Babes in Boyland

Her left hook is suspect, but Darla Johnson is a knockout. Ring rats at The Nuway Athletic Club think there should be more boxers just like her.

In one corner: Tom Campitelli, 45 years old, 220 pounds, 6-foot-2, hiding his middle-age spread under baggy shirt and shorts, slow-footed and lacking endurance.

In the other: Darla Johnson, 21 years old, 115 pounds, 5-foot-7, with legs up to her collarbone, creamy bronzed skin under tight Lycra bike shorts, and deep-hazel doe eyes.

It doesn't take a G.E.D. to figure out which of the sparring partners most intrigues the ring rats, wannabes, and hobby boxers who have gathered about the ring, compelled to watch by a force more powerful than gravity. Arms folded, heads cocked, their eyes fix on Darla, whose presence is always welcome at the Nuway Athletic Club in Garland.

Darla and her opponent are old friends and sparring partners, and this bout is all in good fun. Inside the ring, Campitelli issues his opponent a challenge, muffled by his mouth guard: "Hey, Darla! I'll give you a dollar for every time you hit me in the nose!"

Big yuks from the guys loafing at ringside.
Particularly intrigued is Glenn "Candyman" Lunceford, who has the enviable task of training Darla. Ever since his own boxing career ended, ever since he got out of prison, ever since the Internal Revenue Service seized his old gym, Lunceford has been scratching about for his next mission in life. Watching Darla bounce lightly about the ring, the Candyman's mind is racing.

The world of boxing, he knows, is crammed with hopeful young men, most of them trying to fight their way off the mean streets and into instant celebrity.

But Lunceford is thinking babes. Babes boxing. Men paying to watch babes box. Women who can throw a punch and suck the breath out of every man in the stands.

Maybe--with some special equipment to protect their pretty faces--a whole league of boxing Darlas.

Sure, there are other women fighters far more accomplished than his student; women trying to break into the fight game who may actually have a shot at being good and can claim to be as legitimate as boxing gets.

The problem, and the opportunity, as Lunceford sees it, is that those women boxers are "plain girls, big girls; not really attractive girls."

Not like Darla.
"This girl, I'm telling you," Candyman says, drawing out his words in a kind of brain-scrambled fighter's way. "If you saw her walking down the street, you would not think boxer. I'm telling you, you'd think model. She's that good-looking. If you put Darla in the ring and you match her against a big, well, not-so-pretty woman, who do you think people are going to bet on? They're thinking that big girl is going to beat Darla into the ground. But with the plans we have for women's boxing, it's like this: The pretty little girls--the Darlas--they're gonna win.

"That's shocking. And that's marketable."
Ah, yes, marketing. The right marketing can resurrect fighter-turned-rapist Mike Tyson, remaking a world champion, his felonious past erased and no questions asked. The right promotion has vaulted Christy Martin, the current goddess of female boxing, from substitute schoolteacher obscurity to something close to fame with spots on Prime Time Live, the Today Show, and a feature in People magazine.

While boxing is still a man's bastion, more "big girls" like Martin have been steadily climbing into the ring during the past few years. And in spite of all the pandering sports stories that hail women fighters--those glowing "first woman to" and "you've come a long way, baby" features--the fan base remains tiny, and the purses for women minuscule.

Because whether or not women box, it is mostly men who watch. And Lunceford figures they'd rather watch Darla than a muscled bruiser who just happens to be female.

Darla has now been boxing for almost two years. She professes a deep ambition for fighting, for mixing it up someday soon with another female boxer, and perhaps even making a little money at it. For now she trains, works as a waitress, goes to community college, and has a boyfriend. If boxing doesn't work out, she might study architecture. Whatever. Besides, she says while wrapping her hands tightly with tape, "boxing is really hard on my nails."

When Lunceford discovered Darla, she was hanging out at La Bare, watching muscle boys dance. Darla became part of a regular crowd that dropped in at Lunceford's old gym on Lovers Lane. He started her out as a card girl, but her obvious potential portended greater things.

"Hey, look," he says, reeling backward on his heels, poking the air with his index and middle fingers, experiencing a rare moment of insight into human nature. "Me and you might go to the carnival, but it's the sideshow we're really paying to see."

Just by carrying plates, Darla Johnson can pretty much take the breath away from any man she wants to. You can see the effect three days each week at Hubbard's Cubbard, a diner on Garland's Main Street where Darla works a waitress shift from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The day's driving rainstorm has brought an unusually big lunch crowd into Hubbard's. When the rain is pitching this hard outside, people are content to linger--talking, laughing, sipping endless refills of coffee. Their appetites spike along with the weather, and the homemade pecan and chocolate turtle pie is gone shortly after noon.

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