Hockey siblings' sister sticks to boxing
Noriko Kariya, NHL star Paul's sister, is making her name as a pro boxer. With three brothers playing pro hockey, how did she wind up in the ring?
Back in Canada, the name "Kariya" is the equivalent of royalty to rabid hockey fans, who have seen Steve, Martin, and most famously, Paul, take to the ice with a flair and finesse that can leave you speechless at times.
So it goes without saying that when another Kariya sibling decided to enter professional sports, the red carpet was prepared and unfurled.
But Noriko Kariya, Paul's younger sister, didn't stay in Canada to bask in the hype and glory that was undoubtedly waiting for her. She packed her gym bags, got a three-year work visa and relocated to Jersey City, N.J. to learn her craft.
Noriko is a fighter.
"I love it," said Kariya when asked why she chose boxing as a career. "That's the simplest answer I can give you."
Kariya, a former All-American in field hockey at the University of Maine, knew she was going to be a boxer from the first time she stepped through the ropes to spar. It was the typical trial by fire for a fighter at the KO Boxing Gym in Toronto, but with an added twist: Since she was a female, she wasn't particularly welcome in the club.
"They didn't want me in the gym," she remembered.
"They wanted me to have a try at it and go. I got punched right in my face and I just wanted to get right back at him. Ever since then I knew that I loved it. I've always been intrigued by watching boxing and I've always been a boxing fan, so going in there, trying it, and understanding the discipline it takes and how difficult of a sport it really is, I wanted to really be the best at it."
Once her trainers in Toronto saw that Kariya was serious about the sport, they went about the business of turning her into a boxer. That was the easy part. The tougher part was letting her family know about her new sport, which was a far cry from field hockey.
"There were a few eyes rolling, but I got through it and they're very proud of me," she said.
"They know in the family that I'm very headstrong. I'm just as competitive as they are and I've always been a physical athlete. My brother (Paul) has been too kind in some ways. He says I'm the most talented athlete in the family, which is too much credit. But in my short time in the game I've worked really, really hard. I'm a student, I study it, and I think they're happy for me, and happy that I've found something that I really truly love."
Even if that love can hurt you in the end?
"When you fall in love with something, you know the downfalls of what you're doing, but the least of my concerns is how I look," said Kariya, 26.
"I want my brain intact and my intelligence intact when I'm done with the sport. It comes with the territory in the sport, and hopefully, you're good enough, you're quick enough, and you're slick enough to get in and get out and be successful."
So far, there have been few hiccups in her young career.
After compiling a 9-1 record as an amateur, she's 3-0 thus far as a pro. She was scheduled to be part of a Nov. 30 card in New Jersey, but Main Events announced Nov. 29 she was removed from the slate. According to the release, neither Kariya's camp nor the state athletic commission could find an opponent acceptable to both.
But why leave Canada, where every fight could be on a huge stage media-wise, as opposed to battling it out on small club shows in the states?
"With my trainer and my management team we all thought that there would be less pressure," said Kariya, who is working here with trainers Mike Skowronski and Teddy Cruz, best known for their work with another pretty fair Jersey City fighter originally from Canada in Arturo Gatti.
"But that's not why I left. This is a better market for me. And with this upcoming fight I'm thrilled with the exposure I've had and people are taking notice of my fighting. I fought my last fight in Jersey in Whippany, and I did very well. I think I developed a little bit of fan support and people are taking notice of me here in the US. And that's what I want."
People are taking notice of Kariya because she actually can fight.
It's sad that you have to make that statement, but unfortunately, with the state of women's boxing these days, you have to differentiate between those who fight for world championships and those who do it for endorsement deals or because they want to be the next Hilary Swank.
Kariya wants the championships and respect.
"It's important to me that I look like a professional," she said.
"I don't want to look like a female in the ring -- I want to look like the best males. I want to have a style, I want to be slick, and I want people to recognize that I can have power, that I can be stylish, that I can make someone miss, and I can make them pay. That's being a well-rounded fighter."
And with a dearth of world-class fighters in the female ranks, it also means that Kariya may be thrown into deep waters, competition-wise, sooner rather than later.
"My trainers have told me that I'm going to have to come to a point where it's not a gradual step-up like it is with the guys," said Kariya, a bantamweight.
"All of a sudden you're in there head-deep and you don't have a choice. You get past the initial stage and then you're in there with a girl who has 40-something fights. I have to be prepared for that, but I'm excited for it and I'm actually looking forward to it."
That's the Kariya competitive streak right there. And when you ask her if it's ironic that if she and Paul, who has played in seven NHL All-Star games, both played hockey that Paul would be the finesse-based sniper and she would be the enforcer protecting him, she laughs.
"People like to say Paul's the Lady Byng and I'm the Lady Bang," she said, referring to the Lady Byng trophy awarded to the NHL's most gentlemanly and sportsmanlike player (Paul Kariya, now with the Nashville Predators, is a two-time winner).
"But I'm a finesse athlete too. In boxing, you can't run away from people and it's not putting the puck in the net. You have to hit somebody to win this. But I'd like to be considered a finesse athlete because the technical side of boxing is very important to me and I think when someone watches me and knows my family and have seen my brothers play, they can see a certain amount of explosiveness in me that is the same throughout all my brothers. You can see the competitive drive in us, definitely. And I demonstrate that in the ring as well."
That's enough to attract new fans to women's boxing, and knockout looks don't hurt either. But for Kariya, the main ingredient is having a warrior spirit where you don't excel against those weaker than you, but against the best possible competition. To her, that attitude is necessary to revive a dying branch of the sport.
"I think it's in a little bit of a lull," said Kariya when asked about the state of the game.
"I don't think it's on its way down; I just think the initial excitement about it has died down, and what female boxing has to do is substantiate itself. It helps having well-known fighters like Laila Ali, but if they never step to a challenge or rise above and have the competition to make something of it, female boxing will always stay the same."
"A few stars are not enough for people to make it watchable and to keep people coming back for it," she said. "It requires every female fighter to step up and not just be satisfied with getting into the ring, making a few dollars, making a catfight out of it, or whatever. Every female that goes in there has to bring something to the table."
Noriko Kariya is bringing it. And famous last name or not, she plans on staying a while.
"I want to be the best and that's what I set out to do," she said.
"If it means that I'm a two-time world champion or whatever, I just want to know that hands down I'm the best pound-for-pound female boxer there is, and I want to bring something different to the table for the females. I want people to realize that we do come to fight, we work hard, and there's a lot of skill involved in our sport, and it's not that different from the men."