“To me the boxing gym is a playground,” says Savoy Howe, founder of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. “It’s like you had a playground as a kid where you had the monkey bars and all these fun things. My goal is to set up a playground that is so safe and so fun. The fun part is so important.”
After a decade of sweating it out at gyms shared with male-dominated clubs, the Toronto Newsgirls are preparing to open the first-ever women’s-only boxing gym in Canada, a 3,500-square foot “dream gym” at Gerard and Carlaw.
“It’s going to be all female,” says Howe, who’s known in the boxing ring as Kapow! “I’d like to let in the boys but not at least for the first year…. I think we need to establish ourselves as an all-female gym for the first little while just so we can pee in all the corners, you know, set it up the way we want to set it up.”
Since 1998 the Newsgirls have been working out of Sully’s boxing gym in the west end. On the weekends the club ran women’s-only classes for both recreational and competitive boxers; during the week the competitors trained alongside the guys. When the Sully’s club decided to vacate its Wade Ave space this past summer, the Newsgirls were all set to take it over. But the deal went sour, forcing the women to search out a new home.
“It forced us to go elsewhere which was the best thing that could have happened,” says Howe. “We started shopping around for other spaces and we found the most ideal space. It’s massive, it’s affordable, it’s in a good location.”
In the four months between being pushed out of the Sully’s space and getting the keys to the new space in early October, the Newsgirls have been making do.
“We’ve been improvising, working out in the park,” says Shelley Loader, aka Turbo Tortoise or Turbo. “People slow down as they walk past, some people approach us and ask questions about what we’re doing. If you’ve heard a rumour of hot women boxing in the park, that was us.”
In talking to the Newsgirls, one of the first things you notice is that every woman has a boxing name.
“Savoy has several brilliant tactics for bringing people in and one of them is giving them a name within the first couple of days,” says Alaina, aka Machine. “It’s brilliant ’cause then you feel like you belong, you feel like you’re a special part of this group, and you are, but that’s one way of doing it and expressing it…. You get into the gym and you’re that entity that has this name. It’s a neat thing.”
“Savoy will ask if you’ve got a nickname and if you have one and it fits then that will be your boxing name,” says Ali Smith, aka Tank, “but most often she’ll name you, or somebody else in the gym will name you once they get a sense of your style, see how you move.”
For example? “Savoy called me Tank ’cause I’m tough to push over. It’s tough to move me and I tend to roll forward pretty much all the time. And you don’t want to stand in front of the cannon,” she adds with a laugh.
For Howe, a space for the Toronto Newsgirls to call their own has been a long time coming. Boxing since 1992, Howe’s taken her share of knocks in a sport that is still very much male-dominated. She tells tales of changing in broom closets, being ignored by coaches and having to watch out for the safety of her students, particularly in the days before moving to Sully’s and the women’s-only classes.
“There were always men in the gym, hanging around, gawking at the girls,” says Howe, thinking back on her early years of teaching. “It was pretty gross when I think back on it.”
Howe recalls uprooting the club in its infancy after an incident at its first, and sketchiest, training ground.
“We were in there for about three years and then it became very unsafe to the point that it was obvious. A woman had been raped in the gym. Not one of our gals, but a woman they’d brought in…. The guy at the front desk had scratches down his face…. The change room was full of blood.”
Even after moving to Sully’s, things weren’t ideal. Although the weekend women’s-only classes ran smoothly, problems emerged during the weeknight competitors classes. “Once in a while you’d have an incident, some bonehead coming in and thinking he owned the space…. I always knew if we could just have our own space we wouldn’t have to deal with all this underlying shit that the women don’t have to see and then I’d be happy.”
Howe isn’t the only one who will be happy to see the backs of the boys.
“First of all they were disgusting,” says Machine. “Especially in a boxing gym where they consider it their space. Savoy will make the joke about them blowing their nose on the floor or whatever, but they really would do stuff like that.”
Unhygienic habits aside, the major complaint was the men’s tendency to encroach on the women’s space.
“There was a sign in the women’s washroom that said ‘women’s washroom only, no men allowed’ or something like that,” says Machine, “but there was always some guy in there who feels like he’s entitled to it because it’s a boxing gym.”
These intrusions extended to the women’s workout space as well.
“Just maybe walking a little too close to my skipping rope,” tells Maria Fowler, aka Iceberg, “and at first I would do things like stop skipping, like, ‘Oh, you’ve almost walked into my skipping rope. I don’t want to hit you.’ But it happens over and over again so eventually you just start skipping faster and it’s like, ‘Okay, if you walk into my rope you’re gonna get whipped.'”
True to the Newsgirl philosophy of reframing every problem into a challenge, the competitors say they approached the situation as an opportunity to practise taking up space.
“It’s really an exercise in having to claim your space…. [It’s] an interesting experience as a woman to have somebody in your space and to not give ground,” says Tank. “But if you do that you’ll be giving ground all the time. You’ll never have any space to do the work you need to do.”
When the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club started up in 1994, Howe estimates that 90 percent of the women were queer.
“It was cool for that percentage to be flipped like that… The straight gals had to get used to us if they wanted to play in our playground and sure enough they did.”
The elevated queer quotient may partially be attributed to the fact that Howe started the group by advertising in the gaybourhood, but the sport may also hold a particular attraction for many dykes.
“I think queer women have already transgressed a gender role in one capacity which makes it easier to do it in others,” says Tank.
Howe herself makes a direct connection between her sexuality and her passion for the sport.
“I always think the reason I got into boxing was when I realized I was gay and I realized it was not gonna be an easy picnic…. I needed something mostly to feel confident and possibly to have to protect myself.
“When I moved to Toronto I always felt I was gonna get a brick in the back of the head if ever I had the urge to walk with a girlfriend or whatever. I just felt in danger all the time and I needed something so I didn’t have to feel scared.”
Although the membership makeup has shifted over the years, the Newsgirls remain a queer phenomenon.
“Any sport that’s identified as a male sport and everyone automatically assumes you’re gay,” says Rashonda Robinson, aka Double-R, who identifies as straight. “It bothered me at first, but then again it doesn’t really matter what they think of me ’cause I know what I am and [the queer Newsgirls] know who they are and it doesn’t bother them so we just let it roll over our shoulders and continue to do what we love to do.”
Machine faced a particular fear of scrutiny when she decided she wanted to go beyond sparring and step into the ring and compete in a sanctioned fight.
“I went to Savoy and said, ‘I really want to fight but I feel like you have to know I’m transsexual,'” recalls Machine. “And she kind of got that big Savoy look on her face like, ‘Really? Wow.’ Then she said, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever dealt with this.”
Because it was the first time the Newsgirls had ever sought to enter a trans boxer into competition, Howe set up a meeting with Boxing Ontario, the governing body for amateur boxing in the province. The organization decided to adopt the guidelines set out by the International Olympic Committee and accept Machine as a contender.
Despite the relative ease of acquiring her competitor’s card, Machine says she had a lot of anxiety leading up to her first fight.
“I was really terrified that I’d get in the ring and I’d fight somebody and something would happen and it would have to come out that I was trans,” she says. “Luckily I lost that fight, so it was a complete nonissue, but that was quite nerve-racking. It’s an intensely personal thing and to have that on top of all the other stress was a real challenge.”
Machine adds that because boxing is more about technique than brute force, any perceived advantage she would have because of her genetic history is misinformed.
“I find it insulting when people think that [a trans woman] would have an advantage, especially in the hormonal state that I’m in now. It’s just crazy.
“The thing is you don’t have to hit someone hard. You just have to hit them right and their defence goes down. Or your technique is flawless for that instance and that’s the end of the fight.”
In boxing, everything goes in rounds, including training. An amateur fight lasts three rounds while a professional fight lasts between four and 15. Boxing gyms are outfitted with a bell system to measure out rounds and condition athletes to the intervals, both physically and mentally.
“One of the biggest aspects of your training is really mental,” says Tank, “to make it about discipline. So during the round you’re not going to get a drink of water or you’re not talking to somebody about what their weekend was like.”
The first bell, paired with a green light, announces the beginning of a round, which is usually two or three minutes long. When there’s only 30 seconds left, a second bell rings, and the light changes to amber. A third bell and a red light marks the end of the round and a chance to take a breather, usually one-minute. Then the cycle starts again.
“Getting it into your head that if you’re in the round you’re working makes a huge difference in the amount you can accomplish in a night and the level to which you push yourself,” says Tank. Especially that 30-second bell ’cause that’s when you’re tired… your muscles are burning and you’re all out of breath and your brain wants to go, ‘This sucks,’ but that’s when you really have to push yourself to go now, now, especially now, it’s your last chance. That’s the last time that you want to be tired. You can be tired in 30 seconds but when you hear that 30-second bell, go.”
The discipline developed in this kind of interval training can carry over into the rest of a boxer’s life.
“Quite often if I’m doing something unpleasant… maybe a task at work I don’t want to do or chores… I’ll think, just 30 more seconds,” says Turbo. “You can do 30 seconds, you know you can.”
The discipline isn’t the only carryover. Turbo also says she’s her self-confidence has increased since joining the Newsgirls. “I carry myself differently. I’m more willing to try new things. I marched in the Dyke March for the first time [in 2006]. I’d never done that.”
For many women, boxing is a way to connect with her body in a new and powerful way.
“There’s so few places in our society where a woman is encouraged to see her body as something other than a clothes horse,” says Tank, “or something other than a vehicle for attraction, a tool to attract whomever they’re interested in, that it’s really a remarkable experience to see women learning to see their bodies as a physical force to be reckoned with in and of itself, to really feel powerful and have that be something that’s positive and applauded and encouraged.”
Many of the Newsgirls say it’s the empowering atmosphere of the club that keeps them coming back.
“I love boxing, but I love the Toronto Newsgirls more,” says Iceberg. “It’s a nurturing wonderful place to be and I think for me if I had to be in an environment that I didn’t really love I wouldn’t pursue it.”
All of the Newsgirls are quick to extol Howe as the luminary behind the club, and to enthuse over the inspiration they draw from their club mates.
“When you meet Savoy Howe she’s transcendent,” says Machine. “You meet that woman and it’s impossible not to be excited when you’re around her. She’s the best coach I’ve ever had, one of the best instructors for anything that I’ve ever seen. She makes the whole thing fun.
“The thing about the newsgirls is that once you’re there you’re surrounded by all these awesome women. Even if it was a sewing circle I’d still be a Newsgirl.”