When only the best will do

What an amazing week in women’s boxing it has been for me. I had to pinch myself these past few days at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra as I witnessed something I thought I’d never see.

The women are finally being taken seriously, given a comprehensive national coaching program and benefiting from all the AIS facilities, from the dining hall to physios and dietitians and sport doctors and recovery centres. About time!

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the national elite women’s boxing team, the Brazilian women’s team and the New Zealand women’s team by head coach Bodo Andreass, as they prepared to go to China for the world championships next month. I was there to do some fill-in sparring when needed, training and observing and I certainly learned a lot, not just from the girls but from the women’s coach Allan Nicolson Jnr, who unpacked the competition sparring in a comprehensive video analysis as each boxer tackled their opposite numbers from Brazil and New Zealand (teams pictured above).

Jessica Retallack v the Brazilian 60kgs boxer for the second time.

How lucky I was to have been in this position without having to fight in selection trials to get there, and to still be allowed to play, despite my advancing years. I was so grateful for my second wind and the chance to mix it with the new generation. I can’t deny there was a tinge of envy, that I wished this had been available to me when I was coming up. But in the end, you can’t turn back the clock and I am so thrilled that there is now some enthusiasm, money and support for the women. So hopefully, no more false starts. Women’s boxing in Australia is out of the blocks.

It makes all those punches in the head count for something. Personally I always knew that the women would shine, but I also knew they couldn’t do it alone. Now they have the infrastructure and support I’m even more sure of their success since they clearly have the support of each other as well. Boxing is an individual sport but being part of a team, when you can boost each other, is also pretty special.

And these young athletes made me feel very welcome to join them, all from the Victorian flyweight Kristy Harris up the weight scale ladder to Bianca Elmir, Cherneka Johnson, Skye Nicolson, Jessica Retallack, Shelley Watts, Kaye Scott and Arlene Belncowe, who missed out on selection but proved herself to be someone to watch nonetheless as she took on the tough foreigners and impressed the coaches. All of them were warm and welcoming to me and I even managed to spar with Arlene and Cherneka. Coach Allan gave me some rounds on the pads, although it did cost me a cup of coffee. I’m sure I will be going back to Queensland before long to work with him some more. I found him to be a really calm and impressive communicator with the team, getting the message across effectively and firmly. It made me cringe at all the old school, abusive coaches I encountered in my early days, men who just liked to be bossy for the sake of it, telling you to do the opposite of what you were doing no matter what it was, just to assert their ego. Boxing is complex and coaching even more so. It was kind of daunting thinking about how I might handle it myself. But that seems to be the path I’m on.

Coach Allan Nicolson Jnr gives Victorian rep, 48kg Kristy Harris some sound advice before sparring.

The whole week I kept getting flashbacks to the days when I started and thought how I would have soaked up all this feedback like a sponge. And back then there were so few women it was hard to get fights but most trainers believed it was a passing fad and so were reluctant to take girls seriously, many thinking they had no place in the sport. Now here we were in Canberra, a group of young female boxers being taken very seriously indeed. Training and sparring with the women’s team from Brazil and New Zealand, being treated like boxers, elite boxers no less who would be representing their country! I don’t think there has been such a dramatic change in attitude in regard to gender as there has been in boxing since the mid 1990s when I began. And in many ways this Olympic year marks the start for the sport. I can’t wait to see where it will go.

Mini Marciano

I’d also had an amazing weekend before I left home, not just seeing Australian super featherweight Diana Prazak retain her world title but enjoying the company of some professional women boxers that included my hero and one of the women that features in my book The Sweetest Thing, Lucia Rijker and Australia’s Sarah ‘Missy’ Howett, a long time sparring partner and friend.

Sarah 'Missy' Howett, me, Diana Prazak and Luci Rijker

Diana had been training with Lucia – the most dangerous woman on the planet – in LA in preparation for her WIBA title defence.

Nat Fleischer, perhaps boxing’s most famous historian and also editor and founder of The Ring Magazine, named Rocky Marciano as the 10th greatest heavyweight champion ever.

There were flashes in Marcianao in Diana Prazak in her fight against Fatuma Zarika on March 20 in Melbourne, Australia. Zarika, in turn, was the re-incarnation of all the slippery fleet footed boxers through the ages. An evasive Kenyan with excellent skills, a little bit Mayweather, a little bit Sugar Ray with a good long jab but not quite enough fire power.

While Fleischer said Marciano was crude and lacked skill, Diana showed she had been picking up some important tools from Lucia making this her best outing as a ‘boxer’ so far, but it will always be in her nature to come forward and attack. She’s a fighter at heart who is fuelled by a desire not just to win, but to crush her opponent and she doesn’t really mind how messy it gets as long as the job is done. So far so good.

In this case it was a task easier said than executed as Zarika employed some phenomenal footwork, making herself a hard target for the Australian.

For Prazak, there was a lot riding on her shoulders. This time she wasn’t the underdog outsider trying to snatch the title from the champ as she did from Lindsay Garbatt in September. This time she was the champ. Furthermore she had a new corner, no less that the greatest female boxer ever.  Prazak has always been walk-up, but now at least she does it with some dips and feints and sometimes Tyson-like pendulum swings. She was using angles, trying to work her way in with her jab, although there were also a few old Prazak-style leaps in later rounds.

Ultimately, it was her will, as always, that won the fight. Zarika had some great skills but against such a strong determination they weren’t enough

Final scores 98-90, 100-91, 98-91

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News flash! Women can box!

Skills and thrills. Ramadan throws a jab at Graf.

The Herald Sun’s Ron Reed has finally discovered women’s boxing, which is great for him, and for the rest of us too, I suppose, even though he’s about five years behind the times.

But while we have been watching the sport grow and develop exponentially over the past decade, Reed has been hiding behind his own prejudices, pretending it will go away as long as he doesn’t look at it or write about it.

I used to work at the Herald Sun and Reed was happy to leave the reporting of women’s boxing to me. But if I was still there maybe we’d have to fight over the chance to cover what are clearly among the most exciting fights on many of the broadcast shows.

It’s all because Reed found himself ringside at the Susie Q Ramadan v Alesia Graf WBC bantamweight international fight on Friday (February 24) night and realised that, hang on a second, two women can fight with the same speed, skill, explosive power and grit as two men. And in his world that in itself constituted news. He declared that women’s boxing had finally attainted credibility. And true it was a great fight. One of the best fights, male or female, that we’ve seen on TV lately.

A win for boxing and Susie Q Ramadan.

Ramadan was a split points winner adding WBC to her former IBF world title credentials. A close fight makes for a good fight and everyone has an opinion on whether the decision was right or wrong. But actually, the real winners are the fans and lately men’s boxing has been the part of the sport in need of exactly this kind of credibility. Matches have been seriously lopsided. But in this case promoters Barry Michael and Brian Armatruda have been making sure that doesn’t happen on their Melbourne based shows. And the result was a win for the audience, which is exactly the kind of thing that will make the sport grow and flourish. Sport is about competition after all. Fights need to be competitive.

And the women’s fight illustrated this better than any other.

But to say that it brought women’s boxing credibility implies that it was lacking it, which is actually not the case. And isn’t that kind of insulting to all the other local women boxers who Reed hasn’t seen? Women like Nadine Brown, Sarah O’Connell, Sarah Howett, Angie Parr, world champions Erin McGowan and Diana Prazak, Jasmine Ward, Julie Gaston, Sarah George, Shannon O’Connell the list goes on. There are amateurs who have competed internationally and clocked up scores of fights over the past ten years, Claire Ghabrial, Sabrina Ostowari, Kelly McGrath, Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen, Caz Pruden. And there are relative newcomers adding depth to the talent pool. Kaye Scott, Arlene Blencowe, Bianca Elmir, to name just a few. Never mind their antecedents, the incredible Sharon Anyos, a WBC title holder and ’emeritus champion’, Amanda Buchanan and Holly Ferneley who fought out of a state that deemed her sport illegal.

What does Reed even know about these women? I’d hazard a guess at saying that he knows next to nothing. So it might be like me seeing my first ever game of AFL football and declaring it quite an entertaining sport as if this was some kind of a scoop.

Furthermore, let’s give the actual combatants in this fight some due too. Graf and Ramadan came into the ring with more than 20 fights a piece. Graf had been somewhat of a star performer in Germany, where they realised as far back as the 1990s with Regina Halmich, that women’s boxing was worth backing. Who did Ron Reed think these girls were fighting? Graf has been in with some of the stars of her generation. Alicia Ashley for one and Ana Marie Torres. Not that Reed would have any idea who those women are. And Ramadan has put it on the line against Jasmin Rivas in Mexico and has three times defeated world champion kickboxer Michelle Preston. They haven’t exactly been doing Boxacise classes.

So without wanting to sound like a smart Alec I’d like to welcome Ron Reed to the real world, where women have been fighting with all the skill, power, speed and smarts that men have for quite some time now.

Maybe that is news that it’s news to him.

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Watch out for the ‘mitt men’

A pair of focus mitts do not instantly make someone a boxing trainer.  But it’s very easy for the untrained eye to think so. Pads are all about sound and movement, that’s why they are used in open training sessions and any TV piece on boxing. Wow, that sounds good, that guy hits hard.

But is it, to paraphrase Shakespeare, just a lot of sound and fury signify nothing?

I love punching the pads, I must admit, although I’ve never really settled into a routine with a trainer, so every time I punch them I feel like I’m a beginner, even though I have been boxing for many years, nearly 15 of them now.

But I do a lot of sparring and one thing I notice about pads is, they are not like sparring. They are more like learning dance moves. Hitting a target with two heads that come towards you instead of a target with one head that often moves away from you and if they come towards you they are throwing punches too. And with pads, you’re doing what you’re told and not responding to what you see in the way your opponent moves. You’re listening not watching, which is so different from the real thing.

It always makes me wonder a little about the efficacy of the mitts. Despite the feel-good factor, is most of the serious learning going on in other ways, like when you’re sparring and your corner tells you to try something and it works? Or when you’re shadow boxing and learning to throw punches on balance? Or when you are watching quality fighters and are inspired to imitate them?

My biggest problem is that the sight of a mitt, makes me, and I think a lot of people, want to hit hard rather than crisp, so I become tense and anxious to please. Punching a mitt can be satisfying, though, it can get your heart rate up and make you work. But is it actually doing you any good as a fighter? Are you learning?

Now that the mitt is on the other hand, so to speak, I believe the mitts are quite a good teaching tool, especially if you’re trying to get someone to snap their punches. But they have to be used in combination with other tools; glove work, shadow boxing, heavy bag, double end bag, slip ball and, perhaps the most important tool of all, quality sparring with a good pair of eyes watching you. And that includes good drill work that helps two boxers work offence and defence together. Sometimes the right community in the gym is the best tool of all.

There are some who believe that the pads have become a substitute for actual knowledge. But that might be taking it a bit far since most of the high profile trainers today like Freddie Roach and Roger Mayweather use them.

But in Mike Silver’s book ‘The Arc of Boxing: The rise and decline of the sweet science’, focus pads get a pretty harsh assessment. And the critique is worth considering if you’re in the process of searching for the right boxing trainer. It might help you sort out fact from fiction.

‘The vacuum of expert teacher-trainers has created a fertile breeding ground for gimmickry and artifice that is of little use to a fighter,’ Silver writes. One of these, he says, is, ‘the ubiquitous use of what are popularly known as ‘punch pads’ or ‘focus pads’.

‘These oversized gloves, similar in size and cushioning to a catcher’s mitt, fit over the trainer’s hands to act as targets while the fighter hits them with a series of combinations. Punch pads were apparently rediscovered after showing up in the Rocky movies in the early 1980s. Every boxing movie now has the requisite scene of a fighter working out with the punch pads. Before Sylvester Stallone incorporated punch pads into his movies they were virtually non-existent.’

It’s worth observing Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby to see how little concern for reality Hollywood has when it comes to the sweet science. Clint is great. But you wouldn’t want him doing pads for you. Not when he holds them a mile apart, virtually down by his waist, and with such limp wrists.

‘Pad workouts are colourful. They are fun to do and watch but their contribution to enhancing a boxer’s skill is negligible. Although punch pads had been around since the early 1950s, old school trainers rarely, if ever, used them. They believed that hitting the pads with the same combinations over and over had limited teaching potential and emphasised a robotic ‘bang, bang’ style of boxing. Their use did not encourage the fighter to think.’

Silver goes on to say that the pads were meant to refine the execution of a specific punch, to help master the mechanics, not to act as the only means of training a boxer.

He interviews 1950s fighter, trainer and former Ring correspondent Tony Arnold and the famous commentator, Detroit based trainer and Kronk gym owner Emanuel Steward.

Arnold questions how a trainer can properly see how balanced the fighter is if he is constantly catching punches, particularly at seeing how balanced a fighter is if he misses punches, which as we know, is a big part of the game.

And I wonder about that too. You don’t want fighters, or aspiring fighters, bouncing off the pads, using them to hold themselves up. But if you are observant, you can avoid that. Which means pads might be OK in the right hands. You so often see personal trainers using them with no clue as to how they might be properly used to teach boxing. Probably they got their style from Clint.

But maybe combined with knowledge, pads aren’t all bad.

Steward says they look good and impress the crowd and the ‘media guys’ but there’s ‘very little actually being taught’.

Maybe not for the seasoned veteran. But most fighters warm up on them before a fight. Going to the amateurs you hear the constant pop-pop-pop as the fighter prepare. However, I know in my last two fights in the United States. I warmed myself up, as I would in the gym, with some skipping and shadow boxing. And my performance in the fights was not hampered by the absence of pads.

Silver’s conclusion?

‘Before the1980s punch pads were never part of a boxer’s regular workout routine. Far from being an improvement, their ubiquitous presence is yet another indication of the dumbed down quality of today’s boxing instruction.’

Lately I’ve seen some really shocking padwork. People who know less than zero about boxing making a lot of noise when their people hit the pads. They slam the mitts into the boxers fists, shout a lot of encouragement and have them charging forward in ways that will probably get them knocked out if they try it against an actual boxer with skills and pop.

You also see these people in the park early in the morning training boot campers, having them throw punches across their bodies, dropping their hands so they are flailing and unbalanced. They may as well be swimming or doing Zumba.

So look for the warning signs

No combinations,

No footwork

No defence – slipping, blocking, weaving, dipping

Lots of shouting

All forward movement, no backwards movement with punching

Slamming pads into fists to make the punches sound louder and harder

No instruction

No rhythm

No understanding of the ebb and flow of combat

Holding the pads far apart from each other, too wide so the boxer punches across his/her body

Here’s Steward talking about the pads if you want to hear what a top line, old school trainer with decades of knowledge has to say.

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Bruised then and now

More than ten years ago when the first edition of ‘Bruising’ was published I did this interview with James Griffin for the ABC’s books and literature program The Last Word.

That was in the days when I was still willing to put up with having long hair. And I even organised to have a shiner just for the occasion! It was filmed in our old flat in Elwood and  at the Underworld Gym in the city, with Sam holding the pads.

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Winning the battle of wills

‘Dirty’ Diana Prazak, a relative newcomer to boxing, battled, not just the seasoned Canadian world champion Lindsay Garbatt, but waves of self doubt as she entered the ring last night (Saturday September 24) to fight and win the Women’s International Boxing Association super-featherweight world championship belt in front of a home crowd in Melbourne, Australia.

Fighting like girls. Hernandez with Mick Hargreaves, Diana Prazak and team.

Prazak had a lot of pressure riding her into the ring. It would be the first time an Australian woman would fight the reigning champion for the belt. She was in front of a hyped hometown crowd. She was undefeated as an amateur and had only one loss as a pro, a baptism of fire against Gladiator Sarah ‘Missy’ Howett.

And Garbatt, a security guard and former body builder, has a name on the world stage, battling from an underdog position to champ in her four-year pro career, facing some tough competition – including Jeannine Garside and Jelena Mrdjenovich – while Prazak had been swimming in a more modest pool of women, most recently beating NZ kickboxer Bronwyn Wylie at the same venue.

'Dirty' Di digs to the body. Pictures. Werner Kalin.

There were many unanswered questions floating in her head before the fight. Garbatt was a major step up for Prazak, who like Melissa Hernandez, the US multiple world champ hired to help her prepare, came to boxing initially only to shed some weight. Both women last night showed that a certain determination is transferrable with Hernandez making quick work of the Kiwi journey-woman Christina Tai with a fourth round TKO in their lightweight bout and Prazak forcing Grabatt to concede before the start of the tenth and final round, the doctor stopping the fight because she could no longer see out of a swollen left eye. Relief and jubilation combined to finally answer some of those doubts that had earlier plagued her.

Melissa 'Hurricane' Hernandez and Christina Tai.

The fight brought the Australian’s record to 9-1 while Garbatt dropped to 7-4 and one draw against Melissa Hernandez, who also had a points loss to Garbatt in 2010.

Before the stoppage the judges had the fight even and Garbatt certainly had the edge in the early rounds when nerves and uncertainty saw Prazak hit the canvas in a flash knockdown that looked to be part slip. From that point on Prazak had a sense of urgency about her that didn’t so much shock the visitor, since she is a solid fighter who has been in with the best. But it did, finally wear her down. Diana returned to her corner after each round as if every second of the two minutes had been the fight of her life and she had held nothing back. She was up against a boxer with more skill and experience, also known for her heart and strength and she had brought her A-game downunder.

Prazak has been repeatedly labelled the mini Jeff Fenech, but it would be more appropriate to call her the female Ricky Hatton because she has the same bullying persona in the ring and the same willingness to take some punishment to give it.

Garbatt shows what she's got.

She has a chin like bitumen and a never quit attitude. With Hernandez here in camp with her for four weeks, Prazak knew that Garbatt would be fit, strong and just as determined and that her best chance was to win the battle of wills. And that she did. The the All Star Receptions crowd in Altona certainly got their money’s worth in what many were describing as the fight of the year including the Women’s International Boxing Associations president Ryan Wissow, here from his home in Cooper City, Florida to supervise the bout. Without doubt, Prazak made her transition from local boxer to a fighter to be reckoned with on the world stage. Despite all her doubts and uncertainties going in, she defied the odds and her star shone bright.

The two female bouts, which were part of the Australian Fight Series staged by Adam Wilcock, really brought women’s boxing home to Australia. Melissa Hernandez launched her charm campaign from the walk in, shimmying to Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ’till You Get Enough’ and entertaining the crowd with all her usual ring tics and unique dynamism. The little Puerto Rican larrakin fit right in and has clearly been worth the Prazak camp’s investment. The former New Yorker, now based in Miami, made some firm friends downunder, not least the new WIBA super-featherweight champion of the world, ‘Dirty’ Di Prazak.

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He ain’t heavy…well, actually he is

They call him Blimp, although his real name is Delen Parsley. Gleason’s regulars will know him for his operatic voice projection, glinting gold teeth that flash every time he breaks into a smile and, well, his enormous size. The dude is BIG. I’m sayin’.

I’d heard that he was one of the best trainers in the gym and I’d seen him work with Melissa Hernandez and Vivian Harris – both great technical boxers with their own individual flair. Melissa Hernandez has always been one of my favorites for her variety of creative and audacious moves and she has always spoken highly of Blimp when she was in New York. I enjoyed seeing the two of them sitting together eating lunch, always a funny banter going between them. I liked the contrast in their size and thought of them as the quintessential odd couple. But this time I felt like I was part of an odd couple myself, I was so dwarfed by the man it was surreal. I felt like another one of New York’s many chihuahuas. At one stage, while shouting at me he stopped and asked, ‘Am I scaring you?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘because I know you. But normally yes, I would be scared if a 400lb black man was screaming at me like that.’

Playing with the big boys. Me and Blimp.

I joined forces with Blimp because I only get to visit Gleason’s for a few weeks here and there, so I have started to make a point of sampling a different trainer each time. And sometimes just being in the gym, observing the myriad of styles from the very best in the business to some that are impossible to fathom, gives me ideas and moves to follow up on both as a boxer and a teacher. You can see quite well what works and what doesn’t.

Alicia Ashley was the one who guided me through my initial comeback as a masters boxer from the time I met her in 2007 until 2009. It came after a seven year lay-off and she got my punches flowing a little better. Alicia is great to talk to about boxing, especially in situ,  because she understands the nuances of pace and timing and strategy very well and she communicates clearly. Sometimes with a slap. But I’d rather be slapped by her in the corner than in the ring.  I hate sparring her, for obvious reasons. She’s a WBC world champion southpaw whose hard to hit and counters like a rattle snake. But I’d rather talk to her or watch her spar someone else than get in the ring with her myself, she makes me tense and mostly I swipe the air as she moves in her unique and mesmerizing way. Luckily I had the pleasure of seeing that at Book Court last week in Brooklyn when she sparred four rounds in the store with Camille Currie. The most incredible event ever witnessed in that book shop, I was assured by the staff, who were totally blown away. And we’re hoping to do it all again on a grander scale, so the non-boxing world can see up close what this is all about. Look out for some more literary boxing in New York next year.

Text book boxing. Camille Currie (left) and Alicia 'Slick' Ashley spar at Book Court.

Back at Gleason’s I was having corrective surgery on my stance from a man who had the resolve to watch my every move. I’ve known for a while that I lean too much and don’t bring my back foot up when I jab. I’ve known that I can move my head and slip pretty well, but often I don’t counter quickly enough. I make them miss, but I don’t make them pay as much as I could. But without a trainer watching me all the time these are difficult faults to correct. I can see them in others but I can only really video myself and try to fix it next time.

It was like a luxury having this very big man bearing down on me, shouting with his booming voice that cuts through the clatter – ‘Don’t lean!’, ‘Pivot’, Relax!’, ‘Take your time’, ‘Urgh, that was UGLY,’ ‘Nice’, ‘Beautful,’, ‘There you go’, ‘Why you lean!!!!???”Bring that back foot up, don’t be lazy,’ (my favorite), and ‘Punch while you’re down there, baby’. Some people like five star hotels and expensive dinners when they travel, but give me a 400lb black man shouting at me while I box and I’m happy, especially when I feel the adjustments starting to take effect.

So what is the Blimp story? I’ve been coming and going from New York for more than four years and I never really knew that much about the man. So I sat down and asked some questions. He’s been in boxing for more than 30 years and had his first fight a week after he started training and KO’d the heavyweight champ at a smoker in a gym in Park Slope when he was 17 years old. He’s a bit of a hard task master so I asked him if he was a disciplined boxer in his day and he said, ‘No, because it was easy for me.’

Things I didn’t know about Blimp were that he was both a grandfather and about to become a father at the age of 50. He spent three weeks sparring Mike Tyson and lasted longer than any other sparring partner even though Tyson wore ten ounce gloves and Blimp wore 18’s. He was born in South Carolina. He learned to box in the streets of Brownsville from ex-cons who picked up skills on the inside. He honed them doing what they call ‘slap boxing’ or ‘chest boxing’ which was something young men did when they hung around the streets, which just goes to show that boredom is the mother of invention. Skills are being lost, says Blimp, because everyone’s too busy texting. He might have a point. There’s not enough boredom in young lives these days.

The best thing that Blimp said to me was ‘You can fight. You do some great moves. But you gotta make them pay!’

So that’s my mission from now on. Make them pay. It’s all in the stance.

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Making history

It’s going to be a pretty strange day in New York on Sunday. But if you feel like an antidote to the heaviness of reliving 9/11, it might be a good time to come to Book Court in Brooklyn to see what is turning into a celebration of women’s boxing, a multi-media extravaganza that will see two of the city’s “slickest chicks” showing off some of their marvelous boxing moves when they make history boxing in a book store.

Alicia Ashley (left) and Camille Currie will be the main event on a night that will include readings from me, Binnie Klein and a section of the film Golden Gloves by Leyla Leidecker.

 

The action starts at 7pm at Book Court in Court Street Brooklyn. Don’t miss it!

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