Non-boxers are given the chance to learn the sweet science and before stepping into the ring in the annual charity Fight To End Cancer bout.
Toronto Star Article By: Paul Hunter Feature reporter
Photos by: Spencer Wynn
Published on Fri May 30 2014
Dawn Ramsay-Brown’s eyes light up recalling the first time she was at the receiving end of a head-snapping, eye-watering punch. It was a left jab. She saw it coming, the glove growing bigger, then the sharp stinging pain.
“It was straight on. Right on the nose,” she says, practically gleeful at the memory. “I loved it. I thought, ‘Oh, I get to do this now. I get to hit back.’ It was fantastic.”
Jane Watson remembers the first time she landed a punch, a left jab that she knew would inflict damage. As most people would who don’t have fisticuffs in their DNA, she instinctively expressed remorse. Her coach made her do 30 burpees as punishment.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,’ ” she recounts. “I felt totally guilty.You just don’t hit somebody. But you very quickly learn not to apologize.”
When eight men and two women are plucked from Toronto’s corporate community to train intensely for six months before participating in charity boxing matches — to hang up their suits and lace up their boots, as event founder Jennifer Huggins likes to say — there will be moments when raw, unfamiliar emotions are laid bare.
And there will be bruises.
That is part of the fascination behind the Fight To End Cancer, which Huggins started three years ago to raise money for research at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. The concept is that non-boxers are given the chance to learn the sweet science and then take those skills into the ring at a gala at the Old Mill Inn and Spa. This year’s training will culminate on Saturday during an elegant, $2,000-a-table, black tie evening of gourmet dining, musical entertainment and amateur boxers trying to pound the snot out of each other in five, three-round bouts.
“It’s like a wedding but more fun; a wedding gone wrong,” says Ramsay-Brown.
The charity raised $160,000 in its first two years.
The best fight of the night last year, one that drew the most visceral reaction from the sold out crowd of more than 500, was between two women. Seeing females in the ring is not new. Women’s boxing was a demonstration sport at the 1904 Olympics and returned as a popular medal event at the London Games in 2012.
One of Canada’s highest profile athletes leading up to London was boxer Mary Spencer. Ireland’s Katie Taylor emerged from those Games as an international star after her gold medal win in the ring.
Still, two women — especially two successful executives — punching each other in the head is not something typically viewed while sipping Chardonnay.
“(Women) tend to be more nurturing,” says Watson. “It’s not really in us to go out there and hit.”
Huggins, herself a skilled boxer, referee and owner of a boxing gym, said there was no doubt she was going to include women in the charity gala but, she makes it clear, this is sport, not salacious spectacle.
She believes it is empowering for women to show themselves as physically strong to help break down stereotypes about their capabilities whether it be in the boxing ring or the boardroom.
“We don’t do foxy boxing,” says Huggins, referring to the sexualized fake matches in which women in revealing outfits pretend to fight each other usually for the entertainment of men in a bar.
“The women are not playing to their sex appeal. They are women but they’re playing to their strength and their power.”
Once an up-and-coming competitive figure skater, Huggins got into boxing as a complement to her rehab after she broke her neck in an on-ice fall at the age of 14.
“Nobody understood the switch but boxing is an individual sport as well. You’re on your own. Boxing struck a cord with me,” she says. “There’s so much more to boxing than just punching people in the face.”
While every effort is made to ensure the safety of the participants — they wear Olympic-style head protection and mouthguards — this is real training and real boxing. The volunteer pugilists make at least four visits to the gym each week, learning the chin-down-hands-up necessities, with some of those sessions lasting as long as three hours.
Watson, 50, has arrived at her swank downtown office some mornings with, depending on the previous night, a blackened eye, a bruised nose or the remnants of a bloody lip. She is a vice-president at Optimum Talent, a downtown agency that helps executives in career transition after they’ve lost their jobs.
“I have less body parts that don’t hurt than do,” says the Etobicoke resident. “But I’ve had so many friends, colleagues and family that have been affected by cancer in the last year. This is nothing in comparison to what they go through. They’re the ones that are fighting.”
Ramsay-Brown, who says she is in her mid-40s, owns an ad agency, Off To Market Inc., with her husband. She too has taken a physical pounding in preparation for her bout, including one punch from a male sparring partner that forced her to avoid contact for four weeks because of either whiplash or a concussion.
“I saw stars,” she says of the right hook that caught her flush on the side of her head. “The worst was I could hear it. I could hear my neck crack.”
Watson, a willowy five-foot-eight brunette, and Ramsay-Brown, a muscular blonde who is not quite five-feet, are as different in the ring as they appear out of it. During sparring this week at Huggins’ Kingsway Boxing Club in an industrial area of Etobicoke, Watson’s grace is on display as she glides about the canvas landing jabs and using her reach to full advantage. During her session — the boxers won’t face each other until they climb into the ring at the Old Mill — Ramsay-Brown is a powerful bulldog, coming in low, trying to use her diminutive stature as an advantage.
“It’s a strange dynamic because I’ve never seen two more different girls,” says Huggins.
While they are close in age and weight — a further safety requirement — out of the ring, they are also a study in contrast.
Watson is reserved, choosing her words carefully and economically. She has been participating in conditioning classes at Huggins’ gym for years and is exceptionally fit from running and tennis but is motivated by this event’s charitable aspect. The outgoing Ramsay-Brown is out-going and loquacious and she makes it clear that boxing has become an important component of her life. She’d been looking for a bout to test herself for more than a year.
Ramsay-Brown said her interest in boxing evolved out of her efforts to lose weight after the birth of her daughter seven years ago. One day, she was playing on the floor with baby Abbey and needed help to get back to her feet. Ramsay-Brown believed she had to change her sedentary lifestyle if she was going to see her daughter grow up.
“I couldn’t walk across the shopping mall parking lot,” says the East York resident who now does a 10-kilometre run twice a week in addition to her boxing training.
Like Huggins, she says there is a bigger message sent when women climb into the ring.
“I think as a women, particularly around my age, we were taught as young girls that fighting wasn’t allowed and wasn’t proper,” she says. “I think now it is so important that young girls understand that they can stand up for themselves. I think it’s important for girls to know it’s okay, they can hit someone.”
“I have a few girlfriends who have tried out the sport and that first hit in the face was when they backed down and said, ‘No, I think I’d just like to hit the bag.’ For myself, I found it so empowering. The idea that you could get hit and hurt lit that fire to keep going and to get stronger. (It) was just one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had. To find that fire at this age was just magical.”
Ramsay-Brown’s daughter takes karate lessons and she says she would encourage Abbey to pursue boxing if it interests her. Watson has two teenaged daughters and they too have taken boxing classes in the gym.
“It builds self-confidence, self-awareness, body awareness,” says Watson. “I like the challenge, the challenge is great.”
Both women say they would like to continue boxing as a form of exercise — Ramsay-Brown even says she would consider another bout — but Saturday, in the ring, is all about having an arm raised in victory.
“I don’t see it any other way in my head,” says Ramsay-Brown. “The winning is getting this far and doing this but I’m going to win. I think I want it more. Just flat out, I want it more.”
Watson, though a reluctant chirper, won’t be out-hyped.
“I’ve got reach on her. I’ve got height on her,” she says. “She’s going down.”