Sweat drips from the girl in front of the mirror jerking her fists in a dip-diving motion.
Left, left, hook. She breathes out each sequence with a hissing sound -- whu, whu -- making sure she has enough air in her lungs to make it through one more round of shadowboxing. A gold necklace peaks above her black T-shirt. "Sam" is written in white block letters on the back. Diamond stud earrings glitter from her ears.
Right, jab low, pow. Again. Left, hook, duck. Again. Her fists are wrapped in hot-pink practice tape. They fly through the air with wicked speed, punishing the image in front of her.
Her white sneakers are moving, front to back, corner to corner, and with each step she takes a low squat, avoiding her imaginary opponent's longer arms, faster jabs, meatier punches and quicker feet.
Finally, her coach's voice breaks through her momentum. "Are you done?" he calls across the gym to the girl at the mirror. "One more round," Samantha Martinez says, smiling back at him. She puts her fists back in front of her face and beats out another series of air-piercing jabs.
For Samantha and dozens of other North Texas girls, boxing is about these moments alone with the girl in the mirror. And each boxer has her own story, her own reason for wanting to be in that ring. They're daughters and sisters, athletes and dreamers who sweat and bleed alongside boys in tiny gyms and recreation centers hoping to make it to the next round, to the next fight. And they all want to knock you out.
'They want it'
"I want to try to make it to the Olympics," Martinez says as the buzzer bellows her to stop. She takes a moment to rest against the regulation-size boxing ring dominating the gym. Bleachers line one wall. A row of heavy bags and mats line the other.
The 18-year-old high-school senior has been boxing at the Diamond Hill Community Center in Fort Worth for seven years. "I put the gloves on myself," she says. "I was 10." And she is serious about this sport. In 2012, the summer Olympics will include women's boxing for the first time, and Martinez is determined to be a part of the select sorority of boxing women.
But since her dad was incarcerated four years ago, she has struggled. It's harder without "that big push from him," she says. Her father was part trainer and motivator, but he has kept tabs on her accomplishments, including one Ringside world championship. "I want to make him proud," she says. "We send him pictures of us, and he shows everybody."
Samantha's father is expected to be released from jail this year. In the meantime, her boxing family is there for support. At Diamond Hill, the girls, guys, coaches, mothers and fathers have a boxing bond. Hours spent together, motivating each other, sparring and grunting it out day after day have turned polite friendships into family.
At 119 pounds, 5 feet 3 inches, Martinez is in the senior open class and is one of seven female boxers training under the watchful eye of Gilbert Magallon, who has been at Diamond Hill close to 16 years. "She's one tough little girl," says Magallon, who has high hopes for Martinez and all the girls here. "They want it real bad. They listen," he says.
And he makes them work for it. Practice five days a week, two hours a day, starting with a two- to three-mile run, shadowboxing, speed and bag work, mitt work with coaches, crunches, push-ups, etc. He pits girls against guys, and if you think a girl can't land a punch, think again, Magallon says. He has seen a female boxer nail a guy so hard the boy woke up asking, "How long was I out?"
Boxers here agree to sacrifice trips to the mall and the movies, deep-fried foods, dating and parties so they can keep up with their training schedules. Other gyms require boxers to keep passing grades and don't allow cursing, cellphones, boyfriends or even air conditioning in the summer.
Boxing is brutal, but for some, it's a calling.
"I really like it," says Emily Castro, 14. "It always makes me feel better." The eighth-grader has been boxing at Diamond Hill for a year and a half. She started training after her little sister, Jennifer, told her how much fun it was. Emily works out with puffy pink gloves and wears a bow in her hair, but don't let the prissy image and braces fool you.
"Even though I'm a girly girl, I can fight," she says.
But at 106 pounds, she has the same problem other girls here have: There are simply not enough female opponents to fight or enough tournaments for girls. And when there is another gym with a female boxer in her weight class, "They'll maybe have one girl that three of us can spar," Emily says. "I wish there were more girls in boxing."
The few, the tough
It's the same story at the Irving Police Athletic League, where Keyla Cruz, 13, has been training for six years. She is not a girly boxer. "I had some [boxing gloves] that were pink," she says, "but I changed them to black." At 5 feet 2 inches and 113 pounds, the cheerleader-turned-boxer has only had four fights and admits that at times she has felt discouraged. "Coach says, 'They're scared of you.'" He may be right.
On this afternoon, Cruz stands in soaked sweat pants and a sweat shirt, unmoved by the reporter in front of her turning red in the face, getting a bad case of dry mouth. Irving PAL is a hot box. Parents sit near two open exit doors fanning themselves, sucking on bottles of water. They don't turn on the air conditioning in this gym -- it makes you soft. And there's no cross-ventilation to circulate the hot air or the offending odor of stinky teenagers.
It's easy for girls who take boxing seriously to "get discouraged," said officer and coach Rosario Solis. He's training seven female boxers. There are close to 100 registered boxing clubs in North Texas, and most male coaches will train girls. But female boxers tend to drift in and out of gyms. And without many real professional female boxing role models, except those in movies like Girlfight and Million Dollar Baby, it's hard to convince a girl to stay.
But across the gym, senior boxer Evelyn Sanchez offers some encouragement.
An integrated physics and chemistry teacher at Grand Prairie High School, Sanchez has been boxing at the Irving PAL for 12 years. And at 26, she has sparred with her students, some of whom attend the same gym. It was weird at first, but "I get a little bit more credit" than other teachers, Sanchez said. You don't pull crap in class on a chemistry teacher who can throw down. But students can take a breather -- Sanchez is entering chiropractor school in the fall.
Sanchez, a fair-skinned, petite woman, says "it's a little bit more difficult" boxing in her 20s with girls half her age. The former nationally ranked champion boxer is slower but has compensated by introducing weights into her workout. At 5 feet 8 inches and 119 pounds, she has a long reach and a more powerful punch and is a smarter boxer than she was before. "I feel as strong as ever," she says.
But when Sanchez started boxing, her father didn't want to see his daughter take a pounding. "You can do it," he said, "but I'm not going to watch you or anything." He's a fan now, and that's important, Sanchez says. "You do need a support system in your boxing," both emotionally and financially, especially now.
Local female boxers hoping to make it to the Olympics must score points and earn a national ranking by next year, when the Olympic team members will be chosen. Both Sanchez and Samantha Martinez will travel to out-of-state tournaments to earn points (and titles) that local tournaments don't offer.
Keyla Cruz, for one, doesn't care about the inequality of her sport or the lack of girls and financial sponsorship.
"I want to be a professional," she says. And she's waiting six years for her turn at the Olympics, too. It's that kind of heart and blind determination that Coach Solis admires in girls like Cruz and other female boxers. "She never gives up on what she wants to do," he says. "She tries."