Boxin’ Lady

The joy of throwing a good right jab

By Jamie Lynn Miller

Coach won’t let me write it down because “your body’s got to remember. If you write it down, you think about it. If you think about it, you get hit.”

For a writer, though, that’s a tall order. I’m used to scribbling down the good stuff and some great stuff happens around the ring. But I try to learn things Coach’s way.


“Hey Jamie, how’s it goin’?” says Leon, a 15-year-old competition track boxer. He steps onto the scale, then strips down to his Hanes skivvies, oblivious to everything but the screen between his feet.

Happy with the number he sees — the same as mine, I discover — Leon hops off the scale and walks across the gym, pants still around his ankles. “Hey, Ma! You ready?” 

Just a regular day at Port City Boxing and Fitness, on 13th and Castle, in the old Steven’s Hardware building, where Leon’s Ma is chatting with Coach Andre Thompson.

Winning his first Golden Gloves at age 16 and continuing on to the Olympic trials, Coach Andre trained with the late great Sherriedale Morgan (1934–2009), the founding father of local boxing, before becoming a coach himself. A compact combination of power and patience, Coach Andre now carries the torch of his hometown’s boxing tradition.

Leon is trying to “make weight” for an upcoming fight, but I’m not concerned with making weight or winning any particular round. I’m here to train like boxers train, to grow my physical know-how, to lose myself in the rhythmic movement that’s become my “thing,” four to five nights a week. 

One Sunday, I have the gym and Coach’s input to myself. I’ve been training for a year and half, and I know how to wrap my hands, but Coach likes to do it for me. I like it too, because it gives us time to talk. Just me and the bags; then me and Coach, running drills. He wore the mitts and I threw my punches:

Jab Jab Right

Left Right Left Hook Right Upper Cut

Left Right Inside Slip Left Upper Cut Left Hook Right

“Your right is the trigger, but don’t cock the gun. Need that element of surprise. Too much on defense, you get cornered and beat down. Kind of like life,” Coach observes, as I dance around the ring, moving my feet faster than ever. I feel fluid in my movement, the repetitive motion becoming rote. Finally, that muscle memory was kicking in.

“Got a little more rhythm these days, young lady,” says Coach, who’s a couple of years older than me. “A little more spunk behind ya. I like that,” he declares with a nod. “Whatever you did? Do.”

I’m white, and I grew up middle-class, around sports and neighborhoods peopled by people who shared similar stats. Living in Colorado, my time was spent skiing and rock-climbing, pursuits that left me ravenously hungry and properly exhausted. Searching for a comparable level of exertion here, I found my way to Coach Andre’s boxing gym, where boxers from disparate backgrounds train side-by-side.

Maybe it was the satin shorts and fancy robes, or the sleek-looking footwear or all those Rocky movies . . . the emotional training scenes, the heroic endings. Whatever the pull, I’ve always been drawn to boxing. While I’ve never envisioned delivering, or dodging, critical blows to the head, I’m drawn to the controlled intensity, the fierce, wordless communication between two people harnessing their physical and mental strength.

Black, brown, white, foreign; scrawny; that writer with the crazy hair — once you’ve grunted together through jack-knife sit-ups, or punched your partner in the stomach for three-minute rounds, surface descriptions mean nothing. Once you’ve shared a ring with someone, you know their name; you feel their personality. You describe them as “friend.” We come and go through different sessions, and different times of day, but whenever we’re there, we’re in it together.

Though I’m not a competition fighter, Coach considers me one of his “females”— like the spunky 8-year-old, the working mother of two, the shy, reticent women around the neighborhood looking to build a different sort of confidence.

“He’s helped a lot of us around here,” says Jasmine, one of Coach’s competitors, whose active little girls are growing up to the whir of jump ropes and the fwap of heavy bags in motion. She’s a powerful fighter, and a beautiful one — deep brown skin, big eyes, and a happy, centered energy.  For Jasmine and other fighters raised in local neighborhoods, inner and outer strength come together.

Then there’s the Burmese refugee who’s strong as hell, and the 7- and 8-year-old brother/sister team from Mexico — sister hits hard and brother giggles a lot; there’s Manny from Honduras, my landlord’s house painter, who gives a boisterous “Hola!” from the ring and whenever I check my mail. There’s a preschool teacher and a singer and a hairdresser, and several Marines, who commute from Jacksonville just to train with Coach Andre. There are kids from around Castle Street with timid smiles and good manners who never make eye contact, but hit the bags like they’re punching the world.

“I used to have certain times just for teenagers,” Coach tells me as he wraps my hands. He nods over at Leon, who’s smiling at a teenage girl between rounds of jump rope. When the bell goes off, she smiles back.

Coach chuckles, and shakes his head. “Testosterone and females at that age is just tough.” It’s his job to keep us focused.

“All right, y’all start together, and finish together,” yells Coach. “Stay at your own pace — as long as you keep moving. “

It’s time for our group run, a 2-mile loop down Castle, up Dawson, and back to the gym. Coach holds up his blue water bottle and pours water into our mouths, one by one: “Get used to it,” Coach told me, my first day, when I’d sputtered water down the front of my tank top. We head out the front door and make our way down the sidewalk, hands wrapped, knees high, feet moving in unison as we pass three elderly ladies rocking on the porch.

“Awright, awright!” said one of the women, cheering us on. “Ooh, look. They got a girl with ’em.” 

“Keep it tight, baby,” the women call after me. “Keep it tight!”

We cut up Dawson and make our way back, passing the bright, sharp shapes of the new mural painted along the outside wall of the gym. Coach commissioned a local arts program to “come on over and splash it up a bit,” he tells me, with a smile: “Just do their thing.”

Back in the ring, we pair up for hand-to-hand drills, geared toward speed, coordination and building those “keep your hands up” muscles. Today’s partner, Dwayne, never says much, but every now and then he’ll stop and smile. It’s a brilliant smile and I’ve come to cherish its sudden appearances. After a long round of partner work, or a bonus round of heavy bag, Dwayne will come over and fist bump you, the guy next to you, and the girl at the speed bag; everyone in the gym gets a “good job” gesture and a flash of that blinding grin.

After training, Coach calls me over. “Jamie, you’re an English teacher, right?”

I teach English to non-native speakers, which includes grammar and composition. Turns out, Dwayne is struggling a little bit with those skills.    

“I want to make sure he understands his assignments, you know? Sometimes, tough to know what questions to ask the teacher,” says Coach, with a supportive nod. 

“It’s true,” I say to Dwayne. “That’s the hardest part sometimes.

Dwayne nods, then stares at the ground, his winning smile tucked somewhere deep inside, replaced by respectful silence and a “Yes, ma’am.”

I give him a farewell high-five, thinking he needs to get back in the ring; that’s where he comes alive. Hopefully, next time he’ll drop the “Ma’am,” and bring back the grin.

It’s hard to punch someone in the stomach when they’re calling you “Ma’am.”


Biking home to write down what my body can remember, I wave hello to a passing cyclist on Castle Street. His brakes squeal as his bike comes to a halt, and the boom box on his handlebars slides onto his lap. 

“Hey! You the boxin’ lady, right?”

“Yessir,” I reply.

“Awright, awright,” he exclaims. “Keep boxin’ and stuff!” 

Note: To respect the ring and its boxers, some names have been changed.

Want to box or just to train? Stop by Port City Boxing and Fitness, 1301 Castle Street, Wilmington. 910-622-5382,

A boxer, sailor, and avid adventurer, Jamie Lynn Miller applauds a ravenous appetite, proper exhaustion, and satin boxing trunks.

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