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The Meaning of a Punch

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At St. Mary's gym.  

When the bell rang, Nisa immediately drove her opponent to the periphery of the ring, where he would be more vulnerable. The future Olympian was going easy on Nisa, too easy, if you asked his trainer.

“Get out of there! I don’t want you near the rope,” the man yelled crossly.

“This guy’s good,” Jay explained. “One of the worst damagers in the United States.” Nisa got him cornered and began pumping her arms. “Hook, hook! Keep your hands in and out. ¡Bella! That’s a jab.”

She was hitting hard but having trouble connecting, her opponent bobbing up and down just beyond the reach of her glove, then guiding her back out into the middle of the ring. She swung at his face, but he ducked in time to make it a glancing shot. When he came back up, she hit him squarely in the body. Jay sucked air between his teeth. “If that was a girl, she would have really hurt her. If that was a girl, she would have knocked her out.”

By the next round, the man was hitting harder, sweat running into his eyes and between the grooves in his muscles. When he landed a body shot and Nisa retaliated with one of her own, the trainers’ yelling reached a fever pitch, a frantic jumble of Spanish and English.

Other boxers crowded the edge of the ring. “You’re an animal. An animal!” one teenage boy yelled up at Nisa. He turned to the boxer next to him. “She’s giving him a hard time, and this guy’s a professional, you know what I mean? This girl knows how to hit. She get you with her hook, you gonna land on the floor.”

The boy just stood there watching, mouth agape. “Man, I never want to fight her!”

“She’s angry,” says Jay. “If she wasn’t angry, she wouldn’t be that good.”

The summer turned out to be three months of disappointment. Nisa had driven almost all the way to Boston in a borrowed car, only to have her opponent fail to show at the last minute; she had dropped ten pounds for a fight in Brooklyn that never happened; she had even refashioned herself as a kickboxer to try to get a fight. A short, overmuscled promoter named Michael Corleone simply shrugged her off when her opponent didn’t materialize at his fight in Long Island. “Female fighters, you know?” he said dismissively. “If they break a fingernail or something, that’s a good excuse not to come.” And after winning the local and regional competitions for the Junior Olympics by default—since none of the other girls would fight her—she wasn’t allowed to fight in the national competition. It was the worst kind of catch-22: Because her local and regional opponents defaulted, she didn’t have the requisite number of recorded matches to compete for a national ranking.

Nisa is aware of the precariousness of her situation. She knows that her window of opportunity is precious and narrow, and she knows what awaits her if she fails. “If I wasn’t boxing, I would have been hustling or gotten pregnant or something,” she once told me. “That’s what I think would have happened. I would have been out on the street. I would have done nothing with my life. If I was how I used to be, I think I would have already got shot or I would be in jail.”

Her hopes reside in her manager, a boxing promoter named Benjamin Irish, who signed a contract with her father. “I handle all her future business affairs and her representation, not just as a boxer but as a performer,” he tells me. “The gist is I open doors for Nisa, Nisa also opens doors for me. I’m hoping we can make a lot of money together.”

But making money in women’s boxing is a difficult proposition. Even the best female boxers aren’t exactly household names (partly because women’s boxing still isn’t an Olympic sport); pay-per-view audiences are small, a fraction of those for men’s fights; and some female boxers can go on for years making just $500 a fight. The exception to the rule—with endorsements and television appearances and magazine covers—is Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad. Though Nisa doesn’t exactly have that famous pedigree, Ben is undaunted. He’s already gotten Nisa a sponsor, Kayo Boxing, and he talks up a fairy-tale list of prospects: a reality-TV series, a book deal, a documentary, a modeling contract.

On a balmy summer night, Ben met Nisa at a small Italian place not far from her apartment. He brought along a friend, a wrestler who introduced himself as Malta the Damager. Malta the Damager is six foot nine, 265 pounds, with long, flowing throw-down hair, a missing front tooth, and a large tattoo of Jean de La Valette, the man who drove the Turks from the isle of Malta in 1565. When the waiter came to the table, Malta the Damager, a warrior breed, ordered three plates of food.


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