At first she was a curiosity at the gym, a little girl throwing punches, but before long, her natural ability demanded recognition. One of her greatest assets as a boxer is her street-fighter attitude. “She forces her will on you” is how Jay puts it. “Every time I put her to spar, she’s got the mentality of a man. Those combinations she throws? Women don’t throw combinations like that. They don’t go so fierce. She’s got so much fury that it overwhelms people.” She is not afraid to hurt her opponent, and she is not squeamish about pain. Her response to blood in the ring is to go after it, as a weakness to be exploited. “She’s angry,” Jay explains. “But it’s not her, it’s her background. She kind of ventilates with boxing. If she wasn’t angry, if she was laid-back, she wouldn’t be that good.”
Jay has taken on the job of caring for her both materially and emotionally. “He makes sure I have everything, like if I’m hungry, he makes sure I have something to eat”—he stocks her refrigerator with tuna and yogurt, boxers’ fare, so that her only meals aren’t the fast food she prefers—“and if I need something, like some socks, some clothes, he makes sure I have it. Like what a father’s supposed to do with his daughter.” He also runs off the guys who line up to watch Nisa box, their muscles and their egos on display. Clowns, Jay calls them, boys who would use her success for a leg up—or just use her, period. He tolerates her on-again, off-again relationship with another of his fighters, a 24-year-old pro named Carlos, but he doesn’t really approve, his aversion to her overt sexuality merely practical. “She doesn’t understand what she has to lose,” he says. “I’m asking for three years. Three years of dedication. Just fight, do what you got to do. In the long run, it’s gonna pay off for her. She’s gonna call the shots. As long as she keeps on doing what she’s doing, she’s gonna make it big. Three years and we’re gonna make her a household name.”
Nisa isn’t the only 16-year-old who might let such talk go to her head, allowing herself moments to think of what could happen if boxing pays off. She wants to buy a house in Puerto Rico for her mother and a house in Florida for her and her dad. More than anything, she wants to gain custody of Jeralyn, her 4-year-old “adopted” daughter, the child of a friend of the family, whose mother walked out when she was only a few months old. Nisa, then 13, felt oddly protective of the baby, and though Jeralyn now gets passed around among extended family and friends, she calls Nisa “Mommy.”
Other dreams are more typical for a teenager. On the way to Fort Apache, Nisa noticed a bright-yellow sports car at an intersection ahead. “Do you see that Mustang?” she asked, pursing her lips. “It’s mine. That guy’s just parking it for me.” She swiveled around to watch it go by. “When I make money, I’m gonna get me one of those.”
The driver chuckled under his breath. “Nisa, I see you as more a BMW girl.”
“No, a Jaguar,” Nisa countered, smiling broadly. “Maybe that’s what I’ll get. Them’s classy. Elegant.”
“That’s it! You missed it,” Jay shouted as their car rolled past an unmarked street. The driver swerved into a U-turn.
“Yo, yo, yo,” Nisa said, laughing. “You got champs in this car. Gotta be careful!”
Fort Apache, with its colorful, peeling paint and its crumbling walls, looked as if it belonged on a postcard from Cuba. Inside, the pressed tin that encased the gym was painted a sickly yellow and had rusted away in large swaths, exposing corroded beams and pipes. There was a constant click of jumping ropes as they hit the floor, the smell of sweat and plastic and mold. Nisa was the only girl in the whole gym. As she began shadowboxing by the ring, several boys cut their eyes in her direction. Two old men sitting under faded photos of Muhammad Ali raised their eyebrows.
Jay disappeared for a while, then returned with bad news: As usual, the girl boxer hadn’t shown. There would be no fight, only a sparring match. By now, Nisa was so used to hearing this that the disappointment hardly registered as Jay helped her into her gloves and buckled her helmet. She leaned over to stretch her arms, then started pacing around on the balls of her feet. The opponent selected was a tall young man, a Puerto Rican 2008 Olympic hopeful wearing dark sweats and a fixed expression. As he shadowboxed, his muscles flicked and quivered, each one so distinct it seemed to be trying to outdo the others.