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.

Set your body down in any Texas town and you've been to Hubbard's, with its antique Nehi soda bottles, washboards, tarnished tea kettles, and old tin Rainbo bread signs. The tables are covered with Naugahyde cloths, which are pocked with cigarette burns. While Garland is hardly a small town, the diner has the good fortune of sitting on the rustic town square, where small law and insurance offices and antique and craft shops occupy quaint brown brick buildings.

The square has been a favorite shooting location for the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger. One scene for a recent show was even filmed inside Hubbard's Cubbard, owner Debi Whitworth points out. On the wall of the diner hangs a huge framed photo collage of Walker star Chuck Norris and other cast members and technicians cutting up with Hubbard's employees.

The restaurant's clientele is 98-percent men--guys in dark-blue work shirts and in hats advertising Speakes Plumbing Company; a tableful of heavy smokers wearing caps from the Garland Independent School District and Notre Dame. And not to be overlooked: Kent and Larry, two salesmen--starched-white-shirt types from Richardson--who quickly, and eagerly, introduce themselves to Darla. After ordering lunch, Larry playfully slaps Darla on the butt with his menu.

Even while balancing on each arm heavy white crockery laden with chicken-fried steaks, Darla moves catlike through the dining room dressed in tight denim bell-bottoms that zip up the front with a metal ring. She wears a carefully layered look on top, a form-fitting white knit tank top over an even tighter gray-ribbed tank. Highlighted blond hair skims her shoulders, and her bronze-colored lips have a fashion model pout--that Vogue look most women pay plastic surgeons for. Darla was born with it.

The eyes in the room, or 98 percent of them, often follow her, and conversations stop midsentence as she passes by a table. Hubbard's owner Debi Whitworth, herself a striking redhead whose waist-length hair is pulled back with a comb, says she hired Darla just a few months ago after passing through Darla's checkout line at a Rowlett grocery store. What was it--Darla's way with people that led Whitworth to recruit her for the diner?

"Not really," she answers. "It was more her big smile and blond hair."
On work days, Darla leaves her home in Rowlett before sunrise. She lives there with her mother, stepfather, and her 18-year-old sister. Darla's parents divorced when Darla was 4 years old; her father remarried and now lives in Branson, Missouri.

Although she hasn't visited her father in two years, her face glows when she talks about him. They are very close, she says. "My dad is totally behind me with my boxing. He's a black belt in karate. He was always encouraging me to learn self-defense. When I told him I was boxing, he loved it."

Her mother, Darla says, is another story. "My mom can't stand to watch me. She has a hard time with this. She's scared to death I'll get hit in the nose or hurt some other way."

Darla sandwiches her boxing workouts between shifts at Hubbard's and her class schedule at Eastfield Community College in Mesquite. She hopes this is her last year. "I'm a little more dedicated this year," she says. "I want to get out." She expects to earn her associate degree in business by next June. Her plans expand after that--she hopes to attend either the University of North Texas or the University of Texas at Dallas and study architecture.

Most of the regulars at Hubbard's know that Darla dabbles in boxing. When they tease and flirt with her, she throws it right back at them. "Watch it," she'll play-growl at a familiar customer while pointing to the diner's picture window, "or you'll be breathing through that glass over there."

She has a slew of nicknames for her favorite customers. "Master Baiter" is a guy who walked in one day wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Great fishermen are master baiters," Darla explains, a sly smile spreading over her face. There's also "Slick," "Dad," "Stud," and "Wooly Booger." No one--least of all Darla--seems to pause even for a second before blurting out whatever thought comes to mind.

The repartee makes for excellent tips, though Darla won't say exactly how much she makes each day. Toting a pair of plates heaped high with meat loaf and boiled greens, she stops briefly, leans over, and whispers: "Have you figured out my job yet? I flirt. I wait some tables. And I flirt."

After her shift, Darla crosses Main Street and walks a block to the Nuway Athletic Club.

At Nuway, life is parceled out in three-minute doses. Every three minutes, with no regard for what is actually happening in the gym, an electronic bell clangs.

Each round in boxing, of course, runs three minutes. And at the gym, the routine follows that cadence. Young fighters move through their workouts in three-minute regimens--three on the heavy bag, three on the jump rope, three on the speed bag.

A young fighter named Marquez Reed finishes his warmup and climbs into the Nuway ring, where he will hit the mitts with his trainer, legendary boxing champ Curtis Cokes. Cokes, whose name appears prominently in all Nuway promotional materials, won the world welterweight crown in 1966 at age 29. He held the title for three years before retiring in 1969, and remains among the most successful fighters ever to spring from Dallas.

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