To Her, with Glove

It took less than a minute to draw blood. A few jabs into round one, boxing superstar Christy Martin drove an uppercut straight into the face of Sumya Anani, a virtual unknown from Shawnee. Anani’s head snapped back and her body stiffened for a split second. But she didn’t buckle. Something inside her 140-pound frame awoke and forced her forward. She swung her fists as wildly as a child in a temper tantrum.

Christy Martin stumbled backward. Her pink trunks brushed against the ropes. When the bell rang a minute later, she slumped into her corner, a dash of red seeping from her dainty nose.

Martin was the sport’s most decorated veteran, with 10 years under her belt, millions of dollars in earnings, and fame like no other woman boxer had ever known. Two years earlier, more than a million people had seen her destroy Ireland’s Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of a Mike Tyson mismatch on Showtime. By all accounts, Martin’s had been the best fight of the night: two dolls going 10 bloody rounds. The sport, which had fought to gain legitimacy for more than a century, finally had its hero in Martin, a boxer with the full package — strength, skill, good looks, and a cocky attitude. With Don King as her manager, she had basked in the glory, appearing on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, CNN, Extra, and even an episode of Roseanne.

Anani, by contrast, had been boxing for only two and a half years. She’d embarked on her career reluctantly, after seeing Martin’s picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She had pursued the sport not for the glory but for the challenge, though she had longed for Martin’s paychecks. For this 1998 fight, Martin received more than 10 times Anani’s $10,000 fee.

The gap in experience between the two boxers was apparent. Martin, known as “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” kept her gloves close to her face, delivering swift, efficient punches. Anani fought with abandon, like a schoolyard brawler.

“Anani is just nonstop offense!” barked ringside commentator Carl King, son of the infamous, wild-haired Don. “But she’s not throwing punches with a target in mind. And that’s not a good thing to do with Christy Martin.”

Anani wasn’t listening. In the second round, she caught Martin off balance with a glancing blow, forcing the fighter to her knees. Near the end of round three, she stunned Martin with a monster left hook to the face. The champ’s eyes grew as wide as a cartoon’s and she hid behind her fat, red gloves. Sensing pain, Anani moved in, driving blow after blow into Martin’s head and torso. Martin stumbled backward and the crowd at Ft. Lauderdale’s War Memorial Stadium rose to its feet, roaring for blood. Martin cowered against the ropes as Anani plastered her with dozens of unanswered shots. The bell sounded, saving Martin from a certain TKO.

Martin stepped up her offense in the middle rounds, brawling toe to toe with the upstart from Kansas. But each punch only jolted Anani with more energy. She hung close to the champion, swinging like a windmill. Martin’s silky white tank top grew rosy with blood and sweat. Her face swelled like dough. Anticipating an upset, Carl King shifted his allegiance. “The next hurricane to come through Florida is going to be called Sumya!” he crowed to the audience tuning in on satellite TV. “She’s a welcome addition to the King family, I can tell you that!”

By the final bell, Martin was pretty no more. Snakes of sweaty hair streaked across her lacerated face. Her doe eyes sunk deep into her puffed-up cheeks. She draped a towel over her head as the master of ceremonies took center ring, dapper in his tux. “The winner by majority decision,” he bellowed, “‘The Island Girl,’ Sumya Anani!” Anani’s trainer, Barry Becker, hoisted her on his shoulders and she raised her arms in triumph.

She’d scored the biggest upset of the year. But most of the world would never know.

“Close your eyes,” Sumya Anani says softly, barely audible above the whoosh of exhaled air. “Breathe deep. Clear your mind. Let all the day’s cares drift away.”All around her stand people in shorts, hands clasped together as if they were in prayer. An attentive teacher, Anani moves from student to student, correcting postures, gently guiding suburbanites along the path to divine unity. Before she took up boxing, she was a yoga devotee. She still practices the Eastern art three or four times a week; she teaches it at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park on Tuesday nights. Here, beneath the green glow of fluorescent lights, Anani’s physical prowess shines. As the students teeter and strain in their asanas, she slides in and out of her postures with graceful ease, twisting her figure into shapes approaching art. “Your body is the performer,” she tells the students while balancing on her left foot, bending over and stretching out her arms and right leg to form a perfect T. “Your mind is the observer.”

Before discovering yoga, Anani earned a license in massage therapy. When she got her first massage, she thought, “This is what I want to do. I would love to make people feel like this.” It’s spiritual for her, an exchange of energy, a way to be nurtured by nurturing others.

“Hands can hurt, hands can heal,” she often says without explanation. Yet to her it’s not a contradiction. Boxing is but a natural component of a holistic pantheon, a balance of body, mind, and spirit. It’s the pinnacle of her coming of age, a quest rooted in her painfully uncertain teenage years. As a student at Shawnee Mission North High School, she was mired in self-doubt. She longed to be an athlete but was too scared to even try. She thought sports were just for the popular kids, and she had only a few friends. Other kids ignored her, barely noticed her in the halls. Like many enterprising and ambitious adults, she now strives to compensate for younger years squandered on fear.

The rebirth began after graduation, while she was attending Johnson County Community College. There was massage and yoga and weight lifting, which she took up on a whim only to discover that she was strong. While she was training she met Becker, a former Kansas City Golden Gloves winner who had always dreamed of being a pro champ. “You’re so strong,” he’d tell her, over and over again. “You’re built for boxing.”

“Oh, whatever,” she’d reply, still unsure of herself. She figured he probably told that to everyone he met.

Still, the former boxer intrigued her. She was enthralled by his tales of conquest in the ring. They became close friends. He introduced her to Tommy Morrison. They vacationed together at Becker’s beachside condo in Jamaica. While they were there, Becker watched her wrestle a strapping Jamaican much larger than she. There was no quit in her. She kept battling the man until she wore him out.

She loved the island so much she decided to stay for a six-month stretch. Becker went back to the States, and when he returned to Jamaica, he could barely contain his excitement: “This could be you!” he said to Anani without even saying hello, shoving an issue of Sports Illustrated in her face. Staring out from the cover was Christy Martin.

Anani flipped through the glossy pages, glancing with disdain at all the bloody photos. “Why would I want to do this?” she thought.

A few months later, she returned to the States. Becker greeted her with an announcement: “I booked your first pro fight!” The match was just three weeks away. She barely had time to train. She probably never would have done it, but she was broke and the fight paid 600 bucks.

As the match approached, Anani was overcome with fear and doubt. Fighting, it seemed to her, was against her principles. In treading the path of yoga, she had come to ascribe to certain moral precepts. In principle, yoga practice forms a ladder leading to perfect knowledge, and the first rung is yama, or self-control, which requires, among other things, a commitment to nonviolence. The night before the fight, she shared her concerns with a friend. He reminded her of the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit poem upheld as the central text of Hindu belief. It takes the form of a dialogue between the incarnate god Krishna and a human hero, Prince Arjuna. The two converse on a battlefield where Arjuna is to wage war against friends and relatives. The mortal is unwilling to do this, but Krishna convinces Arjuna that his role on earth is to be a warrior, to fight and kill. Reminded of this sacred text, Anani accepted her lot and stepped into the ring, dealing Jessica Breitfelder of Springfield the second loss in her 0-and-3 career.

The Authentic Boxing Club is tucked in the basement of an old West Bottoms warehouse. All along its whitewashed walls, posters framed in bright red boast boxerly incantations — “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t!” The only framed photo is one of Sumya Anani poised before Christy Martin, ready to duck in and unload a brutal combination. It hangs facing the ring where Anani dances, exchanging blows with a woman 60 pounds heavier than her. “You carry your weight very well,” she told the fellow boxer before they donned their headgear and put up their dukes.Though Eastside Boxing Club on Prospect is her home gym, Anani spars all over town. Her partners range from burly men in their early 20s to aspiring female heavyweights to boys in their teens. She’s welcome everywhere, a star in Kansas City’s small but thriving boxing scene. Anyone who knows boxing will agree: Pound for pound, she’s about the best boxer around. And you can’t find a nicer person. Her voice is gentle, her words sweet; she gives hugs unconditionally. It shows in the clothes she wears in the ring: all tie-dyed in bright colors to evoke the spirit of the ’60s — the good parts, the peace and the love. Her ringside crew wear tie-dye shirts too, with a meditation silk-screened on their backs: “Our mission on earth: to learn all we can, to discover all possibilities, to love and accept ourselves and others, and to be free!”

She’s too nice, some people say — not the least of whom is Becker, her trainer. Anani just doesn’t have that instinct to kill, he gripes. Yet she nearly did kill a woman. On December 12, 1996, at the Firefighter’s Union Hall in St. Joseph, she punched Katie Dallam so hard and so often that Dallam’s brain began to bleed.

Anani didn’t know what had happened until she got home the next day. Her answering machine was filled with urgent messages. She called Danny Campbell, the fight’s promoter. “What’s going on?”

“Katie’s in the hospital,” he said. “She’s not in good shape.”

Anani and Becker rushed back to St. Joseph. They held a candlelight vigil in the waiting room while Dallam battled a coma and then underwent brain surgery. Anani offered to give a healing massage. She wrote a long, rambling letter offering Dallam space in her home. “We’ll sing songs and climb trees,” she wrote.

It was the sport’s darkest moment. No woman boxer had ever been injured so severely. One former boxing commissioner says that if Dallam had died it surely would have been the end of the sport.

But it didn’t kill Anani’s career. The best reason she can offer is that boxing simply felt right to her, as though it were her calling. When she steps into the ring she sees not another human being but herself, the shadow side of her being — the voices that tell her she’s not worthy, her fears, her self-doubt. The opponent is just a manifestation of these things, something tangible to overcome. And in Dallam they seemed particularly daunting: She was 35 pounds heavier, and more weight usually equates into a stronger punch. Anani had heard that Dallam was a professional kickboxer, though that wasn’t true. That night, fearful defense became fearsome offense. Anani faced Dallam down and waled away.

The Dallam victory was Anani’s fourth in a string of 16. But it wasn’t until her seventh bout, when she knocked out Kansas City’s own Stacy Prestage in 1997, that she began to take the sport seriously.

“Do you know who you just beat?” Becker asked in amazement after the fight ended in four rounds. Anani began to comprehend her potential. She’d just beaten a woman who had gone the distance against Christy Martin and had twice beaten Dierdre Gogarty, the second time for the International Female Boxing Association (IFBA) lightweight championship. Beating her, Anani knew, meant she had what it took to be the best in the world.

It would be another year before she got her chance to prove it. Late in the summer of 1998, Martin came to Kansas City to do some promotions for Ringside, a Lenexa boxing-equipment manufacturer. Martin needed a place to train, so she stopped by the Eastside Boxing Club. Jim Fulton, Anani’s manager and owner of the gym, introduced himself to Martin and her husband and trainer, Jim.

“I’ve got a girl who works out here in the gym who would make a good fight for you,” he said. “Her name’s Sumya.”

Jim Martin had never heard of her.

“She’s not in your league,” Fulton said. “She’s a Midwest fighter. She’ll be a safe fight for you. But she will fight, so she’ll make a good show.”

Fulton downplayed Anani’s unbeaten record. He told the pair to consider who she’d fought — beginners, mostly, from the Midwest. He didn’t let on that he thought Anani could beat her.

This is how boxing works: Once fighters attain star status, their managers and trainers tend to steer them away from serious challengers. The goal is to keep their records clean so they can attract fans and make lots of money.

A month later, Fulton got a call from Jim Martin. The fight was a go. The showdown was set for November 13, 1998. It would be in Las Vegas. And Showtime was all set to broadcast the bout into more than a million homes.

Sumya Anani cooled in her room at the Las Vegas Hilton. It was 4 in the afternoon, just a few hours before she was to go to her dressing area to prepare for her match against the infamous Christy Martin. The phone rang.”Have you heard?” asked a friend on the other end of the line. “The fight’s off.”

Becker and Anani were dumbfounded. They thought their friend was joking. “We’re on Showtime and they’re pulling out of the fight?” Becker said, incredulous. “That’s never happened!”

The Showtime people were equally miffed. Martin had backed out because of “an unspecified illness,” ringside announcer Steve Albert told the disappointed audience. “That’s the official reason. But rumors of other reasons persist.”

Albert turned his mic to Martin’s promoter, the ever-smiling Don King, and grilled him: “Is this a case of yellow fever, or green?”

Becker believes it was a mix of the two: The Martin camp found out Sumya was tough and they didn’t want Martin to fight her on TV.

That night, Martin violently denied such cowardice. Becker spotted her ringside during the top-bill match. She was all dressed up and didn’t look remotely ill. She apologized for backing out.

“Will you fight us on the next card?” Becker asked her.

“That’s like calling me chicken,” she said.

“I just want to know.”

She didn’t answer. She lunged forward and clamped a chokehold on Becker’s neck.

Money was the real issue. By all accounts, the “illness” was contractual in nature. To Showtime’s cameras, King had spun the blame Martin’s way. “She’s getting bad advice,” he said, flashing a wide, used-car-salesman grin. Without offering details, he gave the impression that Martin had suddenly asked for too much money.

Fulton heard a different version a few months later. Jim Martin had told him that just hours before the match, King had dropped a new contract in their laps and told them to sign it or there’d be no bout. They opted for the latter.

Then there’s a strange third reason, told from two slightly different points of view. According to Rod Mahaffey, a matchmaker and self-professed “bible of women’s boxing,” all of Christy Martin’s fights had been arranged under contract wherein the winner would grant a year’s worth of promotional rights to Don King. A victory by Anani would have presented a serious threat to Martin’s gravy train. With King as her promoter and with the benefits of his TV connections, Martin was — and still is — able to command outrageous paychecks for her bouts, generally 10 to 15 times what other boxers of her caliber make. If Anani were to dethrone her, she could steal her riches.

But according to the Anani camp, they’d crossed out that clause in the fight contract, meaning that Martin had less to be afraid of. The gamble, it would seem, was all King’s. Without assurances that the fight would be a win-win situation for him, it would make sense for him to postpone it until he could find a smaller, hidden venue.

Anani’s handlers, however, say the clause would have transferred more than Anani’s promotional rights to King. He wanted her managerial rights as well. She would have, in essence, become his property for the next three years. That didn’t appeal to them at all. To them, Don King seemed as crooked as they come, and they didn’t want to have to hire five lawyers every time Anani would fight.

But King clause or no, Anani still had a contract to fight Martin. So the match was rescheduled for a month later, in Ft. Lauderdale. The entire day of the fight, the promoters tried to throw Anani off her game. She was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a phone call from a Don King employee. She was given a dressing room barely as wide as her wingspan. And it was Martin’s walk to the ring that was accompanied by Anani’s chosen prefight song: In a world that keeps on pushing me around, well, I’ll stand my ground. And I won’t … back … down.

Worst of all, the fight wasn’t broadcast on Showtime. Instead of millions, a meager audience of 600 tuned in to watch the match on U. S. Satellite Broadcasting. To this day, Becker’s convinced they were robbed. “It killed us,” he says, shaking his head. “There’s no telling where we’d be now if that first fight had happened.”

As Anani’s entourage left the ring victorious, King caught Jim Fulton’s eye. “Where in the hell did you get that girl?” King asked. Fulton remembers that King was flashing his teeth but there wasn’t a drop of smile in his eyes.

“Oh, she’s just one of those good ol’ corn-fed girls from the Midwest,” Fulton said.

The ringing phone awakened Fulton early the following Monday. “My brother,” crooned Don King from the other end of the line. “How you doin’ this morning?”King wanted him to fly down to Florida to discuss a buyout of Anani’s contract. Fulton obliged, but he never met with the famed promoter. Instead, the Kansas City businessman spent eight solid hours listening to King’s son, Carl, gab about everything but the worth of the young boxer who had just beaten the Kings’ lady champ.

They weren’t even close in their negotiations. Fulton went in toeing a bottom line of a six-figure salary and a minimum six fights per year. The best Carl King could offer was $45,000 and four fights per year.

On behalf of Anani, Fulton refused. Though the offer was more than Anani earns now, she feared that King would have kept her out of the limelight. He already had his star in Martin, and virtually no one had seen Martin beaten. It was safer to buy out the competition. This was a classic King ploy. “That very possibly would have happened with Sumya,” says Rod Mahaffey, a top women’s matchmaker who has close ties to the King camp. “He’s got a lot of good fighters he never uses. Melissa Salamone, for example. She’s a great fighter and he’s never gotten her a fight. She’s a classic technician. It’s not exciting to watch her fight. He wants someone flashy, someone pretty.”

Sumya Anani hides the pictures that hang on her basement walls. Pressed beneath the glass in each are photos and press clippings spotlighting her career as a boxer. Becker had them professionally matted and framed. Her name is meticulously written in tie dye across each one. “I spent a lot of money on those, Sumya,” he complains.”I told him to take these down,” she says, moving from picture to picture, facing them against the wall. “It’s embarrassing to have people come over and see these. It’s like I’m showing off. Boxing has been his dream and he’s, like, living it through me.”

Hanging among the collages is a fight poster from 1999. A sparkly-eyed Anani stares out from it, her face smooth under a layer of makeup. “She just beat Christy Martin!” the poster’s bold letters proclaim.

Anani was the headline on an all-woman card Fulton arranged to have broadcast on pay-per-view. Fulton lost a lot of money on her match, and he’s suing the copromoter, but Anani’s lack of willingness to promote the event certainly didn’t help. He had asked her to fly to New York and Los Angeles in the weeks leading up to the fight, to make appearances on radio and TV. But she feared such excursions would disrupt her training and leave her vulnerable in the ring. So Fulton honored her wishes and tried to make do.

The fight was for the IFBA Intercontinental Junior Welterweight title. Anani beat Dora Webber of Paterson, New Jersey, in 10 rounds, and the bejeweled championship belt is now prominently displayed in her living room. It was the third of only five fights she’s had since beating Christy Martin. The wave of fame and fortune that would logically follow such a triumph never came. Instead, she’s had difficulty finding opponents.

Part of the reason is fear. Anani beat the champ. She carries a veneer of invincibility. Promoters and managers are not eager to risk their fighters’ health and records for a small paycheck and little publicity.

But there’s a bigger force at work as well. Boxing has always been a sport beset with unfairness. Taken as whole, it more closely resembles entertainment, like some carefully controlled fiction. Boxers are less athletes than personalities, and the most popular win the biggest breaks. This goes double for women boxers, who face challenges beyond their opponents: “People don’t expect a woman to be in the ring,” observes Shelley Williams, former commissioner of the IFBA. “They expect her to be in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. The man brings home the bacon. The woman raises the family.”

The most successful female pugilists are little more than walking ironies. They’re Playboy bunnies, such as Mia St. John, who can take a punch to the nose and still dance around the ring shaking her sexy ass. Or they bear the names of former male champions, pitted against one another — as Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde soon will be — so boxing fans can see the sport’s greatest moments reincarnated in unskilled female form.

But those who know women’s boxing, those who call themselves “purists,” scoff at these freak shows. “Mia St. John is the biggest joke in boxing,” says matchmaker Mahaffey. “I can think of 20 boxers who can kill her. I once told her manager, Bob Arum, he must have the address of every cemetery in California to find opponents for her.”

Mahaffey and others like him complain that the real athletes, such as Anani, are being passed over. They blame the promoters, managers, and TV executives who run the sport — and are motivated purely by greed. This lot would gladly sink the sport just to fill an arena for one lucrative night. This is most apparent in the arc of Martin’s career. When she beat Gogarty on Showtime, dedicated fans thought their deliverance had arrived. “She could have been the Billie Jean King of women’s boxing,” Mahaffey says. But Martin, with the help of Don King, quashed the renaissance. In her Sports Illustrated interview she said she couldn’t care less about women’s boxing; she was in it only for herself. So she and her crafty promoter steadfastly protected her indomitable image by cherry-picking opponents and hogging the few available TV fight slots.

Yet dedicated fans still cling to hope that a fighter with all of Martin’s talent and 10 times her benevolence will rise up. All it would take to catapult true female pugilists into the mainstream, they believe, is one outstanding fight shown on Showtime or HBO or as the undercard of a big-time men’s title match on pay-per-view.

And Anani is on the short list for this moment of glory. It might happen. She’s switched managers; her career is now in the hands of Tony Holden, one of the top five promoters in the world. He worked his way up in the business by making connections for premiere venues and TV time slots. He’s only recently begun building a stable of fighters, and Anani is one of his elite few, which include up-and-comer Cory Spinks and former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer. Holden’s top goal for Anani: a bout on HBO against Lucia Rijker of Holland, whom virtually everyone hails as the best female fighter in the world.

But booking the fight is sure to be an uphill battle. HBO has never carried a female bout. Its producers have been candid in their disdain for the sport. And Rijker has taken to handpicking her opponents, protecting her record as diligently as Martin has, though she hasn’t reaped near as many financial rewards.

So for now, Sumya Anani must bide her time, training in gyms around KC, picking up fights wherever Holden can get them, often not knowing until days before the match whom she’ll be up against.

Anani carefully places the objects on a long folding table: three bird feathers, a teddy bear, a photo of her embracing her son, Matthew, on the edge of a mountain, and a postcard bearing the likeness of a Hindu god. The makeshift shrine becomes a focal point in her makeshift locker room — a tent, really, poised on the edge of the Harrah’s Casino parking lot in St. Louis. Barry Becker helps wrap her wrists and laces up her gloves. She’s quiet, determined, summoning her energy. It’s September 17. Tonight she will fight for the first time in three months, against an opponent she met only three days ago. Anani’s the co-headliner of this six-bout card — dubbed “Knockout Night 3” — though the star of the show is Cory Spinks. The likeness of the brash son of the man who once beat Muhammad Ali is everywhere, glaring out from the programs and laminated all-access badges that float through the crowd.The evening’s darkness deepens and cool air settles around the ring, which rises from the pavement like a parade float. Mark Beiro takes center stage, a black bow tie around his neck, a wireless mic in his right hand. “Our next event will feature female boxers!” he bellows, and the crowd goes nuts, hooting louder than it has all night.

A figure in black squeezes through the ropes and paces in circles around the ring. Her head hangs low, shrouded beneath a black towel that tapers around her neck like a hood. She stalks as the night air comes alive with a sultry island groove. Anani bounces in with her entourage, their tie-dyes ablaze. She smiles at the crowd and waves her red, padded fists.

Britt VanBuskirk ignores her. She stares at the mat and shakes looseness into her limbs, surely knowing that she’s not the star of this show, that everyone expects her to lose. The prefight hype has been all about Anani, with nary a mention that VanBuskirk once was ranked the best woman fighter in the world. That was 16 years ago, after all — ancient history in the post-Christy Martin world. Now she’s just a chump for hire from Makanda, Illinois, a has-been with a losing record. A year ago, Lucia Rijker knocked her out in the third round.

When she lifts the towel from her head, laughter ripples through the crowd. She’s tall and lanky, her hair cropped short in a mannish crew, face chiseled and rough as a roadworn refugee’s. The fierceness in her eyes sharpens. She stares down Anani.

The two boxers touch gloves, the bell sounds, and the action unfolds slowly and awkwardly at first. They’re like junior high kids on a first date, cautiously poking at each other, trying to catch a spark. Anani is testing the length of VanBuskirk’s reach. The challenger is a good half-foot taller than Anani, and she has long arms to match. When Anani does find space to duck in between the limbs, she delivers powder-puff jabs, as if she’s sparring with a beginner back in KC. “C’mon!” yells a man from the $90 seats. “Box!” When the bell rings to end the two-minute round, it’s hard to name a point winner. It seems as if they didn’t fight at all.

Midway through round two, Anani breaks through with a fast left jab and blood explodes from VanBuskirk’s nose. The intensity heightens, and the gap in skill level between the two boxers becomes apparent. Her jab has evolved from her reckless early days: Now it’s Anani who is the seasoned pro, keeping her gloves close to her face, delivering swift, efficient punches. This time it’s VanBuskirk who fights like a nervous schoolyard brawler. Anani appears to be winning on points, but she also seems to be holding back, pushing her punches instead of snapping them against VanBuskirk’s head. At the end of rounds two and three she lays her glove on her opponent’s waist and looks her in the eyes as if to ask, “Are you okay?”

The fighters sag in their corners, gasping up their minute’s rest. Trainers shove Q-Tips into VanBuskirk’s nose, swabbing away the blood. Becker douses Anani with water. “You gotta be tough, baby!” he shouts, his teeth clenched like a bear. “Come on! Be mean to her!” A buxom model saunters by in a minidress as tight as paint, holding the “Round 4” card above her head. LL Cool J booms from the PA system: I’m gonna knock you out! Mama said knock you out!

The bell rings, the boxers dance, and suddenly Anani is on the mat, shaking the blur out of her eyes. Out of nowhere VanBuskirk’s right fist catches the side of her head. The referee counts and Anani struggles to her wobbly feet. VanBuskirk is so excited, she can’t find her neutral corner. She’s hopping up and down, swinging her arms like an ape. Anani jumps back in VanBuskirk’s face, looking like the “Island Girl” of old — fired up by adversity, her survival instinct awakened.

But through the last two rounds, VanBuskirk’s awkward style disrupts Anani’s flow. When Anani shuffles to the outside, looking for openings to force her left through, VanBuskirk clips her with stinging blows. When she charges to the inside, the gangly challenger smothers her in a hug. She tries to force herself free, throwing uppercuts to the face and breasts. She connects with most of the punches, but each hit seems only to strengthen VanBuskirk’s resolve. The tempo quickens, each second filled with the melon thud of fists striking, sweat sparking into the floodlit glow. It’s an explosive melee and the crowd loves it. People are on their feet and roaring right through the last flurry of punches, which come all at once like the finale on the Fourth of July.

“We have a split decision,” Beiro informs the crowd. He gives the results slowly, milking the drama of the moment: 57 to 56, Anani; 58 to 55, VanBuskirk; and 57 to 56 “to the winner, Britt VanBuskirk!”

He looks to Becker and ashamedly shakes his head. The fighters hug and pose for a picture, and then their entourages leave the ring. “Oh, that was a foul ball!” Becker shouts on his way back to the tent. “Sumya won that fight!” A couple women stop Anani and ask for her autograph.

Back in the dressing room, Anani slumps in a folding chair and wipes sweat from her arms and forehead. Her head hangs downward yet her eyes look up, soft but wide, as if to ask, “What’s next?” Becker hovers above her, unable to sit down. He goes over the bout again and again, practically whining as he tries to understand why she didn’t fight as hard as he knows she can. He shadowboxes, emphasizing key points. She should have been tougher, he says, the way she was against Katie Dallam. He tells her they need a rematch, they need to bring VanBuskirk to KC. He worries that their hopes for a match against Rijker have been dashed. “I’m never going to get over this!” he cries.

Anani has little to say. She nods and takes her scolding and folds into a long embrace with her trainer as the night fills with the crush of hip-hop beats. Cory Spinks rolls by in a convertible red Corvette, sided by two fly girls bulging in their Barbarella gear, holding aloft signs with his name written in glitter, escorting him through the hometown crowd that came to see him win.

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