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[whitespace] In the Ring

A female fighter goes a few rounds with 'Girlfight'


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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation.

"The very first time I hit a man," recalls Kate Sekules, "it wasn't really very significant. In fact, I can barely remember it. On the other hand, the first time I hit a woman--now that was a big moment for me."

Sekules, her lilting British accent and soft-spoken demeanor running counter to all this talk about hitting and being hit, is discussing Girlfight, the art-house drama directed by Sundance sensation Karen Kusama. It's the story of Diana Guzman (played by buffed-up newcomer Michelle Rodriguez), an angry, semi-delinquent teen from the streets of New York whose future seems destined to go bad until she stumbles upon an unexpected talent as an amateur boxer.

Currently the travel editor for Food & Wine Magazine, Sekules has an idea of what Diana Guzman feels the first time she enters the ring with another female fighter. A seasoned boxer herself, Sekules began training in 1992 at New York's legendary boxing gym Gleason's, eventually becoming one of the first women in the world to lift gloves in a professional prizefight.

She tells the story in her lyrical new book The Boxer's Heart: How I Fell in Love with the Ring (Villard; $23.95). Taken alongside Girlfight and the recent documentary Shadowboxer--"A wonderful piece of work that it isn't getting the attention it deserves," says Sekules--The Boxer's Heart completes a kind of female-fighter trilogy.

Speaking of fighters. I wonder if it's true that Sekules, having engaged in professional pugilism, cannot legally hit another human outside the boxing ring?

"Well, that's the story," she says with a laugh. "It might be only hearsay, but I've been told that if you're a professional boxer, your fists are seen as a lethal weapon."

"So if I asked you to punch me in the head, you couldn't do it," I assume.

"Well, of course I could," Sekules replies. "And if you decided to sue me, you'd have a very good case."

Uh, right. Anyone whose seen Sekules' trim, fighter-stance photo on the cover of her book will realize I'm in no hurry for a practical demonstration of her point. As a guy whose been in only one real fight his whole life (Matt McGruyer kicked my ass in seventh grade), I'm reasonably certain that Sekules would kill me.

So could Michelle Rodriguez, for that matter. Or Karen Kusama, each of whom, by the way, has trained at Gleason's alongside Sekules.

"I remember Michelle Rodriguez, her first day training at the gym," Sekules says. "It was two or three years ago when it was still unusual to see a girl fighter who was good. I saw Michelle and said, 'Hey who's that? She looks good. She looks like she's been training about four months.' But no. It was Michelle's first day training at the gym. She was amazing."

Thinking back to the moment in the film when Diana's trainer patiently wraps her fists in those creamy, canvas bandages, preparing her for her first workout, I ask Sekules if becoming a boxer had altered her own relationship with her hands.

"My hands?" she repeats. "What a strange question."

She pauses, considering it. "At the beginning, my hands kept getting cut and bruised," she says finally. "Once you scrape all the skin off your knuckles and then hit them again, your hand never heals. It was interesting, because there's this unspoken requirement that every woman in New York must have an expensive manicure. So here I was with long manicured nails and these greatly scarred knuckles.

"But I was proud of that," she continues. "Otherwise, the hand is really just the end of the punch. The force comes up from the ground and goes through your whole body. It was my relationship with my body that was completely transformed, gradually and probably for good. And thank God for that, because it just drags you down, that body stuff that women have to cope with."

"Speaking of what women have to cope with," I say. "You were saying that the first time you hit a woman, it was a significant moment?"

"Very significant," Sekules murmurs.

"Did you feel guilty about it?"

"It wasn't guilt, exactly," she replies. "But it wasn't easy. It felt more like having to push through glue to hit her. There was this invisible impediment, almost like someone was holding my elbow. I did hit her, eventually, in that first session. I hit her a lot, but I didn't really lay into her. I never got in a really good shot."

Sekules' female opponent, however, got in a few good shots of her own.

"It's weird. When I first started boxing and a guy hit me, it outraged me," Sekules remembers. "It was a very simple reaction. I thought, 'That's not right. What are you doing? How dare you?' But when I was hit by a woman, my reaction was much more complicated. I'd think, 'What are you doing that for? This is my territory. I'm supposed to do the hitting. Don't you know I'm better than you?'

"Getting hit by a woman the first time, though, was still much easier for me than was my hitting another woman. I still struggle with it. I have trouble sparring all-out. Of course, the more I spar, the less trouble I have, but I'm still not all that great at just laying into someone, male or female."

This is quite unlike Diana, who takes her ambitions as far as a "gender-blind" bout with a male boxer she just happens to have fallen in love with.

"In the context of the film it works brilliantly and I loved it--but it's completely ridiculous," Sekules says. "There's no such thing as a 'gender -blind' event. It wouldn't be allowed.

"Besides," she continues, "I would never get in a ring with my boyfriend."

"Why not?" I ask.

"Well, he doesn't box," Sekules laughs. "So I'm afraid I'd have too great an advantage on him."

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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