Why would anyone volunteer to get punched in the face? I set out to answer that question by signing up for the world’s largest all-women boxing club at the start of my junior year. Baraka Bouts has been teaching Notre Dame women to box for the past 20 years, hosting an annual tournament that raises money for Holy Cross education in Uganda.
For me, junior captain Nicole Lies captured the bouts’ spirit. “It’s about so much more than just boxing. It brings such empowerment, not only to people in it, but also through the mission of education,” she told me. “People have said it’s the most Notre Dame thing you can do, and I think that’s so true.”
Women’s boxing strikes a balance between competition and collaboration, personal growth and charity. Club emails end with “Love and punches.” Putting on gloves comes with unbidden expectations from classmates, family, friends. “I’m not an aggressive person,” Lies says. “I’m not the type.”
“We’re all probably in that [job] interview in pearls and curled hair and lipstick,” says senior captain Sabrina Curran, “and then I come out with the fact that I box, and it definitely takes people aback. I love to see the women who become empowered by the sport. I love that we defy that stereotype.”
Curran finds the similarities between the ring and her finance major striking. She’s not a violent person, “yet people see the fire that I have for academics,” she says. “Finance is inherently risky. . . . I like to think I am a person who is very much willing to take risks.”
The club trains in The Pit, a bustling gym in the basement of the Joyce Center that absorbs and transforms each person brave enough to walk through its doors. So here I am in September, feeling silly as I throw my first punch. A few hours ago, I was sipping coffee and annotating an argument on Aquinas’ Second Way, and now I’m huffing for air as I finish a two-minute round against a teardrop-shaped punching bag hanging from a chain.
Junior captain Frankie Masciopinto describes The Pit as a blissful void of physical exertion. It doesn’t even have a window. “When I come into The Pit, it’s like ‘OK, all the other crap that’s happening outside — like all my work, whatever’s going on with my friends, my family, I don’t have to focus on it,” she says. “I literally turn my phone on do-not-disturb and put it in my backpack for the whole three hours I’m here.”
I feel a similar immersion, but my boxing skills don’t measure up. My stubbornly tiptoed stance and rickety right hook prove the sport is a lot harder than it looks.
As difficult as the physical strain is, the mental battle is harder. Every punch you throw is a leap of faith, leaving you exposed to counterattack. Yet if you don’t throw, you’re done. The best defense is a good offense. Dropping your hands is a death sentence.
Voices spar in my mind: Don’t forget to move your feet. Don’t defend too far from your face, or you’ll look like a fool when your own fist comes back at you.
Oh, and don’t get in your own head.
“It’s like a super-fast game of chess,” Curran says, “and you have to strategize and be quick on your feet and quick with decision making.”
When its tournament time in November, despite my novice status, I end up listed to compete against Lies, the team captain I looked up to throughout the training season.
Everyone has a different pre-bout ritual, I learn. Curran says Hail Marys, visualizes her combos and listens to the theme song from Rocky on repeat. Masciopinto practices her footwork and counts down from 10. Lies thinks about every little random thing before entering a zone of boxing focus.
Admittedly, my strategy turns out to be a bit dramatic. An hour before the bell, I sit in a secluded corner on the eighth floor of the Duncan Student Center where boxers warm up before descending to the Dahnke Ballroom ring, filling my mind with apathy and forfeit.
The world is meaningless. You’re going to lose. Nothing matters. I don’t care. It’s stupid to care about things. We live by habit, no better than dogs begging for their next meal.
I repeat this cynical loop over and over — 1-2-1-2-1-2 — until something bubbles up within me. It isn’t a thought or even a vague feeling. It is a certainty. I feel it in the tightness of my jaw grinding against my mouthguard and in the snap of my shadow-boxing punch. Not that I could win, but that I would fight.
It doesn’t matter that I am about to lose my very first boxing match in front of my closest friends — and a few others who might consider me an adversary. I’ve never felt more certain about anything in my life: There is no place I’d rather be.
The sweat and soreness of training that once stung with such permanence seems like a distant memory. “Strong bodies fight that weak bodies may be nourished,” reads a poster that hangs in The Pit behind rows of boxing gloves and punching bags. For many boxers, the motto is imprinted in each jab. Baraka Bouts might be about more than punching people in the face, but the experience wouldn’t be the same without it.
“People in boxing really see you at your best and at your worst,” Curran says. “They’ve seen you after you’ve been punched in the nose. You’ve got tears in your eyes, and you don’t execute the way you wanted to and you’re really disappointed, but they also see you with your hands raised at the end of a bout.”
A boxer’s first bout leaves an impression, sometimes a memory of every detail, sometimes just a feeling. Curran recalls the intensity of the moment. “That feeling is very shocking the first time it happens, when you’re realizing, ‘Someone actually wants to hurt me and punch me in the face,’” she says. “For me, that lit up the switch in my mind that was like, ‘No. You are fearless.’”
Her courage barreled through any hint of fatigue. “I was just so lit up. I was screaming to my corners how excited I was, and they were like, ‘Wait, calm down. You’ve got two rounds left,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Let me back out there, I’m so ready.’”
Masciopinto’s first bout was a mental vacuum of overwhelming first-time stimulus. “I don’t really remember what happened, because in the ring, you kind of black out,” she says. “I remember being super nervous beforehand and coming out and being like, ‘That’s the most fun thing ever.’”
I learn that I’m more like Curran, with an added note of pessimism. As my opponent tags me with jabs left and right, I tell myself to call it. Give up. I dare you. I don’t argue with the thought. I act. The more I tempt myself to stop caring, the more my arms suppress the tingling burn, the more punches I throw.
When you do it right, a cross punch is the sharp finish of a bodily Rube Goldberg sequence. Every fiber of muscle, every shred of will, every drop of courage inside you condenses into a pinprick of force expelled from your knuckles. The front half of my shoe grips the floor, my calves tighten, my back heel spins on a dime, my hips pivot, my core contracts and my elbows tighten inward, ready to pounce. I’m a kid trying to reach the middle of the spiraling merry-go-round. Then bang. The fist snaps outward like a tight metal spring, bouncing back immediately. Little do spectators know, the fist isn’t doing any of the real work.
And yet memories of my three one-minute-and-15-second rounds fall somewhere between clarity and blackout. I cannot play back each punch or each of Lies’ impressive weaves, but I would bottle up the charge that ran through me. Call it grit or fearlessness or conviction, it can only be described by the flying vector of a punch, a lone train darting through a snowy night, determined to meet its schedule.
I survived the bout with no eight-counts. I lost by a lot, but at least I didn’t take any hits the referee deemed dangerous.
At the end of the third round, I spat out my mealy mouthguard and walked to the center of the ring. I already knew the result. I looked at my opponent and out at the crowd with a smile on my face. My grin grew as the ref raised my opponent’s arm in triumph. I caught the eye of someone snapping a photo. That’s fine. Take as much evidence as you like. Let it remind you that I am not afraid to lose. I will do it gladly, so long as I do not give up.
I half-wish now that someone would poke fun at my loss, so I can quote Atticus Finch telling his kids in To Kill a Mockingbird, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Friends and family who tuned in via the livestream were quick to congratulate me. And of course, they wanted to know: Are you going to do it again next year?
Even if campus now knows me as the girl who lost, the answer is easy. I’m not giving up.
Maggie Eastland, editor-in-chief of The Observer, is a junior finance major and journalism minor from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She resides in Pasquerilla West.