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They look like butterflies, but sting like bees

Women have started discovering the joys of boxing at Finley’s Boxing Gym

(Published April 5, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Finley’s Boxing Gym is pure guy territory.

An addition to the top of an auto garage on 10th Street NE, just off Maryland Avenue, the place looks more like someone’s basement rec room than a gym, with its wall-to-wall red carpeting and Day-Glo posters advertising past boxing matches covering the walls and ceiling. The placement of the equipment — weight bench in one corner, step machine and sit-up bench in the opposite corner, punching bags in between — shows the tell-tale signs of a man’s random sense of room decorating. The "ring" is no more than one end of the room roped off so that the sparring matches don’t spill out into the rest of the room. Gym members have to climb through the ring to get to the locker rooms, even if people are sparring in the ring. Guy planning.

There is no air conditioning at Finley’s and what ventilation exists is provided by the open door in the back. But as soon as the gym fills up, it quickly becomes clear that the ventilation is no match for the sweat and exertion of the guys pounding the punching bags and each other. It’s hot, sweaty and crowded — pure guy territory.

Just don’t tell that to the women who work out there.

Over the past few years, boxing has gotten more popular both as a sport and as a good old-fashioned workout, says James Finley, owner of the gym. He says that of his 50 or so regular members, about a third of them are women.

"A lot of them found out it’s not necessarily a blood and guts, knockdown sport," Finley says.

And though he extols the virtues of boxing training as a great workout, he doesn’t necessarily approve of women’s boxing as a sport. "But I’ll let any woman do what she wants," Finley adds with a smile.

"I like the fact that this is not air-conditioned, that you walk in here and the heat’s blasting and everyone’s sweaty," Charlene Choppala says. "I like that it’s not a pretty little place. I find it’s more of a real workout."

The slight, 18-year-old ponytailed American University student says she first came to Finley’s about six months ago to watch some male friends of hers work out and got hooked immediately. She’s been going to the gym ever since. She says she even takes her turns inside the ring, sparring with her trainer who teaches her how to duck and weave and throw her weight behind her punches.

"It’s more like being one of the guys," she says, right before she straps on a pair of gloves and begins jabbing at a punching bag twice her size.

Finley’s has its share of people who go there as a hobby, who like the thrill of the sport and find it a good way to keep in shape, but the gym is also a serious training spot for local boxers who have higher ambitions. Successful amateur and professional boxers have trained at Finley’s over the past 39 years, among them the current flyweight champion, Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson. One of Finley’s current professional hopefuls is there every night, sparring with a trainer or fiercely pummeling the bags or shadow boxing in front of the big mirror. Her name is Cassandra McFerson.

The 25-year-old has been seriously training for a year and a half, although she admits boxing wasn’t her first choice.

"I’ve always been into physical activity," McFerson says "I originally wanted to do martial arts, but I didn’t want to use my legs like that." So she turned her eye toward boxing and began training at Finley’s. She says at first, the guys didn’t quite know what to make of her, this wiry woman with close-cropped hair intensely training in their midst.

"Once they saw my commitment to the sport, they got serious about training me," she says.

McFerson says the guys at the gym still tend to treat her more like a woman than a serious fighter. She says they tend to pair her up in the ring with the teenagers and the less experienced men, which usually ends up being more of a learning experience for the men than her. Not that she doesn’t enjoy knocking some guys down a few pegs, but she has her own training to keep in mind.

"I need to get used to getting hit…hard," she says.

That’s because she’s going to the women’s amateur national championships April 18-24 in Scranton, Pa. McFerson says she was about to turn pro when she heard about the amateur nationals and decided to go to that competition first.

"It would do a lot more to catapult me into professional boxing if I went there first," she says. Turning pro is still the plan, though.

As women’s professional boxing gains popularity, more women will no doubt try their hand at the sport and train at Finley’s. After all, his ad in the Yellow Pages says "Ladies Invited."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator