Lifeguard Christina Swanson Is Boxing's Million Dollar Maybe
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 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 Women's National Golden Gloves Championships in Fort Lauderdale. Ten minutes remain before the most anticipated match of the year. Swanson — the former title winner and a Hollywood resident — will battle Jennifer Wolfe-Fenn, a brutal Texan and daughter of pro boxer Ann Wolfe, winner of four world championships.
Swanson warms up in the corner of the ballroom at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Airport. She's a lean 141 pounds. Two giant chandeliers hover above an illuminated boxing ring in front of her. She throws shadow punches into the air, slowly at first. Trainer Luis Lagerman, whose clean-shaven head reflects the ballroom lights, holds his 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) wants badly to go pro. And she's good enough. A win tonight means 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 before marching down an aisle to the ring.
The bell dings. 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, then lunges forward and clocks the Texan in the nose. Wolfe-Fenn's head snaps back, and she flashes a maniac smile, exposing her navy-blue mouth guard. Her look says, Bitch, I like pain.
Wolfe-Fenn fights like her mother, who many believe is the hardest hitter in the history of women's boxing. Bruisers like her have caused nasty injuries — and even deaths — at women's matches. Four years ago, a 34-year-old teacher named Becky Zerlentes died in the ring at the Colorado regional Golden Gloves tournament. Cause of death: Blunt trauma to the head.
Female fighters like 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 stand up. "You got this, Swanson!" they chant.
In the corner, her trainer 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-sized gym on NE 20th Street in Miami. Lagerman manages to coax a young-but-jacked 16-year-old male boxer into the ring. He casts a cocksure grin, as if he's been asked to arm-wrestle with Grandma.
He begins by socking her a few times in the chest 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 against the corner and sends waves through the ropes. He hunches over and hides his face with gloves.
"That's right, get pissed!" Lagerman shouts to Swanson. Three lanky middle-school-aged boys lean against the ring, watching with open mouths. 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. She was born the younger of two daughters on 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.
As an 8-year-old at Ordway Elementary School, she shaved her head. "I wanted to be like the boys," she remembers, her blue eyes shifting under a pair of thinly plucked eyebrows. "I didn't really fit in."
Swanson has a habit of downplaying a story. A packed crowd is "a pretty good turnout," a busted lip "sort of hurts." And if she can answer a question in one word, she won't yak for five minutes. She greets friends with playful punches to the gut and sidesteps questions about her feelings.
For that reason, her urge to whack people is a mystery. She can't — or won't — explain where it comes from. "I don't know. I wasn't abused. I didn't grow up on the streets. It's not like I'm angry. It's just how I am." She is content to be a contradiction: a good suburban girl who can snap your nose.
Of course, there have been rough times. Her older sister, Anna, says Christina "was the emotional buffer for all the dysfunction that went on in our household. When her parents had marital problems, Christina internalized it. That stuff has a way of accumulating over the years, Anna says. "She has the perfect boxing personality. She holds things inside and then just explodes."
In middle school, classmates heckled her for being a tomboy. She was strong and competitive. One snotty popular girl told her, "The boys only hang out with you because they're scared of you."
Christina planned to get out of town as quickly as possible, ditched high school, and commuted to Seattle Central Community College at age 17. A Washington State University swimming scholarship was her ticket out. "She was a sparkplug," says her roommate Katie Barnes. "She had this really tough personality."
In 2001, Swimming World magazine profiled Swanson and the team on their way to an Olympic training facility. After two years, she clashed with a male coach she calls "sexist" and transferred to the University of Miami, where she became an All-American swimmer.
After her 2004 graduation, she moved to Los Angeles to be with her sister. There, she got a job at a hectic Starbucks down the street from a school, Anna says. One stressful afternoon — after dealing with a group of troublemaker students — she quietly lost it. She picked up a heavy bag of coffee and threw it against the floor. Beans scattered everywhere, and she walked out without a word.
Her fiery side cropped up in other places too. In winter 2004, she and Anna donned eye shadow and went for a drink at a hip-hop club on Sunset Boulevard. Anna soon felt a hand grab her butt. She turned around to find a hulking, six-foot-tall man and pushed him away. He swung drunkenly in retaliation.
Christina went ballistic. She launched herself over tables with clenched fists and was then "carried out by two bouncers," Anna recalls. "She was always getting in fights. It was good for her to put gloves on instead."
A couple of months later, in February 2005, she began boxing in an amateur league. Back then, trainers and promoters didn't want to waste their time on a no-name. Especially a girl. "I'd go to a lot of tournaments by myself and try to pick up someone to work my corner," Swanson says. A lot of times, she left without a fight.
Her first match was at a small gym in the Santa Clarita Valley, where a few fans dotted the audience. "All the guys I knew from the gym were pumping me, making me feel like I was better than I was. I didn't have a clue. I caught a wild haymaker in the chin," she says, pausing as if she can still feel the sting. "That kind of gave me stars."
Money was running low in Los Angeles, so she moved back to South Florida. She got a job at US 1 Fitness Center in Dania Beach and met two-time world featherweight boxing champion Bonnie "The Cobra" Canino. The pro started giving her pointers. "She's natural athlete, and I knew it wouldn't take much to get her fights," Canino says. "She's a real crowd pleaser."
At the gym, she also met a Haitian-born professional middleweight named Wilky Campfort. He too was struggling to get noticed. He had a chiseled chest, playful personality, and a crush on Christina. They made a bet on a football game; she won, so he took her to IHOP. They started to date and moved in together shortly after.
Campfort might be the only man on the planet with an excuse to hit his girlfriend. When Christina can't find a sparring partner, the couple meet at Fight Club and beat each other silly. He left her with a black eye once, she says. "I can't play around," he explains. "I have to get her ready... It's my job. I have to protect her."
At Fight Club, Swanson was a curiosity at first. Pretty soon, her talent demanded attention. Says tattooed 28-year-old employee Anthony McKnight: "She can whip your ass and mop the floor with any girl."
Through gym friends, she was introduced to Luis Lagerman, a retired fighter with a tough-love coaching approach. He generally trains only men, but he and partner Matt Baiamonte decided to take a chance on Swanson. "I see money in her," Lagerman says simply. "I work with talent. She's determined, and she's ready to go pro. She's cute too — that sells."
At the 2007 Golden Gloves semifinals, she walked away with the national title.
But even when you're number one, amateur boxing doesn't pay the bills. So Swanson took a part-time job lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue, where she mans the colorful guard towers and once saved a French family from a riptide current.
Though she likes the job, the shifts are erratic, and she's never guaranteed more than a couple of days a week. Money can get tight. So she started taking classes at Broward Fire Academy and is training to become a paramedic. Still, something's missing. "I'm implosive, and boxing gives me release," she says.
Lately, she's been cursed by opponents' mysterious injuries, sudden sicknesses, last-minute cancellations. On the occasion when she can find a female sparring partner, they don't often match her skill level or weight bracket. Since a pro career is forged from a solid amateur record, the no-shows have left her out of practice. "It's hard," she says. "Some girls travel all the way to Jacksonville and can't get a fight."
Swanson had planned to go pro this past March. She was set to fight Atlanta-based slugger Jackie Breitenstein. Going pro meant the possibility of earning $6,000 to $30,000 for title fights, a fraction of what male boxers can earn. Boxing has always been a sport dominated by men; women's fights were more of a freak show than a sport when they began in the 1720s. In the United States, women weren't granted licenses to fight until the 1970s. But boxing is still the only sport in the Summer Olympics in which women are not allowed to compete. In Europe and Asia, where the sport is televised weekly, women sometimes score $50,000 a bout. In Germany, the Philippines, and India, female fighters receive stipends, housing, and grants. The United States has no such program.
Last March, trainers scheduled Swanson's match against Breitenstein at Mahi Temple, a 1,000-seat auditorium on the Miami River. ESPN often broadcasts fights from the venue, and wealthy fans arrive in 80-foot yachts. It could have been a turning point in her career — a chance to carve a reputation out of her opponent's puffy face. But Breitenstein was a no-show. She didn't want to make the long car trip, Swanson suspects. "It was frustrating."
On a recent weekday at her cozy but bare Hollywood apartment, Swanson picks up a poster that lies curled on the couch. It reads "Latin Fury: June 2009." In the front center is a photo of her in a blue bathing suit with her fists in the air. She is surrounded by mostly Hispanic pro male fighters. An off-camera fan is blowing through her long hair. She looks more like a Maxim model than a girl who crunches bones.
She tosses the poster back on the couch and shrugs. "Hey, if it gets you coverage, you can't knock it."
Swanson wakes at 6 a.m., sandwiched between her boyfriend and their jiggly bulldog, Rice. She slides out from under tan bed sheets on the muggy morning of July 8. It's two days before the fight. The white walls of her bedroom are blank and scuffed; the floor is littered with clothes. There's no time for cleaning or decorating with a schedule like hers. There's hardly time to train.
She does a sleepy shuffle past a bathroom scale, set in the middle of the living room. It's a reminder: She's three pounds over her weight bracket. That means no eating today. "Some girls sit in the sauna or take a laxative," she says. "It's whatever you have to do."
In a windowless kitchen, she chugs a glass of water and throws Rice a few scraps. Then she heads outside to the parking lot of Forrest Towers, a quiet West Hollywood rental community, and hops into her 2002 white Nissan Altima.
Around 8 a.m., she arrives at Pompano Beach Fire Station for paramedic classes. As usual, she's one of the only girls at the station. If it's a slow day today, she can slip out early, exercise, and register for the tournament. If it's busy, she'll have to rush to the hotel before the cutoff time.
A call comes in. It's a 20-year-old girl who crashed a car and needs help. Swanson hops into a rescue truck with the guys, and they arrive at the crash scene. The girl is OK, but they take her to North Broward Medical Center just to be cautious.
Swanson is famished when another caller summons. This time, it's an elderly woman with Alzheimer's disease who has stabbed her caregiver with a fork. No serious injuries this time either.
By 5 p.m., Swanson's stomach is starting to eat itself. She still hasn't registered or weighed in for the tournament. Nor has she gotten to exercise. Class ends, and she books it to the Hilton to sign in. About 90 women have arrived from all over the country. The range in girls is vast: There are Army vets with linebacker shoulders and skinny waitresses with pigeon toes. The tournament starts tomorrow.
A blond reporter notices Swanson, sticks a tape recorder in her face. The reporter notes that Swanson might end up fighting Wolfe-Fenn. The reporter says Swanson would be the underdog. "Is that exciting?" she probes. "Do firefighters know you box? What do they think of that? And where does boxing fit in?" Swanson is honest. She doesn't really know.
Later, back at her place, there's a paper-clip-sized crease between her eyebrows. She's drinking her dinner — a few gulps of fruit juice — from an old Gatorade bottle. She and Campfort are sprawled out like exhausted soldiers on the couch, quietly watching tattooed heavyweights pound each other on cable. Sweaty socks are tossed in the corner. On the coffee table, a purse with pink boxing gloves reads "Queen of the Ring."
Swanson breaks the silence. "She said I was an underdog," she tells Campfort. "How the fuck am I the underdog?"
At the end of round two, Swanson squats on a stool in her corner, removes a mouth guard, and spits into a red plastic bucket. Trainer Baiamonte, who has a Woody Harrelson gap in his teeth, wipes her face. He gives her a few stern words. She nods with bleary eyes. Don't hold back. Get her.
Ding, ding. Wolfe-Fenn is panting hard. Swanson looks like a coyote closing in on a tired rabbit. She is calculated as she aims.
Smack. Swanson's fist sounds like a wrestling mat dropping as it hits the Texan's face. Her opponent looks stunned, drunk from the impact. Wolfe-Fenn has the posture of a caveman as she stumbles, then bear-hugs Swanson. The referee breaks up the hold, but Wolfe-Fenn socks her in the lip anyway. The crowd erupts into a chorus of booing. "Are we watching the same fight here?" trainer Lagerman shouts to the official.
At the beginning of the last round, the audience is hungry for blood. A tall 20-something guy with a backward hat stands up. "Make her pay, Swanson!" Wolfe-Fenn tries to shuffle away, but Swanson works her into the corner and racks up four jabs in seconds. It goes on like that for the next minute: Wolfe-Fenn runs; Swanson chases.
When the final bell rings, nobody seems sure of the winner except Lagerman, who's shaking his head. The girls join the ref at the center of the ring. There's a pause. He then lifts Wolfe-Fenn's arm into the air, and her fans start hopping in the audience. Swanson, red-faced and exhausted, takes a seat in the crowd.
Judges would later vote the bout "Best Semi Finals Boxing Match" at the tournament and give them an award for the most crowd-pleasing fight.
Back in the corner of the ballroom, her eyes start to fill with tears. Her firefighter friends swarm her with pats on the back. Lagerman is still shaking his head. "You got started too late," he says. Then he leaves.
"Give me one more round and I would have stopped her ass," she says to no one in particular. Right then, a gray-haired man with kind eyes approaches. He's a former Hollywood firefighter, he says. He hands her a business card. "If you need a job, just give me a call." She sits, grasps the card with a sweaty hand, and stares down at the future.
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