Lucia Rijker, the world's greatest female boxer, climbs through the ropes in black leather sparring headgear and a bright-red leather truss belt, an outlandish phallic bulge between her thickly muscled thighs. Her eyes, recessed behind the sparring helmet, are hawkish. The fullness of her lips is fiercely accentuated by the plastic mouth guard over her teeth. She moves with a grace that is highly feminine, and it is striking to see that femininity in the ring, poised for violent physical domination. Dressed for battle, she resembles a sexy, futuristic assassin.
In just over two years, Rijker is undefeated in thirteen fights, twelve of them knockouts. Female boxers, fighting on the undercards of big-name events, are now regularly seen on Showtime; on HBO's pay-per-view arm, TVKO; on ESPN; and on Fox Sports. But they continue to be considered a sideshow by critics. "A lot of women are eager to go in the ring and punch each other, but few have solid technical skills," says Terry Schrumpf, Rijker's marketing agent. "It's going to take athletes such as Lucia to take the sport to the next level, to bring the sweet science to the punching game." HBO Sports senior vice president Lou DiBella says that many networks will not carry women's boxing because most events tend to be "slugfests" or "organized cat fights," but he adds, "If all female fighters were as good as Lucia, we would carry women's boxing on HBO." Before long, Rijker says, she will become the first woman to fight a man in an officially sanctioned fight.
Rijker works out here at the Wild Card Boxing Club six days a week. It is located in a seedy Los Angeles mini-mall between a Spanish-language Alcoholics Anonymous meeting center and a hot-sheet motel. It is on the second floor, reached by an exterior metal staircase that resembles a glorified fire escape. There is enough room inside for a ring, workout mats and a dozen or so punching bags. There is a glamour shot of Marilyn Monroe tacked on the door of the women's locker room (actually a large closet). Monroe's image is the only nod to femininity in the entire place.
Rijker neither speaks nor smiles when training; she is all business. In 1997 before her first title fight, she chanted the sixteenth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a reflection of her fierce devotion to eastern spirituality. Later she will speak of boxing as "art, as dance, as meditation in motion." But today she seems particularly somber. Two days ago, during a sparring match, she was slugged so hard that her tongue swelled up, and she was unable to eat solid food for twenty-four hours. Her agent has warned me that she might be more withdrawn than usual because she has just gotten over the flu and has PMS.
Rijker spars with men only; she says that most women boxers have nothing to teach her, and besides, they are too easy to knock down. Today her partner is a 145-pound former professional boxer and ex-convict named Pepper. Pepper works as a trainer at the gym, which means that his job is to punch people or be punched by people all day long. His shoulders, biceps and upper chest are fused into a solid mass. He looks like a wrecking ball on legs.
"I respect Lucia," Pepper says in a raspy, broad Boston accent prior to entering the ring. "And that's coming from a chauvinist pig who thinks women ain't shit. Lucia's a good dude. She fights like a man."
The buzzer sounds, and Rijker and Pepper circle, eyeing each other warily. Rijker's eyes display the murderous intensity that her fight manager likes to boast about. Pepper is nearly fifteen pounds heavier and undeniably stronger. Rijker slips through the onslaught of blows and closes in on him. His gloves whiff past her head. She connects, delivering sharp combinations to his body and chin.
It is a contest that pits his brute power against her fluidity and speed. By the fourth round, Rijker is beating him up badly. The sparring is momentarily interrupted when Rijker lands a blow to Pepper's rib cage that knocks the wind out of him. He comes back in the fifth round, wobbling on legs that have grown sluggish. Rijker deftly pops up his chin with an uppercut, then finishes him off by slamming a hook into his face. Despite his protective headgear, blood bubbles from Pepper's nose. At the final buzzer, the fighters hug. Pepper looks over his shoulder with a goofy, punch-drunk expression, loudly snuffling the blood and snot that flow from his nostrils.
Two hours later, Rijker relaxes at an organic bakery in L.A.'s Fairfax district. Nibbling on a heart-shaped cookie, she hardly seems a world-champion boxer in her tortoise-shell sunglasses and loose, blue-checked top. A nearby customer asks whether she recommends the cookies. "Quite delicious," Rijker says with a flirtatious smile. She laughs when the conversation turns to the recent sparring match. "Pepper doesn't mind to get hit," she says in precise, accented English that carries the soft, flat tonality of a Nico-sung Velvet Underground tune. "Men fight like that. They are more the ego. You hit them and they act like, 'That didn't bother me.' Fighting women is like fire. They are wild when you hit them."
Rijker was a sports prodigy from the time she could walk. She grew up in a rough, working-class neighborhood in Amsterdam. Her father was a mechanic at a Heineken brewery; her mother was a waitress. Rijker played on the Dutch National Softball Team at the age of ten, and at thirteen she was the Netherlands Junior Fencing Champion. "I was really talented, good at everything — what I can see, I can do," she says. "Tennis, baseball, anything. I was good."
Rijker excelled at sports against the backdrop of a turbulent home. Her father worked long hours, and she and her mother sometimes fought. After her parents divorced, when Rijker was thirteen, she found a second home in a kick-boxing gym. "I felt I was wanted at the gym," she says. "IÈfocused on becoming a fighter. I trained only with guys. There was no crying. There was no 'no,' only 'yes, yes' and, 'Go do it.' "I fought with a lot of anger then," she adds. "I was vicious."
In 1994, she retired from kick boxing. She was twenty-seven; for ten years she had been the champion, defending her titles around the world, focusing only on winning. "I didn't know who I was," Rijker says. "I needed to look for the human behind the fighter."
Like many a wayward soul before her, she bought a ticket to L.A. Her life since then has been a series of L.A. clichés that would seem hackneyed were they not so peculiar and postmodern. Rijker had vague plans to become an actress, and she experimented with a normal life of dating, partying and dancing at night. She had a relationship with an actor and one-time boxer, Billy Keane. As their romance fell apart, it was Keane who introduced her to the "spiritual path" that guides her life today.
"I had so much anger," she recalls. "It was dangerous for my environment." Rijker folds one hand atop the other, revealing a silver ring with a single pearl on it. Fresh scabs have formed on her knuckles from a hard day of punching the speed bags and an ex-con boxer's head — a graphic indication that you might not like to have a spiritually unbalanced Lucia Rijker as a pissed-off ex-girlfriend.
In 1995, Rijker was working out at a gym when a pro-boxing trainer discovered her by chance and began to mold her into a champion. Two years earlier, a Washington state court had declared that women have the same rights as men when it comes to sanctioned boxing matches, and thus the hunt was on for women who had the talent and demeanor to compete. Even though kick boxing and boxing have little in common, Rijker learned her new sport quickly. "Lucia was already very educated in the ring," says her trainer, Freddie Roach. "She had experience and a comfort level of being in actual battle."
She entered the ring for her first professional boxing match in 1996. She knocked out her opponent in the first round. "Lucia is the epitome of a great boxer," say her manager, Stan Hoffman, "in that she is gentle in her life outside the ring, but once she goes through the ropes, she is a murderer. A few fights back, she hurt a girl really, really bad. Lucia caught her with a perfect left hook, and you could just see the girl's eyes rolling back in her head. You don't want to kill anybody, you know, but boy, can Lucia bang."
Rijker was recently signed by an agency that is grooming her for movie roles — think, if you dare, of a female Jean-Claude Van Damme-type action star. She has been offered two roles but has declined both of them: one because it conflicted with her fight schedule and the other because it required nudity. Rijker hopes to open a spiritual retreat one day, but for now she will focus on her boxing career, which, she asserts, has a spiritual dimension. "You train all alone," she says. "You live like a monk. You don't have sex. If you have a boyfriend, how do you tell him he must sleep on the couch because to fight, you must be alone with yourself? ... I practice spirituality so I can be alone without being lonely." If Rijker has found satisfaction on a spiritual plane, in the earthly realm her greatest desire has been thwarted: her dream of kicking Christy Martin's butt. In 1996, Don King put Christy Martin and women's boxing on the map by featuring her on the undercard of the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno bout. Martin's bloody victory over Deirdre Gogarty was seen by millions. King declared her the champion women's boxer of the world, and since then the world has generally believed him.
Rijker, who has won more titles than Martin and is generally rated a superior boxer, has been challenging Martin to a fight ever since. Martin has dodged her. At various times Martin has pretended not to know who Rijker is, accused Rijker of being a man and said that a fight with Rijker would interfere with her plans to have a baby.
Now even people in Don King's office are expressing frustration with Martin's refusal to fight Rijker. "If it was up to Mr. King," says Howie Evans, a publicist who works for King, "the best would always fight the best."
"It so frustrated me — you have no idea," Rijker says. "[Christy's] fans write me and say, 'I'd love to see that fight; because you come from totally different backgrounds and have totally different styles, it would be an awesome fight.' We could make history doing it, and build a new following."
"If there was a Rijker-Martin fight," says HBO's DiBella, "Lucia would beat the shit out of Christy."
A few days after her sparring match with Pepper, Rijker spars with a young, sinewy Latino who throws fast, deadly combinations much like her own. It seems an even match. He works Rijker relentlessly. In the third round, she slugs him with a right body shot, knocking him to the mat.
"Can't nobody beat the lady," shouts an observer at the front desk of the Wild Card Boxing Club who calls himself Hollywood. "I've been in 2,000 fights. Some were even in the ring. I've been hard-core my whole life. She the best in the world. She the man."