For more than a month I’ve been sparring with Bonnie Queen “B” Mann as she prepared for her double-title fight, scheduled to be held December 10th in Raleigh at the Longbranch. For me, having the opportunity to work in her training camp was unparalleled; I trained like a fiend, worked my ass off, and felt pretty much incredible. Very few women ever have an opportunity like that.
The day of the fight Bonnie called me around lunchtime with the news.
Her opponent, Carlette “The Truth” Ewell, ranked number 1 in the light-heavyweight division, had been hospitalized and would not be fighting.
And before I could take in the breadth of her deep disappointment, she added, “I’d like you to do an exhibition fight with me instead. Four rounds.”
Let’s get one thing straight: The fantasy of stepping into the ring at the last minute with a pro fighter is a pure-dee, sugar-laden, sunshiny, cotton-candy cloud of goodness.
Of course I played that fantasy out when I heard how Victoria Cisneros — world-champion Holly Holm’s sparring partner — stepped in and went the distance with Holly on a night when Holly’s fight fell through at the last minute. But Cisneros was a pro fighter as well, with a dozen or more fights under her belt.
The reality for me is a bit different.
It was a bit of a gut hit at the beginning; one of those could-someone-please-sell-me-some-air moments. My brain momentarily ceased all operations and I struggled to mmmaaaaake wwwooords. Bonnie waited patiently on the other end of our connection, dealing silently with the turmoil of her own feelings.
“Ask Tiffany!” I blurted finally, referring to another pro fighter Bonnie has sparred with once or twice.
“She’s not in town,” Bonnie responded.
“I’m sure you could find someone else,” I rushed on, knowing perfectly well that there isn’t someone else. The women’s pro boxing world is small, widely and thinly spread. We had less than 5 hours before the doors opened at the Longbranch.
“Let me walk around the building once and I’ll call you right back,” I continued, unable to think, unable to breathe.
I’m a little embarrassed about this now. I mean, here was my big chance! And all I could think about was the infamous Rawhide scene from the Blues Brothers movie, where the crowds booed and threw beer bottles. I knew the crowd was coming to see two world champs duke it out, not some exhibition fight between a hometown champ and an unknown amateur.
Still, I could give them something. In fact, I would work my heart out, beer bottles crashing against the cage or no. I made it halfway around the building before texting back my coach. I didn’t mention Elwood, Jake, or the Rawhide plan. “I’ll do it,” was all I said.
And the waiting began.
Waiting is the biggest and most wretched part of boxing. I showed up at the venue with my gear at 6 pm, and didn’t go on until nearly midnight, I think.
More than 20 fighters and their corners, as well as a contingent of Boxing Commission officials — all men except for Bonnie and me — were crowded into three small rooms behind the open hall where the ring was set up. Another tiny room housed the dozen or more ring girls (their room smelled considerably better), and all of us shared two bathroom stalls.
I learned that it’s absolutely possible to pee every 10 minutes. Who knew the body could do such a thing?
Other than obsessive bathroom visits, I watched. Fighters, in various states of dress and prep; some sleeping, some plugged in, some pacing or working lightly, being coached by trainers. Everything happened in incredibly close quarters (the red corner room where I stayed was maybe 8 x 10, and housed an ancient couch, a dozen people, and all our gear). I did all my shadow boxing and pad work in a narrow hallway with several other fighters pressing by me at one time or another. The relentless thump of bass, the shouting of the crowds, and the rich cadence of the ring announcer’s voice provided background for our private dramas.
When I wasn’t maintaining mental blankness — a sort of necessary-for-survival radio static running in my head — I tried to visualize the fight. How I would move, what punches I would throw. But that tended to incite feelings of mild panic, so mostly I tuned in to the inner white noise, or queued up some Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones on my Shuffle to keep me company.
The men were all unfailingly polite, although we all had the same inward focus and air of distraction. Coach Harold Cook had agreed to corner for me, and although he was really there for one of our star fighters — LA Boxing’s Will “W.W. II” Wilson (8-6-0) — he made a major effort to lighten my heavy mood, and his soothing physical presence and sturdy touch were a great gift to me.
He went so far as to prepare a surprise for me at the last minute — finding my trainer Nas in the crowd and arranging for us to meet briefly before the fights began. I hugged Nas so hard and long he must have wondered if I would ever let him go. I learned later that Coach Cook is Nassir’s trainer (small damn world, I keep finding). And I went back to the fighter’s rooms with a happy grin pasted on my face.
Mark Powell, another LA Boxing friend who was in the corner for Bonnie, was also a tremendous support, periodically catching my eye and tossing me an solemn wink. Chris Bright, there for our MMA fighter Trevor Hayes, sent me smiles as well.
When the call came, I felt ready, I really did. We had just learned they were going to allow us three rounds — there were issues with the Boxing Commission related to the rushed putting together of medical records; my bloodwork was a year and a half old, and they require yearly bloodwork for pros. (They’re serious about bloodshed, as you can imagine.) But I would take three rounds. I would take anything. I wanted the show to go.
Walking out to the ring under the spotlights was the utter opposite of my experience in Atlanta just two months ago. The crowd had only seconds before heard the news from the ring announcer that Carlette Ewell would not be fighting; the dull roar had quieted to a peculiar low-level buzz; people who were expecting the biggest fight of the night were frowning and asking each other what was going on. Other than a few drunken protests being shouted, it was almost quiet in there. My name was called, heads turned, I walked out, and I wasn’t Carlette.
I tipped my chin up and stalked toward the ring in the silence.
Then suddenly, it began to happen. All of the crew from my home gym started to realize it was me — and they began to shout. First one voice, then another, and another. “Lisa!” they cried into the quiet. I turned to look out into the crowd and saw a few fists raised; these were my people, my friends. I climbed under the ropes and tried to find their faces. One man in particular moved up ringside and called to me with both hands in the air. His face was fierce and smiling: George Crofoot, a favorite sparring partner and friend from the Raleigh gym. He growled and gave me a double-fisted muscle message: You can do it! Give us a show.
They were not going to see the fight they came for, but together we would represent.
Earlier in the evening the ring announcer had sought me out to get my information. Name, ring name, place of residence, that sort of thing. When he asked me for my fight record I cleared my throat and tried not to apologize. I knew he wasn’t expecting me. At all. “I’m an amateur fighter,” I explained. “I’ve only had one fight. But I won! I guess that makes me 1 and 0. Undefeated.” I grinned lamely.
He stared at me, then turned to make a note on his clipboard. “We won’t mention that,” he said.
But you know what? He did mention it, under the spotlight, smiling and looking directly at me while he told the crowd I had a fight record of 1 and 0. It was an incredibly proud moment for me.
From the opening bell Bonnie communicated her promise to me: this was not a beatdown. We were going to spar like we always spar; I had nothing to fear from her. She would absolutely demand my best work, and I would give her everything I had. She was the consummate professional, never sending the heavyweight knockout bomb, but continually pressing me — hard — to defend and throw.
She brought out all her bread-and-butter punches; they were damn near old friends to me: the double left hook exploded against my ear and ribs over and over again in a burst of light and heat, but some of them I slipped or evaded. I frequently circled left rather than right and tried to keep my right glove up high out of healthy respect for that hook; it’s an old pattern and it works well. I kept a continual string of jabs in front of me, not caring that many of them didn’t land — they still functioned like they always do, keeping my opponent at bay.
I tried a few left hooks of my own — Coach Cook was calling for a jab-right-hook combination, but it was the straight hard right that was the most effective. Amazingly, I could hear George from ringside, shouting encouragement and calling workable combinations using the right as a lead punch. I embarrassed myself by not fully committing to some of those (they often lead to inside work, which I sometimes avoid out of fear) before I finally just said Screw It, and launched them with abandon. When we clinched, I remembered to pivot right — I swear the ref was even saying this to me! — and get out fast before her whip hand could land one on me. I took hard hits to the body, but they never had that fight-stopping shock of a direct slam to the liver.
Periodically I heard angry catcalls from the crowd. One man who was furious that Bonnie wouldn’t “Just finish her!” and others who made loud, querulous demands for us to take off our headgear, which amateurs are required to use but pros are not. But I also had the strange and overwhelming sensation that my entire team and all the professionals in the arena were supporting my game, rooting for me to show well with the Champ.
And I did. Bonnie fought hard and didn’t let me off the hook. I fought with everything I had, and I think we both felt that familiar primal joy rising as we mixed it up. There are few pleasures to match the savage satisfaction of a hard-battled fight.
On the final bell, I went back to my corner and Coach Cook took my mouthguard and gloves. An official was going to award Bonnie one of the title belts on a interim basis. “We can leave now if you want,” Coach Cook offered, but I wanted to stay. I got to be in the ring with this woman, I was going to see her wear the belt up close and personal. I earned this. When they gave her the microphone, she thanked me gracefully, promised her fans she would not disappoint them — they would see a title fight soon — and posed for photos. I got to see it all from the red corner.
In the back halls Paul “The Italian Hitman” Marinaccio (24-6-3) enveloped me in one of his rib-cracking hugs. Paul was the promoter of this event, had cornered for me during a recent sparring session with Bonnie during her training camp, and is Bonnie’s best friend. “Girl, you were incredible out there. When are you going pro?” he grinned. “I can get you a fight right this minute.”
The rest of the evening passed quickly for me; everyone from my crew won their fights in spectacular fashion: Trevor Hayes, Will Wilson, and Antoine Alston, I salute you!
And to Bonnie The Queen “B” Mann I offer a heartfelt thank you for giving me the most amazing gift and highest honor of all my boxing to date. I’ll never forget this. Never.
Special thanks to all the people, particularly Trish Shugars, who took most of these photos with Bonnie’s camera! Thanks also to Angie Fagan Fielder, who took the one at the top.