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."
Lucas was 16 years old when an episode of chain-restaurant rage persuaded her to try boxing. "I was with my mom and sister. It was my sister's 21st birthday, and we were celebrating and stuff," she says. "My sister's cell phone kept ringing, but she didn't want to answer it. I was all up in some chicken wings, so I didn't care, you know. But there was this girl, one of those kind of snotty girls, at another table who was like, "You gonna answer that or what?' I looked up like, "What? What is this, you know? Is she talking to us like that?'
"I started shaking," Lucas continues, driving her fist into her palm. "I wanted to rip that bitch's face off. The only thing keeping me from doing it was a big table between us."
To cool down, the teen went outside and jogged laps around the parking lot. Lucas says she snapped after months of parental pressure to keep her Hallandale High School grades up and fulfill rigorous basketball and softball schedules. She went back inside and told her mom that she needed boxing lessons. "This is a real stress reliever for me," she says. "I mean, it was like I had to help myself or I was gonna freak."
Lucas started with kickboxing aerobics but felt more satisfied with boxing because she could "get to someone a lot faster with my hands." By April 2000, Lucas fought her first sanctioned amateur fight. Her opponent, five pounds lighter, saw stars in less than a minute. Lucas knocked her out before the end of the first round.
Next, she competed at the National Golden Gloves Championship in Augusta, Georgia. But the match turned into a disaster when, seven hours before, Lucas weighed in two pounds too heavy to fight. She had one hour before a final weigh-in. "It was all water gain because my period was coming and I didn't know it," she recalls. "I had to completely dehydrate myself. I ran, I worked on the machines, then I sat in the sauna. I was sweating so bad I was delirious. But I did it. You know how many women would kill to lose two pounds in an hour?"
But Lucas was spent, her legs were wet noodles, her arms anvils. Worse, she still had five hours before the fight and wasn't allowed to eat or drink anything. "I couldn't go one round, which is crazy, because I can normally go 13," she recalls.
Lucas redeemed herself a few weeks later by winning the U.S. Amateur national championship at Camp Lejeune, a North Carolina Marine base. That victory qualified her for a spot on the U.S. team at the World Games November 26-December 2 in Scranton. But she bowed out at the last minute. Lucas says she was scared to fly because of terrorism. "There will be other World Games," she says. "You couldn't get me to travel at the end of last year no matter what."
Says Canino, "Kara had to face a little bit of reality."
Like Lucas, Templeton focuses on her 15-hour course schedule. Unlike most college sophomores, who spend their free time sleeping or eating Domino's Pizza, the Hollywood teen spends her spare time sweating. Three days a week, she runs four to six miles (from the U.S. 1 gym to downtown Fort Lauderdale, up and down six flights of steps). She sprints for two miles one day and spends the remainder of the week boxing. She also plays softball and basketball and practices martial arts. No porcelain doll, says her father, Richard, a Hialeah High football coach, Templeton started boxing at 17 years old and immediately showed potential.
"She and Kara have different personalities," says Canino. "Kara is obviously aggressive, and A.J. is a little bit on the shy side, I think. She's shy and relaxed. But in the ring, A.J. will find a way to beat you just as effectively as Kara."
Templeton's coal-dark eyes widen as she recalls how her coach "beat the crap" out of her the first month of practice. "I was not ready for how hard it was gonna be. But I told myself that, "OK, I'd get back.' And I whipped up in shape real quick, lost 15 pounds, and I'm quicker than I've ever been."
Templeton shadowboxes, heaving her massive swimmer's shoulder into her invisible opponent. Though Templeton has the disposition of a '50s sitcom daughter, her punch is something to see. But her mother, Lilieth, won't do so. The teen's mother probably won't watch her daughter ring-dance February 23 in North Carolina. Says A.J.: "She kind of wrinkles up her face and looks away. She's just scared of me getting hurt, and it's hard to blame her for that."
It's not the split lips and bruises that rattle Templeton. "People assume that women boxers are butch, lesbian. People say to me, "Oh, you must be a dyke,'" she says. "That's when you know you've got somebody, when they say that. They're afraid of you. And that's pretty cool."
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