"We're in a funky area, you know," Paul Marinaccio tells me with a resigned shrug.
It's October 19, and people are filling the balcony of the Durham Armory to watch Thursday Night Fights: eight rounds of the sweet science, the warrior's game, boxing. Around us, Corona "ring girls" double as servers, wearing aprons over their bikinis, selling beer and bottled water. Later, they'll stride through the ring between rounds, sans aprons, displaying the round number.
Boxing, simultaneously violent and confusing, can be a tough sell to newcomers. It has a gladiatorial mano-a-mano aspect, but it's not as brutal as mixed martial arts. There are knockouts, but there are also bouts judged by decision, and the judging process is closed and complex. There's no single national governing body, so local bouts are organized locally and don't have the glossy seamlessness of boxing on TV. Music cues go awry, venue lights turn off at the wrong time, fighters show up late, and pauses between bouts drag on and on.
Despite this, the individualism of boxing is a thrill to watch. Once that bell rings, it's just two men—almost always men—against each other. To see it in person is to hear the hush fall over the crowd, so quiet that a hook to the ribcage reverberates with a dull thud. It's raw and remarkable.
But to be a woman and a fan of boxing, as I am, is to acknowledge that this sport is built on a foundation of proving one's strength and masculinity through an assertion of violence, as I and the photographer I'm working with will be unpleasantly reminded later tonight.
Marinaccio, a former heavyweight boxer, is light middleweight Donnie Marshall's manager. They work out of Jawbreaker Boxing in Raleigh, where I once trained as an amateur. Marinaccio admits it's not easy to fill seats for boxing venues in North Carolina.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Wellington Arias Romero, 26, gets his right hand wrapped.
"But," he says, "people will sleep in tents for basketball."
He's right: we love our team sports in North Carolina, so much that Duke fans build their tent city in Krzyzewskiville to get UNC-Duke basketball tickets. North Carolina sports fans crave affiliation with institutions that exist beyond the people who populate them. Unfortunately for promoters, boxers have themselves, and that's it.
Most attendees I speak with have personal relationships with the fighters: friends, family members, neighbors, fellow gym rats. The Armory balcony, where tickets are cheapest, is nearly full, but the floor seats and "ringside" (the first two rows of floor seats) are only about half full, perhaps due to the steep $50 and $75 prices, respectively.
The fighters who elicit the wildest crowd reactions are the ones who choose to represent their hometown, not just themselves: Marko "The Bull City Bully" Bailey paws his feet at the ring like the iconic Durham mascot, and Carlos Olmeda, a Dreamer who is facing possible deportation after a drunk-driving conviction, inspires chants of "Mexico! Mexico!" from the balcony.
Marinaccio's client, Marshall, is originally from Buffalo and moved to Raleigh to work and train about two years ago. Boxing's more competitive in New York, Marshall admits, but it's getting better in North Carolina, mostly thanks to a new insurance law in New York that requires promoters to insure each fighter for $1 million apiece. This is doable for big-name fights but nearly impossible for local boxers working with small promoters and teams. This has led to more travel for talented boxers. Instead of New York being the boxing destination where guys go to test their chops, they're fighting in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and all the way down in North Carolina.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Hasim Rahman Jr., 26, gets stretched by coach Dwight Yarde before his match against Joe Coats.
"But they're changing it back in January," Marshall says with a shrug.
A trainer cuts into our conversation. "You said they're changing it back?"
"Yeah," Marshall says. "That's what I heard." (A representative from The New York Department of State denied the rumor.) But insurance money and winner's purses are certainly on everyone's minds. Joe Jackson, the coheadliner in a bout with Monreco Goldston, stares straight ahead. He's a svelte 154 pounds, very still when seated. Two talented boxers, both taking a risk and putting their undefeated status on the line, is enough to warrant a headlining spot.
"It's all about the money," Jackson tells me. "If the money's right, the fights are right."
Local bouts don't have huge purses. They're contingent on ticket sales, and the fighters are responsible for selling those tickets themselves—hence the overrepresentation of friends and family in the crowd. But a fight like this, with exciting cards, builds interest. With interest comes exposure. With exposure comes the opportunity to book bigger fights in places with more boxing fans and, therefore, larger purses.
I ask Marinaccio if the New York law contributes to the quality of North Carolina boxing. "One hundred percent," he says.
But promoter and event organizer Michelle Rosado gives a hard no to the same question. "It's easier to get guys to drive down because they can't get fights in New York," she concedes. But she says the law isn't driving the up-and-coming success of Tar Heel boxing. "[The fighters] bought into the program. They have to fight better to get better."
North Carolina was once a great place for fighters to come rack up wins. Rosado saw talent in North Carolina and—more important—no one capitalizing on that talent.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Jasmine Young, 25, announces the fourth round of Juan Goode and Darmani Rock's match.
"It's an open market here," Rosado says. "An opportunity to do it my way."
Tonight's card has eight competitive bouts featuring fighters from Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, and Maryland, culminating in a bout for the North Carolina lightweight championship.
In the penultimate bout, Jackson and Goldston, both North Carolina boys, move quick and catlike on their feet. The bout has just begun when the photographer I'm working with approaches me. I'm only half paying attention to her until she tells me that, as she was capturing photos of spectators, one of her subjects physically assaulted her, grabbing her roughly and refusing to let go.
"This conversation isn't over," she says the man told her. "You're cute."
I miss the entirety of the second round as we discuss how to proceed. Behind the photographer, Jackson lands a punch. I miss it, but I see Goldston fall, and the Armory explodes with noise as the crowd rises to its feet.
When you strip away the fanfare, the money, the promotion, the belts, everything, boxing is glamorized violence. It's a riotous, booze-filled environment, hypermasculine, built on the celebration of male strength, exaggerated by the intentional foils of objectified women. Ring girls are part of the tradition. Women are for decoration, or background support, or paid service—we're not fully present. Boxing treads the line between sport and spectacle, but the spectacle, in many ways, is solely for men.
Before the lightweight championship bout, Rosado told me, "I can't even tell you who will win." She was right. It ended in a stunning first-round knockout of the Bull City Bully by Stevie "The Answer" Massey, of Charlotte.
By then, however, I was distracted, being a woman in a space that had brutally reminded me that it was for men.
I love boxing. But the thrill is beginning to fade.