Gary Lai is married to Jill Morley of Fight Like a Girl fame. And the question he gets asked all the time is, “What do you think when your wife gets hit in the face?”
My wife just got clocked in the face, but she’s smiling as if to say “Is that all you got?” I’m smiling too, because sometimes she needs to get hit a few times before she gets going. You see, my wife Jill is an amateur boxer and this is what she loves best. It’s her passion. Not getting hit, but engaging in the “sweet science.” She’s a competitor, a gamer. She loves the “mano a mano” aspect of fighting, but of course, this is “womano a womano.”
I get it. I trained to be a fighter for seven years. Not boxing, but Muay Thai, which is a lethal form of kick boxing. When I trained to fight, I sparred all the time. Getting hit is part of the training. If you’re truly training to fight, you’re going to get hit – a lot. I’ve gotten bloody noses, broken ribs, and countless bruises. Most fighters (except for a few psycho ones) don’t like getting hit. They love the competition. It’s not unlike football or baseball in that way. But to a fighter, there is nothing more gratifying than “owning” someone. Scoring touchdowns or homeruns is a rush, but nothing says, “I’m better than you” than dominating someone in the ring.
For some reason, a lot of people think girls shouldn’t fight. Girls should shop, dance, do yoga, cook and clean. So people just don’t get why it doesn’t bother me at all that my wife likes to box.
First of all, it’s not a street fight. There are rules. There’s a ref. There’s 14 oz. gloves and headgear. There are rounds. It’s a controlled engagement. There is the risk of concussions and injuries, but that danger exists in mountain biking and skiing, too.
There aren’t any tennis fans that watch only men’s tennis or only women’s tennis. They may have a preference for one or the other, but they watch both. They appreciate that men and women bring a unique dimension to the game. Why should fighting be any different? Why do some people abhor the idea of women fighting in the ring?
I grew up with very strong women in my life. My mom was so sickly as a child that she wasn’t supposed to live past her twenties. She moved away from home in the small town of Vancouver to establish a life for herself in the inner city of Los Angeles. She survived open-heart surgery and breast cancer to lead a long fruitful life. Her sister moved away from home to New York City to become an artist. She lived alone in an illegal apartment with no heat or kitchen. She became an acclaimed artist, worked with Andy Warhol, and taught at a prestigious art school. That gave me a healthy respect for women when I was growing up.
As an adult, I learned there are far more similarities than differences between women and men. Women can be aggressive; they can be mean; they can be true fighters. They can get a cathartic release from hitting pads and punching the heavy bag. They like to sweat and thrive off the rigors of fight training. I’ve had female fight instructors. I’ve grinded through fight training side by side with women and thought nothing off it. They may smell nicer when they walk into the gym, but once training starts, they stink, grunt, and sweat just like us men.
I get asked all the time, “What do you think when your wife gets hit in the face?” My answer is that I think she should have slipped the punch and counter-punched with a hook. I see it in fight terms, like her coach. I’m yelling at her to keep her hands up, stay loose, and use her footwork. I would be worried if she wasn’t in shape, or if she wasn’t getting “real fight training.” That’s why I think some men shudder at the thought of female fighting. Maybe they saw the boxing fights in the 1980’s when women stepped into the ring unprepared because they couldn’t find trainers to treat them like real fighters. Back then, female boxing was often sloppy and ugly because they weren’t trained properly.
If a guy thinks women shouldn’t fight, than that says more about them than it does about women. Maybe they didn’t have strong, independent women in their life. Maybe they think women are damsels in distress for them to “protect.” Maybe they don’t understand that the fight game is about technique, intelligence, and conditioning and not just a brawl. Maybe they value women primarily for their looks and don’t understand why any woman would put that at risk. Maybe the women in their lives don’t have a fighting spirit. More likely they don’t understand the women in their lives, and they probably do have a fighting spirit whether they box or not.
That’s not to say there aren’t differences between men and women. The physiology of a man is better suited for fighting. Men are stronger. Pound for pound they hit harder. But women do have a higher pain tolerance so it’s not all one-sided. And mentally, it’s the same. Men and women are equally capable to be fighters, but women get conditioned by society not to believe in themselves in that way and have the same level of confidence. Social mores against women fighting are an additional obstacle women must overcome to fight.
I don’t advocate women fighting men. Physically, that’s not a fair fight, like a heavyweight fighting a lightweight. But there are some bad-ass female fighters out there who probably could beat men in their weight class. My all-time favorite is Lucia Rjiker. They actually measured the power of her punch and found that she hit harder than a male fighter. Gina Carano is a highly skilled Muay Thai fighter. Ronda Rousey is a slick UFC fighter, who is an Olympic judo champion. All 3 of them have more talent, heart, dedication, courage, and fight IQ than most male fighters. Beyond those famous fighters, I’ve been honored to train alongside several amateur female fighters that were more skilled, driven, and tougher than I was. No shame in that. They were just damn good.
In a strange twist of fate, at the same time my wife started to get serious in boxing, I decided I wasn’t a fighter. I was supposed to have my first “smoker” fight (an inter-gym fight) several times but had to back out for various reasons. In one hard sparring session with a 200 pound fighter (I’m 150 pounds), I got clocked in the gut. They say a body punch can take the fight out of your opponent. That nasty punch not only took the fight out of me for the round, but for life. I had a clear epiphany that day – I’m NOT a fighter. I love to train. Muay Thai kicks are a thing of beauty. I like owning an opponent in a sparring session when both you and him know that you are just better than he is. But truth is, I don’t like hurting people. And I REALLY don’t like getting hurt. My response after the punch to the gut was “Fuck this! I got an MBA, I don’t need to do this shit.”
That’s the difference between me and Jill. She gets hit, and she says, “Oh yeah?!” and hits back harder. She gets fired up after a particularly hard blow. When she fights, she punches with the intent to hurt. When she gets hit, she wants to dish it right back…and more. From this description, you might think she’s a deranged crazy woman picking fights in bars. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you met her, you would never guess that she’s a fighter as she’s petite, shy, and has no tattoos. But that’s the point, having a fighting spirit is not gender specific.
After that fateful punch, I started ballet. I needed something to fill the void after I stopped Muay Thai – something incredibly demanding, beautiful, obsessive, and challenging. I found dance, and was surprised at how well it just “fit my body”. My some 15-20 years of taking martial arts at least partially prepared me for dance. I was above average in flexibility, good cardio, and adept at copying the movements of my instructor. My fighting was like dancing, which is a good thing as a graceful kick means you’re probably doing the technique correctly, generating tremendous power. Unfortunately, my dancing is like fighting, which is NOT a good thing at all.
So I train to dance and my wife trains to fight. We know it’s ironic and kind of funny, but that’s just how it is. We owe it to ourselves to discover and follow our true nature, our passions, our talents. We should pursue our without second guessing why we are the way we are. Most dancers start when they’re kids at eight; I started after I was 40. I’m getting to be pretty good, though I’m not performance-ready just yet. But I’m absolutely loving the journey!
Jill is also enjoying her journey in pursuing her passion for boxing after 40. She chronicled this journey in her documentary film, Fight Like a Girl. Now, I help my wife prepare for her fights. I understand the sacrifices needed to prepare for a fight. I don’t mind her time away from home spent training, as I want her to be strong in the ring. I want her to “double up on cardio”, running morning and evening with a sparring session in between. I hold pads for her. I call out punch combinations during her sparring sessions. We strategize on how best to counter her opponent’s style. We watch the old boxing legends on YouTube and try to learn from them. When she fights, it’s not fear; it’s just coaching, cheering, encouragement; it’s support.
Photo Credit: Greg Reynolds