Portrait of a Woman as a Young Boxer

Rosalie Parker began boxing before it became a chic female sport
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There was something very odd and yet entirely captivating about watching the boxer's hands get wrapped before a fight. Perhaps it had something to do with the delicacy with which the trainer, Devon Cormack, wound the white gauze around the wrist and then the metacarpals. When these were partly covered, he tore off three short pieces from the roll and strung them between the fingers. He pulled the strips longitudinally, toward the wrist; they would support it like a splint when they were wound firmly into the body of the wrap.

It was the summer of 2000, and I was in a makeshift boxing venue: the basketball court of a recreation center in Augusta, Georgia. A regulation-size boxing ring had been set up in the middle of the room, and folding bleachers had been pulled out from the walls. A few dozen chairs sat closer to ringside, with seats for five judges placed directly around the perimeter. Attendance was modest—mostly friends and family of the boxers. On the back wall hung a poster from a local restaurant, Malley's Bagel and Grits, and kids from the Augusta Boxing Club were selling raffle tickets and wearing T-shirts that said I'D RATHER SWEAT IN THE GYM THAN BLEED IN THE STREETS.

Devon was almost finished with the pair of hands I had been watching him wrap. An amiable Jamaican, he is one of the best kickboxers in the world in three weight classes; training amateur boxers is only a sideline for him. He explained a little about what he was doing as he worked, but after he stopped to redo one of the hands, I let him finish the job in silence. His long dreadlocks hung still as his eyes focused on the small hand in front of him. The wrapping seemed to embody one of the contradictions of the sport: a wrap serves not only to protect the hand but also to make it more dangerous. Because this was an amateur bout, Devon explained, he couldn't use anything other than soft gauze and a single, final turn of adhesive tape. The pros use a much more substantial wrap, and the gladiators of Roman Coliseum days bound their fists with studded leather straps—one good punch and it was all over.

My fascination with the wrapping had something to do with the particular pair of hands in front of me, which belonged to a young woman named Rosalie Parker. She was the match favorite—the reigning flyweight champ and the winner of the 2000 U.S. Nationals. She was also a Harvard graduate who had recently held down a job in mergers and acquisitions at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Standing five feet two and weighing 112 pounds, Parker was about to step into the ring and try to defend the National Golden Gloves flyweight crown.

Her hands ready, Parker donned her headgear and tightened her kidney-and-waist protector. Among the last things to go on were the eight-ounce competition gloves, which laced halfway up her forearms and turned them into two small clubs. An official watched her put them on to make sure there was no tampering. After he had parted the ropes and stepped into the ring, the referee checked to make sure that both fighters were wearing chest protectors. When he approached Parker's corner, she tapped her gloves against her chest, showing that she was covered underneath her sleeveless black shirt. The two fighters went to the middle of the ring and touched gloves. Then they retreated to their corners and waited nervously for the bell to ring. Devon held out Parker's mouth guard and fed it to her—the final piece of protective gear.

Under the mouth guard were two gold false fronts, on Parker's left front tooth and the incisor next to it. They were a special good-luck charm that she had had made less than a year before, to help psych herself up for the fights and perhaps to intimidate some opponents.

Moments earlier I had seen a dramatic shift in the behavior of Parker and her opponent. As they warmed up physically, they also began to assume their fighting personas. Conversation was minimal, and they paced around like race horses approaching the starting gate, their faces drained of emotion. They avoided making eye contact, as if they were saving their visual focus for the fight. Randomly they began to make short, jerky movements with their heads, shoulders, and arms. They looked as if they were entering a trance.

The fight itself went by in a blur, three short rounds during which Parker and her opponent battled each other indecisively. None of their punches seemed to have much impact. The match was like an odd, unsynchronized dance, with neither partner able to decide who was going to take the lead. In the end, however, the judges gave the fight to Parker's opponent, causing the audience to boo in disapproval. As a novice observer, I couldn't tell who should have won. Then I began to get an education.

Much ado has been made recently about women's boxing, particularly now that Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila, has entered the ring. Books and movies have suddenly appeared, and hybrid offshoots of the sport, such as the "cardio-boxing" being taught at health clubs and featured in various women's magazines, have proliferated. Pre-teen clothing catalogues are now selling T-shirts that say GIRL BOXING. Although much of this is pure marketing hype, there is a growing group of women who take boxing quite seriously.

Rosalie Parker began boxing in 1994, before it had become chic, before women had secured a clear path on which to pursue the sport. Back when she was an undergraduate, she wandered over to the Harvard Boxing Club one day to see what it was all about. There she met Tommy Rawson, an eighty-six-year-old ex-fighter from East Boston who had coached at the university for more than fifty years. It was her sophomore year, and she wanted to try something new. Although the Harvard Boxing Club was open to women, few had ever shown up, and none had stayed for long; there was something a little daunting about going there alone. After dragging her roommate along for a few sessions, Parker ended up as the sole regular female participant, though she wasn't the first woman to have entered the club.

Rawson was very reluctant to let her actually spar with the men. He had worked with a few women before, and had discovered that they generally picked up the classic movements of boxing with greater ease and coordination than most men did. Still, his feeling was that women were meant "to be loved, not beaten up." As a result, he had Parker spend a lot of time learning and refining the stances, punches, and footwork of the art. Rawson drilled her in the basics for almost the entire year, while she enviously watched the guys pair off for sparring practice—but she was becoming fit, fast, and nimble.

In addition to learning punching technique and footwork, she ran, skipped rope, and pummeled a heavy bag. Earlier that year she had injured her knee, and had vowed to take better care of it. The hard lateral movements required for ice hockey, tennis, and rugby—sports she already played—might do damage to the healing knee, so she stuck with boxing, despite the rather repetitive exercises. Little did she know that she would proceed to stress-fracture bones in her hands by repeatedly hitting the heavy bag.

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