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Looking for a Fight (page 2)

Not all that surprisingly, the fight itself is unremarkable. Part of the problem is that, like most of the women Lucia fights, Ested doesn't really box - at least, not against Lucia. She has no style, and no evident strategy except to throw quick flurries a of punches and then tie Lucia up in a clinch while ducking her head so low that it's almost impossible to hit her. This may qualify as a plan to avoid pain, but it isn't going to win the fight. For a while, though, it does succeed in keeping Lucia at bay. The first two rounds go very slowly, with few punches landed. By the third, there are scattered boos from the audience. Lucia seems overcautious, and the crowd, which expects women's fights to be wild, isn't pleased. So far, this has been like a boring men's match fought by women.

In the third round, Lucia starts to close in, and the referee gives Ested a second warning for holding, and for keeping her head so low (it's practically waist-high some of the time). Ested is clearly scared, and Lucia, wary of being sucker-punched, is biding her time until she gets an opening.

In the fourth round she does. She lands a short left hook - the first good punch of the evening - and sends Ested down for a count. "Let's take a walk," referee Steve Smoger says to Ested when she gets up. "You all right? How d'you feel? Talk to me!" "I'm all right," Ested says, blinking her eyes. "Good!" Smoger says, almost sarcastically - he obviously doesn't think much of her chances - and waves the fight on. Twenty seconds later, Lucia lands a left-right combination that rocks Ested on her heels. With Ested cornered, Lucia lands three vicious rights to the head, loads up to land another and closes in for the kill - at which point a gallant Smoger, who seems determined to be a gentleman as well as a referee, dives between them, waves off Lucia and kisses Ested on the cheek: fight over.

Two months later, Lucia is back at the Wild Card, training for another fight, this time with Argentina's Marcela Acuna, who lost a controversial decision to Christy Martin on points. Acuna is likely to be a tougher opponent than Ested. Roach describes her as "a very durable girl, with a good chin and a good right hand," but predicts that Lucia will be too quick for her. Lucia has been working doubly hard, and looks leaner than she did for the Ested fight. Her sparring partners have gotten tougher, too. One afternoon I watch her spar with Miguel Rusc, a bearded junior welterweight (140 pounds) and North West Boxing Association champion, from Chihuahua, Mexico. This is the first time they've been in the ring together (the first time, in fact, Rusc has ever boxed a woman), and Rusc has the better of the first two rounds. He's an aggressive, straight-ahead fighter who punches hard and likes to back his opponents onto the ropes. Every so often, in what (given the sex of his opponent) seems like a brazen display of machismo, he stamps his foot on the canvas like a flamenco dancer. When Lucia lunges for him and misses, he skips cockily away.

After two rounds of this, Lucia goes to her corner and takes a few deep breaths. Sweat drips from her nose and forehead and chin. Roach counsels her, his voice low, his face only inches from hers. While he talks, he aims water into her mouth, dabs grease on her eyes and nose, touches her lightly on her arms and shoulders to underline a point - all of which, after what goes on in the ring, must feel like a shorthand version of a caress. "Use your speed and footwork," he tells her. "You gotta use angles with this guy, use your lateral movement. Hit him with combinations and then move to the side."

Lucia follows Roach's instructions to the letter. Rusc (who has his own trainer) keeps coming forward, and Lucia snaps power jabs straight in his face, following them up when she can with quick combinations. Once she's hit him, she dances off to the side, forcing him to change direction. These two rounds go convincingly to Lucia, and at the end of the fourth she even smiles for a moment as Roach towels her down. Every pore in her body has sprouted its own little bead of sweat; her arms and shoulders gleam with muscle and light. The smile, though, vanishes as quickly as it appeared; its place is taken by a stony, wounded look: the look of someone who's just been hit. Tonight she's going to have a headache.

Rusc will probably have a headache too. "She is a strong woman," he tells me after the session. He concedes straight out that Lucia is "a lot faster" than he is. In a real fight, he thinks he could knock her out, but suspects that, if it went the distance, she might win on points. In fact, he no longer seems sure that he could knock her out. "Maybe," he says, looking more and more doubtful. "Maybe." And then he adds, "I tell you what, I feel one of the punches of her. Really good uppercut, man! That was a tremendous uppercut!" And then, shaking his head like someone who has just been hit. Tonight she's going to have a headache.

Rusc will probably have a headache too. "She is a strong woman," he tells me after the session. He concedes straight out that Lucia is "a lot faster" than he is. In a real fight, he thinks he could knock her out, but suspects that, if it went the distance, she might win on points. In fact, he no longer seems sure that he could knock her out. "Maybe," he says, looking more and more doubtful. "Maybe." And then he adds, "I tell you what, I feel one of the punches of her. Really good uppercut, man! That was a tremendous uppercut!" And then, shaking his head like someone who has just emerged from a particularly bewildering dream, he mutters, "She's good. She's good."

In the parking lot an hour later, Lucia heaves her equipment bag into the trunk of her car. Freshly showered, dressed in a crisp white T-shirt and fetching blue-and-white checked overalls, she looks relaxed and happy. The stone-faced look is gone. Perhaps tonight she won't have a headache, after all. But if she does, she will accept it without complaint. "Through suffering," she says, "you grow."

Lucia Rijker's fight with Marcela Acuna on Friday, September 25 is part of a card airing live on ESPN beginning at 4:30 p.m.


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