Commentary

Sometimes boxing has power to heal

Originally Published: March 30, 2009
By Dave Bidini | Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- I've attended thousands of sporting events before, but none like the Newsgirls all-female fight night at their home gym in Toronto's east end.

I went to the fight with my son, Lorenzo, who has been to about six sporting events in his life. The female boxers ranged from young to old, green to wizened, straight to gay, and were cheered on by a hollering crowd gathered on fold-up chairs that surrounded a creaking, shoe-skidded ring.

In between bouts, a woman in a boutonniere, vest and striped tie joked, saltily, with the crowd. It took me 16 years to meet my first gay person, but it took Lorenzo only seven. The world changes, thankfully.

The event was organized by sketch comedian, actor, activist and retired boxer Savoy Howe, who grew up in the Maritimes, a predominantly rural and socially conservative subregion of Atlantic Canada. Savoy moved to Toronto after coming out of the closet. Her parents were accepting of her sexuality, but they suggested that she keep it hidden from her aunts and uncle.

Then, in 1993, TSN -- one of Canada's sports networks -- made a short film about Savoy's attempt to start a female-only fight club, and broadcast it multiple times after being deluged with programming requests. All of Savoy's 68 cousins ended up seeing the piece. The world changes, but Savoy's world didn't. Not really.

Savoy fought for years trying to organize a club devoted mostly -- but not exclusively -- to women fighters. In her own experience, she had changed in broom closets, suffered the prejudice of the male-dominated community and, in one instance, abandoned a club after reports that a woman had been raped on the premises.

Savoy landed at Sully's gym and established a modest ring career before starting Newsgirls. A university professor named Cathy van Ingen was quoted, "I don't think other boxing clubs would consider [what happens at Newsgirls] real boxing, because Savoy encourages everybody to get in and do it. She doesn't make you train for six months before you get in the ring. You get in the ring right away. I've never seen that, and I've hung out in a lot of different boxing gyms."

Last year, the club received a grant that Savoy used to train 150 women who had been victimized by domestic violence. When the money ran out, there was a donation -- a "sugar mama," Savoy called her -- who helped replenish the empty fund. This year, she will train as many social workers as the fund will allow, helping them regenerate to continue helping balm the wounds of society, which never seem to heal fast enough. The world changes, but sometimes slower than it should.

On fight night, five women boxers were competing for the first time. Some were cheered on by their children, driving in from places as far away as Leamington (in southern Ontario, near the U.S.-Canada border), while some, like Jane Theriault-Norman, were cheered on by her mom and dad and brother.

Newsgirls Boxing
Sally GrosartSavoy Howe's Newgirls gives women a fighting chance in a tough sport.

Over the course of the evening, a few of the women emerged bloodied but triumphant, while others left feeling defeated and distraught. In one instance, a fighter named Datejie "Newsgirl" Green lowered her gloves and asked for mercy, crestfallen at having been unable to sustain her energy over three rounds. As she left the ring, the crowd stood and applauded the middle-aged fighter as she glided into the arms of friends and supporters. The world changes, more for some than for others.

In boxing, as in most professional sports, we forget the impact that competition has on the lives of regular people. At one point during the evening, a small, baseball-capped woman -- one of Savoy's former fighters -- was introduced in the crowd as having come through the boxing program after suffering near death at the hands of her boyfriend. We're aware of how the fight game affects the lives of many of its professionals, the kinds of athletes who would either be dead or in jail without the protection of the ring. But Savoy's Newsgirls program is proof that it can save people like you and me, as well. The world changes, even though some people would rather it didn't.

Near the end of the evening, Savoy climbed into the ring and told the crowd that, thousands of miles away, on this same night, a Canadian fighter named Lisa Brown was competing in a bout in Trinidad to raise funds for a local woman who died in a traffic accident. Savoy said she had once fought Le Bell and, "I'm proud to say, I was knocked out by her." The crowd laughed and Lorenzo's face became alight as he drew his pen from above the page, where he had been drawing pictures of superheroes.

"Dad, I want to box here. Can I?"

The world changes, and I told him that he could.

Dave Bidini is the author of "Baseballissimo: My Summer in the Italian Minor Leagues" and "Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places."