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'I Am A Boxer': Fighter In The Ring, Lady Outside It

Part of a series with WNYC on female boxers

This summer in London, female boxers will compete in the Olympics for the first time. The women competing for a spot on the U.S. team will make history, but few know who they are — and why they box.

Women who box love it for the same reasons men do. Boxing requires intense physical and psychological discipline, the ability to overcome fear and anger.

"I think boxing is therapeutic. It keeps you under control," says Bertha Aracil, an amateur boxer.

The 29-year-old lives in the Bronx, loves to cook and is part of a big family of Cuban immigrants. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, Aracil wears jeans, boots and a white undershirt, but on Facebook, she looks as gorgeous and comfortable in a bikini.

As a teenager, Aracil was the pit bull. Like a lot of guys who box, she was a street fighter first, until she got locked up for five years.

"Before I started boxing, I thought you have to be in the ring and be angry to actually win. ... You can actually be calm and happy and win," she says. "That's what I like about boxing, because I can't believe I can actually fight in the ring and think. When you beat somebody, you're better than them. That's what's satisfying [to] me."

Women Step Into The Ring

Any good boxer derives that kind of satisfaction. What's different for a woman? She's taking on a challenge no one expects her to attempt.

"I think women are one of the fiercest competitors there are, but they've been taught to suppress a lot of things," says coach Gloria Peek with USA Boxing. "It's not ladylike to do this."

In a California boxing gym, Peek helps train a diverse group of fighters that Aracil will have to beat in order to make the U.S. Olympic team. Peek started boxing in the 1970s, against many odds.

"My mother dressed me up so pretty in these little dresses and everything like that, and I'd come home with my dress torn, bleeding and all that because I'd been in a fight," she says.

Her mother would tell her it was ladylike to be afraid and not fight.

"Why? Nobody has an intelligent answer," Peek says.

Now she calls boxing the last great domain of men.

"I think of it as like the gladiators and the immortals and the gods — that was always men. And now all of a sudden women have stepped into it," Peek says.

Aggressive And Sweet

Women like Mikaela Mayer have come forward. Mayer will compete against Aracil to represent the U.S. At 132 pounds, she's tall, with cover-girl looks, and says she wears heels as often as possible.

"I like the fact that I'm feminine outside the ring and on the streets, and I may not seem like a boxer but really I am a boxer, and I have that side to me," Mayer says. "I can be a woman, and I can be an aggressive athlete."

Tiara Brown is another opponent for Aracil.

"I want to be treated like the guys are treated — like a boxer. I don't want special treatment because I'm a girl," Brown says.

On the other hand, "for one, I have a big old juicy booty, and it's shaped like a cherry. I have abs of steel. And then I have these sexy, luscious lips. And I've got these guns on my arms. I'm a boxer, and I'm a girl boxer."

Aracil says she loves watching women box in the ring.

"I think that's real sexy," she says. "To go in the ring and switch up and be strong and take punches and receive them, it's showing me my strong side ... my fearless side. Nothing soft when I'm in the ring. I can be in there and be aggressive and fight, and get out of there and be sweet."

Mayer, Brown and Aracil will compete against each other and five other women to fight in the lightweight division on the U.S. Olympic team.

This story was produced with Sue Jaye Johnson, whose photo essay about women boxers appears in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Copyright 2012 WNYC

Marianne McCune
Marianne McCune is a reporter and producer for Embedded: Buffalo Extreme who has more than two decades of experience making award-winning audio stories. She has produced narrative podcast series for New York Magazine (Cover Story), helped start, produce and edit long-form narrative shows for NPR and public radio affiliates (Rough Translation; United States of Anxiety, Season Four), reported locally and internationally (NPR News, NPR's Planet Money and WNYC News) and produced groundbreaking narrative audio tours (SF MOMA, Detour). She is also the founder of Radio Rookies, a narrative youth radio series, that is still thriving at WNYC.