The Meaning of a Punch

Photographs by Cass Bird

They come from around the neighborhood to see her hook, that crazy hook. Tough musclemen in gold chains and do-rags, wide-eyed children, the fat señoras who mind the desk downstairs; they crowd the ring at St. Mary’s gym when she fights, watching her move, hoping she’ll do damage. They keep track of her weight, of her training, of her potential, gauging it as if it were their own. “When you gonna fight next?” they ask when they pass her in the hallway. “Yo, Sweet Hands, knock ’em dead.” She grins when they call her that. Sweet Hands. The ring name her mother’s boyfriend gave her because he thought she was too sweet to fight.

At 16, Nisa Rodriguez is five foot eleven and still growing. On the streets of the South Bronx, she comes across as willowy and a little bashful—that is to say, utterly benign. She speaks softly, cushioning consonants with her tongue and letting L’s swim around in her mouth in a way that advertises Spanish as a first language. The boxer emerges only after she’s changed into fighting gear, her tank top exposing the thickness of her arms and the distance they can throw a punch, her hair pulled back tightly, making her fine features more severe, Vaseline smeared over her arms, chest, and face so that her opponents’ gloves slide right off her.

One evening early this year, as freezing rain lapped against the foggy windows of the gym, Nisa was gearing up to fight two men. This is technically not allowed by the governing bodies of boxing, so the fights wouldn’t go on her record, and for Nisa, this presented a problem. A professional boxing career must be forged out of a successful amateur one. There’s no team to recruit you, no coach angling for you to sign; there’s only your record, the fights you’ve won and lost, tallied in a little white book imprinted with the name USA BOXING. Nisa’s first three legitimate, on-the-books fights against women were all knockouts, a short record, but one that goes a long way toward explaining the mysterious cancellations, the sudden illnesses, and the flat refusals she now encounters every time she’s supposed to have a real match. Her default is to fight men—“I like when they put me with the guys and they hit me,” she says, “because then when a girl hits me, it’s like nothing”—but what Nisa really needs is a string of bright, bloody female victories. The better she gets, the less likely that becomes.

Not long after she stepped into the ring, the crowd got what it was waiting for. Her hook came barreling in, just beyond her opponent’s peripheral vision. She hissed as she threw it—hiss, hiss, hiss—like maracas. Then: the gummy sound of flesh against rubber, and her opponent, a big strong man who outweighed her by 70 pounds, started dancing around, his muscles turned to jelly, his body shaking against the rope like it was electric. She went for his face, and it crumpled, a dumb look of surprise bleeding out of his features.

She put on a good show that night, rotating between the two guys so that they would have a chance to catch their breath. The impression she gave was one of sheer, unmitigated violence.

“Is that all?” Nisa asked, panting and elated, as a bell signaled the end of the last round. Another boxer snorted. “There are no more guys,” he yelled to her from across the room. “You’ve beat them all up.”

That was March. In early April, Nisa’s trainer, Jay Kortright, received news that there was a girl who was willing to fight, and so on one of the first warm days of spring he bundled Nisa into a borrowed car and headed for a Bronx gym called Fort Apache. John Coltrane blared on the stereo. Sunlight glinted off the windows of the projects. As they passed a park where couples sunbathed on the grass and gangly boys shot hoops, Nisa stared out the window. “I could be hanging out in the park today,” she said.

“Ha!” Jay barked from the front seat.

Physically, they are an unlikely pair. Jay fought flyweight in the late sixties and early seventies, and at barely five feet tall, he looks like he still could make the 112-pound cutoff. Next to Nisa, he seems child-size and frail, an impression she accidentally fosters, fussing with his collar as they leave the gym, fretting about him when he’s out in cold weather or when she has to leave him at a bus stop late at night. Other trainers have tried to poach her, but she would never consider leaving Jay, who for the past two years has made Nisa his focus, parting ways with most of his other boxers.

Nisa Rodriguez and her trainer, Jay Kortright.

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.

Sparring with a male boxer.

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.

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.

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.”

“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!

The Meaning of a Punch