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.

Shortly after his dad's death, Lunceford opened his own boxing club at Greenville Avenue and Lovers Lane. He named the place Speck's Gym in honor of the old man.

Running Speck's, Lunceford recalls, was a grand old time. He had just married Anna, his third wife and the mother of his baby boy. The gym opened a whole new social world to Lunceford--not least among his new friends the male dancers, management, and many customers of his next-door neighbor on Lovers Lane, La Bare.

"'Master Blaster' trained with me. He's the oldest dancer at La Bare," Lunceford says, grinning. "That's where I met Tom Campitelli. He's the general manager of all the La Bare clubs. All the dancers trained at my gym. Shoot, we were in the same parking lot."

But only one member of the La Bare crowd had what it took to play "card girl" during the men's matches. And that was Darla Johnson.

Darla had frequented La Bare with a group of her women friends and knew the staff well. She began hanging at Speck's and eventually agreed as a gag to walk the ring with the upcoming round written on a card. This has always been the job for women in boxing, one that men have gladly bestowed on them. And suddenly, here was Darla--leggy, a great smile--and boy could she hold a card.

Darla doesn't remember who first challenged her to put on the gloves, though it was probably a man. She started about two years ago, learning a little footwork and finding her sport. She had run track at Lakeview High School in Garland and thought she was in prime cardiovascular shape. "But when I got in the ring I knew I had a lot to do to get in condition," she says.

She has just come from the diner and joins Lunceford at a long, bare table near the front of the gym. They are drinking Diet Pepsis and sharing handfuls of Runts fruit-flavored candy from a theater-sized box. Darla is wearing one of the least waitresslike outfits possible--faded jeans and a ribbed tank top under a tight leather vest. "Debi doesn't really require a uniform as long as it's neat and clean," Darla says. She is accessorized with rings on three fingers and a matching set of diamond-and-ruby tennis bracelet, pendant, and earrings--a gift from her 38-year-old boyfriend. The ruby is her birthstone.

Back when she spent her spare time at Speck's Gym, Darla says, she was in better shape than now. "We'd spar 10 rounds every Monday and Wednesday," she says. "Then I'd do situps and crunches. I'd run and jump rope. I was 125 pounds and in the best shape of my life."

One day Darla was suited up for a workout, just about ready to hit the mitts with Lunceford, when an old drunk shuffled into the gym from a bar next door, saw Darla in the ring, and challenged her to a fight. "He was at least 50 and he was really drunk. I didn't think it was very funny," Darla recalls. But the guy, bursting with all the bravery of your average sot, kept insisting.

Lunceford picks up the story from here. "We thought it would be OK so long as he didn't hit Darla in the face," Lunceford says. "We told him if he hit her in the face it was over."

Darla agreed to give it a go. The man threw a few punches, and Darla remembers giving it right back. He was big and, in spite of his state, very strong. After several minutes, the man suddenly came from nowhere with a right hook and slammed Darla in the face. She recalls being "completely stunned," though no one was rushing to run the guy off. "You guys," she says with a half-smile while pointing at Lunceford, "were supposed to protect me."

Strengthened by a surge of anger--partly at her opponent but probably more at her friends standing ringside--Darla suddenly took out after the drunk. She pummeled him into the ropes, Lunceford recalls, and there wasn't a man in the room who planned on stopping it. When it finally appeared the guy could take no more, Lunceford intervened and sent the drunkard on his way.

Darla chuckles about it now but admits the contact she made with that chump's face felt good. And it seems that soon after that her La Bare pals and the gym crowd started taking Darla a bit more seriously. Put it this way: She wouldn't be playing card girl anymore.

"Speck's was like home to me," Darla muses.
"Yeah, that was some good times back then," Lunceford says, a little dreamily.

But then, damn if real life didn't get in the way. Lunceford rather sheepishly explains that he was so involved in his gym that he "sort of forgot" to pay his taxes. The IRS seized Speck's. Lunceford was out on the street. Darla had nowhere to train.

While Lunceford started 1996 with no livelihood, Darla decided to get serious about school, taking on more hours and starting her job at Hubbard's. Then last summer, Helm hired Lunceford as a trainer at Nuway. Lunceford had hoped to entice the La Bare gang into joining him there, but a long drive through traffic to Garland wasn't exactly an incentive. Campitelli still pops in occasionally--usually for a scheduled spar with Darla--but for the most part the old gang from Speck's has simply disintegrated.

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