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The Sweetest Thing: A Boxing Memoir
Journey begins at Gleason Gym, and in some way, Ms. Merz takes us into time. Gleason Gym has been home to some of best fighters in the world and many of Hall of Fame boxers have trained in Gleason, now located in Brooklyn. Merz talks about the neighborhood, DUMBO (Down under the Manhattan Brooklyn Overside) and this is not necessarily the gritty neighborhoods associated with many of the old gyms. There was a time that gyms reflected the sport, gritty, tough and dingy but today gyms are as likely to be similar to many upgraded gyms elsewhere with even program for white collars who simply want to be part of the boxing world while getting a good workout. DUMBO itself is a neighborhood gentrified and upgraded with specialty shops dotting the landscape, so the new Gleason reflects the neighborhood its presently resides.
Merz noted that 300 women trained at Gleason and boxing is becoming home to excellent female athletes; Merz tells their story. Fighter-trainer Alicia Ashley used her skills as a dancer, which she was before entering the ring and became a model boxer for women boxers of a new age. Like male slick boxers like an Ali or Floyd Mayweather, she is a Picasso; using every angle as defensive perimeter while avoiding the worse intention of her opponent.
Merz herself is a what we would call a plugger, a woman who moves forward while unleashing punches in bunches for victory; she does love the boxer as she admired Floyd Mayweather when she compared the hard driving Ricky Hatton to the slick Mayweather, “While Hatton’s flat nose and unimaginative forward march would appeal to Australian fight fans, I enjoyed the slippery creativity of Li’l Mayweather and had been happy to see him chalk up another victory.” Merz loves the artist in the ring.
Her observation on boxers and pundits who often view style as important as victory when she observed, “People assume that pain is what fighters fears most… Pain is familiar and tolerable. Humiliation lurks like a hidden phantom, it can tower over you, it is mysterious and confusing…Very few fighters are willing to sacrifice their trademark style for victory.” Those fighters who can adjust in the ring often take their game to another level. Bernard Hopkins has been one of those fighters who always been willing to change his game to meet his opponents and for many years, he was never one of boxing fans favorite fighters but his career is lasting well into his 40′s due to his ability to adopt.
As Merz boxing style, she quipped, “I had become a reasonably competent, if fairly dull and conventional, boxer.” Merz learned to use her skills to it utmost but she seemed disappointed that she would not be artist in the ring as she was with words or a paint brush.
Merz’s strength is introducing boxing fans to women boxers and we get a different view of a world that is invisible to even the most of hardened boxing fans or pundits. Let face it, unless a woman’s last name is Ali; most boxing fans know very little of the female side of boxing. We are introduced Terri Moss or Bonnie Canino, former fighters who are now training new generation of women fighters. We view women amateurs as they begin their career and see new generation of amateur women fighters who might eventually get paid for their efforts
She discusses how women are able to adjust to the violence within the ring. In some cases, one outside life can influence what goes on in the ring as she notes the story of Ann Wolfe, whose tough life gets reflected in her search and destroy style in the ring. On the other hand, amateur fighter Patricia Alcivar outside persona does not reflect the tough life she led including suffering child abuse as a youth. Alcivar own life or ideas mystify the atheist Merz when Ms. Merz writes, “It was strange for me, an atheist, to hear how religious faith helping someone find answers where there are none,” but then Ms. Merz maybe can’t comprehend what she seems not to understand. Another aspect of a boxer is how a person, friendly or relaxed outside the ring, can be a killer in the ring. She writes about Lucia Rikjer, one of women’s greatest fighters, whose calm inner self turns tiger in the ring. Rikjer became a Buddhist which gave her serenity outside the ring but once in the ring, it is about winning and the competitive nature comes through.
Merz last tournament in Kansas City, we see the unseemly side of boxing as the sponsor Ringside equipment used the tournament as much as a promotional event for their product line as they did for the boxing event. It was as if the fighters were props for Ringside and not the main event. Unlike other tournaments, this one seemed more disorganized and transportation a mess as Merz spends plenty on taxis going back and forth. There is a story about a fighter named Patricia, who in a previous life was named Patrick. Merz has mixed emotions about Patricia, who used to be a man, for she has empathy for Patricia’s choices but wonders why should she be fighting in a woman’s tournament. (Patricia lost her first fight to Kathy, a biker chick as Merz called her. So the fear that Patricia would exhibit the strength of a man dissipated.)
Merz wore Ringside gloves so thick that she could not feel if she was hitting her opponent or in reverse, getting hit and this lead to a controversial decision as she won a close decision over a fighter named Jackie, who she beat before. She eventually beat biker chick for the title and she observed that both of her opponents felt they were robbed and while she was not certain if she won the first fight, she felt it was karma for losing decision in the past she thought she won. (But then many at ringside felt she did win.) It was one of those fights that could have gone either way. The deciding factor in her fight with Jackie was that she was the aggressor, something that happens often in men’s boxing in which the fighter who pushes the fight gets the benefit in close fights.
Terri Moss educates Merz about the corruption of boxing as Ms. Moss observed that boxing is “unregulated and crooked, full of thugs and con-men.” She relates how many women fighters get used by promoters to fill out cards and Merz adds how many women fighters like their male counterparts will fight safe opponents to build up records, thus denying boxing matches between the top fighters. The most intriguing aspect of boxing shows up in the Melissa Hernandez-Holly Holm championship bout near the end of the book. Holm, fighting in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the favorite over the tough but smaller Melissa Hernandez.
With the fight about to go on, Hernandez corner found that Holms already had her hands wrapped and coming on the heel of Margarito-Mosley fight in which Shane Mosley caught Team Margarito adding plaster to their fighter’s hands, Ms. Hernandez became suspicious. Hernandez refuses to fight unless she witness Holm’s wrapping and she is essentially told by the promoters, take it or leave it. (Near the end of the controversy, one of Holm’s team offered to rewrap Holm’s hands but by then as Merz noted, Hernandez was already unfocused by the controversy that she was not mentally read to go.) This was one of those events in which the boxing leadership fell down and what should have been a solvable problem; sunk the whole fight. Merz sides with Hernandez since they were stable mates from Gleason but she does not dismiss Holms position out of hand.
As it turned out, Ms. Holms had a opponent ready if Hernandez failed to fight; leaving Terri Moss to wonder if this was not a set up from the beginning as Holm won a tough decision against a fighter who was obviously ready to step in. As Merz noticed, Holms could fill the seat in Albuquerque fighting the local janitor and Holms didn’t need Hernandez to complete the fight. HBO and longtime boxing writer Larry Merchants once observed boxing can be the theater of the absurd. It is also the theater of the unexpected. In boxing, sometimes the full story never truly comes out and much goes on in the Byzantine world of boxing can be simply incomprehensible. Let face it, how many years have we been waiting for Mayweather-Pacquaio fight?
Merz writes, “Boxing often feels like it is just too vulnerable-like a creature out of moving tale, always on the brink of death constantly derided, misunderstood, ridiculed, and misrepresented.” Boxing is often ignored by many in the sports media and now competes with the Mixed Martial Arts for combat sports audience but what keeps it alive is its history and the courage of those in the ring. Merz details the women who give it their all and she added a bit of women boxing history as she introduces us to female boxers who came before this modern generation of fighters. What Mixed Martial Arts does not have is Boxing’s rich history of heroes and villains. There are very sports who can match what boxing has to offer when it comes to history, and as Al Bernstein once observed to me, “It is the boxers in the ring that sustain the sports.” Merz details the training and sacrifice women fighters make to prepare for one bout. She talks of the pretenders but also the fighters who make the sport what it is. For many in today’s sports writing covers football year around but the one thing that boxing has that football doesn’t have; the fight of two men or women going toe to toe and every mistake highlighted. There is no place in the ring to hide but there are plenty of places to hide on a football field. Years ago, the great receiver Randy Moss was accused of taking plays off as he ran patterns only so-so but in boxing, that can’t happen.
Merz is an optimist when it comes to boxing, including women’s boxing as she concludes after witnessing an international women competition in Barbardos, “I was witnessing a seismic shift, an accumulation of all that I have been part of over these fifteen years, escalating rapidly towards some peak. It is a rejoinder to skeptics and doubters, a final reasonating and comprehensive statement that this sport has come of age and would never go backwards again.” Women fighters are maturing as a group as more women march into various boxing gyms but in the end, Boxing survives because it is a great sport. It is a sport of individual courage and boxing may be one of the worst run sports, populated by less than savory characters, the individual courage of the fighter defines the sport in the end. Micha Merz has spend two decades as a amateur fighter and a writer detailing the sport; and this book may detail the warts of the sports but it also deals with the beauty of the sports. It is the beauty that comes through and dominates for as the sport is the “Sweetest thing.”