Boxing, called the "sweet science" by devotees with pinkie rings and cigars clenched in their teeth, is about to be changed forever. On Saturday, for the first time in history, a man will fight a woman -- in the ring.
The event has ringside pundits like the Runyonesque fight writer Burt Sugar squirming like a man on the receiving end of a proctologist's glove. The unlikely match-up in Seattle will feature a lean and slightly taller Margaret McGregor against a fellow named Loi Chow. McGregor has the better record. Both are lightweights. My money's on McGregor.
Clearly there is more at stake here than another notch on either fighter's win-loss record -- especially for Chow. On Chow's narrow shoulders rests the future of all dealings between men and women in bedrooms, offices and cocktail lounges across the land.
Unlike Chow, I know something about the reptilian confusion that can cloud a male fighter's mind when stepping into the ring with a woman. I have strapped on the gloves and gone toe to toe with a female. It all goes back a few months, when I decided to try one of those "combat" aerobics classes that have sprung up at local fitness clubs around the land.
I'd done a little boxing as a kid back in Nebraska and had always been a fight fan, so one night I got off the sofa, put on my game face and hauled my paunch down to the club. Little did I know that my decision would put me on a collision course with psychic prohibitions deep inside my monkey brain. The instructor, a solidly chiseled former Angeleno with 12 amateur bouts under his belt, was running the class, in a deft bit of verisimilitude, like a typical inner-city boxing gym. "If you show up late again, don't even bother coming in the door," he barked at an unsuspecting newcomer who looked like he'd just left a corner office somewhere downtown. Things looked promising.
The pace and tenor were set. The whir and snap of 20 jump-ropes filled the room as the warm-up started. I forgot that I was in a plush, modern "fitness center" that cost several hundred dollars to join, and that most of the people around me were attorneys, dentists and brokers. I scanned the room. More than half were women. The class went through some punching drills, jumping jacks and push-ups in rapid succession. I was getting a workout -- then things got complicated.
"Partner up," the instructor shouted. The regulars paired up quickly, leaving me with the only available partner -- a stocky redheaded woman who stood a head taller than me. "Get your gloves on," echoed over the public address system. I noticed the woman's intense expression as she pulled her gloves on over hands tightly wound in the wraps used by real fighters. I remembered an expression an L.A. cop once used to describe the hard stares gang members and prison inmates exchange to psyche each other out: "mad-dogging." This woman was "mad-dogging" me. She figured me for a punk.
As I pulled on my gloves, I felt a creeping uneasiness. I heard my mother's voice echoing inside my head: "Never hit a girl!" I pictured my sister's face on the face of the woman who was at that moment squaring off with me in classic fighter's stance. I admired her form. Her left was up, the gloves forming a tight pyramid under her chin. Her thick right arm was cocked and on the end of it the great mound of leather was hoisted like a battering ram.
"I want to create an environment so that people feel the intensity," the instructor told me a few minutes before the class had filed into the gym. I looked around the room and spotted a husky guy who looked suspiciously like an accountant with a fading greenish-black eye standing opposite a pert Asian woman. They were smiling at each other. There was a twisted psychosexual menace in their gazes.
I was jerked from the mad rush of my thoughts by the start of a two-minute sparring session. My opponent, in black spandex trunks and red ponytail, began throwing darting jabs, most of which were landing on my forehead.
It was obvious to me that she had more on her mind than an aerobic workout. What I saw in her eyes was the naked aggression that could only have been fueled by bitter memories of ex-lovers and bad bosses. I bobbed and weaved, still hearing my mom's admonition inside my head. My opponents' jabs were landing with surgical precision, but I couldn't throw a glove.
A faint grin hoisted itself onto her still-lipsticked mouth. It was like an episode from a Mickey Spillane novel, and I was playing the part of the cheap blond who gets slapped around. The seconds ticked by like hours. "I'm getting smacked around by a girl," I muttered to myself in disbelief. The thought danced around my brain like the derisive laughter from a gang of mocking schoolchildren.
I forced myself to throw a punch, a low strike targeted to avoid any intimate part of her female anatomy. She came back stronger, with glancing jabs that rocketed toward my face and gut.
I worked upstairs, hesitantly at first, thrusting jabs toward her perfectly arched brows. And then something in me clicked. I realized that this was war -- that my opponent, unfettered by any imposed social programming, was simply seizing my weakness. I threw a steady succession of blows as the final seconds ticked by, each thrust rocking her back on her heels.
The smile vanished from her face, replaced now by a grimace of concentration. We parried and danced, her face flushed with exertion as the final seconds drained away our remaining energy.
"Nice job," she said, swatting my backside with her glove.
My money's still on McGregor.