The Atlanta Journal-Constitution food and dining editor Ligaya Figueras trains with Luis Damian, amateur boxer and executive chef at Big Sky Buckhead. (Audio source: 'Wake The Feeling,' Giulio Cercato. 'A Day To Rest,' Makana. 'Breaking Barriers,' Christian Davis. 'Good Mornin,' Jumbo.)

Femme fighters: Women box for more than a hard workout

The bouncer’s triceps came to life when he reached for my ticket. I handed it over. The edges were bent and worn. I’d spent too much time thumbing over the words: General Admission. Underground Showdown. Sept. 15. Buckhead Fight Club.

He handed back the ticket, let me pass through the door and down a set of steep stairs.

I was in.

For three hours, I watched men hit each other in three-minute rounds. They sweated something fierce. They hit something fierce. The lights flicked on and off intermittently before a sudden loss of power (bad wiring, perhaps?) stopped the fighting for a good half-hour.

Buckhead Fight Club isn’t the glitzy Buckhead that you might know. It’s not even located in Buckhead. It’s in Brookhaven, in a strip mall on Buford Highway. Trainers applied petroleum jelly to sweaty brows. The best friend of a guy in his pro boxing debut cried through the entire thing, and again while hugging him when he stepped out of the ring, having been declared the victor. Through it all, Hooters girls paraded inside the ring between rounds, holding cards high above their heads while doing their hip thang.

Rule No. 1. You do not talk about fight club.

Screw that. My husband and I were gonna spend many a day breaking down this show.

I read rule No. 1 again, sprayed like graffiti on the wall.

What are you doing here? I asked myself. You don’t belong here, said one half of my brain. Yes, you do, replied the other.

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For years, I’ve wrongly thought of boxing as a sport for the down-and-out who pummel their way out of poverty. We all pummel our way through life. I’ve been pummeling for years. Now, I just do it with gloves on, literally.

If you are familiar with boxing, you know that there’s a lot more to boxing than hitting another person. Boxing is a sport, but it is more than that. It is a dance. It is exertion, mental and physical. It is total focus. It is asking your whole self to do things you did not know you could ask of it. It is responding with instincts that you did not know you had. It is convincing yourself that you can survive, even though you want to quit. I’d only just begun to appreciate all of that.

Luis Damian, who’s a chef at Big Sky in Buckhead, wraps AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras’ hands for added protection before she puts on boxing gloves to train with him. TYSON A. HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Come box with me

The Underground Showdown in September was the first fight I’d ever watched, but my journey with boxing had already begun a few months earlier. Anthony Bourdain, chef yogi and inspiration for so many people around the world, had just committed suicide. Rather than dwell on the heartbreak, I wanted to learn what Atlanta culinarians were doing to take care of their bodies, souls and minds, so I wrote a story about self-care in the restaurant industry. After the article was published, chef Luis Damian of Big Sky in Buckhead replied on Instagram: “Come to a boxing class with me.”

I said yes.

>> RELATED: Off the menu: Exercise is recipe for success for area chefs

It was a hot day in July when we met up for my first boxing lesson at LA Fitness. Warmup included skipping rope. Luis had only been boxing seriously for two years. To me, he looked like a pro as he skipped with every other foot while the rope made a beautiful whirling sound. I was two flat feet, jumping at the same time.

Luis wrapped my hands in what looked like colorful Ace bandages, then shoved his pair of red boxing gloves over them. The gloves were oversized for me, but they’d suffice.

There are four basic punches in boxing: the jab, the cross, the hook and the uppercut. It’s how you combine them. How you time them. How you move. Get out of the way before your opponent strikes back. Never take your eyes off him. Gloves up. Elbows in.

I was a ball of sweat when I walked away an hour later. My arms felt like jelly.

AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras, shown with chef Luis Damian, considers boxing to be “the ultimate release and the greatest workout.” TYSON A. HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That lesson led to another, then another, then another. My husband bought me a jump-rope. For Christmas, my sons gave me two pairs of boxing gloves — 12- and 14-ouncers, respectively.

Luis and I have been boxing weekly since last winter. Training sessions are usually 10 three-minute rounds. I wear gloves. He wears mitts and we work on attack and defense. This spring, we started sparring, essentially free-form fighting but without the intention of hurting each other. Sparring rounds are the longest three minutes of my life, but also some of the most rewarding.

Choosing to box has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m not the only one.

The trailblazer

“Boxing has made me so rich. My life experiences — I couldn’t trade it for the world,” said Terri Moss.

The owner of Buckhead Fight Club sat next to me on a wooden bench in the basement gym. She scanned the room constantly as she spoke. A circle of men and a couple of women were lying on their backs doing ab work. A pair of guys were sparring in one of the rings. You could sense that Moss wanted to move, too. Sitting still on a wooden bench is not her style. It never has been.

Two-time world champion boxer Terri Moss went pro in 2002 and fought for six years before retiring at 42. She is currently the owner of Buckhead Fight Club. CONTRIBUTED BY TERRI MOSS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A former law enforcement officer, the 5-foot-2-inch and 106-pound Moss looks decades younger than her 53 years. You wouldn’t suspect that she’s the mother of a 36-year-old daughter or the grandmother of two. Or that she’s a two-time world champion boxer and holds a place in the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame, inducted in 2015, in the same class as Laila Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

>> RELATED: Muhammad Ali’s death brings the lost sport of boxing in focus

Moss is a legend in her own right.

“I’m one of the trailblazers,” she admitted about her place in women’s boxing history.

That wasn’t exactly preordained. “I sort of stumbled on it,” Moss said. She’d always been an exercise enthusiast, but when a friend took up boxing, Moss became intrigued. “I’ve never seen athletes like that. I was so impressed with the workout and what it did to your body.”

Moss was 34 when she began training. Two years later, in 2002, she went pro. She lost her first fight. “I swore I’d never do it again.”

That sentiment didn’t last long. She fought professionally for six years before retiring at 42.

Having taken over Buckhead Fight Club in 2013, Moss has turned it into a club with clout, one that even hosted a women’s international Olympic-style duel in 2015.

These days, she runs her gym, promotes shows and trains amateurs as well as two pro fighters, both of whom are undefeated. She also coaches the Georgia Tech Boxing Club, established only last fall. Of the university’s 85 team members, 25 are female.

Some female members of the Georgia Tech Boxing Club pose for a photo. Of the 85 members in the club, which was established last fall, 25 are female. The club is coached by Terri Moss of Buckhead Fight Club. CONTRIBUTED BY TERRI MOSS
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Moss noted how women’s boxing has come a long way since she fought in the ring. It was a pivotal moment when women’s boxing was added as an Olympic sport in 2012. “That changed women’s boxing,” Moss said. “We’re still making pennies to the dollar on what men make, but at least you can get endorsements. There is money there besides just the fight purse.”

While Moss mainly trains male boxers, she enjoys working with the women fighters. “They are 100 percent dedicated. They listen. They do as you say.” Men, on the other hand, are “super sensitive, don’t listen and are more easily distracted.”

Why women fight

Moss has been on the scene long enough to notice patterns. To her, a common theme among women who box is this: “They want to prove to themselves they are strong. Men want to prove to the world that they are strong.”

She sees more women taking up boxing these days, particularly at the fitness level, with an equal number of women and men taking up recreational boxing for better health.

Why are more females boxing? I ask.

“Women being strong is a new thing,” she replied. “It’s empowering. It feels good to punch. It takes mental stuff. There’s something in some women that gravitates them (to boxing).”

Georgia Tech student Taylor Fabacher, 22, joined martial arts and fitness gym X3 Sports in January and regularly participates in kickboxing classes. She’s also stepped into the boxing ring. TYSON A. HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Like 22-year-old Georgia Tech industrial engineering student Taylor Fabacher, who signed up in January for a membership at martial arts and fitness gym X3 Sports after nearly a year of prodding from a friend.

“I really love it,” Fabacher said. “It’s a great workout. One hour: burn 700 calories.” She likes the community because they check in on one another. And she feels stronger, physically and mentally. “It’s not just about being fit but feeling more confident.”

While Fabacher primarily kickboxes, she has stepped into the boxing ring.

“It was kind of intimidating, but there’s some cool power and energy to it,” she said.

Erica Rodriguez (right) participated in the boxing charity event Brawl for a Cause in April. She hoped that purse money could pay for her daughter’s medical expenses. Although she lost the fight, she continues to box. CONTRIBUTED BY RANDMC PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As I listened to people like Fabacher and Moss tell me why they put on gloves, the scrappiest femme fighter story came from 25-year-old Erica Rodriguez.

She was a student at Georgia State University, but she put college on pause to tend to her 5-year-old daughter, Sofia, who was born with a medical condition called arthrogryposis. It literally means “curving of joints.” Rodriguez described her daughter’s ailments as “her arms and legs are either too tight or too weak.” Sofia has undergone hip and femur procedures. She wears leg braces. Surgery could fix it, but that costs money, something this single mom does not have.

Through happenstance, Rodriguez met people in the boxing industry, including Matt Thomas, founder of boxing charity event Brawl for a Cause. He encouraged her to go for it. Purse money from a boxing fight could help pay for Sofia’s medical expenses.

Rodriguez trained for months. In April, she stepped into the ring. Although she lost the fight, she hasn’t quit boxing.

“I used to laugh at the idea of boxing. Now, I am laughing because I can’t believe I didn’t do it before. I appreciate the art of boxing. It’s so demanding.”

An hour has passed, and she wants to keep talking about what boxing means to her.

“I used to do CrossFit, climbing … but I don’t get that feeling when I am punching the bag or shadow boxing. I’ve never felt the way I do when I am boxing. Just to release the energy into a bag: It’s not anger. It’s controlled chaos.”

“Boxing is a sport, but it is more than that,” writes AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras, who took up boxing for training last year. “It is a dance. It is exertion, mental and physical. It is total focus. It is asking your whole self to do things you did not know you could ask of it.” TYSON A. HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘Don’t lose it’

It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Friday. Luis is late. I’m already sweaty, having warmed up, stretched, lifted light weights and skipped rope — every other foot — in three-minute intervals while listening to my ’80s motivational tunes like “Forever Young” by Alphaville, Cyndi Lauper anything and “I Think We’re Alone Now.” I need Luis to hurry up and get here because I need to hit.

He arrives. We spend moments in small talk as he wraps my hands before grabbing gloves and mitts.

We work through a long combination. A series of jabs, crosses and hooks. Pull back to reset. A jab and a cross. Dodge left. Dodge right. A rapid fire of uppercuts — left, right, left, right. Pull back. Set it up for a final cross with my left.

We walk through it. Again and again and again. Each time with more power, more speed.

The punches echo in the squash court at LA Fitness that has become our boxing turf. That final cross is deafening. BAM!

“Don’t lose it,” he says.

A bell on his phone dings, signaling 30 seconds left in the round. “30 seconds,” Luis says. “Come on! Don’t stop.”

It’s been nine months since I put on boxing gloves. What am I still doing here?

Boxing makes up for all the stuff I can’t get right. It makes me forget about the things I don’t want to deal with right now. It makes me focus on the moment. It gives me courage to grapple with today and tomorrow. It is the ultimate release and the greatest workout. I don’t want to lose it.

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