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A tiny clump of mascara has gathered in the corner of Kara Lucas's eye. She blinks once, then again, her gaze fixed. The browned skin of her oval face shines with sweat. Her fists are raised, turning the red punching bag into a snare drum. Lips pursed in concentration, she blows from her cheek a wisp of light-brown hair that has snaked into her large, gold hoop earrings, which match a gold rope from which dangle a fish and a globe. Her calves are pulled bows, thighs as strong as a ballet dancer's. A pair of those fashiony, red-foam, Nike slip-ons, size ten, holds all of it, all five feet nine and 155 pounds of nobody you'd want to mess with.
The 18-year-old has come to practice here at Dania Beach's U.S. 1 Fitness. It's a ratty little two-story gym. It smells like an armpit. There are no South Beach babes milling around a wheatgrass bar. The bottom floor is a maze of cluttered equipment. The second floor features a glorious open space with bags and a full-size ring. Loud dance mixes muffle the incessant squawking of a parrot perched in a corner next to twin seven-foot-tall trophies. In pink across the mirrored walls is printed the fist fighter's mantra, "Do Not Touch Weapons." In its reflection, much is happening.
Two Elián Gonzalez look-alikes windmill bags three times their size. Their coach, Norberto Rodriguez, weaves between them, smiling at their potential. He has a goatee and two gold swords jutting through his right ear lobe. Gently, he guides the boys' paws in a beginner one-two combination. Rodriguez spits rather than talks, and when listening to him, you hear the unbelievable. For two decades, he's made his students perform extraordinary stunts like catching arrows and live snakes or skipping along the edges of high-rise rooftops. "You get people to do what they fear," he says. "It's a frightening thing getting into a ring. You train the mind to overcome hesitation."
Bonnie Canino, the international lightweight female champion (and subject of a January 31 New Times story, "Little Ms. Dangerous"), underwent Rodriguez's Karate Kid training after showing up at his gym one day with black eyes and a raw, untapped talent to make even the toughest male boxers cry for mama. "Girls are the best to train because they prove that boxing is a chess game," Rodriguez says. "It's all about mental strength, the ability to anticipate a shot and avoid it. And Bonnie's girls are incredible."
Two of the most promising young female fighters under Canino's prize belt are Lucas and 19-year-old A.J. Templeton, whose black jump rope has been whipping the air for 25 minutes nonstop. Lucas holds a national title in amateur boxing and was invited to participate in this past November's World Games in Scranton, Pennsylvania, though she couldn't attend. Templeton is gearing up for her first national fight at the end of February in North Carolina.
"Both of those girls have a ton of promise," says Canino, her petite frame swimming in a pair of shiny, royal-blue boxing shorts. "If they stick with it, they could both go pro."
The teens don't hear their coach. Templeton's multiple black braids shoot into the air while she figure-eights her rope. Lucas takes a minute to rewrap her hands. Intensely focused during this two-hour, late-afternoon workout, the women have already had full days. Both are business majors: Lucas at Florida International University and Templeton at Broward Community College. Both are also at a crossroads.
"The girls have their college, and I give respect to them for that," says Canino, who was a hairdresser before she became a boxer. "They've got talent and could go pro, but I advise them to stay amateur. They can box for fun and have a job outside of boxing. It's a choice that they'll have to make, because being professional and having a job is next to impossible."
Both are well-aware that they could turn pro, but neither Lucas nor Templeton spends time fantasizing about televised Vegas fights and hawking namesake grills. Success afforded to men in the sport still eludes women. Recall that female boxing stars (such as Laila Ali, Freeda Foreman, and Irichell Duran) are lauded not for skill but for their fathers' names. And with the current spotlight on former Playboy model Mia St. John, T&A still goes more rounds with fans than TKOs.
They box for the joy of it, throwing punches because it's a variation of what seems natural. As children, they threw their agile bodies around with abandon. Their parents turned the youngsters' penchant for bruises and cut knees into 24-7 martial arts training and team sports. If their abs weren't burning, hamstrings straining, or delts aching, the girls would feel out of sorts.
And Lucas thirsted for the kind of mental discipline the ring affords.
"It's like a chess game: You have to anticipate what the other girl is going to do first," she says. "I started boxing because I was about to kill somebody and I had to get a handle, because my mind was, like, going crazy."