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The Meaning of a Punch


Nisa, on her way to a fight in June.  

As Malta ate, Ben turned his attention to Nisa, who had arrived straight from the gym, sweaty and flushed. A pep talk was deemed to be in order. “Why get discouraged, Nisa? You’re 16 years old. And the truth of the matter is, this is the only way, it’s the only regulated way for a young woman like yourself to get that shot at a better future.”

Nisa rested her elbows on the table. “I’m training hard,” she said. “I’m doing my best, and if they don’t show up, it kind of gets me down.”

“Nisa has to go get her crown, right?” Ben replied without sarcasm. “You have to show people what you can do.” He paused, growing expansive. “Someone like me, I can introduce Nisa to people. I can introduce her to people like James here,” he said, motioning toward Malta the Damager, “who can help guide her through life.”

Malta tore off a chunk of baguette as if it were the head of a baby bird.

“You’re an important part of my business agenda,” Ben continued. “I’m well aware of my capabilities, I know exactly where I stand, and I know what can be done with you. But I’ll just tell you, when I was breaking into the business, I had a discrepancy with a promoter and he pulled a gun on me. It’s a dirty business.”

“Promoters think you’re meat anyway,” Malta observed, sawing away at a large cut of veal Marsala. “There’s always somebody to take your place, there’s somebody else to get knocked out or knock somebody out. That’s the way it is. The promoter’s the pimp and the fighter’s the ho.”

Ben had considered this. “I think it will be very important for her to get into other ends of the business, such as merchandising, the marketing of her name, what have you,” he says. “Look, Nisa, there are not enough role models out there these days. James is a role model. He goes out there, he does the right thing, he signs the autographs for the fans.”

“I do a lot of charity work,” grunted Malta.

Nisa isn’t squeamish about pain. Her response to blood in the ring is to go after it as a weakness.

“I’m telling you as a father, and I’m telling you as a friend, and I’m telling you as a businessperson, just to be another boxer who comes to the ring, you know, and encourages violence? That’s not what it’s about. You have the opportunity to be a representative of your generation. To represent your ideals—”

Malta cut in, “You know, I—”

“Wait!” Ben scolded him, then turned back to Nisa. “You have to do it,” he implored. “Because if you don’t, you’re gonna kick yourself in the butt for it, for the rest of your life.” He paused briefly and then forced out a hearty chuckle. “You know, we always have these talks, and Nisa just sits there and listens. You getting anything out of this, Nisa?”

Nisa looked up from her sandwich weakly and nodded.

These are the times, when Nisa’s view of her future begins to waver, that she most misses her dad. And so one restless afternoon this summer she made her way to the Vernon C. Bain Center, a division of Rikers Island housed improbably on a barge in the East River. Nisa thinks her father is the person who best understands her, yet visiting him in prison is bittersweet, providing as it does indisputable evidence of how easily the violence lodged in her DNA could destroy her. She’s been thinking about this lately—the difference between a fighter and a boxer. “Jay says I still have that fighter instinct, but I’m becoming more and more of a boxer,” she says. “A fighter is wild and immature and don’t know what he’s doing—he’s just swinging. He can be the best fighter, but he can’t be a boxer. A boxer is more skilled, more mature, like a higher mental state. That means a lot. When you’re called a boxer, that’s really something.”

More than two hours after she entered the prison—after passing through three checkpoints and two metal detectors—Nisa’s name was called, and she walked through a gate into a large room with plastic tables and chairs. Nisa’s father sat at the far end, a solid man, balding, with rheumy eyes and a tremulous jaw and the thick hands of a butcher.

“You look thin, Nisa,” said her father, feeling the biceps in each arm with concern. “You look skinny. Are you eating?”

“I’m fighting at 154. Gotta stay under 154.”

“Well, you look thin.” Eduardo turned to a guy at the next table, proudly. “I used to cook for her all the time. On Sunday, after church, we’d have a big breakfast, pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, everything.”


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