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One Tough Lady

Bonnie Canino is dancing around the canvas, looking for an opening. Suddenly she bends her knees, drops her left shoulder, and cocks her right fist. When she lets the uppercut fly, her black-and-white boxing glove looks like a checkered blur that -- whap! -- connects with its target, a boxing mitt worn by her trainer, Bert Rodriguez.

Canino's shoulders are sinewy, her stomach is rippled, and her legs are packed with muscles. As she spars with Rodriguez, her face is taut with concentration, her mouth bulging with a plastic mouthpiece. At the end of a round, she pops the mouthpiece out, walks over to a big red bucket in a corner of the ring, and deposits a mouthful of spit.

Welcome to women's boxing.
Canino, age 36, is a boxer and kickboxer from Dania, and on Friday night she'll fight in the All Female Boxing Show in Fort Lauderdale. She's five-feet-six-inches tall, and Rodriguez is at least a few inches taller, so trainer and boxer don't seem well matched. But, after watching Canino pound away, underestimating her would be unwise. She spars in three-minute rounds, with just a 60-second break in between, in a ring on the upper floor of US 1 Fitness in Dania. The gym, which is home to many other women boxers, is co-owned by Canino and Rodriguez.

Wearing a tight-fitting black top and gray shorts, Canino hops and shuffles to the high-energy dance music pumping from a stereo. She chases Rodriguez around the ring as the singer shouts: "I like to move it, move it." Canino uses stalk-and-retreat footwork to get herself into position. Then she pummels the mitts.

"Jab. Overhand. Nice," Rodriguez calls out while absorbing the punches.
Moving in for yet another punch, Canino steps on Rodriguez's toes. "Nice footwork," he jokes.

"He who controls the battleground controls the battle," Rodriguez asserts between rounds. "So we work mainly on footwork. Everyone in the world uses the same jabs and hooks. In all war the weapons don't matter; it's the strategy that counts."

"I'm not known as a knockout artist as much as a strategist," confirms Canino, who's record is eight wins and one loss. "I've knocked out a few people, but I don't look at that. I look at staying a good boxer in the ring."

There wasn't much strategy involved when Canino got her first black eye at age four. Older brothers can be mean, but they toughen you up. And Canino is tough: In the only professional bout she lost -- by decision -- she went all ten rounds with a broken nose.

But getting socked in the eye isn't what inspired Canino to box. Born in Miami, she grew up in Fort Lauderdale. "We always got around the TV with the family to watch the big bouts, like Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler," Canino recalls. "They were like the Mike Tyson fights back then. It was really interesting, and I liked it. It was just them out there. They didn't have a team they could blame it on if they lost. I was searching for that."

The search began with karate fifteen years ago. At the time women's boxing was unheard of, but there was a female kickboxing circuit, so she started to work out with a male friend in a martial arts class. To hone her skills, she sought out a full-fledged boxing gym, in this case Rodriguez's. He told her women weren't allowed to hang out where professional fighters trained; they were a distraction. Canino persisted, so Rodriguez let her use the gym for a day. She insisted on returning, and within a week Rodriguez was training her himself. "He was impressed that I was up in the ring all of the time, getting my butt kicked," Canino recalls.

Since then, women's professional boxing has come into its own. For years female fighters had fought as openers for men's bouts. But in 1995 the first all-female fight program took place in Texas. Two years later Tom Fiore introduced the concept to Florida in his Round One Boxing gym in Boca Raton. Today at least four sanctioning groups promote women's fights throughout the country.

Canino earned the Women's International Boxing Association featherweight championship belt in Las Vegas in 1995. The 126-pounder lost the belt in that nose-breaking fight against Deirdre Guidry last March in New Orleans.

At the Friday night fight in Fort Lauderdale, Canino will challenge Chevelle Hallback of Tampa for the WIBF lightweight intercontinental title. It's a step above her weight class, Canino admits, but the fight gives her the opportunity to win another belt in her hometown.

Flush-faced, Canino takes a break after the tenth round of her workout, her curly, blond hair darkened by sweat. It's been a long day, but she's far from ready to throw in the towel.

"I plan to fight until 2000, if I'm still a winner," she says.

-- John Ferri

Doors open at 7 p.m. for the All Female Boxing Show at War Memorial Auditorium, 800 NE 8th St., Fort Lauderdale. Ticket prices range from $15 to $50. Call 954-761-5380.

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John Ferri

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