There are all different kinds of boxers — lightweights and heavyweights, brawlers and counter punchers, those who remain overly guarded because they never get used to taking punches. And then there are boxers like Alyssa Pierce.
"The first time I really got hit was in a drill very early in my first or second week in the gym. It was with an experienced boxer who just landed one right on my face," she says. "I think the first time I got hit really hard, I had to decide, 'Am I OK with that?' I got over it pretty easily. Some people just learn to keep their hands up and some don't."
When it comes to taking a punch, you can overcome a glass jaw by strengthening your neck and take quick breaths to tense your abs with every body blow, but none of it will matter if you don't know how to react.
As Pierce and her sparring partner Zoe Caplan bounce around the ring, they size up one another and trade a few glancing blows. Pierce is by far the more animated of the two, a characteristic that earned her the nickname Sparky in the gym. Caplan on the other hand seems to be the more measured fighter — a heavy hitter but with a surgeon's sense of precision. The two circle one another, each trying to draw the other out, neither backing down.
They both know that boxing is a sport of rhythm and speed, but also one of power and patience. For many great fighters, it has always been a bit of a waiting game.
Covering Rocky Marciano's 1955 bout with Archie Moore for the New Yorker, A. J. Liebling wrote, "The champion doesn't mind waiting five or 10 minutes to give anybody a punch in the nose." Not much has changed over the past 60 years.
Finally, Pierce drops her left slightly, leaving just enough of an opening and Caplan goes in to land a solid right jab square on her opponent's cheek. Through the steady rumble of the gym, over the sound of the radio and slap of the gloves, you can hear Pierce let out a laugh. It's not the response you'd expect from someone who just took a hit to the face, but it is the sound of a fighter who's enjoying herself. Outside of the ring, coach Michael Golemis looks on with a critical eye, tracking the moves of each fighter.
"Women are easier to coach," says Golemis as he watches his two female students trade punches in the ring. "They don't bring any ego into the gym. Guys will come in and try to tell you what they know. Women will ask you what they need to know."
A member of the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame and co-owner of Hurricane Boxing on James Island, Golemis has studied boxing since he was a child. Looking back, it was the coach's mother who got him started in the sport after he took a beating from another kid in his neighborhood.
"She tells me, 'I'm taking you out to boxing classes. You need to learn to defend yourself.' I was 8, and I didn't want to do it," says Golemis. "I resisted and resisted, until finally she took me by the arm, put me in the car, drove me over to the playground, signed me up, and left me. I got beat to a pulp that first class, but I kept going back."
After years in the ring, Golemis now trains boxers like Pierce and Caplan. For the coach and his team, the sport is less about brute force and more about respect and empowerment, as Pierce is quick to point out.
"A lot of women especially will start boxing because they want to feel more confident and get that self-defense aspect of it. I can definitely attest to the fact, especially as a small woman, you get more confident in your ability to be physically strong," Pierce says.
Spending her days as a medical writer and editor at MUSC's Department of Neurosurgery, Pierce started boxing over a year ago and now trains on the competitive team five days a week at Hurricane Boxing. According to Pierce, she was sucked in by the competitive nature of the sport, but at 5-foot-2, 113 pounds, she's had difficulty finding opponents.
"It's really hard for a woman of my size to get a fight right now because there aren't that many women in South Carolina who are boxing, but more and more join all the time," she says. "I try to encourage women all the time because I'm hoping that women's boxing will grow as a whole just so that people like me have the chance to get out there and use what we've learned."
Women's boxing in South Carolina has gained attention recently with the rise of Anna Crutchfield from Traveller's Rest. The teenage powerhouse claimed a gold medal at the 2013 Junior Olympics and earned Ringside World Championship and South Carolina Golden Gloves titles before becoming the International Kickboxing Federation's world lightweight champion in 2015. Crutchfield shows no signs of leaving the competitive track as she continues to race toward her goal of becoming a professional fighter.
Pierce regularly works on her technique with Caplan, who splits her time between training at the gym and working as a Montessori school teacher. The transition from teaching toddlers to throwing punches may seem like a tough one to make, but for Caplan, boxing began three years ago as a way to overcome her fears, both in and outside of the ring.
"Boxing for me is incredibly terrifying. Actually being in there and fighting is terrifying. I have a lot of difficulty with anxiety, so it's been kind of a goal of mine to grow confident enough to get inside the ring and do what I know to do," she says. "Boxing has helped so much. I hadn't worked out in seven years before I came here, so the confidence that comes from watching your body change and watching your endurance improve, and the growth in terms of your respect to yourself, your respect for your body has just been amazing. It really makes you appreciate your body, what it can offer and what it can do for you."
Caplan adds, "With anything like this, the confidence you have with being a little more comfortable if something dangerous were to occur is really powerful. I know it impacted me a lot feeling that I could walk down the street and at least put up a really good fight. I think that with the skills and with the understanding of how to defend yourself comes respect."
Caplan began training others more than a year ago when coach Golemis offered her the opportunity as a way to grow as an athlete and a person. By breaking down boxing into its most basic components for her students, the Montessori teacher says she's been able to gain a better understanding of the mechanics of the sport and improve upon her own skills in the ring. For Golemis, teaching boxing is like building a house: You start with the foundation and work your way up. In the ring, that means beginning with the feet and a proper stance. From there, you continue your way up through the legs to the hips. Ultimately, you get to the shoulders and the hands, but the final step is making sure someone has the confidence to hold their own in any situation.
"For teaching, I remember my first couple of classes when coach gave me the reins, I stuttered through everything. I could not say what I wanted to say," Caplan says. "I spoke in a whisper, but over time I've grown so confident in what I'm doing and my role in this gym that I really am able to accomplish what I want to. Everyone in the gym has been great. I was really nervous about being a female and teaching men, but I haven't had an issue yet with that. It's definitely helped my confidence overall in socializing, even in outside situations."
Over the past few months, Pierce has taken her share of hits and has more or less gotten used to it, even though those close to her may still be a bit apprehensive about the bruises and black eyes. According to the young fighter, her parents were concerned when she first became involved with the sport, but it's her boyfriend who has to deal with the anxiety that accompanies dating a boxer.
"I get bruised pretty easily. It's not because I'm getting wailed on. It's just the way I am, but my boyfriend worries what people are going to think when I come home with a black eye, obviously," Pierce says. "He is always like, 'Can you please carry photographic evidence of you boxing at all times?' He worries more than I do. People might make negative assumptions, but I've never had a negative scenario play out because of it. You protect yourself as best you can, and that's the point of the sport. Coach trains us to protect ourselves really well, but you do take hits. I do sometimes have a cracked rib. I do sometimes have a black eye, but ultimately if you're OK with it, your friends will accept that you can handle it. You have to trust your own judgment about your own body."
Caplan says she's been met with mixed reactions as a boxer, but more often than not, people respond positively. Even those who have a difficult time understanding why anyone would want to step into the ring are still able to recognize when someone is doing what they love.
"My family is not 100 percent behind it, but they're supportive of my passion here," Caplan says. "Most people think it's kind of cool. It's not very often you find a female who boxes and trains and likes it. It's kind of a bizarre thing I get to do, especially in South Carolina, where there aren't very many of us female boxers around. I think it's cool."
And while women's boxing may still be growing and the punches show no signs of getting any softer, the two fighters plan to keep their heads down and continue boxing as long as they can, growing and improving with every bout.
"I hope to keep boxing in my life forever. People think of boxing as a sport where you are acting alone, but it is really a team sport," Pierce says. "We work together all the time. You go to everyone's fight and you watch your fighters fight. Even when I can't compete, I think about myself as being a part of that team, and I think that I'll try to keep that going as long as possible."