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Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’

Dan Neil's column on popular culture will appear weekly.

Lucia Rijker is a woman, and a beautiful one at that. Widely regarded as the best female boxer in the world, Rijker plays the evil Billie “The Blue Bear” in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby"--the dirty fighter upon whose gloves the movie turns. Her five on-screen minutes are some of the most vicious sequences in the cinematic fight game. And yet.

I got it into my head that I would like to spar with Rijker. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” said one of her former trainers, Freddie Roach of the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. I assured him that I would ask Rijker to go easy on me. He scoffed. “Once she gets in the ring, she doesn’t do easy.”

Born in Holland, Rijker came to Los Angeles in 1994 and is undefeated (17-0) in the junior welterweight division (145 pounds), with no good challengers on the horizon. Even after “Million Dollar Baby,” women’s boxing is still a comparatively small stage dominated by one iconic fighter at a time, one who can command the big paydays. At the moment that fighter is Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, who outweighs Rijker by 20 pounds.

My own boxing career ended on a cool day in September 1978. Actually, it was warm outside, but the canvas was so cool and so flat. What a pretty ceiling. I could have lain there forever.

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Yet when I considered the prospects of lacing up with Rijker, I was calm. After all, I’m pretty athletic. I have a half-foot and 40 pounds on her. The only women’s boxing I could remember seeing had been gloved catfights featuring clumsy, big-boned dames in ill-fitting sports bras, windmilling at each other in the center of the ring. I figured I would be OK.

I contacted Rijker’s manager, Tom Loeffler, and was surprised to learn just how banal my impulse was to measure myself against Rijker. Provoked by her reputation as the most dangerous woman in the world, men frequently challenge her. Some seem driven to reassert the dominance of the gender, like self-appointed great male hopes. Others have a perverse desire--and perverse is the word-- to be beaten to a pulp by a beautiful woman.

“It happens all the time,” Rijker said on the phone. In fact, with the rise of women’s boxing, mixed-gender matches are becoming common, though these lurid spectacles are unsanctioned “exhibitions.” In January, Tonya Harding beat up a guy for the amusement of beer-goggled patrons of a Delaware bar. My favorite: In 2001, a German junior flyweight named Regina Halmich pummeled brash, annoying TV personality Stefan Raab. I would pay good money to see Rijker thrash Bill O’Reilly.

Rijker, however, is a serious athlete. “I don’t want to be some freak show,” she said. And so we agreed that we wouldn’t spar, but that Rijker would give me a lesson.

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I meet Rijker at the La Brea Boxing Gym, where she trains these days. Hers is one of the world’s great faces, leonine and exotic, framed in copper ringlets. I’ve never had a crush on a boxer before. Rijker dresses out, returning to the ring in her tank top and satin shorts. This is the moment when I hear the bullet that I have dodged. Her arms are magnificent beings unto themselves, thick and roped over. They are stonecutter’s arms.

She asks me to shadowbox in front of the mirror. I begin punching the air. I move as if I have some kind of brain virus. “OK, stop,” she says. “Try to stay in touch with your body.” She offers a little demonstration. Rijker commences bobbing and weaving, sidestepping and head-feinting, filling the air with hard punches. I lose sight of her hands.

Oh my God! A chill runs down my spine as I realize this sweet-natured, lovely woman could rip my head off. It’s one thing to watch women boxing in a movie, or to witness their power packaged in a jokey exhibition match, or to accept it as the birthright of the daughter of “The Greatest.” It’s another to stand two feet away from a great female athlete and feel that energy tingling on your skin like radiation. Something heavy comes untethered in my psyche. I lower my head, and all I can think is: “Please, lady, don’t hit me.”

Rijker, who beats up her male sparring partners all the time, is clearly sympathetic. “Oh, good, you’re a fast learner,” she says encouragingly as we go through punching drills. I am not the first man she has helped across this particular bar.

After an hour, in which I strain my hamstring and sprain my wrist trying vainly to impress her, we say our goodbyes. She has two clients later that day. Rijker gives boxing lessons at a rate of $75 per hour. But considering the size of the lesson, she should charge a lot more.


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