April 14, 2011
In the preface to “The Sweetest Thing,” her second book on the sport on the sport of Women’s boxing, Mischa Merz leaves no doubt about her choice of subject: “My relationship with boxing has been like one you would have with another human being. I have loathed it and adored it. It has both invaded my dreams and turned my stomach. I have resolved to reduce its significance in my life only to see my passions for it intensify. Boxing is my man. Even my husband will tell you so.”
An understandable reaction to such words might posit that all writers need be passionate about a subject to which they are going to devote the time and effort required to turn out tens of thousands of words. This is true, but then you learn that Merz has traveled half way around the world, from her native Australia, multiple times in the two years, 2007-09, covered in this book. She has come to the United States, the putative center of the sport, to camp follow the sport’s actions and athletes from the big city gyms to lesser known enclaves of female boxing. And what has resulted is a remarkable up close and personal insight that endows this one-of-a-kind look at an often misunderstood sport and a realization that her passion has been well spent.
And the jet lag inducing travel is just a small part of what has gone into this effort. There is the less than one-star food and lodging accommodations that Merz endures as she seeks out and, invariably, gets next to the famous, the wannabes and the never-was personalities of the sport. The reader gets the good, the bad and the indifferent of both athletes, managers, promoters and fans. Merz’s prose is populated with personalities, ranging from world class athletes to boxing lifers, on both side of the ropes, who put their whole being into an often derided sport and sometimes receive, in return, a modicum of fame, although more often, thru no lack of effort, come away devoid of even a sliver of achievement.
And Merz doesn’t limit herself to the role of “interested observer.” She goes well beyond “hangin’ around” the sport, recording what she sees and hears, although she does this in a very readable manner. Her chronicling of women who devote much of their lives to punching each other in the face in the name of sport, is an unparalleled education not only for those who are familiar with Women’s boxing, but, probably, a more useful primer for those unfamiliar or misinformed about the sport.
But Merz is not content on the literal ring apron of Women’s boxing. She seeks, and achieves, a full scale embedding and again it is to the reader’s benefit. Merz, a longtime amateur boxer in Australia, fully details her quest for “Master” class bouts in the US; the frustration of near miss match-ups and the fruition of finally hearing the bell ring and moving to the center of the ring in “a real” bout. And between these poles of frustration and achievement, Merz details what she and every other woman boxer goes thru: the training regimen, the self doubts, the slow, arduous progression towards the grail of actual competition, the quick silver flash of the bout and inevitable let down aftermath of the high of six minutes of competition.
Along the way, Merz catalogues the various participants in the amateur boxing world as it exists, today, in this country, for female boxers. Even with the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, a reader can hardly be faulted for questioning why young boxers put themselves through the tribulations and disappointments that the sport holds for young female athletes, particularly in this world of Title IX opportunity. And a few pages later, like any good tour guide, Merz provides one answer. She leads the way to “Cobra Country” and unveils Bonnie Canino, who runs one of the programs that sets a high bar for amateur female boxing in this country. Canino’s gym situated, seemingly almost on purpose, in the “cut with a knife” humidity and heat of Dania Beach, FL, is run (in the most expansive sense of the verb) with Parris Island discipline, by Canino, who is described as having “striking, androgynous, white Annie Lennox hair and the kind of cool equilibrium of an old cowboy who has broken every bone in his body and is afraid of nothing.” And after ten pages of “Cobra Country” and Bonnie Canino you are, at least, half way to an answer about amateur female boxers and the “why” of their quest.
Another part of the answer, as it is for every sport, is that many of the amateur female boxers hope to graduate to the next level, which, in boxing, means “turning pro.” Merz covers the professional ranks of the sport with the same detail, the same sharp, insider’s eye that she cast on the amateurs. She again concentrates on the ground zeros of the sport, the gyms. Gleasons, in downtown Brooklyn, provides the launching pad and it is familiar territory for Merz. She was there in her first book, “Bruising,” and many of the same players are still on this famously, dingy stage: Alicia Ashley, who provides Merz counseling about moves in and out of the ring; the bombastic Melissa Hernandez, whose comic relief persona often masks world class skill; Belinda Laracuente, Ronica Jeffrey and Keisher McLeod and others who have made the successful transition to the professional ranks. There are other stops in “big time” gyms across the country culminating at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles, where Merz spends time under the aegis and ring tutelage of the still mythic Lucia Rijker. But it is in Gleasons where the sport of female boxing marches to the beat of an intriguing cast of women who also happen to be devoted athletes.
The book concludes with Merz’s description of the Holly Holm/Melissa Hernandez bout, scheduled for December 2009 in Albuquerque, NM. The highly anticipated bout did not happen due to a seemingly surmountable dispute over the wrapping of Holm’s hands and the complete absence of anything approaching leadership among the boxing “overseers” present in New Mexico. Merz, not surprisingly, given the Gleasons connection, is, figuratively, in Hernandez’s corner, but still provides an even handed description of the events surrounding the debacle to which this anticipated big night for Women’s boxing descended. In the end, Merz’s conclusion, which was, essentially, that when no fight happens, nobody wins, is, like the entirety of the rest of the book, exactly on target.
The fact that Mischa Merz is from “down under” provides an “outsider’s” objectivity to her view of the American version of female boxing. But, at the same time, her boxing experience and her continuing participation in the sport dovetails well when an inside (the ropes) explanation of the sport is required. It’s a combination that few authors are capable of providing and less than those few are capable of articulating so well. It adds up to a book worth reading about a sport worth knowing more about.