Boxing Lessons
School or Be Schooled

I’ve always been one of those people that things come fast and easy to. Learned to read when I was three, graduated with honors from one of the top public ivies, at age 20, qualified for the Boston Marathon my first try. So I’ve lived my life in constant search for the next challenge, the next obstacle to conquer. I found that and then some when I took up boxing.

It’s a long story as to how I came to the sweet science, eventually learning the craft alongside
Guinea's hard-bodied Olympic team in West Africa (read story here.) But I’ll fast-forward all that to the year I resettled in DC for graduate school. I was delighted to find a ring right down the street from me, a modest place marked by a little yellow and black sign with grilled windows. No nonsense, no website – this was the real deal. The ring is owned by an ex-black panther, the first to have put gloves on Sugar Ray Leonard’s hands back in the day. Gene is a spiritual man who had chosen for his logo scales with books on one side and boxing gloves on the other – a depiction of the balance of brain and brawn I felt I personified.

At first I was a bit shy, feeling I had to prove myself to ex-cons and other ruff-n-tuff guys who trained there, to get them to accept me as a true equal and not just a cute white girl with nice calves. I had harbored secret fantasies of getting in the ring for real and seeing if I really had what it took. I sparred with the guys, even knocking one kid down so hard he never came back. The only other female there was a 16 year-old girl 10 pounds and 3 inches smaller than me, a southpaw whom I easily dominated. When I would hit the pads with my trainer, who had programmed me to be the bullfighter ‘cause the “bull was coming,” he would say, “The pads don’t lie. I wish I could get the dudes to hit as hard and fast as you do.”

So having gotten an ego puffing from my trainers and beating up a few minors, when the chance came up to box in a prelim match to the Golden Gloves (the premier amateur boxing tournament), I jumped. I had nothing to lose, besides perhaps my pride and good looks, I thought. I met my match a few hours before the bout. It was her first fight too, young girl, glasses, a little thugy looking but sweet. “Just don’t knock me out,” she joked as we waited to strip down to our skivvies for the weigh-in. I was all butterflies, but still tried to remind myself this was just a sport, and we were just athletes. My trainer, who at age 73 had been around this block a few times, had promised me he would never put me in to something I wasn’t ready for, and I trusted his judgment 100%.

I started getting ready in the bathroom, leisurely putting on my flimsy chest protector, thinking I had several matches to go before ours. Suddenly I heard the emcee call out “Keisha Johnson, April Thompson, please report to the glove table.” Shit, I didn’t even have my hands wrapped, hadn’t even taken off my earrings. I threw my things on and came out of the bathroom to see my opponent transformed. She was already warming up on the pads and I wasn’t together. Now in gear, I could see her name tattooed on a bicep better chiseled than half the dudes in our gym. When they called us up to the ring, I realized I didn’t even have my mouthpiece in and had to run back for it. “You’ll need that,” somebody heckled from the audience, shaking my confidence.

So I barely had my thoughts together when the bell marking the first round rang. She came out at me like a rhino, catching me off balance. The beautifully orchestrated matador routine went right out the window. I tripped and went down of my own accord. She was standing waiting over me when I got back up (the ref should have sent her to a neutral corner), but I came back up swinging. She hit hard as hell but I was throwing back with all I had.

Suddenly the ref stops the fight, shaking his head and waving his hands in the four directions where the judges sat to call it off. We’re all totally shocked, even my opponent. My trainer starts yelling at the ref, taking him to task for the bad call using words I had never heard the sweet old man use before. Sugar Ray’s brother even came up to me afterwards and told me I got a raw deal. A look at the tape later on, where I realized the TKO had occurred less than a minute into the first round, showed that I was actually throwing a punch at the exact moment the ref stopped the fight on my behalf.

So I got a raw deal, it’s part of cutting your teeth as a boxer to get a bad call. Plus it was my first fight, everybody gets nervous. “If you went three rounds with her, that’d been a totally different fight. You got superior conditioning and footwork – she’d a been huffin and puffin by the second round.” my trainer told me. “did you see her weigh in? I’m sure she didn’t even make weight- she was way bigger than you. Let her fight someone her own size.”

It’s three months later. A new tournament, the Capitol Gloves, to try to revive the sweet science of amateur boxing here in the nation’s capitol. It was ridiculously disorganized – they were still putting up the ring in the Armory when the show was supposed to have started – and at the weigh-in there weren’t any other chicks but some scrawny underage straw-weights (at 116 and 34, I was a bantamweight, and could only box people 18 and older – though for their protection or mine, I wasn’t sure). It looked like only one of my three teammates who signed up would actually have a match. I relaxed and got ready for the one-ring circus that these amateur bouts were. Then suddenly Gene comes back and says, “you gonna fight that girl you fought out at sugar ray’s. We gonna get her this time.”

It seemed odd she wasn’t there for the weigh in. probably didn’t even make weight, but I’d beat her ass anyway. Who wins the bullfight? Not the bull…. I’d been training hard, I was shape, knew what I had done wrong the last time around. Paybacks were hell: I was going to vindicate myself.
We get called to the ring. She had new hot pink gloves with matching trunks with “baby girl” written on the waistband. She was full of confidence, doing her little dance around the ring. I’d go in there with simple dignity and show her ass up – show the world the white girls can scrap with the best and worst of em.

Bell rings, stomach lurches. We meet in the center of the ring. I again throw my beautifully orchestrated matador routine out the window to try and go toe to toe with the bulldog. Eight seconds into the first round – I drop my hands to go to her body and she lands a left and right hook to the face, sending me to the canvas, adding a third hook as I’m on the way down. Eight seconds.

It’s the hardest I’ve ever been hit. I see white pricks of light. Someone helps me up. They ask me my name. They ask me the date. They take off my gloves and lift her arm in the air, handing us both trophies. I cried from the shame of losing. Then cried from the shame of crying. It hurt to move my jaw and I had a splitting headache. But mainly I felt the painful humiliation of complete defeat.

A year later, you can still find me at Midtown most any night of the week, shadowboxing an invisible opponent, a tattooed girl with pretty pink gloves, in the tiny little ring with duct-taped ropes.

So that cocky little girl saved this one from an otherwise incurable case of egomania and hubris. I had probably never tried so hard, put so much effort into something, and yet failed so miserably. So as much as I despise her, I owe baby girl for having schooled me in the art of losing.

Postscript: Baby Girl is now a pro boxer ranked first in the US, second in the world for her weight class, with 11 wins, 4 KOs, and one loss of her own.

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