The children among Marvin McDowell's cohort of young boxers, boys and girls, sit at long gray tables to absorb the skills necessary to normal life: reading and math, taught by teachers from Baltimore's school system.
The ribbon of the alphabet, running beneath the edge of the ceiling above, offers its inherent promise. Hortatory slogans blare from every side: "NO HOOKS BEFORE BOOKS," meaning let your grades fall, you lose the privi-lege to train. "PUT THE GUNS DOWN, TAKE UP THE GLOVES," suggests the kind of neighborhood we're in.
Mr. McDowell and his trainers work with 40 young people, 25 under 13. Eleven are girls.
For years, McDowell notes, trainers refused to take on female boxers – and he admits he once entertained similar sentiments. "Some guys still won't allow girls in their gym ... some guys say a lot of females are too emotional," he says.
But asked why he began training them, he says: "Because they wanted to learn. I found they had a stronger work ethic than the men."
McDowell, a former boxer, knows what he's talking about. He's thin, loose-limbed, with the languid posture particular to athletes who have frequently strained their physical selves to the limit, and know true repose. As an amateur he won 180 of 198 bouts, and a place in Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame. As a professional he won 22 of 31.
He's not a man to question the value of the sport that has filled his life and that he's bringing to youth. It's what he knows; he believes he puts that knowledge to good use. Others agree: in 1999 his Umar (Arabic for "life") Boxing Club over a pawn shop on Baltimore's dicey North Avenue gained non-profit status; it's supported by club dues ($50 a year) and several charities.
This isn't the poorest part of the city, but the crime rate is high, the streets can be mean, and offer little wholesome diversion for young people – especially girls.
That a quarter of McDowell's group are females is no longer unusual, and their reasons for boxing are various. Some may be driven by the absence of other organized sports that appeal to girls, like field hockey and soccer. Some take it up for recreation, fitness, even social purposes. A few, especially among the disadvantaged, may even see a path out of poverty – and its character-building discipline has worked for some.
"I get calls all the time," McDowell says. "Somebody's mother will say, 'My daughter wants to learn to box....' It's the in-thing to do among some girls."
Across town, at the Baltimore Boxing and Fitness gym, trainer Jeff Pasero says most women there "don't want to become boxers, they want the sit-ups, jumping rope, the heavy bag."
"Boxing workouts are fun," says Julie Goldsticker, spokesperson for USA Boxing, the organization that regulates amateur boxing nationally. "Women see them as a way to get into shape. They see the results in their bodies."
Matt Messinger of Bally Total Fitness says all of its more than 400 gyms offer boxer training for women – "punching the bags, rope jumping, exercises you would typically see a boxer doing." He adds that "about 25,000 females are regularly engaged in this sort of exercise in Bally's facilities."
The embrace of this regimen for fitness among girls and women has been accompanied by growing numbers training to box competitively as amateurs and professionals. In 1993, USA Boxing changed its policy against female pugilism. By 1997, 821 women were registered; and there were 2,491 in 2005. A policy change by the International Olympic Committee to permit female boxing, expected before long, would further this trend.
Many Americans disapprove of boxing. Many more disapprove of female boxing. This aversion to their participation in that ancient sport seems to collide with certain contemporary attitudes: the acceptance of women doing dangerous work traditionally reserved for men, as combat soldiers, firefighters, police.
But boxing's two arenas – amateur and professional – carry very different auras and records. Amateur boxing, according to a National Safety Council 1996 accident report, ranks 23rd on the list of sports injuries, behind football, hockey, and even soccer. Professional boxing is different; head and eye injuries are common, often the consequence of bad training and mismatches arranged by indifferent or unscrupulous managers. And, course, money colors the enterprise.
Amateur bouts are shorter – only three to four two-minute rounds, as compared with three-minute professional rounds; amateurs use headgear, and breast protectors for women, and gloves padded to 10 or 12 ounces compared with 8 ounces for pros. Amateurs box for medals, for self-fulfillment, not money.
McDowell attributes the disdain toward women boxers to the want of skill among so many of them. Historically, they've been badly trained, their skills so limited that many were unable to defend themselves.
While women have engaged in boxing for over a century, usually under illegal circumstances, some attribute the current uptick to Clint Eastwood's film, "Million Dollar Baby." Others credit the influence of successful, even glamorous, female boxers like Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila, the nation's top female super middleweight.
But McDowell believes in role models. Some of his protégées were attracted to Umar by Franchon Crews, who walked into the club three years ago, hoping to shed weight. Ms. Crews, a poor girl who wanted to be a singer (and still does), took to boxing like a fish to swimming. She's 19 now, holds both a national Golden Gloves championship and a Pan American Championships gold medal, and is training for a world amateur title bout. "Franchon is a mentor for these girls," says McDowell.
In fact, one girl came up the stairs six months ago with the same initial purpose Franchon had: to lose weight. Dominique McGlotte, 14, a ninth-grader, followed her brother, Tyrone, into the club.
"I lost 25 pounds," she says. (She still carries the 170 pounds of a light heavyweight.) "I've found friends here. My mother thinks it's great, keeps me out of trouble – not that I get in trouble."
After half a year of training she's not ready for a bout. "She won't have a fight until we see she has the technique," says McDowell. That is, when she can defend herself. Maybe she won't reach that point. Maybe it's not in her plans. It wasn't in Franchon's. Dominique says, with juvenile certainty, "I plan to go to college, get my law degree."
Why would McDowell bother to train her, and others, who stay a while then disappear? "It's frustrating," he admits. But, with sudden passion, he adds: "I'm on a mission to save lives. You might think boxing is brutal, but most of these kids are in a tough situation. Boxing changes their thoughts, their feelings. When you train you learn the value of dedication, discipline. It empowers them."
Dominique leaves the Umar classroom to prepare for a sparring session with Tyrone.
The gym – a square, white room, its floor strewn with mats, medicine balls, abandoned water bottles – breathes of purposeful physical effort, difficult in the lingering heat of a 95-degree day. But the work goes on, each boxer alone with his or her strategies, techniques. An older boxer assaults a heavy bag. Two young men, lightweights, shadowbox on the gray floor, fists flying like bullets. Dominique stands in the ring, her 170 pounds enlarged by immense headgear and protective shield covering her from the waist up and over her breasts. Her mouthpiece seems big as a bagel, her gloves puffy 14 ouncers.
Tyrone, 135 pounds, 12 years old, stands patiently in his corner, indifferent to the seeming asymmetry of the matchup.
A trainer tends to each boxer, whispers tactics. Tyrone is fast; he will hold his own. The bell rings: brother and sister approach each other, touch gloves, then carry on with all the tender fury of siblings the world over.