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.
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!"
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.