That’s me in the gold and black, in one of the happiest moments of my fighting career to date.
It was a tremendous honor to be invited to box as the Main Event against Mischa Merz, an undefeated national champion with a 13-year-long fighting career and dozens of fights. People laughed with me when I wryly told them I was undefeated too; my first fight was six months ago, but I did win. It seemed clear to them that I’d been invited in order to give the champion an easy win during a fight timed to celebrate the launch of her second book on boxing.
I don’t think she would tell you that anything about the fight was easy. I certainly wouldn’t.
My trainer, Bonnie “Queen B” Mann, the woman who taught me the joy of the ring, moved home to New York two weeks before my training for this fight was slated to begin. It was about the same time I went through a job shift from full-time corporate employee to part-time contractor working from home. I was still trying to figure out how to cope with all of that when I got injured during the very first sparring night of my training-without-a-trainer.
A fighter’s relationship with her trainer is a delicate thing. The sport in which we compete is harsh and frequently brutal. The disciplines are unrelenting and there simply are no short cuts. A boxer’s physical conditioning must be top notch, but her mental state is even more critical. A trainer must learn precisely what it takes to bring the best possible performance out of a fighter who is under heavy fire. The bond that is forged can be powerfully intimate, because during the course of training many deep vulnerabilities — both physical and mental — must be exposed to the light, examined in painful detail, and rebuilt into stronger and better shapes that can withstand the force of a dangerous competitive storm.
A week after my rough start, I met Jason “Jay Fury” Abraham. He’d trained and taught in Atlanta’s Decatur Boxing Club with Terri Moss, the promoter of this fight, who had contacted him about my situation. Jay was living near me in Raleigh and was willing to help me train.
For five weeks we studied my opponent, built a strategy, and trained three or four times a week on specific boxing techniques. I ran and worked weights on my own as well. At least once or twice a week Jay geared up and we sparred. Hard.
Jay is about six feet two, maybe 180 pounds; a daunting opponent in the ring. He talked me through the panic I felt during an onslaught of his hard, rapid punches. He taught me how to repel or smother an attack and made me practice getting into and out of a clinch with him. He timed my sprints. He made me work angles, cut off the ring, and keep my feet and head moving. He controlled his power but never let up. He continually noted my improvements and built up my confidence.
But the pressure of the looming match was unrelenting.
A couple of times I felt my composure fracture. About two weeks before the fight Jay was putting me through some complex combinations on the pads. Over and over again I failed to get the sequence, placement, and power right. Finally I accidentally cracked him hard across the mouth, instantly drawing blood. He scowled and made me finish the combination correctly and I fought back tears of frustration.
“I can’t do this, Jay. I can’t,” I told him, spinning away from the pads he still held in front of me.
“Look at me,” he said quietly. I turned reluctantly back. My eyes were drawn to the blood smeared down his chin, blood I’d drawn because I’d missed the focus mitt and bashed him in the face. I turned away again. He swiped irritably at his mouth.
“No, I mean it,” he said. “Look at me. I’m telling you that you can do this. And you’re not leaving until you tell me the same thing. Say it. Say ‘I can do this.’ Say it like you mean it.”
He pushed my shoulder with one of the mitts. I couldn’t meet his eyes. “Say it,” he repeated, getting louder, and the only way I could avoid a complete dissolution was to yell at him.
I banged him in the chest with my gloves. “I can do this damn thing, Jay,” I cried, tears barely in check.
“Damn right,” he muttered. “Now do that combination again. Slower, but use your power.”
And I leaned back into my training.
And for the first time in my life I began to wake up at night from dreams in which I was fighting, and fighting well.
Weigh-Ins and Wild Bill’s
On the day before weigh-ins I drove the seven and a half hours to Atlanta, weathered the drying out to cut weight and the general circus of weigh-ins, medicals, and meeting my opponent for the first time. It was long past midnight before I finally I took two sleeping pills in order to get some rest.
Jay had told me he was going to come to Atlanta the day of the fight. I’d never had a trainer with me for a fight; I hoped Jay would make it but I knew there was a chance that I would be alone again. I did my best not to think about it as I headed to the venue with all my gear.
Getting in was its own battle.
All the front entrances to Wild Bill’s were blocked as race cars screamed and smoked around a makeshift circuit in the parking lot. Girls in bikinis competed for attention from hundreds of onlookers at a big racing exhibition going on where our fights were scheduled to happen in just a few hours.
Driving to the back of the building I saw the parking lots were jammed with cars and people; there wasn’t a spot anywhere to be found. I checked the clock on the dashboard. “Just drop me at the rear loading dock,” I said to my husband, “but don’t block that ambulance. Looks like they’re hauling someone out.”
They were. Someone said there were MMA fights going on inside the building as well.
I pushed past dozens of bouncer types and hardly glanced at the sign that said “Absolutely No Entrance” to enter the dim loading cavern at the rear of the building. I saw a sheet of typing paper taped to a nearby door that read “Blue Corner.” Behind the door was a water heater and a mop bucket. Three more turns and three more “Employees Only” and “No Entrance” signs, past a wall of plaster prints of the hands of bands that had played the venue: 38 Special, Skid Row, Rihanna, Big & Rich, Jackyl… I trailed my hand along them, then ducked through an industrial kitchen, before finally making it to the rear entrance of the Crown Room, a lounge where we’d been told to gather at 4 pm.
I didn’t immediately see anyone I knew.
I tossed my gear bag down and settled down on a worn velour couch to begin the part of boxing that I hate the most: waiting.
Jay’s Arrival, the First Warm Up
I called Jay and learned he was only minutes away; he’d been driving since early that morning. My heart sang as I threaded my way back through the maze and the milling groups of people. When I finally found him I threw my arms around him and hammered him crazily on the back. I was awash with nerves and fear and gratefulness that he was here.
“Hey,” he grinned, once I finally turned him loose.
“Hey, yourself,” I replied. “Welcome to the zoo.”
“Thanks. Let’s kick some ass,” he said mildly, as we headed in together.
I’m not entirely sure that I navigated the next hours of craziness gracefully. I felt like a speed boat banging wildly across chop. I was working hard to keep my heart rate down, to not let my attention get drawn into the dozens of mini-dramas that played themselves out continuously around me.
Soon I began to believe I was both freezing and suffocating in the dark gloom of the building and I finally asked Jay to walk outside with me. He saw my distress, and as we made it out onto the loading dock in the sunshine he started talking in a low voice.
“I want you to relax,” he began, turning me around to face him. “Tune all these people out. Let your shoulders down. You’re going to sit down on your punches, keep your knees flexed and stay on your toes. Be mobile.”
I could feel myself instantly drawn into the rhythm of our training. The concrete beneath my feet was familiar and welcoming; Jay and I had never trained in a gym; all of our work had been in gravel lots and on concrete slabs.
He began to call shots and I responded, sinking my fists into his open palms, slipping past his jabs, shaking out the stress and relaxing into his easy pace. Once I was warm and relaxed again, I was ready to go back inside. There were still hours to go.
The Blue Corner Ready Room
Just within the rear entrance was a storage space defined by a white nylon parachute hanging like a curtain from the ceiling and enclosing a halfhearted circle of metal folding chairs. It also included the “Blue Corner” sign on the broom closet. Someone directed us there, so Jay and I took some seats as corner men arrived to begin wrapping the hands of the fighters.
I sat idly until the warmth of our work in the sunshine drained away. I decided to do some stretching on a ratty gray blanket printed all over with the phrase “Property of U-Haul.” A few minutes later another boxer asked if he could share the blanket.
“Sure,” I said. “The blanket makes a better yoga mat than this grimy floor.”
“I know,” he replied amiably, moving through his own series of stretches, “that’s why I brought it.”
“Oh,” I started, caught off guard. “This is your blanket.”
“Yep,” he grinned.
I looked down again but suddenly cut my eyes over to grin back. “Well, actually, it’s the property of U-Haul. I’m sure you’ll be returning it to them later.”
We both laughed.
The Red Corner Ready Room
It wasn’t long before someone came and told us we were all in the wrong place, and we shuffled dutifully to another storage space, this one filled with platforms, amps, cables and mic stands.
I saw my opponent walk past and we exchanged waves and eye-rolls.
I sat or stood for a while in the swirling chaos, not speaking. Jay talked casually to many different people, lots of whom recognized and greeted him enthusiastically. Periodically I would check to make sure he was still around, and always he was there, just within sight or reach. Often he would tip his head in my direction as if to say, “I know. Waiting sucks. We’ll get there.”
I began to withdraw into a mental blank space to try and buffer myself not only against all the noise and activity outside my head, but also against my own inner turmoil.
It wasn’t working.
I could feel the noise, the chatter, the crowd, the music, and worst of all the inner strain bearing down. Finally I dragged a chair to face the wall, plugged in my earbuds, and drew my hoodie over my head. Jay cut off a conversation with another fighter to take up a position just behind me, bodyguard fashion, to create a barrier between all the activity and my chair; a protection against intrusion.
But my playlist wasn’t working. I’d chosen songs to be peaceful and calm — Paul Simon, Manhattan Transfer, and even Luciano Pavarotti. But none of it could drown out my thoughts, which were constantly drawn toward the coming battle. I longed to hear heavy metal. I needed Mötley Crüe to come screaming out of a ten-amp stack to blow away my worries with my walk-in song. I cursed myself for not loading anything like that onto my Shuffle.
Finally Jay touched me on the shoulder. Time to get wrapped and gear up. I would go on last, but the first fighters of the night were all ready and it was my turn to prep.
My Corner Man
Cornering for an official fight requires a particular kind of training and certification. Jay could be the secondary man ringside, but he wasn’t certified, so the fight promoters had arranged for all of us who didn’t have a corner to have a local coach working with us. Nathan Livramento from Delgado Boxing would be in my corner for the fight.
I straddled a plastic chair cowboy-style and rested my forearms on a folded towel atop the chair so that he could wrap my hands. I didn’t tell him that it was only my second sanctioned fight. I didn’t tell him that she was undefeated. I didn’t tell him anything, just allowed the ritual of the wrap to fill my vision and thoughts.
Coach Nathan smiled and talked in that calm rhythm the trainers I’ve loved best seem to have. I liked his quirky smile and his gleaming white cap. His long brown hands were ropey and strong. This will go well, I thought. It will go well with us.
When he finished, Jay drew me into a second warm up, this one more intense than the first. For the first time since I’d arrived in Atlanta, I could finally feel the eagerness for the ring rising up above the flood of anxiety.
The Fights Begin
The first fighters went out, and it seemed only heartbeats later that one was brought gently back: a knockout in the first round. He was shaken but on his feet; they walked him out of the ready room and I didn’t see him again. Later his opponent roared in on a wave of fierce victory, shaking his fists in the air and relating in vivid and graphic detail the knockout. He fist bumped everyone and shouted for more red corner victories. I absorbed all this, because we must. This is boxing.
Another two fighters went out.
One man came back bloodied after his loss, but still chatty and comfortable. I began to sink into the rhythm of the booming PA, the ring announcer’s voice and the familiar sounds of bout timing bells, entrance music and crowd.
The ready room began to empty. I shadow-boxed slowly in the eerily empty space, watching myself flow by in a skinny mirror someone had propped against a chair. Jay periodically haunted my circle of work, and when I saw him I closed with him, punching toward his left ear or tucking under and laying in a body shot.
Finally I took off my wedding ring, put in my mouth guard, fastened my headgear and went to the official to have my wraps signed so that I could be gloved. A pro fighter who was assisting with the event came to tape up all my laces and give me a final check-over.
A women lost her bout, and came back alone to make a quiet space in the otherwise empty room to cry and breathe and collect herself.
I wondered if I would feel the same in her place. Would I find myself outclassed in the ring? Would I feel humiliated? Would I cry? I’d tentatively explored these thoughts weeks ago, but I hadn’t handled them too much. And the fight was on. It felt far too late to consider these things again, so I resolutely banished the ghosts, and left the distraught boxer to her work. This is boxing.
I found Jay out on the wing of the entrance stage, just a few feet away from the ready room, watching the match before mine. Dust swirled in the floodlights over the ring as the fighters finished a round and the arena exploded with the thump and scream of rock music. Jay and I grinned at each other; we are both endlessly passionate about hair metal.
He began to build me up, leaning toward me to shout over the music, giving his last words of encouragement. I was starting to feel excited. I had maintained the discipline, I had held off the demons, and now I was about to get my chance to showcase the new and additional strengths I’d found.
And then it was time. I think I was dancing. I looked at Jay, laughter bubbling up in my throat.
“What does Nikki Sixx say?” he shouted over the noise.
“We’re still kickin’ ass!” I shouted back as my walk-in song, Kickstart My Heart, roared through the arena. I skipped up the stairs to the elevated platform where I raised my gloves and was bathed in the spotlight, then danced down the levels to the arena floor and toward the ring. I saw friends with fists in the air and I waved and pranced and grinned ferociously. This is boxing!
There’s no question that boxing hurts. That we hit each other with speed, skill and power, and in an actual fight, with the intent of knocking our opponent out. We train and condition for that. The problem is that the anxiety and nerves before the fight burn off so much energy that you’re left with less conditioning than you normally have. The only solution for this problem is more fight experience. Nerves also burn out the most recent layers of your training, so you’re forced to rely on older, more solidly ingrained skills. The only solution for this is a taller stack of training hours.
I was aware of these things but had decided that I would still work to fight a hard first round, rather than saving up for later. I had height, weight, and strength over my opponent, and I wanted to play my advantage cards early in the game. I hoped to hurt her with some power punches right off so that she didn’t think she could cruise through the match.
So I threw the first jabs of the round, and set up the first power rights. She took my measure and returned fire. We both danced, and I slipped and faded off several of her shots.
Somewhere inside my brain I shrieked in delight: I wasn’t standing and slugging! I wasn’t a wooden puppet! Look at me moving around! Look at me on my toes! This was a higher level of energy than I’d had in my last fight; I had definitely improved. I barreled through the first round with some grace, and definitely with power. Most of my energy held, most of my training stuck. Hallelujah.
At the bell I bounced back to my corner, breathing hard and grinning down at Jay ringside before looking up to hear what my corner had to say. “Yes!” he declared. “Yes! Nice work!”
He removed my mouthpiece — a most blessed act, and one I’d never experienced before — and gave me water, which I didn’t sputter or spew, but swallowed thankfully. “Did I win that round?” I asked eagerly.
“I think you may have,” he said as proudly as if I had just handed him a fresh-minted Franklin. He coached me further, but I couldn’t tell you now what else he said. I was happy, as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. There is no other feeling to equal this savage joy, this deliriously pleasurable mastery and dispensing of physical and mental power. I hoped I had not paid too high a price in fuel, and at the bell, I headed again into the storm with glee.
My opponent’s jab was a work of art: each one as crisp and sharp as a slice of hard green apple. Despite my height advantage I kept hearing it pop smartly against my headgear, scattering a fine spray of diamond beads of sweat in the spotlights. It was stiff and fully extended, and I ruefully wished my own were less sloppy, but I kept them out there to keep her at bay. She seemed as fresh in the second round as I’d felt in the first. I still felt physically strong, but my quickness was ebbing, and I began to lean on the voice of my corner for mental assistance. Every time I threw a jab in her face I heard his immediate response. “Niiiiice!” he would shout, then call a combination. I’d wait for the opening, and throw it. “Niiiice!” he’d say. I could hear him with crystal clarity, and as my plan faded, I worked his.
I defaulted to a right hook when I saw one, and growled in satisfaction when it landed, vibrating its way up to my shoulder. I waited for my reigns to be pulled in — most trainers don’t let their beginners throw right hooks. A straight right is faster and more powerful, but I throw the hooks because I love them, and because I keep getting the profound satisfaction of feeling them slam home. Sure enough, I heard it: “Straighten that out! Throw a straight right!” I laughed inwardly and threw a quick straight right, which of course was perfectly blocked by my opponent’s tight and quick guard.
See? I mentally tossed back toward my corner. Those don’t get through as mean and nasty. I knew Jay would allow me a few right hooks; we’d discussed this in advance, because I’d had the same experience in my first fight.
Mischa was everywhere. She repeatedly bobbed under my shots, which expends an incredible amount of energy. But with all her experience, this was a card she could play all night. I began hearing my corner call for uppercuts, which are the hardest shots to land well. Give me a right hook any day. But I worked for some uppercuts, never really landing a good one.
She surprised me a bit with how much she worked the inside game. In her fights on YouTube she appears most comfortable fighting outside, often even along the ropes. I very much prefer an outside game myself, and I was starting to not respond well to the inside flurries. None of her shots were the kind of heavy body shots I was accustomed to taking from Bonnie and Jay, but they were racking up points and I needed to shut them down.
So I clinched. I smothered her gloves and held them. I could tell she disliked it, in the same way a smartly-dressed woman dislikes stepping in something sticky that clings to her shoe. I sighed and caught my breath, then spun out for a precious second before she attacked again. I worked the clinch a few times, got called once for holding behind the head. But she’s got her head in my chest, I mentally whined to the ref. But I tried for cleaner work.
The second round ended, and I walked to the corner, eager for my mouthpiece to come out so I could breathe. I felt like that round had been close, very close. If she could maintain the same pace for the third round I was going to have to buy energy credits from somewhere, fast. And yet I still felt joyously happy to be fighting, immensely pleased to be holding my own with this champion fighter.
Coach Nathan stepped up his instruction, and I tried to take it in. Everything he said was true and right and good, but I felt like a wave already rolling in toward the shore; there was absolutely nothing I could do except roll forward. The bell rang and I rolled, eager but diminished.
Mischa’s lightness and footwork was perfectly intact, but her shots were much fewer in number. We began to exchange singles and doubles, and I knew our scores were riding up only slowly. If I could return two for her every one, I anguished. Or three for her two. But I couldn’t always do it.
We circled and she led me, dancing easily backward. “Stop following!” I heard from my corner. “Cut off the ring!”
My mouth dropped open in shock and my brain sent out a memo: What the hell are you doing? You’re not a rank beginner! Cut her off and control the ring.
This is something I learned a long time ago, and am fairly decent at. But the fatigue had shut down some of the mental processes that keep all these strategy plates spinning in the air. I tossed that one back up and hoped I had enough of them working. I instantly regained control of the ring.
She danced with her right hand spinning, as if she were loading up a Popeye power shot. I grinned over my mouthguard. That’s pure Alicia “Slick” Ashley, a favorite pro fighter of mine out of Gleason’s in NYC, and one with whom Mischa has trained. I would love to train with Alicia. But I chuckled inwardly and thought, No. You’re not landing that baby on me. I’m still here and I’m still moving. I kept a jab out there and blocked and returned shots wearily but confidently.
Which was about when I realized I had never worked angles and was throwing all my shots from smack in front of my opponent. This means I’m throwing more with my arms than with my body, which burns more fuel and is less powerful. And Jay and I had worked so hard on that! Damn! But time was running out. I spent what I had left, polished or not. Everything. She probably felt like I was throwing the contents of a heavy junk drawer toward her. I was, and I tossed the drawer as well. Her style stayed clean and technically beautiful. Mine was ghetto. But we both were fighting to the very end.
When the bell rang I felt incredibly ferocious and proud and exultant. I had paid out everything and there had been much good coin to spend. We had mixed it up, fought hard, and I had not been massively outmatched. I had not been humiliated. I had taken shots, but I had not been hurt. I had paid out some damage of my own. Mischa and I banged gloves in the boxer’s salute, and I hugged her. I didn’t care how the bout would be awarded, I wanted to sing.
I suppose I did sing.
“I did okay! I did okay!” I crowed to Jay and Nathan in my corner. “I did okay, didn’t I?!” Jay gave me double rock fists.
“You did!” he shouted. “You did more than okay.”
“Yes, indeed,” Coach Nathan added, clapping his hands against my headgear. “You did beautifully. You are a champion.”
Nathan wrapped both strong arms around me and hugged me from behind as photographers climbed onto the ring apron, flashes firing. I smiled at them all.
He stripped off my gloves and headgear and took my mouth guard. I turned back toward center ring, and leaned against the ropes with my face turned up to the floodlights, savoring the moment, storing it up in my head for later.
Looking across the ring I saw Terri “The Boss” Moss gesturing to me from Mischa’s corner. I loped over and she enveloped me in a hug. “You did so well! I can’t get over how much you’ve improved!” she exclaimed.
“I know, I know!” I agreed happily. “I feel incredible!”
I lingered a moment, then went back to my corner as the ring announcer climbed in to give the judges’ decision. The ref motioned me forward and took my left wrist; with her other she held Mischa’s right.
Mine wasn’t the one raised in victory, but it didn’t seem to dim my joy.
Moments later I climbed reluctantly out of the ropes and made my way back to the Red Corner ready room to find it filled with MMA fighters prepping for another fight night event that would go on after us. Jay helped me clear a path through men who were all in various stages of dress and readiness. My gear had been pushed into a corner, and I gathered it up amid a sea of curious faces.
I moved confidently out of the backstage maze to the loading dock and called my husband to tell him where to find us, still shaking with amazement and happiness.
“Oh!” I said suddenly to Jay, real contrition in my voice. “Sorry about not working the angles. I totally meant to do that, but I forgot.”
He laughed. “We’ll keep working on it,” he promised. And I knew we would.
See more of the photos from the fight here. I’ll have the video up and embedded soon!