New York

Fight Like a Girl

A free boxing program for young women builds confidence as much as muscle

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Every Wednesday afternoon, in the back room of a basement boxing gym near City Hall, a group of teenage girls gathers looking for a fight. They come in leggings and shorts, T-shirts and sweatshirts, sporting pop-colored Nikes and ears glittering with piercings, close-cropped haircuts and long tresses in high ponytails. A radio plays Top 40 hits interspersed with East Coast rap classics.

The girls are the first to take part in a free program called She Fights, an hour-long boxing class that meets twice a week.

To participate in She Fights, girls must be between fourteen and nineteen years of age and come from a low-income background.

Harlem resident Cristina Gonzalez founded the program last fall after trying to run a co-ed version.

“A majority of the people that kept coming week after week were the girls,” Gonzalez told the Voice. “They were the ones who were really disciplined and we really saw the joy in their eyes when they boxed.”

Ericka Parra, eighteen, showed up for class on a recent Wednesday. A bespectacled senior at the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, Parra has been attending She Fights since the fall, and remembers thinking she couldn’t make it to the end of her first class, when two or three push-ups made her feel like she was going to collapse.

“Now I like them!” she tells me.

I ask her if she ever looks around when she’s out in the world and thinks, “I could beat up that person.” She cracks up, puts a finger to her lips to shush me, then offers a quiet but emphatic yes.

When six girls are present and ready, Gonzalez, along with coaches Hayley Bridgewater, Callie Exas, and Liv Adler, kicks off the class with an announcement: A $1,000 grant has come through, so the girls will get headgear to allow them to spar. They whoop and cheer, then get down to business.

After warming up with jumping jacks and push-ups, the girls begin throwing punches at the heavy bags and doing pad work with their coaches. All three donate their time; the gloves, handwraps, and mouthguards the girls use have come by way of donation as well. Exas demonstrates footwork for two girls, showing them how to pivot so they can stay close to an opponent while getting in blows. Adler, her sleeveless shirt showing off biceps that would make Michelle Obama jealous, calls out combinations as two girls throw punches at the pads she’s holding. Every few minutes, someone shouts, “Switch!” and the girls rotate to a new instructor.

Eventually, all the girls circle up to take turns sparring with Adler. They hoot and applaud for Bing Liang, a tall, reedy seventeen-year-old with short hair and a powerful cross who earns a “Yes! Beautiful!” from Adler.

Liang, another Young Women’s Leadership School student, says she appreciates She Fights for more than just the workout. “Coming here gives me another community,” she explains. “There are such strong women in this thing that’s really dominated by men. It’s really inspiring.”

Boxing has been transformative for fellow seventeen-year-old Marines Espinal. “I see my body change and I see my endurance change and I’m proud of myself,” she says. Espinal adds that training was particularly helpful when she was working on college applications: “Coming here was a way to relieve my stress, and it gives me a lot of confidence. I didn’t think it would, really, but you push yourself and you see how much you can do.”

Espinal says she’ll try to keep boxing once she moves to Rochester for college in the fall, but that she’s “really sad because I can’t train with them anymore.”

Adler says the girls have opened up to her about their personal lives, sharing stories of turbulent backgrounds and struggles with anxiety and depression. Adler is now determined to help She Fights raise even more money, to pay for tutoring or assistance with college applications. She hopes that future classes can start training girls even younger, maybe positioning them for scholarships to schools with boxing programs.

Gonzalez, who recently left her job in the mayor’s office to help run Bronx Democrat Amanda Farias’s campaign for City Council, has greater aspirations for the program as well. Right now she can accept a maximum of fifteen girls — she’s started a GoFundMe page, but her plan is to register She Fights as a nonprofit and find more funding and support to expand to other gyms. She also wants to offer Muay Thai and reach out to schools that are majority low-income students.

Gonzalez recalls a day when she was still teaching boys and none of them showed up. She later found out they had been stopped and frisked on their way to the class. When Trump’s travel ban first came down, it struck her that all her girls are women of color, many of them from immigrant backgrounds. Given her own background in politics, she tried to answer their questions when they came to class scared. Seeing their fear made her notice even more how boxing affected them.

“The first time you get to throw that punch and hit flesh, it feels so good,” she says. “As women, it feels like we shouldn’t be admitting to that. It is a violent thing, and women aren’t supposed to cause harm to others.”

But Gonzalez says the sense of strength boxing instills in young women made to feel powerless is invaluable, and she is careful to praise the girls not just for their physical prowess but for their discipline and commitment.

One of the most committed is eighteen-year-old Milenny Reynoso. “I like boxing,” she says. “I like the thrill.”

She’s tried regular classes, but nothing compares to She Fights. “I feel like we’re connected,” Reynoso explains. “At a regular class, everyone is just following instructions. Here, we’re like a family.”

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