Some women are ferocious. They're scattered in history books and littered in folklore, although they oftentimes go unnoticed. Boadicea, the ancient English queen who battled unrighteous Roman rule. Medb, the legendary sovereign of Connaught who led her army against the whole of Ulster, bloodying enemies with her own sword. Joan of Arc, a French peasant-
For most cultures, it's been centuries since women regularly walked the battlefield, which is why it can be difficult for us, even now, to see them as the honed warriors they once were. All the same, I can't help but believe that kind of raw brutality that existed in our ancestors still sleeps within the women of today—the kind of focused aggression that could rip out someone's trachea with bare hands.
As I watch Holly Holm pummel her opponent with quick jabs and careful timing, fists taut, face lucid and plum-colored, blond braids woven purposefully into a tight Nordic bun, I cannot help but imagine her as one of those ancient merciless women, swathed in blood and lurching for a trachea.
Holm, New Mexico's premiere female boxer, is coming of age in an era ripe for her profession. Unlike other sports, boxing doesn't have hockey pucks or pigskins to muddle up the real intent of any game, which is the very basic human instinct to lay claim to something by kicking someone's ass. Only now, women have reentered the battlefield (er, ring), and for the first time in many years, they're being taken seriously.
I first met Holm nearly nine years ago at Manzano High School. (We were in the same graduating class.) She was the cute blond girl that always seemed to be involved in some sport. Beyond that, the only thing I knew about her was her name. It turns out, over the past two years, folks all over the city would come to learn her name as well. Her legend, though, is only beginning to grow. Starting with a serious joust at Sandia Casino back in August 2003 against Stephanie Jaramillo, another promising fighter from the South Valley, Holm's career quickly took off after the two lit up the crowd with a fierce four-rounder that was televised on ESPN2 and promoted by Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing. Holm won by judges' decision and the two fought to a tie in a rematch just two months later that solidified a homegrown rivalry reminiscent of Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero and gave the upperhand to Holm as the city's rising star. In fact, I'd bet my dollars that, partially due to a knock-out gorgeous body and partially due to a knock-out left hook, pretty soon a lot more people are going to be familiar with Albuquerque's next big-time boxer.
Holm grew up the daughter of a preacher. With two older brothers breathing down her neck and an appetite for adventure, she began her journey to Amazon-status at an early age. Constantly active in some way, while growing up she devoted herself to soccer, gymnastics, swimming and diving, and at the age of 16 enrolled in an aerobics class, whose instructor also happened to teach kickboxing. As they say, the rest is history. She got involved with kickboxing out of curiosity, which eventually led to boxing. To date, the 23-year-old Holm has won 10 professional boxing matches, three of which were knock-outs, and has only tied two and lost one. This last December she won her first world title, the IBA women's junior welterweight.
Last month, on June 24, she defended her title against Lisa Lewis of Fresno, Calif. It was a raucous and high-pressured fight, and one that gave me firsthand experience into Holm's world of sweat and aggression. After training for more than three hours every day and starving and sweating her weight down to 140 pounds before her weigh-in (and showing off her success in a blue string bikini at the press conference the day before the big fight), she entered the ring that Friday with a hot, clenched jaw and a shiny four-leaf-clover pinned to her shorts.
"When you walk into the ring you're totally exposed," she told me later, days after she had won her fight, "All your training ... it all shows through."
And it did. Holm wailed on Lewis, slugging her with well-timed combinations, pressuring her with close jabs and long right punches. And as she slowly wore her opponent down, I became more and more the voyeur—watching Lewis' nerves unravel and her strength fade away until finally, she couldn't answer the bell to start the ninth round.
Holm's future looks blindingly clear. "I just want to stay in it until I reach my peak," she said over a bubbling audience after her victory. "I just want to win as many world titles as I can."
Holm's trainer, Mike Winkeljohn, also has big plans for the bombshell, and says that later this year he wants her to fight the winner of the Christy Martin v. Lucia Rijker match, which is prized at $1 million. He hopes to generate a similarly-sized pot for Holm's fight. "I know Holly's at that level," he said. "I want to get her the publicity she deserves."
Yet, not long ago, Holm would have had a slim chance at fame and fortune, as would any woman trying her hand at her profession. In fact, up until about 10 years ago, women's boxing was viewed as nothing more than a novelty act. Beginning in London in the 1720's, the sport lay dormant for some time, and didn't emerge in the United States until 1876, when two women allegedly duked it out for the grand prize of a silver butter dish in New York City. The sport really got started in the '70s, but suffered a brief setback in 1989 when "Foxy Boxing" (boxing featuring women in skimpy bikinis) became a short-term hit. It wasn't until the '90s that female boxing really became legitimate in the eyes of sports fans, after a number of gender-
Now, women's boxing is finally starting to get the attention it deserves, with help from a handful of famous female boxers, many of whom are the daughters of famous champions, such as Laila Ali (Muhammad Ali), Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (Joe Frazier) and Irichelle Durán (Roberto Durán).
Holm is the kind of athlete that wears her attitude on her sleeve, exposes her toughness and beauty like it's something she's earned. When I asked her how it felt to enter the ring and punch someone squarely in the jaw, to be a modern-day warrior and pound someone with all you've got, her answer was simple: "When you walk into the ring, it's all nerves. Then you throw those first punches, and you begin to settle into it. It's almost like tunnel vision—the only voice I hear is my trainer's. [How does it feel to punch someone?] Awesome."