The Last Page

The Fighter

By Carla De Landri '78

The first punch hits you right off the elevator; it’s a left jab straight to the nose, an overpowering smell of stale sweat and testosterone, a mix thick enough to taste. It takes everything in me just to walk in. Unsteadily, I lift my gaze to see weight bags hanging like piñatas at a child’s birthday party. And a lot of guys, big guys, tattooed guys. Newspaper clippings adorn the walls, sharing stories about lives turned around—ex-cons discovering new paths, finding their better saints. While I am a sucker for comeback stories, I ask myself, what am I—a white, out of shape, middle-aged, middle-class woman—doing here?

My fascination with boxing began in 1988. I can pinpoint the year because, as a producer at ABC News, I was assigned to cover a title fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks with the legendary sports writer, the late Dick Schaap. The fight drew journalists from all over the world. A dream assignment, but not for me. Boxing? Really? Was this some cruel joke by my editor? But a deadline was a deadline, and in typical Vassar fashion, I dove in. Let the research begin, I told myself. I read Mailer, Hemingway, and even Joyce Carol Oates on boxing. Who knew? I was surprised to find a woman in this territory, and her words turned me around. She got me to see boxing not only as a match of muscle but also cunning, intelligence, and strategy. And triumph over pain. Her words seduced my feminist streak: “Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. And is there, perhaps, some connection?’’ I was sold.

The big fight lasted merely 91 seconds, and the world went home disappointed. But not me.

The word “authentic” gets thrown around recklessly; but my boxing gym, Mendez Boxing in Manhattan, is no doubt the real deal. It is spare and bare. No air-conditioning. No fancy lockers. No concierge service. There are clean towels. One day in July, when temperatures soar to a record-smashing 104 degrees, one of my biggest physical challenges is staying conscious as I punch, jump rope, sit up. That day, after an hour-plus workout, I leave looking as if I just dove into the deep end of a pool. Despite the towels, I am drenched. Limping, I take a cab home and lie flat out for hours in the consoling coolness of my bathtub. I finally resort to floating ice cubes to get my temperature back to normal.

Each week, my body feels like it has been hit by a car. I awaken unable to crawl to my first cup of coffee. I cannot feel my knuckles, cannot close my fists. I will myself to go back. Triumph over pain. It’s like life. My trainer, Salvador Mendoza, a former fighter himself, says you box for your body but also for your mind. To call it cathartic is a cliché. For me, it is purge and purification. Afterwards, no matter how physically sacked, I carry a lighter mental load. With a grin, I imagine that I should have learned to punch and dodge years ago. Having just left a 31-year career at ABC News, I sure could have used the skills sooner.

My birthday in August is a celebration. I survive round one—a month of killer drills. So as I turn 55, wearing a vintage rose and gray Vassar T-shirt, I take on an opponent in the ring. For the first time in my life, I punch another human being full force. I am terrified, not because I am punched back (I am not) but because I cannot imagine willfully hurting someone. It is a new level of hard. He does not let me in. I have to think my way through the physical hurdles to find my opponent’s vulnerabilities. Between hooks and upper cuts, I manage to land a few, all the while shouting, “Sorry!” Salvador scolds me to stop apologizing. When I am done, breathless but elated, I am surrounded by a circle of male fighters all fanning me with their towels and serenading “Happy Birthday.” Welcome to the club.

In case you are wondering, I have not abandoned my yin; I still practice yoga. It is true. Boxing has done wonders for my body—I now have ridiculously low cholesterol, I’m 25 pounds lighter, and inches have fallen from my hips. But boxing has done more for my head. I have a toughened, solid confidence. These days, fellow fighters greet me with, “You the fighter?” And I nod yes, honored to be called one.

Carla De Landri ’78 is senior counsel at Goodman Media International, a leading public relations firm in New York City. Carla’s expertise is in video production as well as social and digital media.