“If you are looking for Bally’s, this isn’t your place,” Chicago Boxing Club’s website says frankly. They’re not bluffing: the air on the second floor of 3508 South Halsted Street is filled with the whirring of industrial-grade fans and the dull triplet-thud of fists pounding into a speed bag. The smell of sweat, inner linings of boxing gloves, and leather punching bags create the muggy perfume of intensity. Humid heat rises from the sweat-lacquered bodies of boxers who are sparring in rings flecked with bloodstains. No frills, no bullshit–this is where champions are made.
Twenty-two-year-old Kristin Gearhart is busy putting on her boxing gloves. She dons a white T-shirt, a high ponytail, and a megawatt smile. There is a visible line of an Invisalign strip on her front teeth. Strikingly pretty–ironically the spitting image of the Bally Fitness type–Gearhart is the gym’s latest prodigy. With four consecutive Chicago Golden Gloves titles under her belt–the most recent one won on April 8–Gearhart is reaching for another kind of gold: victory at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Gearhart hops under the ropes and starts shadowboxing an imaginary opponent in the center of the ring. Her reflection flits across a mirror lining the back wall of the gym. Smiles have disappeared and the expression on her face is one of pure focus–ferocity, even. She exhales sharply with each punch. Above her right ankle is a bright tattoo: A pair of red boxing gloves, with a Croatian flag above it. Tattoos signify commitment, and this is the sort of love affair Gearhart has with boxing. “It’s sort of my death wish.”
Serendipity brought Gearhart to the South Side five years ago. Originally from Oak Park, she thirsted for something other than taekwondo. “I took boxercise classes when I was 15. I started and was, like, uh this is not real boxing.” By chance, Gearhart got into a conversation with her high school security guard, who recommended she check out the now-defunct Windy City Gym in Little Village. She enrolled in boxing lessons with coach Sam Colonna and fought her first fight five months later. When Windy City closed its doors, Gearhart moved with the rest of the gym to its new manifestation in Bridgeport, the Chicago Boxing Club. To Gearhart, these South Side gyms had more appeal than other clubs: “The South Side has roughness and grittiness; no matter how you dress it up, it is still the way it is. It definitely adds flavor to this gym.”
Boxing has thrived on the South Side since the turn of the 20th century. The innate toughness of an industrial metropolis was channeled as unmatched tenacity within the confines of the ropes. Boxing opened up new horizons for Chicago’s underprivileged citizens–beneath the spotlight of the boxing ring, sons of immigrant laborers and stockyard workers could become heroes. Fighters came from Bronzeville, Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, and the Maxwell Street ghetto. The first ever Golden Gloves Tournament was held in 1923 in the Chicago Stadium on 1800 West Madison Street under the sponsorship of the Chicago Tribune. Thousands of Chicagoans packed into the stadium to witness the brawls, and following the tournament, boxing venues began to spring up all over the South Side. On 47th Street, the Savoy Ballroom hosted boxing matches and had a prominent boxing club in the 1940s. Less than a mile away from Chicago Boxing Club’s gym, African-American legend Joe Louis defended his world champion title at Comiskey Park in 1937.
Chicago Boxing Club can trace its roots back almost 90 years, to Coulon’s Gymnasium on 1154 East 63rd Street established in 1921. Former champion Johnny Coulon and his wife, Marie, operated the gym for over 50 years, hosting the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Later renamed Windy City, the gym moved to a new site near Little Village where it became one of Chicago’s most famous boxing clubs. After Windy City closed down in 2007 due to building code issues, the gym was resurrected under the direction of Sam Colonna.
Colonna, Gearhart’s coach, leans against the wall opposite the ring with his arms folded. He watches meditatively as Gearhart shadowboxes, wearing an expression of approval. His dark brown eyes are mild and his face is heavy with a lifetime of experiences. “I train a lot of females but she is the best I’ve ever trained,” he says. “She’s a dedicated boxer–that’s what it takes. She talks and walks boxing; she’s a student of it.”
Colonna has been a fixture in Chicago’s boxing scene for decades. He describes his early days at Windy City Gym: “A coupl’a guys started, just coming in off the streets and before you knew it, they were the best.” After Windy City shut down in 2007, he moved the gym over to Bridgeport where the tradition of excellence continues. Colonna has worked with boxing legends such as Andrew Golota and Angel Manfredy, and now Kristin Gearhart. “I’ve got a lot of experience; that’s what it takes,” he explains. “I have learned to correct mistakes, be a great listener, and most importantly, to know what the boxer wants and needs.” Asked how he got into boxing, he replies wryly, “That’s a long story.” Born in Italy and raised on the South Side, Colonna possesses the innate grit that Gearhart mentions. A gunshot wound to the side ended his own boxing career over twenty years ago. His eyes become distant, and he says, “but that’s another long story.”
His gaze shifts back to Gearhart. He gestures with one of his folded arms, “When she first joined we called her the Million Dollar Baby–she’s got the looks, the smile,” Gearhart abruptly takes a break from practicing and hops over the ropes. “I pay him to say nice things about me,” she laughs. “Where’s my twenty dollars?” Colonna demands with an outstretched palm. Million Dollar Baby indeed.
Gearhart resumes her shadowboxing routine. Though her rival in the ring is imaginary, she has an opponent outside the ring which is all too real: her gender. Boxing is the only Olympic sport in which women are not allowed to compete; it has been deemed too dangerous a sport for females. But the London 2012 Olympics will change that: for the first time in the history of the sport, women will be allowed to participate. Though this is a huge step for women’s boxing, there are only three weight divisions, while there are ten weight classes for men. According to a 2009 New York Times article about the decision to include women’s boxing in the Games, “No other Olympic combat sport has so few weight divisions, and no other Olympic combat sport features noncontinuous divisions.” “It’s nice that women are in the Olympics,” Gearhart says, “but the system still isn’t fair.”Â Colonna echoes her thoughts: “I don’t think it’s completely right, but at least it’s a step forward.”
For Gearhart, the first step toward the Olympics is to get into the proper weight category. Naturally Gearhart is 139 pounds, but she aims to get into the 132-weight class. In a sport where weight is integral to the game, the weight loss will be a challenge. “It’s perfect timing, I’m the perfect age [to compete in the Olympics] just not the perfect weight.” The USA National Boxing Championships in late June will determine whether Gearhart will advance to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Two young boxers spar in a ring. Colonna leaves the wall he was resting on to coach them. He looks a boxer in the eye and speaks with him intently. Pouring water from a bottle onto the boxer’s face, Colonna gives him a firm pat on the back and the sparring carries on. Kristin watches the fight for a few moments before returning to her punching bag. Looking back at Colonna, she says, “He’s my second dad here at the gym–he is definitely a fatherly figure for everyone…He cares about everyone that walks into this gym.”
With her recent victory in the Chicago Golden Gloves competition and the 2012 Olympics tryouts on the horizon, buzz around Gearhart has been accumulating. Gearhart will face last year’s title holder, Queen Underwood of Seattle, at the National Championships in Colorado Springs. Though the competition is stiff, Gearhart isn’t concerned about monitoring her challengers; in fact, one of her opponents is her best friend. “Finding a fault in your opponent is looking for a way out. At the end of the day, it’s the winner who is the winner.” And if there is one thing Gearhart hates, it is a sore loser.Â She expresses annoyance at girls who go into the locker room post-fight and cry–“In the end,” she says bluntly, “it’s just a game. Yeah, I kicked your ass, but it’s nothing personal.”
But Gearhart faces her own internal battles. Her audience, friends, and family have come to expect her to win, putting extra pressure on each fight. “Everyone tells me before my matches ‘You’ll kick their ass’ or ‘you will whoop her butt,’ but in my head I wonder, what if I can’t? But as soon as I get into my groove, I forget about it.” She uses the back of a yellow-wrapped hand to wipe perspiration off her nose. “It takes a while to relax into the match. Sometimes I feel a little anxious and my knees are a little bit shaky, but you start to settle into a groove.”
In spite of the pressure and the attention of the local press, Gearhart has managed to stay focused, positive, and incredibly humble. “It helps to help out your fighters and encourage each other. By helping them, you see yourself like you were back in the beginning. It helps to have a variety of people…and a coach like Sam.” In preparation for the National Championships, Gearhart practices three to four hours a day, four days a week. “When you fight a good fight, you know you are going to win before you even hear the decision from the judge…In the end, I know when I’m supposed to win.”