Fight Night

Tonight we had a variety of physical work on the table: fight choreography to map a suckerpunch, two fights between a grown man and a puppet, boxing choreography that condenses an entire bout into a dance of just a few (very complicated) minutes, and movement experts Jess Malone and Roxie Myhrum guiding us through it.

Preparing the boxing match scene is a particular kind of theatrical puzzle to solve. The final choreography will show Ash in the fight of her life, throwing punches, taking hits, and deploying footwork. The audience will only see Ash, but the entire bout — every punch and hook — needs to be fully mapped out with that her invisible opponent.

In the interest of tracking the dramaturgical arc of the fight, and Ash’s mental and physical journey, we’re taking a look at two real world bouts, with particular attention paid to Christina Hammer and David Haye as they track a path from bravado to defeat. (Click the Shields/Hammer video player below to enlarge — if the video player doesn’t appear for you, stream for free via Showtime here.)

Who’s Out There To Look Up To?

Ash is a female boxer about to turn pro, and with that shift comes an enormous change in what kinds of bouts she can fight, and the possible money on the line. Once pro, she’s no longer eligible for the Olympics, and the purse gets bigger. But women’s boxing is wildly under-resourced. Whereas a male pro boxer at the top of the game can sign a contract for more than 50 million dollars, the best women boxers only bring in a few hundred thousand dollars at the most.

Even though women’s boxing hasn’t been nurtured by promoters or audiences, there are amazing women boxing, and the most promising of the last ten years is Claressa Shields, a young Black woman from Flint Michigan.

Ash comes out of the rich amateur women’s circuit around San Francisco, and would surely have been looking for a role model in the pro field. The best, and maybe only person to look up to would be Shields. Like many amateur women boxers out there, it’s a fair assumption that Ash would voraciously follow Shields’ career highs and lows, which have been extensively documented in numerous articles, videos, tv shows, and in the 2015 documentary T-Rex (which is being adapted to a feature film by Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame). Perhaps a love of Claressa is shared by Ash, Robin, and Ryan together?

Watch T-Rex via paid streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Vimeo, Google Play, or YouTube, or find some great excerpts linked here.

• • •

This excellent 2016 article from The Undefeated, “The rise of women’s boxing,” not only discusses Shields specifically, but gives a thorough overview of the field’s challenges, including an interview with another top woman, Heather Hardy:

New York-born and bred, Hardy used to dream about becoming a Yankee. As a child she would even envision herself running out of the bullpen at Yankee Stadium. She watched every game. She knew every stat. But little girls didn’t play baseball.
“I remember feeling like I was sorry I liked it,” she said. “I was sorry I was a girl.”
Later in life, Hardy adopted a new dream: becoming a professional boxer. But as she transitioned out of the amateurs, she was confronted with a harsh reality: Women don’t make much money fighting.
“A bunch of the girls who are pro [told me], ‘Just know this isn’t a life for you; this is a hobby because you’ll never make any money off of it,’” Hardy said.
“And 20 years later, I have that same feeling. I’m sorry I’m a girl.”

• • •

Earlier this year, Kelefah Sanneh profiled Shields for The New Yorker in a wide ranging piece that looks at her fighting style as well as her place in the culture:

Shields is constantly being compared to [MMA fighter Ronda] Rousey, and sometimes she seems frustrated that she has not drawn a similar fan base. “I’ve achieved double of what she have and I’m younger and the hate is off the charts,” Shields recently wrote, on Twitter. (After all, Rousey’s only Olympic medal was merely a bronze, in judo.) One difference, though, is the way that Shields wins. In her eight professional fights, she has looked neither unstoppable, the way Rousey once did, nor untouchable, the way Floyd Mayweather, Jr., usually did. Last summer, a boxer named Hanna Gabriels knocked Shields onto her backside in the first round; Shields recovered and won a wide decision, but the sight of Shields on the mat made it easier to wonder whether she is as good as she is supposed to be. She carries herself like a knockout artist (she has promised to “destroy” Hammer), and she sometimes fights like one, too, stalking her opponent face-first, with her hands down, swinging wide, as if she were a moment away from landing a decisive punch. But Shields has only two knockouts in her eight fights. In general, she brawls and then relies on the judges to name her the winner; this strategy can be ugly, and, given the occasionally unaccountable behavior of boxing judges, it may one day prove disastrous.

• • •

In October 2019, Showtime Sports released the latest installment of the digital franchise THE RISE which profiles boxing’s stars as they grind their way to the top — this time featuring Claressa Shields. The three parts are embedded below.

• • •

Finally, here’s video of Shields vs. Hanna Gabriels in 2018. (For a more recent fight, check out the full video of her bout with Christina Hammer in April 2019):

Rehearsal with Boxer/Dancer Kim Holman

Boston-based boxer and modern dancer Kim Holman (Artistic Director of Luminarium Dance Company) joined rehearsal earlier this week to provide some boxing training and consultation for cast and team alike.

[A note for our cast: find notes from rehearsal and videos of boxing combos on the Boxing Resources page, found in the password protected C1 Biz dropdown menu.]

Some big takeaways from our conversations…

  • Boxing is 100% a mental sport. Any fear or intimidation, you’re going to lose. You’re constantly training in something and part of that is to have a strong sense of self. You also have to be strategic in the ring – there are times when you’re sitting back and assessing, and others when aggression has to come fast.
  • All boxers have a unique relationship with their trainer. As a trainer, you’re responsible for someone’s life, trying to get someone else to take risks and put themselves in harms way. It’s a slippery seesaw of being the person to make the call if the fight needs to be stopped, and then also being very caring. Also, having a coach is a different type of relationship than you have with professors, or other kinds of mentors. You need to have 100% trust in them, and you bond fast.
  • Boxing rules how you live your life, any physical risks that go wrong can make you lose a lot of ground fast, so you have to be cautious. Getting hit in the ring can cause a lot of injury. Before every fight, boxers get a medical check-up, but some will put up a good front so they can get cleared and make it into the fight. When punches start getting thrown, adrenaline takes over, and you almost don’t feel the injuries. But some are hard to throw: with bruised or broken ribs, every breath you take, there’s pain.
  • The sport is very “you against yourself” — you can measure your own progress. You have to be aware of and in control of your body. You gain a lot of skills when you first start training, and maybe plateau a few times, but you watch yourself progress.

Some boxing vocabulary:

  • Smokers/Burners: exhibition fights that are used to boost confidence and focus and grind 
  • Shadowboxing: an exercise intended to get a boxer the habit of throwing punches without using your brain
  • Combinations: series of different types of punches and moves that a boxer has in their arsenal to use in the ring. Some examples:
    • 1 – 2 – 3 – 6 = jab, jab, hook, uppercut
  • Slips: A way to dodge your opponent’s punch: the tiney-est, baby-est motion

Beautiful Brawlers

We’re loving this mini-documentary about the Beautiful Brawlers all-female-boxing event in 2017, right outside of San Francisco. Beautiful Brawlers — started by World Heavyweight Champion Martha Salazar and her manager Blanca Gutierrez — provides training and promotes amateur bouts for girls and women.

The video provides a window into the mindset of boxers, snippets of conversation and connection between boxers and their trainers, and a portrayal of young boxers finding their way — perhaps not unlike Ash in her early days.

Boxing Basics

We’ve seen in our first reads of Wolf Play how boxing is important to our characters, the story, and the structure of the play. To understand more about how boxing impacts the world of the play, here’s some background on the basic structure of the sport:

In both the fight and court scenes, we hear the familiar signal: “Ding, ding, ding, Round One!” In professional bouts, the number of rounds can reach up to 12 for men and up to 10 for women. Rounds typically last 3 minutes for men, and 2 minutes for women, although there is a recent movement in women’s boxing to extend rounds to a full 3 minutes. In between rounds, opponents have one minute in their respective corners to receive coaching and physical treatment from their staff. We see this when we hear Ryan and Ash checking in during the bout, and we witness Robin and Jeenu’s support as part of Ash’s team, or pack.

Once the bell rings, the next round is announced and the fighters continue. If both boxers can make it though all rounds, which is also known as “going the distance” of the match, the fight is then decided by up to three ringside judges to calculate the scores and determine the winner.

For professional bouts, points are awarded on a ten-point scale, points deducted when fighters are knocked down or if any of their moves are considered a foul.

A boxer may win a match before rounds are up through a “Knock-Out” or “KO,” which means that the referee decides that the boxer is unable to safely continue the bout. This is often determined by a count of eight if a boxer is knocked down or in danger of being unable to protect themselves. Boxers can also receive a technical knock-out, or “TKO” which is determined if there are three or more knockdowns. If a fighter decides themselves that they’re unable to continue, they can “throw in the towel” or forfeit the match.

This video shows a match between Claressa Shields and Hanna Gabriels.

Another match to take a look at is the recent heavyweight bout that was one of the biggest upsets in the sport to date – Andy Ruiz Jr. vs. Anthony Joshua. Joshua, a 6’6” shoe-in for the title, was hurt badly by Ruiz, an underdog who won with a TKO in the 7th round. (At a rematch this past Saturday, Joshua reclaimed the win.) This video below breaks down the highlights of the first match with commentary from boxing greats like Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, and Sylvester Stallone, and the athletes themselves.

The commentary showcases the intense psychological aspect to boxing. When punches are not being thrown, we see glimpses into the boxer’s mind and emotions, and then when the blows begin, we see how each fighter attempts to use the other player’s state to their advantage.

Here is a link to a useful article about the rematch that analyzes Joshua’s turn towards smarts and technically-focused boxing as a way to defeat Ruiz’s massive force. We also hear how Ruiz slacked off on training the past few months, while Joshua doubled down. We appreciate this insider analysis as it connects nicely to our in-rehearsal conversations about boxing’s mental game.

Boxing feels like a fight for one’s life — round after round, the stakes get higher and higher, until something breaks or the referee steps in to make the call. This momentum reverberates through Wolf Play, with Ash’s boxing training and bout being central to the action. Fighting is used as a metaphor for what our characters are experiencing. In the court scene, we see how the emotional and psychological fight of the sport becomes a fight for Jeenu, with the sound of the bell escalating the cacophony. We witness him experiencing this trial and interpreting what he can from the legal jargon and making sense of this tragic event through the lens of a boxing match.

Coming up, we’ll be going into more detail about the styles of fighting that Ash, and Ryan (and Jeenu) are working with, as well as the trainer/boxer relationship, and what it’s like to “go pro.” Until then, here are some quotes that line up well with the boxing in this play:

It’s less about the physical training, in the end, than it is about the mental preparation: boxing is a chess game. You have to be skilled enough and have trained hard enough to know how many different ways you can counterattack in any situation, at any moment. – Jimmy Smits

“I’m scared every time I go into the ring, but it’s how you handle it. What you have to do is plant your feet, bite down on your mouthpiece and say, ‘Let’s go.’ “ – Mike Tyson