The first time that I walked into a gym that devoted to boxing, I put on a game face and swaggered up to an older man who I thought was the coach. I had been told by the field house staff that the coach preferred to talk to people who were interested in the program before they signed up. Much later, I learned why.
The older man indicated in his broken English that he was not the coach. He pointed to a younger man who walked in and eyed me suspiciously before taking a seat at his desk. The younger man told me that he ran a traditional gym, and was not in the habit of babysitting anyone. In other words, people were expected to work while they were there. Fortunately, I had been in a martial arts school the year before, and had taken a boxing class. The boxing instructor at the martial arts school there was a nice guy once you got to know him, but he was tough. He often put people in to spar early on. I told the young coach before me that I understood, and I would be signing up. He still gave me a dubious look, but gave me the okay.
During the first year or so that I was at that gym, I was the only woman in attendance. Slowly, other women joined, but they didn’t last long. Some left in the middle of a session, and some were gone after a couple of weeks. Very few actually stayed for the whole eight weeks, and of those who did, seldom did any sign up for another session. It’s not that some of the guys who came in weren’t dropping out but it was just that the women’s absences usually happened faster.
Women have boxed for a long time. There was a woman who stepped into a boxing ring back in 1772. It’s only in the 20th century – and late in that century – that female boxers were considered to be contenders who could draw people into arenas. Women still have a long way to go in the sport, however. Pick up any popular boxing magazine, and you’ll see that very little ink is given to female boxers. Not even the more well known boxers like Laila Ali, Christy Martin and Ann Wolfe get more than a few words, let alone sentences.
It also doesn’t help that there is not a clear career path for women fighters to follow. Males can come up through the amateur ranks, learning their moves by way of local boxing tournaments, charity boxing shows (or “show” fights), and the Golden Gloves. But it is not the same for women, many of whom start in the sport later, while in their teens and twenties, while most boys started formal training around age eight. Opponents for males are practically falling off ring aprons, while females find themselves hunting, sometimes fruitlessly, for other females who want to fight.
If a woman walks into a traditional boxing gym, then she must prove that she is there for a purpose. It doesn’t matter if she wants to compete or is just there for the workout. The world of boxing is still predominately male, and the girly-girl stuff is not going to work – at least while she’s inside the gym, anyway.
Do not come in expecting personal treatment unless you have paid for it beforehand. In a traditional boxing gym, the fee you pay – whether you pay it monthly, quarterly or yearly – only entitles you to come in and use the facilities to workout. That’s it. Some gyms offer group boxing lessons, and most have trainers that will work with you one-on-one, but those things cost extra. Keep in mind that you are not at an exercise gym with a juice bar and sauna rooms.
If you sign up for a boxing program that is offered through a park district, expect even less special treatment. Park district programs are for the public, with a majority of classes geared towards kids and teens. Even the adult boxing programs may be designed for those in their late teens to mid-twenties. Park districts in major cities especially, may be competitive and participate in local and national amateur tournaments. Unless you are interested in competing, and you’re in an age bracket where you’ll be able to find opponents, don’t get an attitude when the park district coach spends most of the time training the gym’s contenders. The contenders are in a position to bring trophies to the gym. Plus, the coach already knows they are dedicated to the sport.
Learn from everyone in the gym. Regardless if it is a private gym or a program within a park district or a gym known predominately for teaching something else (like a martial arts dojo, for example), soak up all the knowledge you can get. The coach may not always have time to work with you, or, for various reasons, not be willing to do so (which we will discuss later). Make friends with the others in the gym, especially the ones who have been going there for awhile. Only the surliest types will refuse to give you pointers on technique. Most guys have an opinion about how to execute punches, and they will be glad to tell you. Don’t be afraid to approach the younger guys for help. Once in awhile, you may have the misfortune of coming across some twenty-something guy who was raised in a home where he was taught that all women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. It’s strange in this day and age, but true. The coach asked me to help train the newcomers during one session, and one lanky guy took offense to taking lessons from a woman. He sneered at me the entire time. Fortunately, he never came back after the first day, but some will, so watch out for them.
It can be intimidating for most women to step into a boxing gym filled with men. It is nice if you find another woman already there with her boxing gloves on. I always made a point of welcoming other women who came into the gym to put them at ease. Be wary of prima donnas, however. If you think sneering guys are a problem, try dealing with a female fighter who maybe had several bouts or has just been training for a long time, and is looking down on the women who just started in the sport. Some women who have been the only females in the boxing gym for awhile may display a “queen bee” mentality. The guys have become used to her, and have accepted her as one of their own. Now you have come along, and she has to move over and give you room. Be aware, because she may not want to share.
Don’t whine and grumble. I’ve observed too many women coming into a boxing gym, expecting the extras that are found at fancy exercise gyms, such as personal training, for example. Nobody wants to hear constant complaints from people about the coach not dropping everything to cater to them. When everybody else in the gym is managing to handle their own workout program without the coach constantly holding their hand, the complaints of one come off as highly annoying. Your complaints may close the door on the coach or anyone else in the gym helping to train you.
Whatever you do, don’t act shocked about the idea of hitting and being hit. I guarantee you that the coach and anybody else who’s been in that gym for awhile are going to think, “What did she think that boxing was all about?” I’ve noticed sometimes this attitude extends to hitting the bags, even though bags don’t hit back. The coach will be reluctant to invest a lot of time in you, because he or she is now going to think that you’re going to get scared off soon.
What about the coach who will not work with you after you sign up? It could be because there are so many people in the gym they cannot devote all of their time to everybody. It could be because they favor the fighters who compete and bring trophies back to the gym. If the coach is a male, it might be because they do not believe in women boxing. Take a tour before you sign up. If the coach insists on talking to potential fighters before they are allowed to put their money down, take this as a good sign. Ask the coach a lot of questions, and try to get a feel for the general atmosphere of the gym. Talk to some of the fighters there, but don’t disturb their workout. If something doesn’t feel right, then check out other gyms in the area.
Despite the fact that more women are in boxing gyms these days, a lot of people will gawk at you when they see you there. For some reason, an open door to a boxing gym is an invitation to all kinds of characters to just waltz in and hang around. There are a lot of dreamers and pretenders in the fight game. Some guys watch a few fights on cable and suddenly think they are Rocky Balboa. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some guy say, “I can just jump in the ring and do that,” I could have retired to Costa Rica a long time ago. All of those wannabe prizefighters want to give their unwanted opinions to the coach and anybody else who they think wants to hear them.
A woman is particularly a novelty to some of them. I was hitting the speed bag when some maroon rolled in, and started tapping the heavy bags. He had a cup of coffee in one hand, so it wasn’t easy for him to do. I informed him that the coach didn’t like people using the equipment if they weren’t members of the gym. Then the guy felt he needed to give me instruction on using the speed bag. I gave him hints that I had been there long enough to know what to do. Apparently, he assumed because I was a woman, I must not have known much. I acted coldly towards him until he got the idea that he should leave.
Blood, sweat, and saliva are constant elements within the boxing gym. I’ve wiped up blood off of the canvas and wiped it off of boxers. I’ve reached in boxer’s mouths to pull out and replace mouthpieces. There also may be free weights, exercise machines, and “community use” hand wraps around. People with major phobias about germs may not do well in the gym. It’s a good idea to keep hand wipes and sanitizing gel handy. If you decide to learn how to work (assist in) the corner of boxers during fights, gloves are a good idea, too.
Most of all – relax while you’re in the gym. You don’t have to act like the guys, but you needn’t hide in a corner, either. Stay focused, learn all you can, and have fun while doing it.