Perhaps not since the Rocky phenomenon of the ‘70s and ‘80s has it been so profitable for writers, artists, producers, and filmmakers to exploit the world of boxing. The last couple of years have witnessed a flowering of commentaries on the sweet science, from books such as David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali, King of the World, and Kate Sekules’s memoir, The Boxer’s Heart, to documentaries such as On the Ropes and Shadow Boxers, to fact-based dramas like The Hurricane. Throw in lucrative pay-per-view events, regular fight showcases like HBO’s KO Nation, the success of the Toughman series, and even melodramas like Resurrection Boulevard, and it seems you can’t flip a channel (at least on cable) without seeing something about boxing.
Now, with Girlfight, comes a new breed of film—the chick boxing flick. Written and directed by Karyn Kusama, who trained at Gleason’s in Brooklyn, the film focuses on a troubled teenager from the Red Hook area who finds her calling at a decrepit neighborhood gym. While the film takes great pains to show us the difficult school and family life of its protagonist, it is a boxing movie, after all. Having been a competitive amateur boxer for a couple years now (and having been female for longer than that), I was curious to see how Kusama would integrate the peculiar but not very glamorous world of female amateur boxing with this coming-of-age tale of a young Latina woman in New York.
Despite its indie roots, the film follows well-established patterns for the boxing genre: a poor, young, inner-city resident (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers a talent for the sport, and, with the help of a loyal but curmudgeonly trainer (Jaime Tirelli), hopes to rise to the top. Rocky Balboa may have won a world title, but Diana Guzman, a budding star in the uncharted territory of amateur female boxing, doesn’t have that option—yet. For while women have been fighting professionally in the United States for over a century, they have only been allowed into the amateur ranks since 1993. (For a hilarious filmic depiction of a pro female title bout, watch the straight-to-video Knockout, in which Sophia-Adella Hernandez, as devoutly religious Belle Alvarado [she sees visions of her dead mother while flattened on the canvas], wins an improbable victory against the fearsome—and extremely well-oiled—Tanya “Terminator” Tessaro [Fredia Gibbs]. The cameo appearance by Sugar Shane Mosley alone is worth the rental price.)
For Diana in Girlfight, the payoff isn’t money, or even fame; it’s respect. And she earns it, too, from trainer, sparring partners, brother, and best friend (the only other sympathetic female character in the movie unless you count Diana’s dead mother). Ultimately, she even earns it from her boyfriend, Adrian (Santiago Douglas), with whom she shares both her heart and her weight class. (The one holdout appears to be her father, Sandro, played by Paul Calderon, who is drunk, abusive, and generally a rather nasty fellow.)
But while her industriousness in the gym is admirable, how good is Diana, really? Karyn Kusama never tells us. Or rather, she tells us through the adoring stares of Diana’s trainer, her lover, and her brother that Diana is really good, but she doesn’t convincingly prove it. The fault isn’t Rodriguez’s—to train for her part, she studied boxing for four months, longer than many women have before making their pro debuts. And despite a few clunkers, she doesn’t look all that bad. But Kusama sacrifices what could have made for an exciting climax—and far more interesting boxing—when she scraps the idea of women boxing women (funny, I thought that was still revolutionary) for an imaginary New York “intergender” tournament. The movie’s sole female-female bout—Diana’s debut against a tough local competitor—is compelling not only for its nonstop tempo and give-and-take action (it is partially filmed from a bird’s-eye vantage point), but also because it captures so well the atmosphere of amateur events—lackluster locales, spotty audiences, no pre-fight fanfare or post-fight posturing. Diana wins by split decision, but it could have gone the other way, and her response—the palpable relief and joy on her face—is one of the more genuine moments in the film.
What comes next for Diana is an “intergender” tournament, which seems to be made up primarily of members from her own gym. She first fights a loose-cannon sparring partner who is disqualified for committing too many fouls. Then, just when Diana and Adrian are reunited after a romantic spat, they learn they are the two finalists for the “intergender” featherweight title. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that he balks at fighting her, she insists he do so, he relents, and she wallops him good, sending him to the canvas once and ultimately winning the decision. Titles are nice, even imaginary ones, but what matters most is Adrian’s later admission that “I gave you all I had.” Once again, the lovers reunite—and with that ending, Girlfight ditches all attempts at realism for the fantasy world we have come to expect from boxing movies—except this time, the victor is female.
As a member of the amateur ranks, a world overshadowed by the shenanigans of professional female fighters from Mia St. John to Laila Ali, I don’t resent the positive press that Girlfight has been getting, much of it directed toward Rodriguez. (I doubt whether a less attractive actress, or one portraying a lesbian boxer whose girlfriend shared her weight class, would have attracted the same attention.) Perhaps the movie will encourage more girls and women to take up boxing, and that can only be a positive result. Yet one wonders what Kusama intended by naming the film as she did, thus relegating all female boxers to the status of “girls,” which is how most coaches, officials, announcers, and spectators refer to us anyway. (My one consolation is that www.girlfight.com is not the registered domain name for Kusama’s film, but rather for a porno site that advertises, “Sexy babes that like to fight!”) I also take exception to Kusama’s attempt to portray Diana’s world as one of gritty-edged realism, when it is often very far from that. Yes, to be a woman boxer—especially an amateur—is an often very lonely road. Yes, boxing offers troubled kids—and adults—a constructive way to channel their energies. But rage isn’t the most helpful emotion to have in the ring, and it doesn’t always make for good fighters. Still, Kusama can’t resist those close-ups of Diana, eyes wide and glaring, nostrils flared, her wide lips formed around a black mouthpiece in anything but a smile. Anyone over 12 years old who’s had to weigh-in for a bout is all too familiar with the hateful stares of potential rivals, but fights aren’t awarded to whoever looks the meanest. There’s a guy from my gym who smiles this big wide goofy grin when he fights, and there’s nothing more disconcerting to opponents than that. Diana would do well—both in the ring and out of it—to take herself a little less seriously.
Furthermore, even assuming that the film was set in the mid-1990s, during the early days of amateur women’s boxing, Kusama makes Diana out to be a rarer bird than she is. Had Kusama set the movie in Peoria, or Sacramento, or Seattle for that matter, her isolation might have been far more believable. In many parts of the country, girls and women still have to travel cross-country or to Canada for amateur bouts. Except in the biggest tournaments, there is no guarantee of an opponent. I recently logged 600 miles to a tournament in central Oregon just to be named the “walkover champion” of my weight class, for which I earned a sweatshirt but no ring time. Out of almost fifty bouts held during the two days of that tournament, just one was female, and even that was a matched bout, with individuals from two different weight classes. There are only so many options for amateur women like me in regions like this one: to take on local bouts as they come, as rarely as that may be, or to seek them elsewhere. While I’ve chosen the latter option, not everyone has the same job flexibility, or the same support network, or the same drive.
But things are different in Brooklyn. In Girlfight, Adrian and Diana are—coincidentally—both featherweights, which means they weigh in between 119.1 and 125.0 pounds. (Weight classes are virtually the same for males and females.) While some regions of the country lack depth in the lighter weights, New York is not one of them. Adrian could have remained an amateur for years and would not have run out of opponents. And Diana? If there were female boxers anywhere, they’d be in New York, in all shapes and sizes. Her options would have been limited, but there definitely would have been options.
So why the “intergender” tournament? My opinion is that Kusama wants to dramatize the love story between Adrian and Diana, which, after all, is rather conventional despite the relatively exotic backdrop of the boxing gym and the lovers’ shared Brooklyn Latino heritage. Moreover, while anyone at all familiar with USA Boxing (the country’s amateur sanctioning body) knows that hell would freeze over before it approved such an event, the idea of men fighting women—and of women defeating them—seems to be a litmus test for certain advocates of female boxing and of feminism in general. If women can take on other women, the logic goes, what’s stopping them from proving themselves against men?
There are plenty of women who could roundly defeat plenty of men in a boxing match, all factors (weight, age, skill level, training regimen, etc.) being equal. And we will likely see more professional male-female exhibitions—and possibly even sanctioned events—in the future. But Kusama’s premise—that Diana could best Adrian in the circumstances she did—is a serious case for wishful thinking. Diana, training for all of a few months, has one amateur bout to her credit; Adrian, a veteran, is on the verge of turning pro. Unless we accept that Adrian sucks (a conclusion I reached after watching their fight sequence), he could only have lost on purpose. Yet with his admission that “I gave you all I had,” Diana’s victory is synonymous with his defeat, and her hard-fought independence is won at the expense of his. Whatever personality Adrian seemed to convey in courting both Diana and his dreams has withered away by the end of the film; approaching her at the gym, he limply asks whether she’ll dump him. Diana replies, “Probably,” but the scene still ends with a kiss. Title belts and feel-good endings aside, there can be no winners here.
Besides, must female athletes compete against men in order to prove they are good? Or is male-female boxing (at least until women’s boxing has time to mature) an insidious way to demean women who choose not to make a spectacle of their sport? I was in the audience at Seattle’s Mercer Arena last fall as Margaret MacGregor won a decision over tiny Loi Chow, whom she outweighed and towered above, and who danced around, smiling, for four rounds, hardly throwing a punch and avoiding most of hers. (Rumor had it that security caught Chow sneaking out the door just before the fight, and that he only agreed to return for twice his promised take, which had been equal to MacGregor’s. If that was true, then he certainly had something to smile about.) The crowd roared and chanted “Tiger,” MacGregor’s nickname, while a phalanx of TV cameras beamed the victory around the world. My friends and I (five men, two women, boxers all) simply shook our heads, embarrassed. The decision didn’t surprise us. Chow, a jockey, had been carefully picked (his previous record was 0-2, and he had not had a bout for three years.) What disappointed us was that he was still standing, having never put up a fight. My female companion and I—both of us smaller than MacGregor—would have wiped the smile off Chow’s face, and quickly, too. If the Tiger was striking a blow for our equality, we would rather have done it ourselves.
Just as with the MacGregor-Chow fight, however, one shouldn’t assign Girlfight more gravity than it deserves. Ultimately, despite the growing popularity of women’s boxing, the film’s commercial success reveals far more about the paucity of strong, vibrant women on American televisions and movie screens than it does about their presence in real life. Next time you happen upon a boxing gym, stop in and take a look around—because there’s a lot more of us out there than you’d think.
Anju Reejhsinghani is a writer and amateur boxer based in Seattle, Washington.