Their relationship is built on her ability, certainly, but it owes some of its depth to the fact that of all of Jay’s boxers, Nisa needed him most. “She comes from a very dysfunctional family,” Jay explains. “Dysfunctional meaning a lot of lack, she lacked a lot. Her mother did the best she could with what she had, but her father, he’s not capable of anything. What is he capable of? He drinks, he’s an alcoholic, he ends up in jail.”
Eduardo Rodriguez was never exactly a moderate man, but after losing his job as a butcher, he became less so, drinking himself into an untenable meanness during the day, and often turning violent when Nisa’s mother, Sandra, came home at night. By the time Nisa was 11, the domestic abuse had become so severe that Sandra threw Eduardo out. He took an apartment a few blocks away, but he would still stand under Sandra’s window at night, reeling drunk, to watch for when she would turn out her light.
It was a confusing and fluid situation. Sandra got an order for protection against Eduardo, but only selectively enforced it. Sometimes he would sleep over at the apartment, sometimes she would call the police and have him carted off to jail. Sometimes he was drunk and abusive, sometimes he could provide a passable approximation of a father figure for his four children.
Nisa took her father’s side, the only one of her siblings to do so. She didn’t condone his behavior, but she admired his strength over what she saw as her mother’s weakness. “Me and my father have so much in common. We have this bond,” she says. “I’d do anything for my father.” She talks about him constantly. Her bedroom is cluttered with pictures of him and mementos of times they spent together. She has trouble sleeping if he hasn’t called her at night, although when he is in prison (for violating Sandra’s protection order) he often doesn’t.
It was around the time her father moved out that Nisa got into her first fight. A boy in her class was throwing papers, and without warning, she attacked, beating him so badly that he had to go to the hospital. Sandra arrived at the school’s office in a state of panic.
“Ai, Nisa, oh my God! What you fighting for?” she demanded to know.
“I don’t know,” Nisa answered.
Though Nisa was suspended that day, she considers the fight a success. “I didn’t walk out with nothing but a few scratches on my arm. People were cheering me on, ‘Oh, get him! Get him!’” Afterward, even a janitor congratulated her for beating a boy.
She started fighting more after that: scrapes in the schoolyard, tussles in the street. She’d come home bruised but triumphant. Being a light-skinned, long-haired Puerto Rican girl in a neighborhood where the accents are often Dominican or Jamaican—where the skin is mostly darker, the hair mostly shorter—was reason enough for conflict. But there was more to it than that. For Nisa, there was power in fighting, and she desperately wanted to feel powerful, more like her father than her mother. She had learned early that strength takes advantage of weakness. “I always thought it was a good thing to be strong,” she says. “Everyone wants to bother someone smaller or weaker than they are. That’s how people are where I live.”
Sandra disapproved of Nisa’s fighting, but Eduardo understood. “He used to tell me, ‘Whatever people are saying to you, don’t mind it unless they touch you. If they touch you, you know what you have to do.’” He advised her in the tactics of domination: Never show fear. Never let your guard down. And if you get jumped by a group, go after the biggest one—“you’ll see all the little ones scramble like roaches.”
By the time she was 12, Nisa had been picked up by the police for fighting. Sandra took her to see a psychologist, who found that she had trouble managing her aggression and prescribed classes in anger management. Nisa went once. “I thought it was stupid. I didn’t see the point. Everybody gets mad.” Sandra went to court to try to get Nisa status as a “person in need of supervision,” but Nisa and her father refused to cooperate. Sandra finally gave up, leaving the decisions regarding Nisa’s upbringing largely to Eduardo. “If Nisa wants to think he’s a good father, I’m not gonna take that from her.”
Eduardo had his own ideas about how to deal with Nisa’s violence. One day, he marched her across the street to the gym, fitted her into some boxing gloves, and told her, “I know you know how to fight, but learn to fight so you don’t hurt yourself.” Nisa did as her father said. She wanted to make him proud.