Million Dollar Maybe

Christina Swanson could be a champ again. Too bad few have the guts to face her.

Christina Swanson sits backward on a chair, cocks her head, and wraps her rough hands with tape. The younger fighters try not to stare. Maybe it's the moon-shaped scar on her right cheek. Or the tight, sweaty bun disguising her blond mermaid locks. Or the Ken Doll abs and those chiseled shoulders — the ones that seem to beg for a superhero cape. Whatever it is, when she stands and bangs her fists together, it's not a friendly gesture.

It's July 10, the night of semifinals at the 2009 Golden Gloves national tournament. Ten minutes remain before the most anticipated match of the year. Swanson — the former titleholder and University of Miami graduate — will battle Jennifer Wolfe-Fenn, a brutal Texan and daughter of pro boxer Ann Wolfe, winner of four world championships.

Swanson, a lean 141 pounds, warms up in the corner of the ballroom at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport. Two giant chandeliers hover above an illuminated boxing ring in front of her. She throws shadow punches into the air, slowly at first, like she's swatting an invisible kid brother. Trainer Luis Lagerman, whose clean-shaven head reflects the ballroom lights, holds hands in the air for her to pound.

Christina Swanson is a good suburban girl. Just don't cross her.
C. Stiles
Christina Swanson is a good suburban girl. Just don't cross her.
Swanson has a part-time gig lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue.
C. Stiles
Swanson has a part-time gig lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue.
Trainer Matt Baiamonte gives Swanson a pep talk.
C. Stiles
Trainer Matt Baiamonte gives Swanson a pep talk.
Jennifer Wolfe-Fenn slows down in the last round against Swanson.
C. Stiles
Jennifer Wolfe-Fenn slows down in the last round against Swanson.

The audience of about 350 is restless. Butch women with black eyes slurp beers from plastic cups. Husky retired male boxers slouch against the wall, jabbering about the officials. A wide-eyed college kid in the front looks like he's expecting a wet T-shirt contest.

At age 27, Swanson (17-9) badly wants to go pro. And she's good enough. A win tonight would mean publicity and respect — two things that are rare as pink plastic nails in the weird world of women's boxing. But Swanson hasn't had a fight in a year. There's no money in the amateur circuit, and making rent has a way of coming first. She desperately needs a victory.

The announcer calls her into the red corner. A blast of commercial hip-hop crackles over the sound system. "Let's do this!" Lagerman hollers. She jogs in place and then they march down an aisle to the ring.

The bell dings. The blood dance begins. Wolfe-Fenn (12-2) has a compact figure, wild eyes, and a cowboy swagger. Right away she unleashes a tornado of punches. Whap, whap, whap. Swanson catches a swift right hook in the ear and a left uppercut in the nose. The impact seems to thrill Wolfe-Fenn, who shoots forward, grunts, and pops off another street-brawl assault. Her white-tipped rubber gloves make a gummy noise as they hit Swanson's face.

Swanson jukes her and then lunges forward, clocking the Texan in her nose. Wolfe-Fenn's head snaps back and she flashes a maniacal smile, exposing her navy blue mouth guard. Her look says, Bitch, I like pain.

Wolfe-Fenn fights like her mother, who is arguably the hardest hitter in the history of women's boxing. Bruisers like her have caused nasty injuries — and even deaths — at ladies' matches. Four years ago, a 34-year-old college professor named Becky Zerlentes died in the ring at the Colorado regional Golden Gloves tournament. Cause of death: blunt trauma to the head.

Female fighters such as Swanson sacrifice more than just their bodies. Hers is the story of an outcast-turned-champion and the long odds of going pro in a neglected, male-dominated sport. In South Florida — where many boxing legends have gotten a start — a pretty face matters as much as a fierce jab, finding an opponent is half the battle, and a tiny fan base can mean going broke in the name of a dream.

The second round ends. Wolfe-Fenn is leading, but her ring rage is draining fast. A herd of fans stands up. "You got this, Swanson!" they chant.

In the corner, Lagerman is more blunt. "You're way behind, baby! I don't care what the fuck you gotta do!"

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The smell of sweat and rubber hangs in the air. It's a week before the match, and Swanson can't find a sparring partner at Fight Club, a hot, warehouse-size gym on NE 20th Street in Miami. Lagerman coaxes a jacked 16-year-old male boxer into the ring. The teenager casts a cocksure grin, as if he's been asked to arm-wrestle Grandma.

He begins by socking her a few times in the breasts and face. She ducks, works him to the side, and pounds him three times in the side of the head. Pop, pop, pop. His body slaps the corner, sending waves through the ropes. He hunches over and hides his face in his gloves.

"That's right — get pissed!" Lagerman shouts to Swanson. Three lanky middle school-age boys lean against the ring, watching, their mouths agape. Swanson finishes and takes off her headgear. A river of blood pours down her nose.

Even as a kid, Christina preferred playing with the boys. The younger of two daughters, she was born New Year's Day 1982 in Seattle. Her mom, Jane, was an aging flower child who coached Christina's swim team. Dad was a cautious engineer and "pessimist," as she puts it. She grew up hiking trails in the drizzly woods behind her big brown house in Bainbridge Island, a middle-class suburb.

As an 8-year-old at Ordway Elementary School, she shaved her head. "I wanted to be like the boys," she remembers, her blue eyes shifting below a pair of thinly plucked eyebrows. "I didn't really fit in."

Swanson has a habit of downplaying a story. A packed crowd is "a pretty good turnout"; a busted lip "sort of hurts." And if she can answer a question in one word, she won't yak for five minutes. She greets friends with playful punches to the gut and sidesteps questions about her feelings.

For that reason, the source of her urge to whack people is a mystery. She can't — or won't — explain where it comes from. "I don't know. I wasn't abused. I didn't grow up on the streets. It's not like I'm angry," she says. "It's just how I am." She is content to be a contradiction: a good suburban girl who can snap your nose.

Of course, there have been rough times. Says her sister, Anna: "She was the emotional buffer for all the dysfunction that went on in our household." When her parents had marital problems, she internalized it. When Anna rebelled, Christina took on the peacemaker role. That stuff has a way of accumulating over the years, Anna says. "She has the perfect boxing personality. She holds things inside and then just explodes."

In middle school, classmates heckled her for being a tomboy. She was strong and competitive. One snotty popular girl told her: "The boys only hang out with you because they're scared of you."

Christina planned to get out of town as soon as possible, ditched high school, and at age 17, commuted to Seattle Central Community College. A Washington State University swimming scholarship was her ticket out. "She was a sparkplug," says her former roommate, Katie Barnes. "She had this really tough personality."

In 2001, Swimming World magazine profiled Swanson and the team on their way to an Olympic training facility. After two years, she clashed with a male coach she calls "sexist" and transferred to the University of Miami, where she became an All-American swimmer.

After her 2004 graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to be with her sister. There she got a job at a hectic Starbucks down the street from a school, Anna says. One stressful afternoon — after dealing with a group of troublemaker students — Christina quietly lost it. She picked up a heavy bag of coffee and threw it against the floor. Beans scattered everywhere, and she walked out without a word.

Her fiery side cropped up in other places too. In the winter of 2004, she and Anna donned eye shadow and went for a drink at a hip-hop club on Sunset Boulevard. Soon, Anna felt a hand grab her butt. She turned to find a hulking, six-foot-tall man and pushed him away. He swung drunkenly in retaliation.

Christina went ballistic. Fists clenched, she launched herself over tables. She eventually got "carried out by two bouncers," Anna recalls. "She was always getting in fights. It was good for her to put gloves on instead."

A couple of months later, in February 2005, she began boxing in an amateur league. Back then, trainers and promoters didn't want to waste their time on a no-name. Especially one who was a girl. "I'd go to a lot of tournaments by myself and try to pick up someone to work my corner," Swanson says. Many times she left without a fight.

Her first match was at a small gym in the Santa Clarita Valley, where a few fans dotted the audience. "All the guys I knew from the gym were pumping me, making me feel like I was better than I was. I didn't have a clue. I caught a wild haymaker in the chin," she says, pausing as if she can still feel the sting. "That kind of gave me stars."

Money was running low in Los Angeles, so she moved back to South Florida. She got a job at US 1 Fitness Center in Dania and met two-time world featherweight boxing champion Bonnie "the Cobra" Canino. The pro began giving her pointers. "She's a natural athlete, and I knew it wouldn't take much to get her fights," Canino says. "She's a real crowd pleaser."

At the gym, she also met a Haitian-born professional middleweight named Wilky Campfort. He too was struggling to get noticed. He had a chiseled chest, a playful personality, and a crush on Christina. They made a bet on a football game; she won, so he took her to IHOP. They began dating and moved in together shortly after.

Wilky might be the only man on the planet with an excuse to hit his girlfriend. When Christina can't find a sparring partner, the two meet at Fight Club and beat each other silly. One time, he left her with a black eye, she says. "I can't play around," he explains. "I have to get her ready... It's my job. I have to protect her."

At Fight Club, Swanson was a curiosity at first. Pretty soon, her talent demanded attention. Says tattooed 28-year-old employee Anthony McKnight: "She can whip your ass and mop the floor with any girl."

Through gym friends, she was introduced to Luis Lagerman, a retired fighter with a tough-love coaching approach. He generally trains men, but he and partner Matt Baiamonte decided to take a chance on Swanson. "I see money in her," Lagerman says simply. "I work with talent. She's determined, and she's ready to go pro. She's cute too — that sells."

The media soon began to notice the fierce blonde with the Wonder Woman biceps. The Sun-Sentinel gushed that she "took control" and "looked sharp" during the 2007 Golden Gloves semifinals. She walked away with the national title that year.

But even when you're number one, amateur boxing doesn't pay the bills. So Swanson took a part-time job lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue, where she mans the colorful guard towers and once saved a French family from a rip current.

Though she likes the job, the shifts are erratic and she's never guaranteed more than a couple of days a week. Money can get tight. So she began taking classes at Broward Fire Academy and is training to become a paramedic. Still, something is missing. "I'm implosive, and boxing gives me release," she says.

Lately, she's been cursed by opponents' mysterious injuries, sudden sicknesses, and last-minute cancellations. On the occasions she can find partners, they often don't match her skill level or weight class. Because a pro career is forged from a solid amateur record, the no-shows have left her out of practice. "It's hard," she says. "Some girls travel all the way to Jacksonville and can't get a fight."

This past March, trainers scheduled her first pro match. She was set to fight Atlanta-based slugger Jackie Breitenstein at Mahi Temple, a 1,000-seat auditorium on the Miami River. Networks such as ESPN often shoot fights at the venue, and wealthy fans arrive in 80-foot yachts. It could have been a turning point in her career — a chance to carve a reputation out of her opponent's puffy face. But Breitenstein was a no-show. She didn't want to make the long car trip, Swanson suspects. "It was frustrating."

On a recent weekday at her cozy but bare Hollywood apartment, Swanson picks up a poster that lies curled on the couch. It reads, "Latin Fury: June 2009," and pictures mostly Hispanic pro male fighters. In the center is a photo of her, wearing a blue bathing suit and pumping her fists in the air. Her long hair blows, courtesy of an off-camera fan. She looks more like a Maxim model than a woman who crunches bones.

She tosses the poster back on the couch and shrugs. "Hey, if it gets you coverage, you can't knock it."

But she didn't get to fight that night either. No other girls showed up.

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Girl fights were more of a freak show than a sport when they began in the 1720s. The first recorded match was staged across the street from Oxford Circus in London. Lady brawlers were encouraged to scratch, maul, and kick, according to the Women Boxing Archive Network. Most were poor and Cockney.

Women's boxing didn't hit the United States until 150 years later, when a scrappy brunette named Nell Saunders pummeled beginner Rose Harland at a small theater in New York City. Her chauvinistic prize: a silver butter dish. In early photos, boxers like Saunders were shown wearing dainty ankle-length dresses and swatting tiny punching bags.

In 1954, the first nationally televised fight in the United States featured a 98-pound, 4-foot-11-inch former carnival worker named Barbara Buttrick. (Now 77 years old, Buttrick lives in Miami and runs the Women's International Boxing Federation.)

Women weren't granted boxing licenses until 20 years later. With media attention, the sport grew more popular. Even so, Bonnie "the Cobra" Canino — the Dania-based former world champ — remembers promoters calling to solicit her for mud-wrestling matches in the late '70s. "I hung up the phone," she says.

A lawsuit followed in 1982. Lansing Community College student Jill Lafler sued the Golden Gloves of America for not allowing women to fight in the tournament. Michigan U.S. District Judge Wendell Miles tossed out the case, but the message was sent: Girls want to fight too. Explains Ryan Wissow, the ponytailed president of Women's International Boxing Association: "It was just a novelty back then."

That changed in the early '90s, when Christy "the Coal Miner's Daughter" Martin emerged from Orlando. Don King — the flashy promoter who plugged Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield — signed her to a four-year contract. It was the first time a famed promoter had bothered with a girl. Martin fought on Tyson's card in front of an audience of more than a million in March 1996 and walked away with an unheard-of $15,000. A few months later, People magazine called her "a new sensation in professional boxing." In Miami Beach, big names like Laila Ali followed.

"Florida was a hotbed for women's boxing," Wissow says. "The fan base really picked up." Partly, it was because great boxers from the Muhammad Ali era stuck around Miami to become trainers. On top of that, two of four women's boxing sanctioning bodies were — and still are — run out of the Sunshine State.

But as purses got bigger, promoters got sleazier. It was still almost impossible to make a living as a female boxer. One promoter scammed Canino out of a $9,000 contract, she told New Times back then: "He claimed he didn't make any money off the fight... and I didn't get a red cent."

Then came the bizarre story of Bethany "Foxy Brown" Payne. The tall, sinewy pro was scheduled to fight Christy Martin in November 1996. Television announcers touted her stellar record: 15-1. But Martin knocked her out in minutes. A few weeks later, the media uncovered that Payne was a former stripper and prostitute who had never fought before. Notorious promoter Mezaughn Kemp had plucked her off a slummy Atlanta street and trained her for two weeks, he told the Miami Herald. Kemp explained he chose her because "that girl has some pretty legs."

The ordeal showed the sad state of the sport. Even with a newfound fan base, there weren't enough interested and talented athletes to fill a ring. It pissed off a lot of people. Miami boxing historian Enrique Encinosa told New Times: "Female boxing is basically bullshit... If you're a woman and you have beaten three crack whores, you can get big money on TV." At the time, a handful of pro women could make big money fighting on men's cards. (That rarely happens today.)

It got more corrupt. In January 1999, the Herald reported that Dania Beach boxer Lisa McFarland took a dive for $1,000 — more than she would have gotten for a win. "Second round, I fell," she said. "She threw a right, hit my jaw... there was no power whatsoever." McFarland just needed the money, she told the paper.

Today, professional U.S. female boxers earn $6,000 to $30,000 for title fights, just a fraction of what girls in the rest of the world make. Boxing is still the only Olympic sport in which women are not allowed to compete. In Europe and Asia, where the sport is televised weekly, women sometimes score $50,000 a bout. In Germany, the Philippines, and India, female fighters receive stipends, housing, and grants. The United States has no such program.

Says Canino: "We're still breaking through barriers."

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Swanson wakes at 6 a.m., sandwiched between her boyfriend and their jiggly bulldog, Rice. She slides out from under tan bedsheets the muggy morning of July 8. It's two days before the fight. The white walls of her bedroom are blank and scuffed; the floor is littered with clothes. There's little time for cleaning or decorating with a schedule like hers. There's hardly time to train.

She does a sleepy shuffle past a bathroom scale, set in the middle of the living room. It's a reminder: She's three pounds over her weight class. That means no eating today. "Some girls sit in the sauna or take a laxative," she says. "It's whatever you have to do."

In a windowless kitchen, she chugs a glass of water and throws Rice a few scraps. Then she heads outside to the parking lot of Forest Towers, a quiet west Hollywood rental community, and hops into her 2002 white Nissan Altima.

Around 8 a.m., she arrives at a Pompano Beach fire station for paramedic classes. As usual, she's one of the only women at the station. If it's a slow day today, she can slip out early, exercise, and register for the tournament. If it's busy, she'll have to rush to the hotel before the cut-off time.

A 911 call comes in. It's a 20-year-old girl reporting she crashed a car and needs help. Swanson hops into a rescue truck with the guys, and they arrive at the scene. The young lady is OK, but they take her to North Broward Medical Center to be safe.

Swanson is famished when another caller summons. This time, it's an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who has stabbed her caregiver with a fork. They rush to the nursing home. No serious injuries this time, either.

By 5 p.m., Swanson's stomach is starting to eat itself. She still hasn't registered or weighed in for the tournament. Nor has she gotten to exercise. Class ends, and she hightails it to the Hilton to sign in. About 90 women have arrived from all over the nation. The range in girls is vast: There are Army vets with linebacker shoulders and skinny waitresses with pigeon toes. The tournament begins tomorrow.

A blond reporter recognizes Swanson, sticks a tape recorder in her face, and calls her an underdog. "You might fight [Wolfe-Fenn]. Is that exciting?" she probes. "Do firefighters know you box? What do they think of that? And where does boxing fit in?"

Swanson is honest. She doesn't really know.

Later, back at her place, a paper clip-size crease has formed between her eyebrows. She drinks her dinner — a few gulps of mixed juices — from an old Gatorade bottle. She and Wilky are sprawled out on the couch like exhausted soldiers, quietly watching tattooed heavyweights pound each other on cable. Sweaty socks lie crumpled in a corner. On the coffee table, a purse with an image of pink boxing gloves reads, "Queen of the Ring."

Swanson breaks the silence. "She said I was an underdog," she tells Wilky. "How the fuck am I the underdog?"

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At the ending bell of round two, Swanson squats on a stool in her corner, removes a mouth guard, and spits into a red plastic bucket. Trainer Baiamonte, who has a Woody Harrelson gap in his teeth, wipes her face and gives a few stern words. Her eyes are bleary, but she nods. Don't hold back. Get her.

Ding, ding. Wolfe-Fenn pants hard. Swanson looks like a coyote closing in on a tired rabbit. She is calculated as she aims.

Smack. As it hits the Texan's face, Swanson's fist sounds like a wrestling mat dropping. Her opponent looks stunned, drunk with impact. Wolfe-Fenn has the posture of a caveman as she stumbles and then bear-hugs Swanson. The referee breaks up the hold, pausing play, but Wolfe-Fenn socks her in the lip anyway. The crowd erupts into a chorus of booing. "Are we watching the same fight here?" trainer Lagerman shouts to the official.

At the beginning of the last round, the audience is hungry for blood. A tall 20-something guy in a backward cap stands up and shouts, "Make her pay, Swanson!" Wolfe-Fenn tries to shuffle away, but Swanson works her into the corner and racks up four jabs in seconds. It goes on like that for the next minute: Wolfe-Fenn runs; Swanson chases.

When the final bell rings, nobody seems sure of the winner except Lagerman, who's shaking his head. The ladies join the ref at the center of the ring. There's a pause. Then he lifts Wolfe-Fenn's arm into the air, and her fans in the audience hop. Swanson, red-faced and exhausted, takes a seat in the crowd.

Judges would later vote the bout "Best Semi Finals Boxing Match" at the tournament and give the opponents awards for the most crowd-pleasing fight. The Sun-Sentinel would report, "Swanson had to settle for the bronze medal."

Back in a corner of the ballroom, Swanson's eyes fill with tears. Her firefighter friends swarm her with pats on the back. Lagerman is still shaking his head. "You got started too late," he says. Then he leaves.

"Give me one more round and I would have stopped her ass," she says to no one in particular. Right then, a gray-haired man with kind eyes approaches. He says he's a former City of Hollywood firefighter and then hands her a business card. "If you need a job, just give me a call." She sits, grasps the card in a sweaty hand, and stares down at the future.

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