When you don't have money and you're in a working-class [community], it's more about survival than moving forward. In Gerritsen Beach [Brooklyn, where I'm from], people are born, then you have a kid, then you get married, then you wait around for your parents to die so you can move into their house. There's very little talk about moving up or getting out, because you grow up with a very small view of the world. I always felt like I was trapped. [Schools] didn't have things like art, music, creative science, and stuff like that when I was growing up. There was home economics, and they would hand out applications for the Post Office, UPS, and sanitation because that's what you need: a job...I wanted to get the fuck out.
I just fell into boxing. It was kind of an accident. I was going through a divorce and living with and supporting my sister and daughter. I was working six jobs, and neither of us was getting child support, so I was working all day. They opened up a little karate school in the neighbourhood, so my sister got some money together and bought me a membership and told me that on my way home from work I had to go. I did, and my career kind of took off. I always wanted to be passionate about something, but I never found it until I found boxing.
I think that all of the stars were kind of lined up for this to happen. I don't know why I said yes; I just did. Someone called the gym and was looking for a fighter; it happens. [Trainers] will call around and say, "Do you have a 130-pound female with no fights? We're trying to match a 125-pound girl with no fights." My coach asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said "all right."
When I was walking into the ring for my first fight...the DJ is playing, the lights are on you, and I thought: What was I thinking? Then the first bell rang, and it was like my whole life changed. I won my first fight.
A lot of people tell me that I'm too pretty to fight, or that I don't look like a fighter. Then I'll say: "Well, what does a fighter look like?"
Too Pretty To Fight
I think that it's really sad [how] people talk about female athletes. A lot of people tell me that I'm too pretty to fight or...that I don't look like a fighter. Then I'll say: "Well, what does a fighter look like? What does a baseball player look like? What does a basketball player look like?"
It took me a lot of time to get people to respect me based on what I do and not just based on how I look. People used to say that I was the cute little girl with the blond pigtails, and they'd see me get on the scale and say, "She can't fight." Then I would go in the ring and...I would [win].
My daughter will face the same kind of challenges, because all women do. Sometimes they will say that you're too heavy or you're not smart enough or you're not girly enough. I come from a strong line of women who've taught me that it doesn't matter who tries to keep you from doing what you love, you just do [it]. My mum used to say: "I don't care if you want to pump gas, just own the gas station."
What Is Beautiful?
I think that when you are "beautiful," your beauty comes out of you and it's not something that you put on. I'm not a girly-girl at all. I use a lot of Vaseline on my face when I'm fighting so I don't get scratched up and the gloves can just slide off [post-fight]. I like cute workout clothes and stuff, but you won't really see me going for manicures or anything, but I still feel like I'm beautiful. [I'm in a Dove campaign called My Beauty My Say], and that's what this campaign is about. Beauty is not as superficial as people make it sound.
I come from a strong line of women who've taught me that it doesn't matter who tries to keep you from doing what you love, you just do [it].
Gerritsen Beach was a community where unreported sexual crimes were like a disease. You have people who are three generations in, and everybody knows each other and everybody is friends. The person who raped me is close friends with a lot of people in my family. I had this shameful fear that I couldn't tell my mum what happened because Grandma would be upset when she goes to Mass.
So here I was, 13 or 14 years old, raped by someone who was nearly 30, and he's still out there because I spent so much time being afraid of it. As I'm growing and telling my story, I'm learning about how this happened to so many other people in the neighbourhood. People are being taken advantage of and are afraid to speak out because they are afraid of what the other people in the neighbourhood will say.
That was a big factor in wanting to get my daughter out of there and not wanting to have her exposed to the same cycle that's been going on for years, with the same kind of men getting away with it. As far as it affects me in boxing, I want to say that it doesn't, but I think that it created something inside of me that wants me to fight for something. All of the experiences in my life — not just the rape, but being homeless, not having money, struggles with my ex, and growing up the way I did — it all makes me want to fight as hard as I can.
If you look at the history of all the successful female fighters, you'll see that many were in Playboy or they're half-naked. I'm not knocking those girls, because you gotta do what you gotta do, but for me to put on a bikini or to get naked in a magazine is not who I am. I really take pride in the fact that I have made it as far as I have just by being who I am. Society says that if you are a female fighter, you have to show that sexy side, because that is the only side that people like — it doesn't have to be like that.
I think that there needs to be a drastic change in female fights that they put on TV. [If] we don't get put on TV, we don't make any money. You have male world champions making six or seven figures a fight, and then you have a female who maybe makes $5,000 (£3,750). It's not even a tenth or twelfth of what these guys make, because they are closing the door to television on us. So what has to change? I don't know. The networks and promoters are just saying no, so it's hard to ask what to do. [But] when you appreciate the sport, you can learn to appreciate who's doing what and not girls doing one thing and boys doing another.