The Toronto Newsgirls boxing club gym is located in the kind of unwelcoming, Spartan neighbourhood that suits a boxing gym: down a labrynthine hallway in the basement of a warehouse building on a nondescript industrial strip of Carlaw Ave between Gerrard and Dundas.
Inside the 3,500-square-foot space the vibe is decidedly warmer. Women in workout clothes mill about, stretching and practising punches. Posters of female Japanese wrestlers, the film Girlfight and Muhammad Ali adorn the walls alongside newspaper clippings about Lanay Browning and Suzanne Hotchkiss, two female fighters who were denied the right to fight in 1983 because, according to Boxing Ontario, boxing might give them cancer.
The women’s boxing gym was opened by Toronto Newsgirls founder Savoy Howe last October after years of running the club out of mixed gyms. On Sat, Jun 2, during the Newsgirls’ next club show, representatives of the Canadian Association For The Advancement Of Women And Sport And Physical Activity (CAAWS) will visit the gym to present Howe with a Breakthrough Award for her pioneering contributions.
At 41, the former actor and stand-up comic sees the boxing ring as a theatrical stage for women to redefine their roles in society.
“Boxing is such a metaphor for life,” says Howe. “If your defence sucks at work your defence is gonna suck in the gym for the first little while and once you start working on your defence in the gym all of a sudden your defence at work gets better or your defence with your family gets better, you stand up to those people a bit better. It carries over.”
Howe says her main goals are to see women’s boxing recognized as an Olympic sport and to turn the club into a viable business. She’s also hoping to start a class for trans people and has submitted a grant proposal with a professor from Brock University to get funding to study 120 women who’ve experienced violence over two years to see if boxing helps empower them.
In 1992 Howe walked into Sully’s Boxing Gym on Wade Ave in search of a recreational activity to keep her fit while she pounded the pavement for acting gigs. A native of New Brunswick’s Miramichi region, she moved to the city after completing a theatre degree at McMaster University. A newly out lesbian, she also figured boxing would help keep her safe.
Before then, the only fight she’d been in was when she was 16 with a girl who had a reputation as a bully. Howe spent six months punching a makeshift punching bag her older brother had fashioned from an old sleeping bag; when the other girl finally came at her, Howe was ready. “One punch took care of her and I broke her nose.”
At Sully’s, none of the men would spar with her until Ray Marsh, her future coach, noticed how hard she punched. She started to compete — her record is seven wins and seven losses — and founded the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in 1998. She’s had four fights stopped — or technical knockouts — because her opponents couldn’t keep up, and she’s been knocked out cold twice. Howe talks bluntly about her strength and isn’t shy when it comes to discussing her losses.
“The first two times I got in the ring one of the boxers put the boots to me and got rid of me. I went to my broom closet and had a big cry. Two weeks later I said, ‘Okay, I’m going back,'” she says. “There is so much emotional crap to go through in that ring. All of these girls will go through it. They’ll go into the bathroom and have a good cry. It’s a metaphor for life. Are you willing to let go of the female thing of being too nice and say, ‘You’re going down, bitch’?”
Howe has also written and staged three plays: the autobiographical The Tale Of Doohnamow at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre in 2001 about a woman’s journey into the male-dominated sport of boxing, Fight Factory, which featured 10 women on stage exploring the various sounds made while boxing, and the solo performance Look Up!
It’s easy to imagine Howe on stage — she’s charismatic, has a bright smile and she looks you directly in the eye. But for Howe, boxing is just another kind of performance.
“The best stage in the world, man, is that ring. If you’re about entertaining people, you put together eight fights…. It’s women showing off really good technique — it’s kind of like our theatre.”