Looking for a Fight
Lynn Snowden Picket
by Tricia Cornell
Boxing is, as I once heard an upscale clothing store buyer say, "trending." An upper-class, cleaned-up version of the sport can be found in nearly every health club: women learn balance, control and strength, tone their arms with air punches and tone their calves bouncing around on wooden floors. But these women never actually punch a real person. In the face of a real attacker, their choreographed jabs would be useless, despite the fact that some women even started the sport to learn self-defense.
When Lynn Snowden Picket took up boxing, she punched real people--hard, as it turns out. She felt cartilage under her fist, felt her own blood spurt out of her nose, and she bounced around a bloodstained ring--not a tidy aerobics floor--on hellishly blistered feet. Picket was, indeed, looking for a fight. Her recent divorce had left her feeling vulnerable and her training for the New York Marathon had put her in excellent shape. This combination led her straight to Gleason's, the famously unglamorous boxing club that started the careers of nearly every notable boxer ever to go pro, including Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, and Riddick Bowe.
Picket is the consummate participatory journalist. She has worked as a stripper and a roadie, lived on an aircraft carrier and walked the beat with NYC police officers--all in the name of a story. To write her first book, Nine Lives: From Stripper to Schoolteacher, My Yearlong Odyssey in the Workplace, she landed nine different jobs in one year. During her year at Gleason's, Pickett immerses herself in the world of boxing, but it never accepts her. Even after she's been training for months, she writes, "The boxers who train with Hector barely look at me; I'm beneath consideration. Everyone else stares with a mix of curiosity, lust, and condescension."
That Picket experiences sexual harassment--and sexual come-ons from her trainer--in the man's man's world of a boxing gym is hardly revelatory. Far more interesting are the changes she describes in herself. In the boxing ring, Picket learns violence--which is not the obvious statement it would seem to be. One would think that boxing would teach you form and technique, teach you to control your violence, to harness it in the ring. But for Picket--and for many other boxers--the violence they need to survive in the ring follows them home and onto the streets.
A writer used to waging battles with words, Picket finds herself reacting physically to situations. At a sports event, a man behind her spills beer down her neck and she punches him in the stomach. A group of boys taunt her while she is running in Central Park. She pushes one of them, hard. Her boyfriend's brother goads her at a party and she takes him down. It looks like play to the other guests, but she knows it is not. At Gleason's a well-dressed man and his son are watching her spar. The man keeps shouting advice to her, "Miss! Use your right!" She is furious that he should assume this familiarity--it's clear they are the only people of the same socioeconomic class at the gym, that she is the only woman. She's ticked off at his unsolicited advice. She stops the bout and throws her right hard onto his cheekbone. Right in front of his son. She is never fully repentant, but recognizes that a former self would never have done that. "What, I wonder, have I become?"
In the end, Picket abandons the world of boxing. She wins her first bout, then packs up her locker at Gleason's. But hundreds of women each year are entering the sport and staying. In 2000 there were 1400 female amateurs worldwide and 400 female pros--including the daughters of famous boxers, like Laila Ali and Freeda Foreman. Women in the ring, however, still make many people antsy. We have no problem with women learning self-defense, and we'd like to believe that's why women take up boxing. But picture a fight in which both contenders do nothing but defend themselves: It would hardly be a fight. We still have trouble coming to terms with the bloodlust in men's boxing and we refuse to see it at all in women's boxing. Worse, for some male viewers, two women sweating and taking aim at each other in the ring is sexual entertainment.
Throughout Looking for a Fight Picket proves that her powers of description are prodigious and her attunement to her senses is nearly perfect. When she describes the first blow she takes to the head, the reader recoils: "a strange noise implodes inside my skull, a dull roar, a muffled shattering, a sound like something falling and striking the floor. I don't see stars, or planets, but there's a definite impression that a plug has been kicked out of its socket." But even with all her masterful description, the words that will be most likely to stay with you will be the advice an ex-boxer gives her before she sets foot in Gleason's: "Think about it! The only way you can win in boxing is to separate someone from the one thing that distinguishes him from a dog or any other animal: a rational mind. Or to disfigure him physically, to maim him so the fight is stopped. Don't do it."