Spar town

The Herald Sun, 29 December, 2007

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I was already over the hill when I walked up the steps of Brooklyn's famous Gleason's gym although I hadn't ruled out a sparring session or two.

But I'd heard some horror stories about sparring in America from Songul 'Diamond' Oruc, one of the pioneers of women's boxing in Australia. She'd spent a few hard years in the late 1990s fighting in the US and warned me that sparring sessions were like territorial wars and she had eventually wearied of the broken noses and the stress.

Located in a part of Brooklyn known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass), a once treacherous industrial wasteland now rapidly gentrifying, Gleason's is the oldest gym still operating in America.

Since it opened its doors in 1937 it has been the location of 29 movies, including the Martin Scorsese classic Raging Bull and home to the sport's luminaries like Muhammad Ali, Jake La Motta, Mike Tyson, Zab Judah and many more.

But the gym's owner for the past 26 years, the urbane Bruce Silverglade, has managed not just to move with the times but also preserve something of the gym's old school boxing tradition. While outside loft apartments are selling to Manhattan yuppies for millions, inside the gym, a certain shabbiness has been preserved.

The layered archaeology of fight posters, photographs and magazine clippings will no doubt tell the full story. But the electrifying energy of the place will keep you from looking at the walls long enough to piece together a narrative.

The more compelling story goes on from morning to night in the four full-sized rings constantly in use with people shadow boxing, sparring and punching pads, although one ring near the entrance is preserved for wrestling.

Aside from the sheer scale of this New York boxing mecca (17,000 square feet), what surprised and excited me most was the number of women inside those rings. And I mean women fighters, not boxacisers, not decorative side dishes to the main course, but genuine competitive athletes more skilled than most Australian male boxers. Once that would have sounded like an affirmative action overstatement. Now it's a simple fact.

I'm used to walking into a boxing gym and receiving a lot of sideways glances. I am always acutely aware that I am an oddity; like snow in the suburbs, something that does happen, but rarely. At Gleason's I was noticeable more for my peculiar accent than my gender.

I knew, because I have been following it online for more than a decade, that women's boxing was bigger in the US than in Australia but I really had no idea of the scale. Silverglade, who sat at the top of the stairs at what looked like a prop desk from Hill Street Blues, told me there were 300 female members of the gym and 30 of them were active fighters. But it looked like more than that to me. It looked like women's boxing had reached critical mass and was now normal in America. No one turned a hair. Since Silverglade sanctioned entry to women in 1986 it has become well known for its female champions – amateur and professional. I had already made email contact before I arrived with Alicia Ashley, a Jamaican born bantamweight world champion who I had watched boxing on YouTube with giddy admiration. She was one of a group of four reigning female world champs in the gym.

The first sparring session I witnessed between women at Gleason's was between two of those champs – a Puerto Rican veteran of 45 professional fights Belinda 'Brown Sugar' Laracuente and White Plains sensation Ann-Marie Saccurato. I stood in dumb awe as I watched Belinda goad and move with the kind of slippery evasion that only a handful of Australian male boxers are capable. Ann-Marie was by contrast a classic pressure fighter with an intimidating physical presence. I turned to Alicia and asked 'Are all the women here this good?' and she threw her head back and laughed. She reminded me that they were world champions after all – the best of the best. Banners around the gym, hung up high in red and black lettering testified to the fact.

I imagined sparring with these gals and looking like a hack by comparison. It wasn't pain that worried me so much as humiliation.

Alicia herself is like the love child of Sugar Ray Robinson and Josephine Baker. The former ballet dancer moves with the grace of a cat. She won a scholarship to study with Martha Graham before injury propelled her into pugilism. Her fighting name is 'Slick' for a good reason. She is one of the finest female fighters of her generation. I had already seen Alicia humiliate the German champion Alesia Graf in a clip of their title fight on YouTube. I knew this southpaw with the straight back and the razor sharp reflexes was one of the best boxers I'd ever seen of any gender.

I had planned to train with her during my time in New York and hopefully learn a thing or two.

But on my first day she had to go to Manhattan for some sparring and so I was matched instead with Hector Roca. The Panamanian veteran trainer, and one-time cycling champion, is known for not just the boxers he has trained, like the legendary Arturo Gatti and Buddy McGirt, but also for his brushes with Hollywood fame. He'd trained Hilary Swank, whose picture is plastered on the chaotic walls of his mouse-hole office, for the film Million Dollar Baby. He worked with Russell Crow on the Cindarella Man and didn't have a good word to say about him. 'What about Clint Eastwood?' I asked, as he wrapped my hands, which made me feel a little like a celebrity myself. Hector stuck out his lower lip and said of Clint; 'Very dry. You do this, go there. Nothing else.'

Already I could tell I was going to have trouble understanding his accent.

But before I knew it I had taken Hilary Swank's spot before Roca who was taking me through some punches.

He wanted loose and fast and I had to fight my instinct to hit the pad so hard he would be astonished by my power. That's the Australian way. But Hector wasn't interested in strength. He wanted speed.

'No,' he said, deadpan, 'Choo pushin', relax, play wid choo hands.'

I strained to follow his commands and began to worry that he might think that all Aussies were just like Russell Crowe.

Silverglade told me he'd had whole conversations with Roca and sometimes wasn't sure himself what they had been about.

Training with Alicia was like getting my hearing back although it mightn't have seemed so to her since again I was again battling my deep seated desire to hit like a train. After our second or third session she held my gaze for a few extra seconds and said; 'Do you spar?'

In boxing sparring means so many different things to different people depending on a gym's culture. It can be anything from friendly tippy tapping to trench warfare, so I mumbled my answer; 'Well, yes, but…'

In truth I spar just about every week but I know the unwritten rules on home turf and more importantly, I know my sparring partners. I didn't know if Alicia meant, be target practice for Ann-Marie before her upcoming title fight with 'Raging' Jessica Rakoczy or help a beginner learn the ropes.

In the meantime, while I was training alone one afternoon, I got an offer from Raul Frank, a top ten rated IBF Light Middleweight originally from Guyana. My years in boxing have also taught me that it's safer for a woman to spar with a man than another woman any day of the week, even if he has gone 12 rounds with Vernon Forrest twice for a world title. Raoul's chivalry was switched on and after three or four tippy tap rounds he said to me; 'You should fight. You've got the talent. You just need some conditioning.'

Flattered and panting I thanked him but declined the offer to run with him around Prospect Park.

Next time I saw Alicia she said; 'I hear you sparred Raul.'
'Oh,' I said sheepishly, 'He was just playing with me.'
She smiled her characteristically broad smile and said; 'That's what we would all do.'

I didn't know weather to be re-assured or insulted.

Our next training session she strapped my hands into 16oz gloves, leant me a head-guard and shaped up in the ring to me herself. A natural southpaw she was kind enough to spar with me in orthodox stance and at least give me a sliver of a chance. I had imagined that I wouldn't be able to lay a glove on her and had told her of that expectation many times. And she smiled as if she knew I was right. I had spent my hours at Gleason's securing a sound underdog position for myself letting everyone know that I was old, unfit and had only an Australian title compared to the many pairs of national and state golden gloves that seemed to belong to everyone else.

'But you Aussies are tough,' said Melissa Hernandez who had just recently secured the world feather weight title.
'But you guys are good,' I said.
'Nah,' she said, sounding like a character from West Side Story, 'We're not that good. We're flashy, is all. We like to show off.'

Alicia hit me with the lightest of controlled taps and when I returned fire and tagged her, I think we were both a little shocked.

She told me to come back Saturday and mix it up with a group.

I have a photo of myself with my sparring partners Camille Currie, Melodie Yam and Alicia in the dark interior of Gleason's. Compared to them I look like I have climbed out of a tanker of milk, I'm so white. And I like to think I did all right for a white girl. A tiny glove mark was forming on my cheek and I started to lament the fact that I wouldn't have Camille's long reach and athleticism to test me back home, and wouldn't have Alicia's speed and finesse to try to emulate and I wouldn't have Melodie's determination to counter. And there were many more women to spar and so many more opportunities to improve. If only I could stay.

On my final training session with Alicia, she was telling me between rounds how it was all a matter of ironing out the glitches.

By that time, Ann-Marie was greeting me with hugs, I had bought Belinda's old boots from her, which she had signed for me and Raul was calling me 'champ'.

While Alicia was talking I was briefly distracted from what she was saying by yet another boxing genius moving with the speed of a wizard when I heard her say, 'I mean you move great.'
'Sorry,' I said, 'who moves great?'
'You do,' she said.
'Yeah, you,' she said, smiling that million dollar smile. It was one of the sweetest things I've ever heard in this unforgiving sport.

And with those words echoing in my head I am starting to plot my comeback…to Gleason's that is. Like I said, I'm already over the hill.