristina’s face was expressionless. “Alright, I might’ve lied to you,” Blimp said, as Kristina climbed out of the ring. “She’s really good.” Kristina shook her head, gathered her things, and sat down to watch Christina Cruz win an easy decision in the next bout.

By the time Kristina got into the back seat of her mother’s car to go home to Greenpoint, it had grown dark, and they circled a few times, trying to find the highway. On the ride home, she vented her frustration. Training for months just to get in the ring and be overmatched is enough to make anyone angry. A few years back, Kristina told me, some female fighters petitioned the Golden Gloves to begin separating women by experience, to make their fights fairer. But the organization said that they would have to wait until there were more women lining up to fight. Kristina doesn’t think there’s much else that can be done. She’ll keep fighting in the amateurs, because she doesn’t have much choice. Deciding not to fight is basically deciding not to box. And she never wants to stop boxing.

Two days later, she was back in the gym. Blimp’s son, a, long-limbed, 6’2” professional middleweight, was waiting for her when she arrived. He called her into the ring and made her go twelve rounds with him. Any mistake and she was on the mat, doing pushups. “I needed that,” she said, afterward. It was back to work, as usual.

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