Portrait of a Woman as a Young Boxer

Rosalie Parker began boxing before it became a chic female sport

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.

During her junior year in college she spent some time abroad and then came back to boxing when she returned to Harvard. At this point she really wanted to fight, and she sought out a coach who would train her to step into the ring. Finding a coach willing to take on a woman wasn't easy. Frustrated, she posted a note on the Internet asking for help locating a coach; this ultimately led her to the Boston Sport Boxing Club, in Watertown.

A real boxing club was more intimidating to Parker than the genteel club at Harvard. As she describes it, "There were a lot of tattoos, Spanish, and prison records." Needless to say, just entering the club took a rare kind of courage. And if Parker felt odd and out of place in the gym, the regulars were sometimes equally ill at ease in her presence. The club was frequented largely by working-class men who didn't quite know how to treat a young woman from Harvard. Some thought she might be there just to pick up guys; others wanted to pick her up. In any case, respect came slowly, until the other fighters and the trainers began to realize that Parker's intentions were indeed serious.

After working with the fitness trainer at the gym, Parker was taken on by Dave Sullivan, a real fight trainer, who soon began sparring with her. From the start she was a brawler, someone who could take a hit and keep coming back. She liked to take the fight to her opponent—to start swinging hard at the sound of the bell.

Parker eventually moved on to the Somerville Boxing Club, where she met Norman "Stony" Stone—a trainer who had worked with several nationally ranked fighters, including John Ruiz (who recently gained prominence by taking the heavyweight crown away from Evander Holyfield). Again, walking into what was basically a men's club was intimidating, and the process of proving herself worthy as a boxer took some time. When she told Stone that she wanted to get good enough to win the Golden Gloves, he agreed to work with her, though he had never before actively trained a female fighter.

Parker's first official competitive appearance came at the New England regional championships in 1996, but because there were no other women in the flyweight class, she had to move up and fight as a featherweight. Inexperienced and outweighed, she lost her first outing. Her next competition was the regional Golden Gloves, held in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was a serious amateur affair, with thousands in the audience. Parker boxed in the bantamweight class, at 119 pounds, seven pounds heavier than her ideal fighting weight—but at the end of three rounds, when the judges' cards were compared, she had won on every card.

For the average male fighter, winning a regional Golden Gloves title is the first step toward becoming a successful amateur boxer. After Parker won, however, Norman Stone told her that she should retire. He pointed out that there were plenty of other ways to prove herself. And besides, there was very little else for her to do in boxing.

"You're a smart girl," he said. "You should get on with your life."

After graduation, in 1997, Parker took a job in mergers and acquisitions at Wasserstein Perella & Co. A year and a half later she joined PricewaterhouseCoopers and moved to Paris. There she found a small athletic club in the ninth arrondissement, where she began to box again. Many of the fighters there were from North Africa, Muslims who were taken aback by the presence of a woman in their gym, let alone one who wanted to box. But Parker's persistent, bright-eyed manner eventually won them over. The fact that she was an American helped, because they had come to accept American women as an entirely different breed.

The next winter she moved to New York City and started thinking about competing again. She had always wanted to go to Gleason's, in Brooklyn, one of the best-known and oldest boxing gyms in the country. A host of famous boxers had trained there, from Jake LaMotta (the "Raging Bull") to Larry Holmes. It took Parker a full week just to get up the courage to go, and when she finally did, the scene that unfolded before her was something out of another world. Gleason's had four rings containing all manner of combatants, from amateur boxers to professional wrestlers. It was, for her, an instant delight, both exotic and exhilarating. She had called ahead to introduce herself and to express her wish to come and train, and it was at Gleason's that she met Colin Morgan, a trainer with whom she seemed to click from the start. A soft-spoken Guyanese, Morgan was coaching a stable of boxers from the West Indies, many of whom were as bighearted and as encouraging as he, their broad smiles displaying an array of gold teeth.

Morgan decided that Parker should train for the 2000 Nationals, which would be held in Midland, Texas. In preparation for the fight he tried to refine her style and tone down her tendency to brawl. Under his tutelage she worked harder than ever before, and became very fond of her coach. The gold fronts for her two teeth are a tribute to Morgan's smile.

When Parker entered the staging area before the big fight in Texas, she looked less like a Harvard graduate than like a street tough from New York City. Her hair was drawn back and covered by a nylon do-rag. Along with the gold teeth, she wore a tank top to display her well-defined upper arms. It was all part of the pre-fight posturing, meant to intimidate her opponent. As Parker had discovered, the boxing arena is not a place where college degrees count for much.

In the ring, despite Morgan's advice, Parker began punching furiously as soon as the bell rang. Shorter than her opponent, and with a correspondingly shorter reach, she was trying desperately to get inside, but she knew she couldn't sustain her intensity for long. Fortunately, she didn't have to. She was much stronger than her opponent and proceeded to take her apart in a nonstop barrage of punch combinations. The fight lasted three rounds; the referee twice stepped in to prevent the other boxer from getting seriously hurt. The next day the recap on ESPN described the match this way: "Rosalie Parker, out of the famous Gleason's Gym, came in throwing punches ... and just kept firing."

"That was terrible!" Morgan said teasingly, as they sat together reviewing a video of the fight. "I know," Parker admitted. She explained that she had simply been too nervous. It was, after all, only her third real bout. She knew that Morgan was very pleased nevertheless. "When two fighters are equal in strength," he had once told her, "always bet on the brawler to win."

Two weeks after winning the national title, Parker was back in Boston, attending a Yo-Yo Ma performance at her alma mater. Her parents, both local physicians, were there, and her mother had brought along a blue shawl for her to wear. Parker wore an iridescent silk dress with spaghetti straps that fully exposed her upper arms, which looked chiseled from all of her training in the gym. "My mother thinks I've gotten too muscular," she confided to me, draping the shawl over her shoulders.

The concert, held in the intimate confines of Sanders Theatre, presented a wonderful contrast to the raucous atmosphere of a boxing arena, although the intensity of the performers was equally engrossing. Yo-Yo Ma was accompanied by two virtuosos: the fiddler Mark O'Connor and the bassist Edgar Meyer. Between pieces the cellist chatted with the audience about his passion, at one point talking about what he called "the edge effect" in music, when disparate elements converge to create unexpected contrasts.

Parker sat in the audience, listening intently. Her hair was wavy but carefully combed, and her dress was at once elegant and flamboyant, expressing equal parts of her personality. In a way, I thought, she was the physical embodiment of that very "edge effect" that Yo-Yo Ma had just been describing. By the concert's end Parker had removed the blue shawl from her shoulders, and for a whimsical moment she wrapped it around her head and face, like a Muslim woman. Her arms were finally bared for the well-bred audience to see, but she seemed unabashed.

About three months later, watching her hands get wrapped for the Golden Gloves fight in Augusta, I remembered this final image of her at the concert. I kept it in mind as I watched her narrowly lose the fight but remain unruffled by the judges' decision. When I asked her how she felt about the loss, she shrugged and explained that it was all part of the sport. It was good, she said, to learn what judges look for when a match is close. Instead of dwelling on her defeat, she was preoccupied with finding out exactly how well she had fought and how she could do better. It was then that I realized that for Parker boxing was truly an art. Like a musician or an actor, she was constantly honing her technique, trying to find a sense of style. Boxing wasn't merely a matter of winning and losing for her—it was a unique form of expression that allowed her to put herself in a different state of mind, put her body on the line, and emerge with a new sense of what is possible.