When entering Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., some boxers mention that three female world champions train in-house. There’s no visible bragging that Hilary Swank became the “Million Dollar Baby” in their ring. Really, the whole gym is raw in nature with a labyrinth of punching bags and sweltering heat rising from the boxers. Titleholders pass through every day, but the champ that seems to produce an electrifying reaction is Chika Nakamura. It’s less because she’s a 5’9” Japanese boxer and more because her passion is infectious. “She’s amazing. I see her beating up guys. She’s so inspiring to me,” said seventeen-year-old Nicole Russell, who has been training at Gleason’s for three years.
Nakamura, 29, was born in Nara, Japan. She moved to the United States ten years ago to pursue a career as a boxer. She turned pro in 2003, competes in the lightweight division, and is ranked tenth in the world by the Women’s International Boxing Association. With a record of 5-0, she currently holds the New York State Golden Gloves title and is looking for more competition. Her June 29 opponent withdrew from the fight at the last minute for reasons unknown. Nakamura said, “Sometimes an opponent gets intimidated. Sometimes they are not serious in the business. Boxing is so intimidating it’s not worth it to get little money and get beat up bad. That’s why I train very hard and am always in top shape.”
For a lot of women, boxing is not their income-earning profession because they can’t afford for it to be. The purse sizes are typically small, and the opportunities for competition are few and far between. According to the information provided by New York state commission’s general counsel, a female boxer earns around $600 for her professional debut. But that number alters drastically depending on the boxer’s ability to sell tickets. Super middleweight champion Laila Ali’s purse size is at least six figures. Only in special cases are women capable of turning boxing into a full-time job. Nakamura is one of them. She trains others to support herself, which means she’s making money even when she is sparring.
There are no standards for pay in professional boxing because there is no official federal or world sanctioning body. This lack of unity has done major damage to the growth of the sport. Strengthening the professional level would also require providing more opportunities at the amateur level. Women’s boxing was denied inclusion in the 2008 Olympic Games, but the International Olympic Committee is considering a debut at the 2012 Games in London.
The life Nakamura lives is one of sacrifice. “I live kind of the monk’s life. I don’t party. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I eat healthy and get to sleep on time. Train every day. So my mentality is always ready.”
Nakamura’s toughness has been building since childhood. Growing up in Japan and wanting to box was unheard of. Women didn’t box. Nakamura played basketball and swam in high school, but there was no opportunity to learn how to box. “I didn’t have support from my family, so I pretty much managed myself. I became strong and mentally tough,” said Nakamura. The process of acquiring a green card has kept her from her family for over three years.
Trainer Carlos Ortiz and his wife, Maria, have become Nakamura’s American family. After four coaches, Nakamura knew she needed Ortiz as her coach. It’s been almost two years since Nakamura started training with Ortiz, and she’s still intimidated by his presence. “It was destiny. I was very fortunate. I never thought he was going to train me. He’s like my hero. Not Oscar De La Hoya, not Mayweather, not Muhammad Ali. It’s unbelievable how he was challenging and fighting anybody anytime,” said Nakamura, who sought out Ortiz because of his unique attack style. He was a three-time world boxing champion.
As if she wasn’t hardcore before meeting Ortiz, keeping up with him has brought her boxing to a new level, spiritually. “I take it very serious, not only because it’s dangerous, but also I want to do more. I don’t think it’s everything just to be fighting and beating a person out. I learn so much about life and the meaning of life. The more I struggle, the more I learn a lot spiritually and I want to give.”
Nakamura knows boxing isn’t forever and hopes to someday help others fulfill their dreams through charity work. With help from Maria, she is able to answer questions but can’t wait to attend college and study English. At this moment, boxing consumes her life, and while her career is on the upswing, school will have to wait. “The worst thing you can tell her is she can’t come to the gym and she can’t train,” said Maria.
Nakamura’s next fight is scheduled for August 3 in Monticello, N.Y., but she won’t know her opponent until a few days before the competition. She is looking to add more fights to her calendar, but no one has challenged her. Any takers?
Photo courtesy of Doug Harden