Ever since I started boxing back in the mid 1990s, people have said that women make better students. And while it sounds good at first, it’s a bit of a double edged sword. I always wondered if it was because women, unlike a lot of men, are better at doing what they’re told, something male trainers call ‘listening’.
When a boxer loses a fight often the trainer will say, ‘Well, he didn’t listen’, which is boxing trainer talk for, ‘He didn’t do what I told him.’ Maybe the fighter might think to himself quietly, ‘Well, that’s because the advice was bad.’ But he’d never say it out loud because obedience is necessary for the whole relationship to function. Is that why women are easier to teach? Are they more obedient? Do they more easily fall into the role of compliant, accommodating protege?It’s always a curly question to me. Add to it the myth that men somehow know more about fighting because that’s what men do then the whole picture is a little unsettling. If a man is telling you how to fight you better not argue, right? What do women know? Well, a lot more than they used to, is the answer.
Alicia Ashley, my ‘Slick’ friend in New York whom I have spent many hours obeying and listening to, likes to say that women are more ‘trainable’ than men, more concerned with proper technique. And that is certainly her forte as a fighter and an instructor. She knows a lot. And people listen to Alicia because she has a commanding presence and a no-nonsense attitude. But I’ve always been interested in the issues confronting the female trainer, especially when it’s men they are training.
When men are the ones ‘obeying’ the women in the trainer-boxer dynamic, do things change? When women are leading them through the complex jungle of movement and machismo that is The Sweet Science, what happens? Must men battle with some impossible riddle, that if they do what a women tells them to, does that say that they might be too weak to fight another man in the ring?
Now that I’ve started training other people, everyone assumes that I focus mostly on women. But actually, I have just as many, if not more men, that I train. And lately I’ve found myself unpacking the dynamics of the left hook and the straight right to quite a few attentive male ears. Usually they are younger, stronger and sometimes a lot bigger than I am. I have to explain, watch, comment, adjust and talk. And much to my surprise, they all seem to ‘listen’ to me. These guys are not ‘fighters’ necessarily but modern men from the real world where listening to women is a little more acceptable and trying to assume the dominant role isn’t the standard any more.
One of my most enthusiastic and dedicated students has also had male trainers in the past and he tells me he doesn’t notice any difference.
I’ve had contact with plenty of women trainers, too, so I have my role models and mentors, more than most, I imagine since I have essentially gone in search of them. And I gravitate towards females in the sport because, well, once there were none and because it seems to me that the women who have been fighters and are now trainers know what we are capable of while men might under-estimate female potential.
In my travels I’ve taken corner advice from Bonnie Canino who hits harder than most men, Terri Moss, who is wraps her advice up in good humour and respect, Alicia Ashley who even describes herself as bossy and Melissa Hernandez a vocal ringside coach and the greatest female boxer of all time, Lucia Rijker. If I could be a fraction of any of them I’d be thrilled.
Thinking about them now makes me wonder if it might even be possible that women actually make better trainers because not only are they better listeners but also better communicators. And certainly this has been a distinguishing feature of each of those I have mentioned. Lucia Rijker was the greatest surprise for her keen perception and sensitivity. I didn’t expect it from such a devastating and, let’s face it, brutal, competitor.
As each generation of female fighters ages, more female trainers will enter the mix and it will be interesting to see what springs fourth in the ring, what male and female fighters trained by women will look like.
Already the legendary Ann Wolfe has crossed the line with her male boxer, one-time junior middleweight contender James Kirkland. This brought her more attention and respect from the boxing brotherhood than Bonnie Canino got for training Ada Velez or Belinda Laracuente had for mentoring Melissa Hernandez or even Lucia Rijker got for being in the corner for the French champion Myriam Lamare when she fought Holly Holm. It’s certainly a space to watch. Maybe the growing number of female trainers won’t be taken seriously until they have a male heavyweight champion in their camp. And I’m looking forward to the day. Once a heavyweight starts listening, they all will.
One of the best authorities on boxing technique is a woman called Christy Halbert. I met Christy at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in Barbados in 2010. She was there with the USA national team. When I got home I bought her book ‘The Ultimate Boxer’ keen to read what this well-respected and quietly spoken boxing coach and official had to say.
It’s become like a bible to me, something I can open at random and become immediately absorbed, wanting to try out the drills and the strategies and the combinations. I had it with me in the gym recently and one of the male trainers sneered at the idea that fighting could be explained in a book. He’s one of those guys who talks the talk and talks and talks and talks. Thankfully he was too dyslexic to see that not only was it a book about boxing, but it was written by a woman. Halbert, a US national team coach, the highest level of accreditation, is also head of the USA Boxing women’s task force as well as being a sociologist in which she has a PhD. She’s not some dude in the gym who thinks he knows it all. The Ultimate Boxer is written with clarity and thought offering a chapter on the fundamentals and skill building that covers footwork, basic punches and drills. It has a section on conditioning listing the muscle groups used for boxing as well as a section onwinning bouts and strategy.
The book expands into the complexities of the game by breaking down tactics, discussing angles, variations on fundamentals, rhythm and tempo and tips on sparring. There is a list of different styles, for example the boxer, the croucher, the slugger and dealing with either shorter or taller opponents. It even addresses the issues of head trauma in boxing. The dude in the gym would know only a fraction of what is contained in the book and wouldn’t even be aware of what he doesn’t know, that’s the tragedy.
Boxing is both simple and complex. Hit and don’t get hit. It’s just that it takes lifetime of repetitive practice and painful error to get it. And once you’ve got it, there is an obligation to pass it on and the female champions are doing just that. So you’d better start listening!