Jimi Chartrand walked into the Augusta Boxing Club on Tuesday and immediately felt like she was in boxing nirvana.
All around the room pugilists danced in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, flicking blows through the air. Others glistened with sweat as they skipped rope, pawed at the punching bags and hoisted barbells.
This grassroots pounding of leather, at a tiny, nondescript building tucked behind Gurley’s Super Market in a working-class neighborhood, resembled in every way a scene out of the movie “Rocky” - with one major exception.
All of these boxers were women.
“People usually think I’m insane. Now, it’s like I fit in,” said Chartrand, who traveled from Joliet, Ill., to participate in the first USA Boxing Women’s National Championships. “I was looking around and I’m like, ‘Wow, that girl’s got abs. Wow, that girl can throw a hook.”’
USA Boxing didn’t recognize female boxers until 1993, and only then after losing a landmark court case. Now, there are more than 800 registered amateurs around the country and the first national championship, a four-day event that begins today and culminates with the finals Saturday.
“Women can now see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tom Moraetes, director of the Augusta Boxing Club. “There’s a stage for them to display their talents and their hard work.”
By late Tuesday afternoon, 65 women from as far as Hawaii had registered for the historic event, hoping a woman’s touch is just what boxing needs as it tries to recoup from last month’s “The Bite Seen ‘Round The World” and other assorted fiascoes.
“When you go to a men’s competition, there’s a lot of arrogance in the air, a lot of, ‘I’m the man, I’m the man,”’ said David Tangjian, who traveled from Honolulu with his 17-year-old daughter, Noel Domen. “Here, the women are humble. They’re all saying to each other, ‘Hi, where are you from?’ They do bring a gentleness to a rough sport.”
Domen, who began boxing in 1984 and has won four of five amateur bouts, had to raise $3,000 to travel to Augusta along with her father and her coach, Bruce Kawano.
“We’re living very tightly, but we’re comfortable,” Tangjian said. “Win or lose, it’s already been a good experience for her. She’s met a lot of people, seen a lot of places.”
At least Domen has some boxing experience. When Patricia Martinez of Miami steps into the ring in the 106-pound division, she’ll be making her boxing debut.
“I’ve been to four or five competitions, but they didn’t have anybody in my weight division,” the 25-year-old said. “There’s not that many women, so I haven’t had anybody to fight.”
Then there’s Jody Ferguson, a 21-year-old from Santee, Neb., who had never even been in a real boxing gym until she worked out Tuesday after a 22-hour drive to Augusta.
“This is the first time I’ve actually been in a gym that had all the equipment,” she said, beaming. “Back home, all I do is tie up a pillow and just hit that. That’s as good as you can get if you don’t have the equipment.”
Augusta was the site of the U.S. Olympic boxing trials prior to the Atlanta Games. Now, the city hopes to give female boxers their first major boost toward becoming legitimate Olympic athletes, possibly as soon as the 2004 Games.
“This is the true essence of boxing, the sportsmanship, the hard work, the dedication and the desire,” Moraetes said. “This is what boxing is about. This is not the Mike Tyson thing. These women nickeled and dimed their way to get here. There are no sponsors. There are no Don Kings. There are no fancy T-shirts.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.