Mischa Merz charts the parallels between her journey in women’s boxing and the sport’s quest for acceptance.

Wedded to the ring

14:58:PM 17/02/2011
Mischa Merz

Misha Merz shadow boxing at Gleason's Gym in New York.
Misha Merz shadow boxing at Gleason's Gym in New York.

It’s almost 15 years since an old-school boxing trainer, who seemed to have shuffled straight out of Central Casting, told me that women couldn’t box.

He edged close and whispered conspiratorially, “It’s ’cause of the breasts, you know.” My eyebrows shot up.

I had been raised in a post-feminist era to believe that my gender wouldn’t stop me from doing anything in life. And I wasn’t the only one. It seems that all over the world women and girls were defying these old-fashioned sexist edicts and lacing up the gloves, not to play but to fight. And now from virtually nothing, the sport of women’s boxing will be included in the 2012 London Olympics, giving it the legitimacy it has long craved. The most recent Women’s World Championships in Barbados in September, the first since the 2009 decision to make it an Olympic sport, attracted nearly 300?athletes from 60 countries, including a team of eight from Australia. So don’t tell us we can’t do something, because we’ll just go right ahead and do it. Women’s boxing has now become one of the world’s fastest-growing sports.

I’ve had about 15 fights myself since that encounter with the old trainer, winning the Australian National Championship in 2001 as well as the US National Golden Gloves and Ringside World Championships as a masters boxer in 2009. I am over the 35-year age limit for the national team but I can compete in the US in a division created for the ageing pugilists who don’t want to turn professional.

Since I started fighting in 1998, I have sustained a couple of broken noses and my fair share of black eyes and other bruises. But never once have my breasts objected.

In fact, they’ve been the least of my worries. On the top of the list was once my own courage and toughness, something I doubted for many years. The quest to identify it was the subject of my first book about the sport – Bruising. I thought I’d have a fight and write about the experience, thereby locking myself in.

But even after the book was published I found that I was still addicted to the sport. And so came more fights and a daily habit of training that I have been unable to shake.

My relationship with boxing has been like one you would have with another human being. I have loathed it and adored it. It has invaded my dreams and turned my stomach. I have resolved to reduce its significance in my life, only to see my passion for it intensify. Boxing is my man. Even my husband will tell you so.

Discovering the bigger world of women’s boxing in New York in 2007 re-ignited my obsession after a few years of marking time when I stopped competing. I visited the world famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn and found that I had a different woman to spar with almost every day of the week, from world champions to beginners in all age categories.

Back home I was still shaping up against men and boys with only occasional sessions with other females, although that had begun slowly to change.

In New York I also discovered I could resume my fighting career in the new masters division. And so there was another book in the making, The Sweetest Thing, which traces my fighting journey in which I encounter some of the key women in the growth of the sport. These include my idol Lucia Rijker, who featured as the villain Billie “The Blue Bear” in the film Million Dollar Baby and was the subject of the documentary Shadow Boxers (see breakout). For years she had been regarded as the most dangerous woman on the planet, and it was a dream come true to train with her, be hit by her and discover that she was also a funny, smart and very warm and generous person.

Claire Ghabrial and Heidy Franco in Barbados.
Claire Ghabrial and Heidy Franco in Barbados.
On my first trip in September 2007, nearly 10 years after my first fight, I travelled to New York City to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where many a female nose has been bloodied and broken, a place that loomed large in my mind as the home of some of the toughest, scariest women in the world. It was also the place where Hilary Swank trained for Million Dollar Baby.

That first visit was the beginning of my re-awakening. It led to a second visit a year later in September and October 2008. Then, finally, came the odyssey that was May to December 2009, when I travelled across America, from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Albuquerque, training and competing in masters matches, there not to watch but to actually get into the ring myself and fight, something I had long thought was impossible. I came home undefeated in five fights.

On that journey, I met some of the trailblazers I had been following for so long. Meeting them opened up a whole new world to me, one that I had once seen as a mere flicker of pixels, recurring names, and weight categories on YouTube. Now they were life-size and, in many cases, larger than life, and I was among them.

The women I met in the US were extraordinary, one and all. They were characters in the true literary sense, as big and brave and as vivid as any of the greats of men’s boxing have been. If they were all gathered together in the one room, the walls wouldn’t be able to contain their energy and their unstoppable life force. And scattered and few in number though they may be relative to the men, they have pushed down the barriers once and for all so that no young girl will ever question her right to call herself a fighter.

Less than a week after I returned home from my American boxing adventure in December 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that female boxers would be included in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The first female Olympic boxing champion should want to shake their hands. These amazing women should never be forgotten or allowed to slip under history’s rug as the sport gathers pace and grows. I feel honoured to have met them, to have been in the presence of their courage and their commitment.

Boxing cannot help but make you question who you really are. You cannot hide from yourself in a boxing ring. It might seem a crazy path to self-knowledge, but for me it has been a rich and fulfilling one.

These days I don’t worry so much about how tough I am. It’s something else that has kept me swinging. Boxing has rewarded my dogged persistence with fleeting moments of grace and flair, and I have collected these moments like love letters to be kept securely locked away and savoured in later years.

Mischa Merz fights in the Georgia Games 2009 in the US.
Mischa Merz fights in the Georgia Games 2009 in the US.
I was such a hopeless case when I first began to box – so slow and unresponsive – that each and every admiring comment made on my jab or footwork as I travelled from gym to gym across America was forever etched in my consciousness.

By the time I first walked up the steps of Gleason’s, boxing was part of the rhythm of my soul. The metronome of the skipping rope and the spank of leather mitts on a heavy bag ignited my engine. By then I was no longer amused by the paradox of my presence in such a place. Instead, I was comforted by the familiarity of it: the round bell; the heavy swinging bags; the snort of the shadow boxers, their idiosyncrasies, aliveness, and common purpose.

The ring is pre-eminent here, the most hallowed of spaces, like an altar, a stage, or a sacred site. All gyms contain these elements. All gyms are home to a boxer, and fighters as well as former fighters are welcomed without hesitation. That I can call myself a fighter now is something that I treasure more than I would the title doctor or professor. In fact, I have spent more time in contemplation of the sport than most people spend on a PhD.

These days, sparring – which used to drain my legs of sensation, dry my mouth to dust, and overstimulate my bladder – is second nature. I regard having someone try to hit me in the head as an almost friendly gesture. I have made friends this way and lost them only when we stopped hitting each other.

“Are you still boxing?” people ask me from time to time, possibly expecting to hear that I have finally come to my senses. “More than ever,” I tell them now. There’s no doubt that I am a better boxer than I ever hoped I could be. I practise the sport like an artist, because I must, not to attain any particular goal, but because it is who I am.

I ended up making six trips to the US from September 2007 to December 2009 to train and to fight. It was during those two years and three months that everything changed for me. What I knew about boxing, what I could do as a boxer, and who I was in the world of women’s boxing were all transformed.

» The Sweetest Thing, published by Seven Stories Press, will be released in New York in April.

» National championships are on March 3-6 at the Reggio Calabria Club, Parkville. Tickets available at the door. $70 for the four days, $35 concession. Or $25 per day, $15 concession. Two session times at noon and again at 6pm all days except Sunday, when finals will be contested from 6pm.

Golden Gloves on the Silver Screen

Girlfight 2000 Diana Guzman, the breakthrough role for actress Michelle Rodriguez, is a tough high-school girl with a violent streak. Between problems at school, she searches for some way to find respect, love, and challenge and finds all those things in the boxing.

Million Dollar Baby 2004 Starring Academy Award winners Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood, this is about a hardened trainer/manager who works with a determined Irish-American woman in her attempt to establish herself as a boxer.

Shadow Boxers 1999 This award-winning documentary by Katya Bankowsky is one of the most?comprehensive on the rise of women’s professional boxing.

Knockout 2000 The story of Belle, starring Sophia Adella Hernandez as a determined East LA woman who pursues a career in professional boxing.

Saved by the Belles

The history-making, inaugural female Olympic boxing team will emerge over the next 18 months in several key tournaments in Australia and overseas, starting with the Australian National Championships from March 3-6 in Melbourne (see details left).

All up, there are expected to be about 40 female boxers weighing in, including juniors, with the biggest teams coming from Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and NSW in eight different weight?classes.

In London in 2012, however, there will only be three weight classes for women, narrowing the field and making those spots the most highly sought-after and competitive in the Olympic boxing squad as champions either side of those weight divisions contest the 51-kilogram, 60-kilogram and the 75-kilogram divisions.

Last year eight Australian female boxers competed at the sixth and the biggest women’s world championships in September in Barbados. There were nearly 300 athletes from more than 60 countries competing at the 10-day tournament staged by the International Boxing Association (AIBA). Some of those elite Australian females, many of whom now have a world top-10 ranking, will be appearing at the national championships at the Reggio Calabria Club in Parkville. Although the biggest states for women’s boxing are Western Australia, NSW and Queensland, Victorian women boxers, who are also growing in number, will be working to topple the international team when they weigh in for the tournament.

“We’re going to have the strongest ever representation of the elite women at these Australian championships. It’s the best I’ve ever known it to be for elite women, I’m really pleased,” said Boxing Australia president Ted Tanner. “And we’re hoping that some of those boxers will then travel with Boxing Australia teams to compete in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Norway in April.”

To qualify for the Olympic team, though, the women will have to finish in the top eight at the next world championships in China in April, and then still might have to compete in a another domestic qualifying tournament to win a spot in the Olympics.

Key boxers to watch at the Australian titles include the long-reigning 60-kilogram champion Claire Ghabrial, currently ranked No.3 in the world. She’s originally a Melbourne girl who now lives in Perth. Ghabrial is an international gold medallist and two-time Oceania champion who is known for her flawless ring movement and slick style.

And from Queensland, southpaw and one-time ballet student Sabrina Ostowari is now third-ranked internationally at 57 kilograms, along with gym stablemate Shannon O’Connell, who was the most successful of the Australian team in Barbados at 51 kilograms and who is ranked No.2 in the world. A mother of two, O’Connell is also one of only four boxers to receive a $10,000 grant from BAI.

But that all pales next to the nearly £2 million being spent by the British government on its women’s boxing program to prepare them for the Games.

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