TWIN FALLS • The Headhunter Boxing Club has concrete floors and brick walls. Boxing bags hang like meat from bare rafters.
“When you see pictures of the old boxing gyms in Philadelphia the walls are brick. There’s no air flow. They’re in the basement,” said gym owner Manuel Flores, 35. “That’s what we wanted for this place. There are no luxuries. You are going to work your butt off and then go home.
“We don’t have treadmills. I want them running out on the road.”
There are no distractions. The only things in this gym are the fighter and the training for the fight ahead.
On a recent Monday night, a 9-year-old named J.J. was punching the bag. Flores stood behind him.
“Go. Go. Go,” Flores said.
J.J. punched faster.
“Let’s move. Come on. Keeping moving. Harder than that. Too soft.”
J.J.’s face was turning red. He was sweating. He started to slow down.
“Let’s go,” Flores said. “Don’t stop. Earn it.”
J.J. punched faster. He punched harder, and as he punched, Flores was a steady voice behind him.
“Come on. Push. Keep pushing. You have more than that. Move. Move. Hands up.”
Just when it looked like J.J. couldn’t throw another punch, Flores patted him on the back and told him to get in the ring.
“Smile,” Flores said.
In all this, J.J. didn’t argue or complain. And when Flores told him to, he pulled the ropes apart and stepped in the ring.
“Every round, start out like you’re losing. It will make you work hard,” Flores told him.
• • •
Flores said he knows how hard to push his fighters. Everyone has a different threshold, and he’s learned how to tell where that is by making mistakes, pushing people too far and watching them give up — never to pick up a pair of boxing gloves again.
“Boxing is 80 percent mental, and to be a good coach, you have to get into their mind,” he said. “People want to do what’s easiest, what’s most comfortable.
“But that’s not always what’s best.”
He walked through the row of bags to a woman, Jenna Harder, who had just taken her position to start bag work.
She was punching, then pulling her hands up in front of her face. Then punching again. Technically perfect punches, Flores said later.
“Move,” he said to her. Her feet slid a few steps and she threw a couple more punches.
“Move,” he said again. And this time he used his forearm to push her ribs. Every time her feet stopped moving, he pushed again.
After he pushed her in a complete circle around the bag, something changed in her face. It looked like a combination of anger and determination. Flores saw it and stepped away. She started punching the bag — hard and fast — and moving her feet. Flores didn’t push her again.
People stopped to watch.
“I push her until I see that in her and then I stop,” Flores said.
The woman moved into the ring to practice her footwork.
“Jenna,” he said. “We’re not going to be in the ring with you during a fight. You have to push yourself.”
• • •
This was the first year women’s boxing was included as an Olympic sport. It turned out to be more than historic. It was exciting.
The world was introduced to Claressa Shields, a 17-year-old from the United States who brought home a gold medal, beating 33-year-old Russian Nadezda Torlopova.
In her blog “Girlboxer,” Malissa Smith wrote: “In speaking about Claressa, AP sportswriter Greg Beacham wrote: ‘And just like Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier and Oscar De La Hoya before her, Claressa Shields is about to fight for a gold medal.’
“Claressa has that effect. She’s infectious and has the same kind of star quality that makes putting her in the company of boxing greats seem like the most natural thing in the world.”
It’s possible the introduction of a dynamic female boxer could start a ripple effect of popularity among women in the sport, but for now Harder is the only woman training at Headhunter. She walked through the doors in January and said, “I want to be a fighter.”
And they didn’t laugh, she said. “They took me seriously.”
“All women should try boxing,” she said. “Women are expected to be a certain way. Boxing allows you to explore a side of yourself you didn’t know was there.”
• • •
What does it feel like to take a punch?
Harder doesn’t know. Yet.
“I don’t know how I’ll take it,” she said.
It’s a long road from walking through the door to the first punch.
She must build up her stamina — to be able to move her feet for round after round without getting tired and to prepare her mind and her body for the blows.
“They drop a medicine ball on your stomach over and over so you get used to it,” she said.
But more than preparing her body, to be a boxer she must prepare her mind. She must learn to clear it of thoughts and focus on the moment.
There’s a quote from boxer Jack Dempsey: “All the time he’s boxing, he’s thinking. All the time he was thinking, I was hitting him.”
Clearing the mind is something Harder learned as a yoga instructor. She and close friend Christina Gonzales have owned Shimmy Shakti Studio of Yoga and Belly Dance in downtown Twin Falls for nine years.
But there’s something missing for Harder in the quiet of yoga.
“I came here because I wanted a chance to be myself,” the 33-year-old said. “I have an aggressive, competitive nature and that was starting to leak out.
“It’s not an accepted way to be; it’s not very feminine. And I needed a place it would be a positive thing.”
• • •
Flores said the reason Harder hasn’t taken a punch or started sparring is that even though yoga taught her to clear her mind during meditation it didn’t teach her to stop thinking when a fist was flying at her.
“I watch her on the bags and I haven’t seen the reaction time,” Flores said. “From what I see, she’s going to take a hit, then stop and think. That’s a problem. If you get hit and you think, you’ll get hit again.”
Flores said women take longer than men to get to the point where they are ready to fight, but they get there.
“I’ve probably trained 15 women,” he said. “They pay more attention. They take more time. They think a lot.
“You show a girl a stance and she will work on it until its perfect. They are beautiful to watch. Perfectionists. Elbows are in. Fists up. Feet move.”
• • •
In the Headhunter gym, a bell rings every three minutes, and when it rings all the athletes know to change what they are doing. Jump rope. Hanging bag. Footwork. Back to jump rope. Flores walks among the athletes to push and encourage them.
“You don’t need to jump so high,” he tells a boy on the jump rope. “You’ll wear yourself out.”
• • •
Since she started boxing, Harder’s body has changed. She’s lost weight. The muscles in her legs and upper body are more defined.
Her diet has changed.
“They talked to me about diet right away,” she said. “Carbs before you work out to give you a burst of energy and protein after you work out to help your muscles heal.”
And her mind has changed.
“I feel better about myself. I can be aggressive and not be ashamed.”
She hit someone for the first time a few weeks ago.
“I thought I was such a bad a**,” she said. “But when it came to throw that punch, I was uncertain. I was hesitant. I held back because I didn’t want to hurt him.
“I think that’s pretty common.”
Boxing, she said, isn’t about violence.
It’s not about the punch as much as it’s about outsmarting your opponent, she said. “It’s about studying them and their emotions and their habits.”
• • •
Flores started Headhunter Boxing Club 11 years ago in a room in his brother’s house. Since then the brothers — Miguel, Manuel and Matt — moved into the gym at 136 Second Ave. N. in downtown Twin Falls, and the place has become something of an outreach center for area youth.
“I have never turned anyone away because they could not pay,” Flores said.
Youth who want to learn to box can sweep floors or do work about the gym to pay their dues.
Of those who come to the gym, only eight or nine can afford to pay, he said. “We are all in the hole with this gym. But we love boxing. We took from the community for so many years and this is our way to give back.”
“We have a set of values here,” he said. “If you get in trouble out of the gym, you’re in trouble here.
“Your grades have to stay the same or get better. Otherwise, you spend the same amount of time in the gym, but you’ll spend it doing homework.”
As he talked, a boy walked into the gym with his mom. He was carrying a liability waiver and staring at the ring, wide-eyed.
“Today’s his first day,” Flores said. He told the boy to pull a jump rope off the wall and start jumping.
The boy jumped a few times and then stopped.
“When can I do something else?” he asked.
“When I say you can,” Flores said.