By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.
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.
The bell rings and Reed jumps out, his footwork fluid; his punches practically flawless. A 1993 national Golden Gloves junior middleweight champion, the 20-year-old Dallas resident is on the brink of going pro, and is one of Cokes' pet projects. If he never earns his 15 minutes of fame, he might at least get three.
While Reed moves around the ring, most of the Nuway staff members go about their business--talking on the phone, puttering with the exercise equipment, shuffling paperwork.
Glenn Lunceford, awaiting Darla's arrival at the gym, has grabbed a wrench to help tune up one of the weight machines.
Helm is 56, gray-haired, with a lion-sized head and no neck. He wears polyester slacks specked with snags, and a white knit golf shirt clings so tightly to his wide belly that you wonder if it hurts.
Helm has weaved in and out of the boxing world for decades and opened the new gym just last summer. He also has had a piece of any number of other speculative business deals--gold mines in Mexico, part ownership of several strip clubs and restaurants.
But Nuway (an acronym, Helm notes proudly, for Neighbors United with America's Youth) may be his most risky undertaking yet. Most of the space is devoted to free weights, bikes, the ring, and punching bags. But in one section of the club set off off by plywood partitions, a bank of telephones is lined up on desks.
From this corner of the gym, Helm runs Nuway Athletic Club Communication Incorporated, a startup long-distance telephone company. When the long-distance service is up and running, Helm says, the "majority of profits" will funnel back into the gym and into an anti-gang program led by Cokes. The club, Helm says, will offer free membership to any boy or girl younger than 18 who will sign a pledge to remain crime- and drug-free and out of gangs.
"In exchange for their pledge, we'll offer them world-class coaching and we're going to keep the club open nights to help keep the kids off the street," Helm says. He isn't quite so talkative, however, when asked precisely what percentage of the long-distance company's profits will go back into the gym. Helm and his 25-year-old son, Harold Jr., exchange glances and nearly in unison say, "It'll be a majority."
"More," Harold Sr. quickly adds, "than 50 percent."
Lunceford always refers to his boss as "Mr. Helm" and frequently repeats how happy he is to be here, at a place where everyone cares so much about troubled kids. Lunceford, after all, was one of them, but it takes a while for him to flesh that out. Pointing to a framed 8-by-10 photo from 15 years ago of himself and a boxing friend--their gloved fists raised in mock toughness--Lunceford says, "It isn't inside the ring you have to worry about. It's outside that'll do you in. That guy--he's a good friend of mine. He could really box. He's in the penitentiary."
It turns out that Lunceford did some serious prison time himself. It followed a string of petty crimes--things like telephone harassment, misdemeanor theft, and fighting in school--many of which resulted in charges against Lunceford that were later dropped. He really isn't sure what drove him to such wrongheadedness, seeing as how he was born 36 years ago to God-fearing Catholic parents who always taught him right from wrong. His dad was the legendary Eli Whitney "Speck" Lunceford, who trained hundreds of young boxers out of an East Dallas neighborhood and coached for years at the North Dallas Boxing Gym. Speck--nicknamed for a dark freckle on the tip of his nose--died in 1992 after a long battle with cancer.
While the disease ate away at Speck, his only son was doing time in the Coffield Unit of the Texas state prison system for aggravated assault. It was a lesser charge than what the Dallas County district attorney originally sought for Lunceford's 1989 crime. Lunceford, who supported himself, two successive wives, his love of boxing, and a cocaine habit during the mid-'80s as a bouncer at numerous Northwest Highway strip bars--pummeled a man during a drug transaction and left him for dead. The district attorney wanted him for attempted murder, but Lunceford's lawyer pleaded the charge down to aggravated assault.
Lunceford was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served 18 months and spent another nine months in drug rehabilitation and doing community service. He was released from Coffield Unit on May 5, 1992. Two weeks later, his father died.
"My dad was so disappointed in me; I've never been lower," says Lunceford, pulling off his white Dr Pepper Shootout gimme cap and running his hand through hat-mashed brown hair. In his youth, Lunceford was a quick plug of a guy--5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. He first climbed into the ring at age 4, and his dad was in his corner then and forever after. Lunceford won three Dallas Golden Gloves crowns and at his prime in his early 20s boxed as a middleweight. He boasts of a professional record of 14-1-1, with seven wins by K.O. Today he is softer-bellied and the father of a 4-year-old son. He stretches his words out and halts frequently in midsentence. He uses his hands to register his points, chopping the air or pointing his index and middle fingers in a horizontal "V" directly at his subject.
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.
But Darla came along and started training at Nuway. Big changes give a guy the opportunity to think, and Lunceford started thinking about what might be done with Darla's untapped boxing talent. When he looks at her now he sees potential. And money.
There's nothing new about women in the boxing ring. The American Boxing Association has accepted women fighters, and there is now a Women's International Boxing Federation--the only organization in the world that sanctions women's boxing. Christy Martin, a 28-year-old protege of promotion god Don King, is tops in her field after slugging her way to a bloody decision over Deirdre Gogarty last spring in an undercard of the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno match. The West Virginia coal miner's daughter made $15,000 for that bout; for his win, Tyson raked in $30 million.
And right here in Big D, Katherine "Bunny" Etheridge, a far stronger and more devoted boxer than Darla, is working on a serious boxing career. Etheridge was the women's Dallas Golden Gloves champion in 1994, only the second year women were allowed in the competition.
In contrast to Darla, the 20-year-old Etheridge is stocky and plain and she doesn't cotton much to make-up and fussy hair. She is one of those "big girls" to whom Lunceford so indelicately refers.
"There's no doubt that Christy Martin is very talented and that more ladies could get to that place," Lunceford says. "But let me bottom-line it for you. The thing that keeps most girls from getting in the ring is the violence. They don't want to get hit in the face. I mean, one well-placed punch could bust their nose. No pretty girl wants that."
Surely no sane man wants that either, but that is a quibble. "It's different with guys," Lunceford says. "They're supposed to get cut up."
Lunceford follows this enlightened path to its inevitable end. To get more "girls" into fighting--more "cute girls" to be precise--someone has to come up with adequate face and chest protection. And Lunceford and his boss, Harold Helm, are just the men to do it.
Their dream goes like this: Helm will design and patent a special face mask--with a vertical bar from the forehead to the chin--that will protect the nose and eyes from damage. Helm says he's also working on a special chest guard that will cushion the breasts from blows. Once that's done, Helm says, he'll use his connections in the boxing world to start a whole new women's boxing association. Currently, women who fight competitively do so with minimal protection--and certainly not helmets. Helm and Lunceford claim that with their plan, women will flow into the boxing gyms.
When asked to show a prototype--even a rough sketch--of these new face and breast guards, Helm says he doesn't have one. "I'm working on it," he says.
"With our own association we could have our own sanctioned belt. And the women wouldn't be afraid to fight because their looks could be preserved. Let's face it," Helm continues. "Most of the women who want to box have jobs where their looks are important. They're secretaries, or waitresses, or, let's face it, club dancers. So they don't want to do anything that would hurt their looks."
Harold Jr. has been standing beside his father during this human anatomy lecture, listening attentively and nodding in agreement. At age 25, Junior is a chip off the old block, with a tree stump of a body and a faint mustache that more resembles a smear of mud than facial hair. Junior adds: "This added protection is going to be very important, especially the breast protection. I mean, to guard against breast cancer and everything, you know."
In the minds of these men, the brass ring is right there waiting to be grabbed. All they need is the right kind of promotion. And Darla.
"As I see it, my deal is to try to get Darla in the kind of shape where she can really compete," Lunceford says. "Eventually we might get her to a Don King event--an all-women card with Christy Martin as the main event and Darla as the semimain event. Give people a chance to see what a pretty girl can do.
"The key is going to be in the matchups," he says. "If we do this right, Darla will be the good guy, and good always triumphs, right? I mean, if this was Darla the drug addict, the penitentiary gal, we wouldn't have a prayer. But she is so clean she squeaks. She'll be a killer."
Darla has taken off her earrings, and four rings from her fingers, in anticipation of a training session with Lunceford. She begins slowly weaving yards of black cotton tape around and between her fingers--wrapping her hands for stability before donning her boxing gloves.
The first time she hit someone--hard--in the ring, she remembers feeling "weird, scared, like I'd done something wrong." But the more she has trained and sparred with men, the more aggressive she has become. The last time she sparred with Campitelli, for instance--the day he offered her a dollar for every time she socked him in the nose--she got madder with each punch he threw.
"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.