You have to look carefully for the entrance to Gleason’s Gym along Front Street in Dumbo. But there it is, on the ritzy, tourist-filled street, between Bo Concept and West Elm. The nondescript door leads to a staircase which opens onto a cavernous boxing gym which immediately evokes the New York of George Bellows, the New York back when boxing was huge. Even at 2:30 on a Wednesday, the gym is packed and loud. Fans circulate the sweaty air, windows trickle with condensation, buzzers ring, men punch speed bags, double-ended bags, standing bags, and each other. There are three boxing rings, each elevated, each occupied. On one wall, a large sign displays a Virgil quotation: “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
Among the dozens of men, young and old, who are training, there are a few women. Iman James, 24, a high school math teacher, began stretching in preparation for sparring with Andrea Tosto, 32, a social worker. James inserted her mouth guard and wrapped her hands in tape. Her trainer, PJ Lawson, smoothed Vaseline onto her face, to prevent abrasions from Tosto’s gloves.
The women entered the ring, railing on each other, bouncing and ducking, forcing each other into corners, mashing each others’ faces, holding, it appeared, absolutely nothing back. What came to mind: the recent blogosphere debates about women’s language, about how women apologize too much, or how it’s the policing of language that’s too much.
James and Tosto swung at each other without apology, and it felt revelatory.
“As a woman in boxing,” said James, “you really have to own your place, and be confident that you have a right to be there. Ultimately, you have to demand respect.” The coaches are always supportive, she said, but “the layperson in boxing, for the most part, they prefer to see men scrap.”
The pair finished their rounds soaked in sweat. Surely they were done for the day. But no—it was on to the punching bags, to the treadmills, to the weights. It was just another day of practice for Tosto, who would be fighting two nights later for a crowd.
That Friday, for the New York Boxing Tournament, Gleason’s was packed. I stood next to James, watching Tosto, who seemed to be dominating her match. She moved faster and swung harder with each round.
Tosto left the ring victorious, with an immense, bedazzled boxing belt. Afterward, she emerged from the showers wearing a t-shirt boasting superhero-style female boxers. “I got into boxing because of anger issues,” said Tosto. But it wasn’t just the anger outlet that brought her back to the gym. “It requires mental ability, physical ability, all-around conditioning. As a queer person, as a gender-queer person, I’ve gotten in touch with my body in ways I never knew that I would.”
On another evening, at Church Street Boxing Gym in Manhattan (recently in the news as the site of Jake Gyllenhaal’s training for Southpaw), Federica Bianco strapped on her gloves using her teeth. Bianco, 36, an astrophysicist from Italy, went pro in March, which means that she has a license and can now accept prize money (“purses”) for her fights.
But those purses, according to Bianco, tend to be much smaller for women than for men, and almost all female professional boxers have to maintain day jobs to support themselves. “You have to do it because you love it,” she said, shaking her head. But there’s an upside to being on the margins. Bianco wrote me later, “I find that the women boxing community is really an incredibly tight and supportive sisterhood, far more than men! We punch each other in the face with such love!”
She was sparring with Heather Maguire, 36, a paralegal. The two entered the ring, sparring first with the padded headgear that amateurs wear for their fights, then removing the headgear, like pros. After ten brutal minutes (you can hear the sharp exhalations, like air escaping from a pumped-up tire) they rested against the ropes, sweaty and breathing hard. The gym was filled almost entirely with men who had paid no attention to the women’s sparring. “If we were guys,” Maguire said, “people would have cheered at the way we were fighting.”
Bianco said the percentage of men in boxing gets higher and higher the more elite you become—from non-competitive training, to sparring, to amateur, to professional. It’s harder for women to find fights, she said. She regularly has to change her weight by six pounds to find opponents in her weight class. Women sometimes practice sparring with men, but it’s hard to find a man “mentally balanced” enough to handle that, said Bianco—if he wins, he feels like it was too easy, if he loses, he’s ashamed.
Bianco explained what keeps her coming back, despite the challenges. “It’s the focus when you’re in the ring. Someone is trying to hurt you, and you have to cope with that. You feel very calm, though it’s not calm at all.”
Photography by Molly Dektar.
Molly Dektar is from North Carolina. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn.