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.

"The more he hit me, the madder I got," Darla says. "It was the hardest I've ever sparred with him, and when he was done, he was worn out. Plus, I found out later that I bloodied his nose, but Glenn and the rest of the guys helped him hide it. When I found out what I did, I felt great."

Darla likes it here, where showers of sweat fly off gyrating bodies and men spit into pickle buckets in the corner of the ring. Where posters hyping big-time bouts cover all four fluorescent-lit walls: Foreman vs. Cooney: The Preacher and the Puncher. Chavez vs. Taylor: Unfinished Business. Duran vs. Pazienza: Mano A Mano.

In here a woman can stand out. A woman has power--of a sort, anyway.
"I feel a lot more comfortable around the guys," Darla says. "I grew up a tomboy, and most of my best friends are guys. Most women--I don't like them too much. They're always trying to compete. They get jealous of each other."

It is not lost on Darla--here with her sculptured acrylic nails, her eyeliner, and clouds of perfume--what Lunceford and the others have in mind for her. It isn't as if banking on her looks has never occurred to her. "I've thought about modeling, but I'm probably too short and too old," she says. She likes antiques and may want to open an antique shop someday. Right now, until she gets in better shape, she says, "Boxing is more or less a hobby for me."

Remind her that Lunceford and the rest of the men here think she has talent--that she could go somewhere in boxing--and she scarcely reacts. Doesn't she want a future in boxing?

"Sure, I want there to be a future. That would be great," Darla says. "But I'm not going to lie. I don't want my face to get messed up."

Minutes later, in the ring with Lunceford, Darla tears into the big red training mitts he wears on each hand. She hits him with a left jab, then a left hook. "Ba, ba, ba, ba!" Lunceford calls, counting out the blows in staccato rhythm. "Slip, slip, up high!" he shouts again. And again: "Walk up! Walk up! Get your right hand behind you!"

Darla finishes the first round scarcely winded. Then the second and a third. The sparring partners break while Lunceford takes a phone call. Outside, Curtis Cokes, drinking in a little late autumn sunlight, shares his own theories about female fighters.

"Women learn a lot faster than men, and their coordination is so much better," says Cokes, a trim man of 59 who still looks the sinewy welterweight. Along with the dozens of young male hopefuls he trains, Cokes also trained Lancaster's Bunny Etheridge and was in her corner last May at a women's match at the Bronco Bowl. When asked for an assessment of Darla's ability, he is hesitant. And perhaps this is wise, given that he works shoulder to shoulder with Lunceford at Nuway. This is not worth creating any bad blood.

Cokes smiles slightly then looks down at the sidewalk. "With Bunny, boxing is her life," he says. "She's in the gym training all the time. She goes every day for hours at a time. She is devoted--I mean devoted--to the sport."

As with the men, Cokes says, you have to measure the women's devotion. The ones who have it are serious. "If they don't, it's just PR. Just PR."

Still, in Darla's case, no one ever claimed otherwise. Back inside the gym, after going a couple of more rounds with Lunceford, Darla stretches apart the ropes and climbs out of the ring. She loosens the laces of her gloves with her teeth and pulls them off. The first thing she does is examine her nails.

Since she didn't want to risk damaging her manicure, Darla had not really formed a fist when she was sparring. Instead, she sort of folded her fingers flat against her palms inside the gloves.

A boxer would never fight that way, but a girl would. And it paid off. Darla's finely sculpted nails--French manicure and all--remained intact.

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