Sweet Scientists

Women invade the boxing ring in ever larger numbers.

Tucked away on Union Street, on the corner of 20th, is a barely noticeable sign that reads, "Cappy's On Union." Opaque windows shield the gym from the street, and you'll have to search for the door, but behind this nondescript exterior lies a small, brightly lit room bursting with energy. Grunts and punches stab the air, and the heavy smell of sweat hovers over the gym, where a head coach and gym owner with the Runyonesque name of Cappy Kotz oversees a small cadre of women sporting laced-up boxing gloves, sweats, and fierce determination. Kotz trains novices and experienced competitors alike in the finer points of the sweet science: jabs, left hooks, uppercuts. . . . While one of her prot駩es, Sholanda Green, hammers it out in the ring with a larger sparring partner—a man—another, Adrienne Lugg, does footwork, and Washington State Golden Gloves champ Linda Ross takes a turn on the punching bag.

All of the women are competitive amateur boxers who have their hopes set on the US Nationals, to be held next month. Ross is a 30-year-old sprite who trains four hours a day, five to six days a week. A boxer for six years, she first got her start in West Virginia, where a male coach taught her the ropes. "He was good, but I was more like a novelty—he'd never trained a woman before," she says. "I could take a guy down, and he thought that was pretty cool. But it wasn't till I came to work with Cappy that I learned about the holistic approach to boxing—that there's a lot of different things about men who box and women who box, in how you train them."

Ross is hoping to do well enough at Nationals to qualify for the first officially sanctioned world championship in amateur women's boxing—an event that was inconceivable only a few years ago. Women's boxing was "illegal" in the US until 1993. The turning point came that year in Washington state, when promoter Bob Jarvis staged a fight between Dallas Malloy and Heather Moyner. Malloy—who's not fought since—punched the doors open for women in boxing. "She did it more to set a precedent than anything else," says Ross.

Most Americans got their first glimpse of women in the ring three years ago, when the undercard for the Mike Tyson vs. Frank Bruno match was a women's match between Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty. Those who expected a dry approximation of mud wrestling were in for a shock: Martin, a sloppy and unskilled fighter, came out slugging, and spectators were shocked to see the women put on a world-class brawl. The victorious Martin turned up on the cover of Sports Illustrated sporting a spectacular bloody nose.

The Martin/Gogarty fight indelibly changed people's perception of women and boxing. Since the bout, USA Boxing, the governing body for amateur boxing, saw enrollment escalate from 340 in December 1996 to 763 in May 1997. Now, when you search for "women's boxing" on the Internet, you come up with more than 1,000 sites dedicated to the sport, and there are 11 women's boxing gyms in Seattle alone.

Even given the tremendous advances made in basketball—the only major sport in which women can compete without being scored on style points that effectively rate them as if they were in beauty pageants—boxing still strikes traditionalists as a bit of a stretch for women. "There are so many stereotypes about women," says Linda Ross. "'Oh, it's a cat fight.' Most of my friends were kind of concerned. Like, 'Why would somebody of your academic background want to do this?' [Ross has a degree in experimental psychology.] It's really an empowering thing. It's not just going out and beating the hell out of somebody."

For her part, Kotz is an evangelist, having published a book, Boxing for Everyone, produced a video, Boxing Fitness for Women, and launching a Web site, girlbox.com—all of which take a determinedly female-centric stance on boxing. "It's real hard for people to understand that women can be aggressive," she says. "There's a lot of fear that women will lose their looks." Even someone as accomplished and messianic as Kotz has fleeting moments of self-doubt: "There's always a part inside of us that says, 'Well, yeah, maybe they're right.'" Even so, she sees barriers falling as more female boxers gain better skills. Just as has happened in basketball, knowledgeable sports fans will turn out to see skillful combatants in boxing, whatever their gender. "The people who know the sport," Kotz says, "they just appreciate good boxing."

911 Media Arts (117 Yale) will host a fund raiser for women boxers to go to the National Championships. There will be a screening of My Great-grandmother Was a Boxer, plus snacks. $12. 4/2 at 7.

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