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The Meaning of a Punch

Her father’s fists sent him to jail. Hers could make her famous.

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Photographs by Cass Bird  

They come from around the neighborhood to see her hook, that crazy hook. Tough musclemen in gold chains and do-rags, wide-eyed children, the fat señoras who mind the desk downstairs; they crowd the ring at St. Mary’s gym when she fights, watching her move, hoping she’ll do damage. They keep track of her weight, of her training, of her potential, gauging it as if it were their own. “When you gonna fight next?” they ask when they pass her in the hallway. “Yo, Sweet Hands, knock ’em dead.” She grins when they call her that. Sweet Hands. The ring name her mother’s boyfriend gave her because he thought she was too sweet to fight.

At 16, Nisa Rodriguez is five foot eleven and still growing. On the streets of the South Bronx, she comes across as willowy and a little bashful—that is to say, utterly benign. She speaks softly, cushioning consonants with her tongue and letting L’s swim around in her mouth in a way that advertises Spanish as a first language. The boxer emerges only after she’s changed into fighting gear, her tank top exposing the thickness of her arms and the distance they can throw a punch, her hair pulled back tightly, making her fine features more severe, Vaseline smeared over her arms, chest, and face so that her opponents’ gloves slide right off her.

One evening early this year, as freezing rain lapped against the foggy windows of the gym, Nisa was gearing up to fight two men. This is technically not allowed by the governing bodies of boxing, so the fights wouldn’t go on her record, and for Nisa, this presented a problem. A professional boxing career must be forged out of a successful amateur one. There’s no team to recruit you, no coach angling for you to sign; there’s only your record, the fights you’ve won and lost, tallied in a little white book imprinted with the name USA BOXING. Nisa’s first three legitimate, on-the-books fights against women were all knockouts, a short record, but one that goes a long way toward explaining the mysterious cancellations, the sudden illnesses, and the flat refusals she now encounters every time she’s supposed to have a real match. Her default is to fight men—“I like when they put me with the guys and they hit me,” she says, “because then when a girl hits me, it’s like nothing”—but what Nisa really needs is a string of bright, bloody female victories. The better she gets, the less likely that becomes.

Not long after she stepped into the ring, the crowd got what it was waiting for. Her hook came barreling in, just beyond her opponent’s peripheral vision. She hissed as she threw it—hiss, hiss, hiss—like maracas. Then: the gummy sound of flesh against rubber, and her opponent, a big strong man who outweighed her by 70 pounds, started dancing around, his muscles turned to jelly, his body shaking against the rope like it was electric. She went for his face, and it crumpled, a dumb look of surprise bleeding out of his features.

She put on a good show that night, rotating between the two guys so that they would have a chance to catch their breath. The impression she gave was one of sheer, unmitigated violence.

“Is that all?” Nisa asked, panting and elated, as a bell signaled the end of the last round. Another boxer snorted. “There are no more guys,” he yelled to her from across the room. “You’ve beat them all up.”

That was March. In early April, Nisa’s trainer, Jay Kortright, received news that there was a girl who was willing to fight, and so on one of the first warm days of spring he bundled Nisa into a borrowed car and headed for a Bronx gym called Fort Apache. John Coltrane blared on the stereo. Sunlight glinted off the windows of the projects. As they passed a park where couples sunbathed on the grass and gangly boys shot hoops, Nisa stared out the window. “I could be hanging out in the park today,” she said.

“Ha!” Jay barked from the front seat.

Physically, they are an unlikely pair. Jay fought flyweight in the late sixties and early seventies, and at barely five feet tall, he looks like he still could make the 112-pound cutoff. Next to Nisa, he seems child-size and frail, an impression she accidentally fosters, fussing with his collar as they leave the gym, fretting about him when he’s out in cold weather or when she has to leave him at a bus stop late at night. Other trainers have tried to poach her, but she would never consider leaving Jay, who for the past two years has made Nisa his focus, parting ways with most of his other boxers.


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