Finals, First Night
The evening of Thursday, April 7, was the first balmy one of the year. In Times Square, men beat on plastic drums. The sound rose and magnified among the glass towers into the blue and pink sky. Smells sweet, fresh, and foul awoke in the air. Hundreds came out to walk, loose-limbed, renewed, expectant.
Early spring sees obscene excrescences; curling green-and-puce nodes, crocuses poking psychotically through crusty snow. The wind accompanies with a stinging, unsettling scarf dance in all directions. Still-black branches thrash against windows, rain freezes. Then the first balmy day brings a flowering; buds relax in fulfillment. Joyce Carol Oates aptly described the prizefight as the fruit or flower of the boxer’s Spartan striving. The New York Daily News Golden Gloves is the flowering of the metropolitan boxing year, from which champions issue. The Daily News Golden Gloves has taken place each of these 78 years in the period corresponding to the Christian seasons of Lent and Easter, when the faithful prepare by fasting to be redeemed in bloodshed. Early spring was also, back in the ’20s, a slow sports-news period, and so editor Paul Gallico created the Golden Gloves tournament. This year in the week before the Gloves finals the Pope passed. As did Becky Zerlentes, the first woman to be felled by an apparent death blow in a sanctioned boxing event (autopsy results pend)—she died in the hospital the day after her fight. The Times’ Sports section published an article optimistically predicting that Zerlentes’s tragedy would draw needed regulatory attention and funding to amateur boxing.
“It’s definitely put a damper on things. I got every newspaper and TV station in the country calling me,” said Johnny Woluewich, the president of USA Boxing, Metro. Maybe it’s the sunshine today, but for some reason I picture him sitting by a pool as we talk. He takes two other calls. “More people wanting tickets.” I ask if there will be a moment of silence for Zerlentes, or what do they do in these cases. “We do a ten count, ten rings of the bell, when someone in the organization dies. I gotta talk to the Daily News guys, though, gotta talk to Campi. It’s their show.”
Let us go to the locker room, and watch our warriors prepare for their contests. “The more you sweat in battle, the less you bleed in war,” said June Chin on Tuesday morning, quoting a trainer. Chin was to face her third-ever opponent in the finals on Friday night. “That’s good! That’s a good one,” said her teammate Maureen Shea, also fighting Friday. “And here in the gym, it’s blood, sweat, and tears…. But you don’t want blood, sweat, and tears in the ring. Sweat, yeah. But no blood and no tears—unless it’s the other girl’s.”
Boxing, it has often been related, is only the eighth most deadly sport. Zerlentes’s immediate predecessor in amateur ring death was Juan Silva III, in 2000; whereas, in 2004, four high school students were killed playing football. But of course many thousands more people play football each year than box.
Few women fighters, when asked outright to acknowledge brutality in their sport, will. “I don’t think it’s violent.” “It’s a science.” “It’s an art.” “It’s a sport.” Most are athletes first, and most come by way of other martial arts, especially kickboxing. “It was a new challenge.” “There weren’t enough opportunities in Muay Thai; I couldn’t get any fights.” “I ruptured my ACL and had to stop playing basketball.” Many more than you might expect come for weight loss. “When I started I weighed over 200 pounds. Then I got addicted.” But why boxing? Why not aerobics? “I heard it was the best workout there is.” A whim: “My office was next to a boxing gym. I thought I might be good at it, and I was.” “I’m an actress. My assignment was to develop a superhero, someone as unlike me as possible. I chose a boxer. I found out it’s actually not so not like me.” A spell of darkness: “I was accosted in the subway. I wondered what it was I was projecting—some vulnerability? I wanted to be strong.” “My house was broken into while I was home. The guy ran off. I ran after him. The cops asked me what I would have done if I’d caught him.” But the latter stories are few, or seldom told. More commonly: “It’s not about aggression, or anger.” “I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Three women shadowboxing in a ring at 7 a.m. at Gleason’s Gym near the Brooklyn waterfront. One has already been here an hour; she’ll go to her job till five o’clock tonight and then to her graduate school seminar after that; another woman arose at 4:30 this morning to drive here from Long Island, as she does most every day. She works as a paralegal in Manhattan; she’s also a pro with an 11-5-1 record. The third is a financial analyst. She’s been at work till 10 every night this week. There’s a flyweight, a junior featherweight, and a featherweight (109, 119, 125 pounds); or at least, that’s what they’ll be by God, by weigh-in.
The blue padded floor of the ring squeaks as the three throw quick, intricate combinations, working out bugs. This is the Carl Czerny portion of the day, scales and arpeggios. One-two-three-four (jab, cross, jab, cross); one-two-three-four-five (jab, cross, hook, left uppercut, right uppercut, finish with a hook). Jab, roll left, hook, right cross. Jab jab. The electric bell buzzaps three times and all three ladies stop.
“I try not to do less than three miles of roadwork a day—usually it’s four. You’re only fighting four rounds, so you don’t want distance. When I go pro and I’m doing 6-, 8 round fights, then I’ll do 8 miles.” The pro: “I do two hours or so on the treadmill a day.” One Tuesday morning, a woman appeared transformed. “She looks like she’s lost five pounds since I saw her Saturday!” I query. “Sure she did,” said a trainer. Same trainer, of another, a winner of the Gloves and Metros tournaments: “She was three pounds over weight; she’s having her woman’s cycle. She’ll be running in the sauna suit.”
For the finals at the 5,600 seat Theater at Madison Square Garden I have purchased tickets for a middling section along with a pair of vintage collapsible binoculars from eBay; I don’t want to pester Pete Carson, my contact at the Daily News, for a spot at the press table; certainly I don’t want to ask Johnny. Pete has been helpful and encouraging since February, even when he found out I wasn’t writing for ELLE magazine. He added me to comp lists for $15 and $20 quarter- and semifinals shows from the Bronx to Manhattan to Red Hook to Hauppauge, Long Island, to the Jamaica Police Athletic League, and pulled out a metal folding chair for me near him and columnist Bill Farrell and next to the judges so I could look at their bout sheets and listen to their jokes and be in the line of sweat-and-blood-bullet fire. One night a few weeks ago I arrived late from work to the Gleason’s-sponsored semifinals bouts at the Electric Industry Center (IBEW Local 3 headquarters) in Queens and found it sold out. A man in a maroon velour jacket and a dyed black mustache stopped my friend and me as we tried to squeeze past the disappointed milling coves. I mentioned Pete’s name. The man whispered something to his fellow Cerberus. “Okay, come in. Just write something nice about us, why don’t you? And don’t leave your friend out there alone again like that. All the other girls was hitting on him.” “You said my name and they let you in?” asked Pete, and laughed wearily.
I’d grown accustomed to PAL gyms and church basements and was not sure what challenges I’d encounter from the Garden Gloves, formality-wise. Earlier in the season, when toddling to matches in unfamiliar areas, I’d look for the ambulance parked out front of an institutional building and a group of guys who, if white, were large and crewcut. Once inside a neighborhood preliminary bout venue, one can roam and there are no bad eats. Or they’re all bad. The crowd seldom exceeds two or three hundred locals, families of fighters, ex-fighters, baby mammas, grandmothers, pasty, greenish Polish boys with spiky gelled hair; black, Puerto Rican and Dominican boys and men in do rags and Shyne Barrow style caps, everyone baggy’d up and notioned in approximations of platinum and ice. There are hot dogs for 2 dollars sold by doleful ninth graders, rank coffee from fellowship-hour urns for a dollar, soda, sometimes a soy-fortified cheeseburger just like the one your lunch lady used to make.
These last few weeks I’ve eaten more hot dog dinners standing up ringside, pad and pen in the other hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee wedged between my feet on the waxed basketball court floor…or masticating Altoids gum until I realize my jaw hurts and I can barely move it; suddenly grabbing my bag of gym clothes from the morning’s workout, the jump rope handles flopping on the floor, with my red handwraps tangled up in it and my regular bag with Boxing Digest, printouts from the web, the names and phone numbers of every woman in the Gloves this year (courtesy of Pete) my pulped copies of Liebling’s Sweet Science, Oates’s On Boxing, the novel for my book group, flinging it all over my shoulder or just dragging it along the pop sticky floor, because one of the Starrett City boys is getting in the face of a dude from Webster PAL and there are four middleweights, a cruiserweight, and about 8 Olde Englishes between them and me and I got to get out of the way and preferably not any closer to that five-foot speaker. Or if not that, then hey, there’s a lady fighter by the construction paper laced proscenium, probably a pro, laughing with her papi—I can tell by her thin-soled suede sneakers and her taut shoulders, her delicate right eyebrow, her short fingernails and her slouch—and I want to get over there and talk to her before the next bell rings. Kid from the Chin Checkers selling DVDs for three dollars—oh hey, yes, please, can I get one of those? DJ Mario and 50 Cent taking us to the Candy Shop again; aw jeez, she’s leaving, she’s with the Judah club and their boy is done—hey! Excuse me! I see my favorite ref adjust his latex gloves. The music stops. Bell.
For several weeks beginning in January it seems there are TV crews at the gym every morning. Fox News, AM New York, ET, Japanese TV. Says Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade: “We’re used to seeing cameras here but it’s usually mostly sports-related. With Hilary it’s been nearly every day and it’s extended into entertainment. Twenty-six movies have used Gleason’s as a location, but there’s never been a publicity machine like the one behind Million Dollar Baby. We’ve seen a flood of membership increase for men and women across the country. People who would normally go to Equinox first are going to boxing gyms. Hilary has just been sensational. Constantly mentioning Hector and Gleason’s at every event.” When TV comes to Gleason’s there are two people in particular it wants to see: Hector Roca, the Panamanian “trainer to the stars,” and Maureen “Moe” Shea, the 24-year-old Mexican-Irish-American personal trainer and English major who sparred with Ms. Swank during her four months preparing for the role that would win Swank and the film Academy Awards.
It’s my second session with Bobby Beckles, a boyish former pro and stuntman from Manchester, UK. He trains my roommate’s high school pal Geneve Brossard (154) and often works his wife’s corner—Chris Beckles (101) is a matchmaker and works at the Gleason’s office; she’s also an athlete representative for USA Boxing, the organization that governs amateur boxing in the States. She and Geneve are both going for the Gloves this year. It’s about eight in the morning, and Bobby has motioned me into the blood-and-sweat-spattered blue ring for some semblance of shadowboxing. Across the floor in another ring, a middle-aged female morning show personality in a sweatsuit and gloves is instructing a shirtless middleweight boxer to pretend to knock her out for the camera. They bounce around, the pro feigns a jab, and the anchor takes a crumpling dive, yelping “Ooooff!” Bruce comes over to my ring and asks if I want to be on TV. “No one wants to see me box,” I say with certainty, “but thanks!” “Aw, come on,” says a tall pale man with curly hair and lots of vim, a PA I think, on whom too much stardust had rubbed off. “It’ll be fun. You look great! I’m scared of you!” If they get me in the frame accidentally on purpose, I muse, at least I don’t have TV.
But a lady fighter is brave. She looks out through her sweaty headgear, stray hairs matted on her cheek, eyes calm and droopy from exhaustion, the black plastic guard bulging in her mouth. She spits into the bucket at her corner—“Don’t stand near the bucket!” someone says—raises a glove to dip Vaseline from the blob of it on top of the corner post, rubs the glove into her nose and cheeks, to help the other’s punches slide off. “Kitch-die-muh hsshoo?” “What?” I say, suddenly panicked. “Oh!” I lean over to tie her shoe. “Wada,” she gasps, and I scramble for the Poland Spring bottle on the apron, pour it into her open mouth and all over her front and into the gym bag of her opponent. “Jesus!” I exclaim. But the bell’s sounded and she’s back in there. “Could you push it down?” she says (her mouthpiece is out), gesturing to her chest. “Uh…” “Just grab it and push it down! It’s driving me crazy!” I find the edges of her chestplate through her sports bra and sort of wiggle it toward her navel. “Phew! Thanks!” She is helpless, as a matter of fact, to do anything but kick ass.
Hector is standing at the side of a ring leaning on the ropes, talking to Bobby on the other side. They are, as are the ladies in the locker room, discussing the Styles section article that ran the Sunday before. Factual and other problems with the Times piece are declaimed: “They said Maureen has big legs!” “What’d they say? Like a tree?” “They said she had beefy legs!” “There’s enough hate in the world, you know?” “First of all, he said Hector got fired by those fighters, and that is just not true. And he didn’t mention his nineteen world champions!” “They said Bob Jackson was a fat man with bifocals.” Bob: “I do not wear bifocals.” The composition of a letter to the editor is motioned.
A pro is sparring with a lean, fleet-footed woman wearing what looks like a catcher’s mask; it has a cage in front. She’s recently had eye surgery. The pro broke Chrissy Beckles’s nose twice. Moe rinses her mouthguard with a water bottle. “That’s the last time I let that man wrap my hands. He did it too tight and it took him an hour. My wraps were too tight and it ruined my mental.” Ruth’s nose is bleeding. “It’s not from sparring. It’s this cold. I’ve been blowing and blowing all week.” A woman from Education Update, with her intern at ringside, watching. “Isn’t this just fascinating?” She’s heard one of the boxers is a schoolteacher. I ask Ruth how she feels about the upcoming Gloves. “I’m working full time. I’m going to school full time. I’m ready to fight.”
Of the 600 or so boxers registered for the Daily News Golden Gloves tournament this year, only about 70 are women. My registration sheet tallies 64, but the list only goes up to 165-pound women, and I know there are some light heavyweights fighting. Let’s do the numbers. There are two men’s divisions, novice and open. Open is for men aged 16 to 34 who’ve competed in more than 10 USA Boxing-sanctioned fights or two previous Daily News Gloves tournaments; their bouts consist of 4 two-minute rounds. Novice men, also aged 16 to 34, fight 3 two-minute rounds. In an odd sort of three-fifths compromise, because there are about 100 percent fewer women than necessary, there’s only one women’s division, “Women,” and they all, whether it’s their first or fiftieth fight until they reach the cutoff age of 35, fight four rounds. Which is how it can sometimes happen, as it does this year, that a 29-year-old two-time Gloves finalist can end up in the finals with a 17-year-old who has never fought in the Gloves before.
The last night of the preliminaries, on March 2, mimics the first, on January 26, in being held at the Copacabana nightclub in midtown Manhattan. It’s the first night of women’s fights, however, and there’s extra starpower in the house. There are metal detectors at the entrance, the fuchsia lights are dimmer, the crowd at 7:30 is already bigger than it was at 10 on the 26th. Channel 2 is interviewing Hector Roca. “All Night Long,” “Hot Hot Hot,” “Mony Mony,” “Old Time Rock and Roll” play as the room fills with trainers, USA Boxing officials, swells (a few), and milling coves male, female, and juvenile. “Will we get hit with blood?” my friend asks as we take our third-row seats. There’s a disco ball over the ring and pink and white illuminated plaster palm trees holding up the ceiling. The card girl, Melanie Torres, wears a thrice-strung black velvet bikini-top body suit. I chased her into the kitchen to get her name after the last Copa event; she’s a dancer here and is enjoying her first job as a card girl, though the catcalls befuddle her. Four police officers carrying the New York and US colors are spotlighted in the ring for the national anthem. Doll-eyed Melanie swings between the top two ropes with encouragement from the crowd. Kevin Van Meter introduces the celebs that have come out, among them Vivian Harris Jr., welterweight champ, in what looks like a zebra-skin bomber, seeming a bit bummed not to have had a more dramatic entrance; and Emile Griffith, “boxing’s gentleman’s gentleman” and sometime millinery promoter, most recently famous again for the documentary Ring of Fire, an account of the 1962 match in which he dealt death blows to Benny “Kid” Paret. Mr. Griffith will attend several shows in the tournament. He’s a trim, jolly man of 66 with one of the sweetest smiles I’ll see all spring. Van Meter takes center ring and bellows his signature “Let’s DO it!”
In the first fight—the men start off the evening—Juan Zapata of Juan Laporte boxing club TKOs Raymond Rodriguez of Suffolk PAL. Before the bell, per custom, Zapata offers 4 bows to the judges, one for each side of the ring. He then delivers 2 standing 8 counts to Rodriguez within the first round, thus winning by technical knockout when referee Frank Martinez, a firm but avuncular type with gray hair and beard and black eyebrows, stops the fight. A referee counts to eight on his fingers in front of a fighter who stops answering blows, appears overcome, or takes a particularly head-rocking shot. If a male fighter receives three standing 8 counts in a single round, the fight is stopped. For women, it’s two—another odd concession to the mixed-bag problem of amateur female boxing. Mr. Martinez must have seen something in that second standing 8 that made him reckon it as two for young Rodriguez. “Maybe the ref got a date tonight,” I hear someone in the audience say.
During the second bout my rubber neck finally registers women from Gleason’s in the crowd. I see Ruth O’Sullivan, the junior flyweight and social worker from Dublin’s fair city, a seven-year veteran of the sport, gasp, in street clothes, her long straight red hair down her back and eye makeup on. Ruth and Alicia Ashley, the current IWBF junior featherweight champion, are here to cheer Moe Shea, Ronica Jeffrey, and Cynthia Roszkowski, all of whom they regularly spar, sweat, and shower with.
It’s fight four, the fight of the night. Maureen Shea vs. Sofia Gegovic of Tiger Schulmann, a club with locations around the country that is known primarily for martial arts like karate and grappling and for their ferocious, spectacularly fit team. Turns out Moe and Sofia went to the same Bronx high school. The camera crews step up as both women bounce in their corners and focus on the gold corner exclusively. Moe drops to one knee, crosses herself as she does before each round, then gets up to bow to the judges. She’s wearing her Mexican flag shorts. Hector and his fellow second Luigi Olcese are wearing matching red silks with blue trim, the store set by flash being a known Roca trademark.
Crouching on the floor next to Alicia and Ruth, I glean what one yells to a lady fighter. Round 1: “Get off the ropes, Moe!” “That’s right, Moe! Do that again!” “Be first!” Round 2: “Go to the body! To the body! “More punches, Moe!” “Stay busy!” (If Moe lands a left to the side of Sofia’s head, you cheer.) R3: “You’re doing good!” “Get in some uppercuts.” “Don’t wait for her, Moe!” “Straight right and hook!” “Get those punches off!” “Take the body, Moe! More punches, Moe!” R4: “Take it home!” “That’s right, Moe!” “She’s tired, Moe!” “Put the pressure on, Moe!” “Body head! Body head!” “Get out of there, get out of there!” “Straight right and hook.” “Double that jab.” “All day long, Moe, all day long!” “Thirty seconds!” “Finish strong!” “Ten seconds!” When the bell sounds, Blue and Gold embrace immediately, hugely. The headgear comes off. Shea is wearing tight French braids looped and tied with white ribbons. She bows to the four sides of the ring, falls to her knees, crosses herself. The room is roaring. It’s Shea by decision; she’s named PC Richard Fighter of the Night. Team Shea spill off the apron to talk to Bill Farrell of the Daily News. The distaff Gleason’s contingent exeunt to Pizzeria Uno. “It’s like drinking for us,” says Geneve.