Jul 8, 2009
In Bruising, passionate boxer Mischa Merz draws you into her experiences of a sweaty, oft-bloody, myth- and history-loaded, predominantly masculine but ever-progressing sport. I first came across Mischa’s work in the extract of this book published in Overland. It had been my favourite piece in the issue, and when Mischa heard, she sent me a copy of the memoir, which has just been expanded by Vulgar Press for re-release. I was captivated start-to-finish by Mischa’s motivations; intellectual discussions and philosophies; experiences training, sparring and in the ring; descriptions of the tough, complex and diverse characters around her on this journey; and her struggles – physically and emotionally – as well as socially and culturally. As Mischa can express her passion so articulately, I thought I’d ask her a few questions by way of introducing you to Bruising.
You’ve recently been in New York, not for the first time, to box. In fact, Bruising begins with a description of your visits to Gleeson’s gym. Could this possibly be your favourite place to be? Can you tell us a bit about it?
For someone who loves boxing and has done for many years, Gleason’s is the Mecca. I would recommend a visit to anyone who loves the sport. People come from all over the world to train there because they know they will get great sparring, great training and see some of the most gifted boxers in the business. You can turn your head every few minutes and see a succession of the best athletes in the sport preparing for title fights, shadow boxing, doing padwork, hitting the bag, sparring or just arseing around. I met people there who had left their homes in other countries – Russia, Poland, Ukraine, all parts of Latin America, Guyana, Jamaica – just to train at Gleason’s. It has historical significance too in that all the best fighters for the past 70-80 years have sweated and bled in one of the four boxing rings – Ali, Tyson, Rocky Marciano, Jake La Motta etc. But best of all, it is really the unofficial birthplace of the women’s boxing in the US, at least on the east coast, in the 1990s. So women are 100 per cent accepted there, making it a kind of Utopia for me. All the theorising about women fighting either stands or falls in that place based on hard evidence. They’re a great bunch of women. Real characters all of them.
You mention in the book that women are encouraged to be aware of aggression, or aggressive exercise as catharsis, but are generally discouraged to take it as far as fighting. Do you think many women might be held back by what they still see as ‘inappropriate’ displays of strength and ferocity?
I think probably less and less with each generation. Women of my age (without being too specific) were probably more self-conscious and you still hear them worry about building too much muscle or looking strong. And in some of the classes I have taken they are appalled at the suggestion of hitting someone. Even when I ask them to hit me, who has been hit many times and is virtually immune to it, they shake their heads as if I have asked them to decapitate me. Others are more keen to give it a go and a small number of them can be quite dangerous and I have to really watch myself with them. Back when I started, though, aggression by women was still regarded as something only the insane or hysterical would do or maybe a last resort for a woman being attacked. People struggled with the idea that it was functional rather than emotional and that physical aggression has legitimate application in sport. But this idea that you only hit someone if you’re upset or out of control made it hard for women to take it on. They quite naturally didn’t want to look crazy. And fair enough. But these days I see teenage girls really mixing it up and getting very physical and aggressive in sport without a second thought. I think there’s a parallel with surfing. Women’s surfing has really taken off in the same time frame as I have been boxing and they had to deal with the same doubts and discouragement. But then men were teaching their daughters from young and so a whole bunch of women have popped up fully formed. But there is still a bit of resistance with boxing. Men still say things like ‘girls are too pretty to box’ as if there are no pretty boys also boxing. It also implies that a woman’s looks are more important than anything else about them. But I’ve seen quite a few women now with slightly bent noses and frankly, it enhances their looks. Maybe that’s just me seeing them through the skewed eyes of a fanatic. I tend to regard anyone with a broken nose as being slightly more beautiful.
You are from a middle-class background, and you found that the current world of boxing (and women’s boxing in particular) is now quite varied in regards to class and education levels.
I think if I can generalise, a lot more middle class women box than middle class men. Also a lot of working class and women from poorer backgrounds box professionally in America and they are like the men who used to fight to lift themselves economically. I saw one professional female boxer from the Dominican Republic at Gleason’s who worked harder than anyone in the gym and sparred to kill. She told me she afterwards she might go home, have a short nap, then clean the house and prepare meals for her kids. The hard physical work just never stopped for her. She was strong and relentless and I think there was a work ethic there that was maybe class related. I’m not sure. There were middle class educated women who also worked hard and were tough. There are also some interesting connections I think between poorer, less educated black men in America and middle class white women who box. I often see them as allies in a way. The African American men training the white women give them serious attention as athletes and the white women do as they’re told and take the men seriously for their wisdom and in a way, their ownership, of the sport. There’s a lot of mutual respect there. I’ve noticed it a lot but haven’t come to any conclusions except to say that it says something about power, gender and race. But I’m not sure what exactly but it’s interesting.
It’s just gorgeous the way you describe when you first realised that boxing ‘allows you to examine your flaws’, intimately; that you must greet them, and boxing is then a ‘chance for redemption’. Do you still feel a little bit of the terror? Will it keep you facing up to yourself forever?
I haven’t felt any real terror in a long time. Slight nerves and performance anxiety if there are a lot of people watching me spar. However I’m in the process of resuming my competitive amateur career in the US, which has a masters division for those too old for the regular amateurs, which has a cut off age of 34. I was recently there planning to fight on a show in Brooklyn but weirdly the matchmaker couldn’t find anyone for me to fight. However we thought we had found someone a few days before the contest and she was a big strong and very athletic woman from New Jersey who was heavier than me by several kilos although we never got on the scales to confirm that. But to give you an idea she looked like Serena Williams. My trainer in New York, Alicia Ashley, had initially said she would be too strong for me and then after a week or two, when it looked like there was no one else, Alicia said she thought my skills would get me through OK and that I should fight her if I wanted to. So with that vote of confidence I said yes and we discussed it with the woman, whose name was Jackie, and she agreed. But then she turned up on the night in a halter neck top that showed off her shoulders, high heels that made her look even more like an Amazon and no USA Boxing passbook, which she said she had left at home 3 hours drive away. And so the fight couldn’t go ahead. But by that stage I’d won the battle with myself, the courage battle. I had been through the pre-fight process just the same and I was surprisingly calm, considering she was such a scary looking opponent. I think because I have sparred virtually every kind of person now and I think I have pretty much seen them all. Big and strong, small and quick, crazy psycho, slippery and evasive. Slow, fast, sloppy and awkward. I mean they’re human beings after all, they’ve only got two arms. When I went to the weigh-in I felt a little more nervous but I kind of knew how to deal with it. I also know that once you’re in the ring the nerves go. There’s no turning back after that, so you are forced to be more fatalistic. I hope I can keep this up forever. I’m still learning about myself through boxing and learning more about the craft. But the process isn’t so frantic now. I’m enjoying it a lot more. As long as my body holds out, I’m in there.
There are many ideas and theories you discuss, and sometimes dismiss in the book. The academic theory focusing on the body, for example, and explorations of why femininity and fighting are still seen to be incompatible; plus the compatibility of western individualist thought with the sport (after you trialed new age-type enlightenment and focus methods). Is there any theory, work or piece of advice that has always stuck with you – relating to your passion, and life in general?
The academic feminist discourse on the body does drive me a little crazy, it’s true. So much of the early 80s and 90s stuff had no room for sport at all, it was condemned for being competitive, hierarchical, masculine and wrong and that in an ideal world there would be no sport. Then into the 90s they started to fixate on body-building. Perhaps because it offered so many handy metaphors. But it really isn’t a sport. It’s an eating disorder with weight training. Susie Orbach (Fat is a Feminist Issue and Bodies) is a classic example of what bothers me. The discussion revolves around eating disorders and pop culture’s ‘pressure to be thin’ and plastic surgery and sexuality (there’s so much material on sexuality). But there is virtually nothing on the practice of physical activity for its own sake, or the interplay between the intellectual and the physical that sport requires, or even the poetry of the physical, at least when it comes to the female body. It feels like the female body still remains a passive idea in the hands of these academics and I just found so few points of connection.
When it’s not utterly incomprehensible and obfuscating it seems to be so abstract that it’s impossible to relate to it. I think it’s written by people who don’t use their bodies for anything much. Sorry, it’s my little bug bear. I came across a lot of that French post-modern theory at art school too and it’s just made me roll my eyes. I actually hold myself back a lot in Bruising in regard to that stuff.
I am also somewhat of a cynic when it comes to things like new age cures and religion and beliefs. I don’t even wear lucky socks. A lot of boxers are very superstitious and go through rituals that are like someone with OCD when they prepare for a fight. But I’m of the go-with-the-flow school. I just try to keep myself calm and try not to waste too much nervous energy by talking, which I am very prone to. A lot of sport psychology sounds a little unhealthy to me and I’ve tried visualising and all that. Maybe I could get some professional help on that front but I’m such a contrary type I find it hard to fall into line.
You seem very hopeful that the position of women in sport will continue to get better?
Yes I’m sure it will get better. Female athletes are showing that every day. Less than ten years ago tennis players like the French champion Amelie Mauresmo were getting a hard time for looking too strong. But now no-one mentions it much. Women surfers are proliferating like crazy when a decade ago people doubted they could do much more than stand on a long board in half-meter surf. Now they just carve up waves at Bells Beach without blinking, just like the boys. Sport is more acceptable now for women. Looking fit is admirable, people want well toned arms. And women are backing each other a lot more. It’s very noticeable in boxing. Despite it being an individual sport, there’s a lot of camaraderie.
I found it so interesting that, when sparring, you found that even male boxers who were all for equality would still hold back on their punches, and that you would always get better hits and a stronger practice with female sparring partners. It is complexly both sweet (in their protectiveness) and utterly frustrating (as you have chosen your position). Do you see this kind of chivalrous action ever changing?
It was certainly frustrating when there were no women to spar. But less so now. Also I’ve discovered that teenage boys are the best to spar with, if you have to spar with a male. They tend to be on more equal footing in the strength department and haven’t cottoned on to that whole chivalry thing yet. Also, they don’t want to get beat up by a girl in front of their mates so they are competitive. They really try. And best of all, they tell you later that you have a hard punch. Older men, if they’re closer to your weight, will take care of you for only so long. Sometimes, at first, if they even make contact with your head they freak out and start apologising and you have to make a joke out of that. If you hit them hard and they hit you back and see that you have not collapsed in a sobbing heap then it evens out a bit and you get a decent spar. But some men just can’t hit a woman. Actually, I haven’t been sparring many men lately and recently I jumped in with a young guy who is pretty good and as I was working away I thought, something’s not right here and then I realised. ‘He’s not hitting me’. I’d almost forgotten what that was like. In a way it was kind of fun to whale away at someone who wasn’t making you pay. But it’s a very false sense of security that can make you think you are better than you are so when you jump in with another woman it can be a shock.
You describe so many fantastic characters in the book. Can you share with the LM readers a bit about just one boxer or trainer you have met?
One of the things I love most about boxing is that there are more characters per square inch than in any other field, maybe aside from horse racing. As a writer this is also one of the great pleasures. I was having a conversation with Alicia and an older guy called Louie at Gleason’s on my last trip to Brooklyn and Alicia said she believed that 8 out of every ten men in the gym were crazy. But she said among the women it was about 3 out of ten. Then Louie said ‘What about that woman Sheila who thought everyone was in love with her. She made up for the other five.’ So either way, there are a lot of colorful people in a boxing gym. My trainer here in Melbourne Sam Visciglio is a pretty eccentric guy and I’ve known him now for nearly 10 years. He’s half Greek and half Italian and tends to kiss people, male and female, when they do something well. He gets very enthusiastic about boxing and he’s a very positive guy so he’s always kissing young men. The more straight-laced Aussie guys regard him with great suspicion at first and eventually they get used to him. But not always. We were both once in the corner for this German guy called Brando (he was ethnically Mexican but grew up in Germany was actually quite Germanic in personality). I was the only one with a trainer’s license and the boxer seemed to trust me so I was his main corner person and Sam was the second. Anyway, the first round he did OK, which was a surprise to everyone because he was no great shakes and he had a woman in the corner and the other guy was the promoter’s guy. But then in the second round he was cut from an accidental headbutt and the fight was stopped. Blood was just pouring from Brando’s eye like a tap and he had to be stitched up by the doctor. Brando was angry because he thought it was a deliberate butt and he could have won the fight which is deemed a technical draw if the cut occurs within the first four rounds. While we were waiting for the doctor Sam literally straddled Brando, who was sitting in a chair, and held his head in his hands, looked him in the eye and said; ‘Brando, mate you’ve done yourself proud. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.’ And then planted a big wet kiss on top of his head. Brando didn’t know where to look and was kind of squirming. Then the doctor came at him with the needle and I think he actually was relieved to get Sam off his lap and get a needle in his eye instead, that’s how uncomfortable he was. Later Sam said he went into the change room to check on him and saw Brando standing in his undies looking in the mirror at his stitched up eye, sobbing. Sam said to me, ‘I thought I’d better just leave him alone. Even I couldn’t start kissing a guy crying alone in his underwear.’ Sam and I have had a lot of memorable and funny things happen over the course of our association
Can you let us know a good female boxing match on YouTube? And give us a bit of an intro?
There are some great women’s boxing fights on YouTube but you have to bypass all the foxy boxing ones with women in bikinis and oversized gloves. Names to look for are Susie Kentikian, Ina Menzer, Anne Wolf.
One of my favorites is seeing Alicia Ashley fighting the German champ Alesia Graf. It’s what good technical boxing is all about – hit and don’t get hit and also shows Alicia’s graceful ring movement. She’s a former ballet dancer and now boxer and trainer and world champion.
The other fight is between Belinda Laracuente a Puerto Rican New Yorker who trained at Gleason’s while I was there and the French woman Myriam Lamare, another international bout with great boxing and fighting skills on display. It’s in four parts.
And finally, I cannot recommend enough this fight between one of the real legends of women’s boxing Lucia Rijker and Jane Couch. Both of them are pioneers but Rijker is a cold and calculating destroyer, probably still the best and most dangerous woman on the planet. She’s like our version of Muhammad Ali, an athlete all women aspire to be like in the ring. She’s also a practicing Buddhist which is interesting. She’s inspired more than one generation of women fighters. She’s a very enigmatic woman with strikingly beautiful features and a real inner strength.
Thanks heaps Mischa!
See the publisher’s page for the book here.
Update: Mischa now has a book out with Seven Stories Press, a New York Publisher, called The Sweetest Thing: Inside the World of Women’s Boxing