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The Meaning of a Punch

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“He would make sure that all of us ate before he ate,” Nisa chimed in, quick to construct a happy history.

Her father wanted to hear about her boxing. “How’s Jay?” he asked. “Are you doing what Jay tells you?”

Nisa nodded and told him about her workouts, about the men she’d sparred with, about the fights she hoped would happen.

“The girl didn’t show at the last fight,” she finally mentioned, shrugging as if it were no big deal but watching her father’s face for his response.

Eduardo shook his head. “You just keep doing what you gotta do,” he replied. “Exercise and do everything your trainer tells you, but don’t wear yourself out. Study the opponent. Look at your opponent eye to eye.” He paused, looking at her. “I pray every night for the Virgin Mary to protect you.”

Nisa’s time with her father was short. As her name was called, he stood and drew her into a final hug. “I’m always there for you,” he said softly.

Outside, the early evening sun glanced off the East River and Nisa squinted her eyes, looking down the long path of the deserted prison lot. The sky bruised its way to night as she made her way back toward St. Mary’s gym.

On a Friday in late September, Nisa drove out to the leafy middle-class suburb of Hempstead for the annual Long Island Amateur Boxing Championships, a four-day tournament of 225 boxers from the New York area. It had been more than eight months since her last on-the-books fight, and this was her second trip in two days. The day before, the boxer she had been matched with had failed to show up for the fight. Today, as she watched the large houses with their groomed lawns pass by the window, Nisa grew increasingly nervous, about whether she would finally get a fight, but also about the unfamiliar landscape. “I’m used to fighting in broke-down gyms,” she said. “This is something a little new to me.”

The facilities at Kennedy Memorial Park were brightly lit and squeaky clean. Well-tended tennis courts and a sparkling pool sat outside the large gymnasium with a boxing ring set up in the middle, rimmed by bleachers and metal folding chairs where proud moms in scrunchies could watch the fights from a safe distance.

Nisa, her hair cornrowed for the fight, stripped down to her sports bra and removed a mess of gold jewelry: her Playgirl nameplate necklace, her two belly-button rings, her tongue ring, and a whole cluster of hoops from each ear. She weighed in at 151. The EMT checked her pulse, her blood pressure, her pupils, her knuckles, then listened to her breathing and prodded her head and ribs for telltale signs of injury. Nisa waited to see if she would get matched and tried to keep calm. “Every time it gets to a fight, it’s like Christmas for me, I’m like a little kid at Christmas.”

One girl weighed in only a pound shy of Nisa, but they had sparred before and the girl refused to face her in a real fight. Then Nisa noticed a woman standing across the room. She looked stocky, much bigger than Nisa, though a few inches shorter. Nisa began asking around to see if anyone knew her weight.

“She’s too heavy for you,” Jay scolded.

Nisa shook her head at him. “If there’s nobody else, I’ll fight her.”

There was nobody else. Jay went to hunt down the girl’s trainer and learned that she was 22 years old and 165 pounds, meaning she trumped Nisa in both experience and size, but she was willing to fight, and if Jay signed a waiver allowing Nisa to box someone outside her age group and weight class, they could be matched.

“I want to fight her,” Nisa told him. “I really want to fight her.”

Theirs was the fourth fight of the evening. “Box on the outside and use your reach,” Jay counseled as Nisa swung up into the ring. “Wait for her to come in, step back, and hit her with a flurry of punches.”

But Jay hardly needed to tell her. Her combinations were quick and complex: jab right, jab right hook, jab right uppercut. She moved deftly in and out of range, using her long limbs to land punches while staying just out of reach of her opponent’s gloves. The fierceness was there, but it was controlled. She looked like a boxer rather than a fighter.

Nisa knew she had won before the judges announced the winner, before they handed her the belt, before she got to mark her fourth official victory in her little white book. By the last round of the fight, the crowd was already chanting her name. Sweet Hands! Sweet Hands! Sweet Hands!


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