Mioshia Wagoner has been shuffling her feet and swinging her arms in a makeshift boxing ring for 45 minutes, and she’s tired. Punching people in the head is hard work.
As the second Thursday in December fades to Friday, Wagoner laboriously hones her southpaw fighting skills in her customary practice space. On this night, Wagoner happens to be participating in her first session in the gym since returning home two weeks earlier from the Women’s World Boxing Championships in China — her vindication trip across the world. She’s spent her last few days jetlagged and working in Haskell Indian Nations University’s Cultural Center and Museum, where she is a secretary.
It’s time to sweat again. Forty-five minutes have passed. Warmups are over.
“Yosh” — Wagoner goes by Yosh, she says, because it’s easier to pronounce than Mioshia — steps into the ring and moves to her corner to discuss strategy with Darren Jacobs, Haskell Boxing Club’s assistant coach. Jacobs is considered the low-key figure between the club’s two coaches, and he stands ringside to give Yosh constructive criticism.
Then, there’s head coach Erik Riley. When the 6-foot, 240-pound Riley speaks, the room stops. Riley — wearing a black backwards hat and an oversized black T-shirt over a gray long sleeve shirt — has been the no-nonsense ringleader of this operation since it opened in 2003.
Officially, he was an amateur boxer for three years. Unofficially, the 1996 Haskell graduate says he’s been fighting since the first grade when he’d clash with older bullies. Riley is such a bruiser, he used to invite all the tough guys he knew from the neighborhood over to his garage on Sixth Street behind Hy-Vee and hold weekly boxing matches for fun.
“All right, listen up,” he tells the fighters. His gym falls silent. “I want you to block the one, two. Then, I want you to throw a hook to the body. It’s quick. Pop, pop, pop. Don’t do the same thing every time, ‘cuz you’re gonna get hit.”
This is the outfit that is Haskell Boxing Club. Ten youth boxers, four adults and two coaches are absorbed in their workouts.
The room they inhabit is tucked away in the back of Haskell’s campus in Pontiac Hall, and it resembles a small airline hanger. Dim florescent lights shimmer high overhead against a backdrop of purple and gray painted brick walls. Punching bags rest on one wall side and wrestling mats cover the floor, save for a large storage closet and this small boxing ring in the back corner.
The youth boxers spar inside small circles on the mats, while the adults take turns ducking and dodging with a sparring partner inside the ring. Wagoner is the only female in that ring.
She walks to the center. A bell sounds and she pounds gloves with her partner.
Things are about to get serious.
Wagoner jockeys for position with her sparring partner and evades a punch.
“Don’t jump back,” Riley thunders. “Move your head, Yosh. Don’t be happy he missed, throw something back.”
She lands a body shot.
“Good,” says Jacobs, still keeping a watchful eye on the fight from his ringside position.
Then, Wagoner fails to heed Riley’s advice. A right-handed blow glances the side of her face, knocking the contact out of her right eye. It wells up and she’s forced to stop fighting and adjust her contact.
“That’s happened like a couple times,” she says afterward. “Usually, coach wants me to spar without my contacts in, but today I forgot.”
Pain and discomfort have no gender barrier in the ring.
Gender doesn’t matter much in this room anyway. One cannot even tell Wagoner’s sex with a bulky black headgear covering her long hair, a black do-rag, black cutoff shirt, gray Jordan shorts and Nike shoes. To her sparring partners, Wagoner is one of them: a fighter. In here, she has their respect.
For a time, she questioned whether that respect was earned — whether her quick rise in the ranks as one of the top female boxers in the country deserved admiration from others.
After spending just two years in training, including months of self-doubt, she found her answer. This is where she belongs.
The staff of Haskell’s Indian Leader student newspaper was small during Wagoner’s senior year there. Sometimes, Wagoner, the paper’s sports editor, had to find creative ways to fill her sports pages, particularly when her other writers bailed on her at the last minute.
Such was the case on the first Saturday evening in October 2005. Wagoner had heard the buzz about Haskell Boxing Club’s “Amateur Fight Night,” an annual showcase event held on campus in Coffin Complex, the school’s main gymnasium. She’d never seen a fight in person and thought it might make for a good story.
What she stumbled upon, however, was an event that changed her life.
One fight in particular adjusted her ambitions — a boxing match between two female fighters, including one woman, Amanda Edinger, a 26-year-old preschool teacher who boxed for Haskell’s Boxing Club.
Instead of scribbling notes, Wagoner watched in awe as the fleet-footed Edinger swiftly took care of her opponent with a bevy of powerful blows.
“She got into the ring, and she tore that girl up,” Wagoner said. “From there, I was like, ‘Wow. If she can fight, then I want to be a boxer, too.’”
But Wagoner’s newfound desire had to wait. October was basketball season, the reason the 5-foot-7 guard from Gallup, New Mexico’s Navajo Tribe had transferred to Haskell in the first place following two years at Cochise College in Arizona.
Wagoner couldn’t commit to boxing that summer, either. An internship in Washington D.C. awaited.
She spent that summer with boxing on her brain. And she couldn’t let the idea go.
“My dad always told me, ‘If you start something, then you better not quit because you’ll be a quitter for the rest of your life,’” Wagoner said.
The next fall, she returned to Haskell to finish her degree in American Indian studies. Her enthusiasm for boxing hadn’t waned.
Her first week back in Lawrence, Yosh went to the gym to track Riley down.
“I want to learn how to box,” she said.
“All right,” Riley responded. “Bring water and five dollars with you on Thursday. Don’t be late.”
‘She hits hard’
Wagoner showed up every Tuesday and Thursday for a month until Riley finally noticed her.
Most people who say they want to box show up in Riley’s gym for a few weeks and are never seen or heard from again. It’s always the same story: too much commitment involved for such a grueling activity.
Wagoner had to earn his time.
He noticed her dedication after that first month. He also noticed her jab and straight left-handed punches. Riley took Wagoner under his wing and began training her more frequently. Wagoner increased her training regimen to include Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with a sparring session on Saturday. She would jump rope, hit the big bags, hit the mits, shadow box and learn proper boxing technique from Riley. She added weight-lifting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at lunch.
But Riley didn’t truly know he had something special on his hands, he says, until the moment Wagoner’s fists met Riley’s face.
“We were sparring,” Riley said. “She hit me and I almost fell. It caught me off-guard. I just lost my balance so bad, and I was running and I caught the wall. That has never happened before. Ever. Not even the guys have ever caught me like that.”
She was a natural athlete.
“We were surprised,” Jacobs said. “She hits hard. She has a lot of power and she’s fast. She picked it up pretty quick.”
It was time to find her some fights.
One of her first bouts came when her coaches entered Wagoner in the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City, Mo., last year. She received the stiffest of tests. Her competition? Tyler Lord-Wilder, the No. 1-ranked fighter in the 176-pound, light heavyweight division. Lord-Wilder, a two-time Pan American Games gold medal winner, was supposed to destroy Wagoner.
Only it wasn’t so easy.
“It was close the whole time, and people were like, “Whoa, what’s going on?’” Riley said.
After one round, no clear-cut leader had emerged. Wagoner’s speed and power had surprised Lord-Wilder, and she remained close in the second round as well. Physically, however, Wagoner couldn’t keep up with Lord-Wilder. She just wasn’t ready for a four-round tussle against the country’s best.
Riley threw in the towel after three rounds.
“She was tired,” Riley said. “She couldn’t breathe, so I just stopped it in the corner.”
Making the team
Wagoner had at least proven that, with a few more months of training, she could take on all challengers in her weight class, despite her novice status.
She trained harder in anticipation of the biggest and most important tournament of her short career: the Team USA boxing trials.
For months, Wagoner prepared, sparring with the men at Haskell’s Boxing Club. Finally, in March of this year, she traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to compete at the U.S. Olympic headquarters in this year’s national tournament. A spot on the United States national team awaited the winner in each weight class. Wagoner arrived ready to box at 176 pounds.
There were three others women in her weight class that Wagoner knew of, including Lord-Wilder.
“When we went to Colorado Springs, we had her in mind,” Riley said. “And she didn’t show up.”
None of them showed. Wagoner won the tournament by default, dubbed a walkover in boxing terms. She had made the national team, but not the way she wanted to.
“I was kind of upset because I was like, ‘I won a title, but it doesn’t really seem like I won it,’” Wagoner said.
It wasn’t the only time.
At the Native American championships in Oklahoma that year, nobody entered in her weight class, and she won by default. The previous year, she was forced to jump up to 186 pounds just to find a fight.
In fact, for an entire year, Yosh could not find anybody to fight in her light heavyweight division. She traveled to tournaments in Topeka, Hutchinson and back to Kansas City. Still nothing. A lack of female boxers in the Midwest had sullied her progression.
And yet, she was a national champion. She was headed to Ningbo City, China in November to represent Team USA in the World Boxing Championships despite a fight record of just 4-2.
Wagoner received a Team USA national champion letterman jacket for her “performance” in Colorado Springs at the Olympic training headquarters. And a No. 1 national ranking.
“I didn’t wear my jacket,” Wagoner said. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to wear this. I don’t deserve this jacket right now.’ So, I left it in my closet.
“To me, I needed to earn something.”
‘OK, I belong’
Wagoner waited more than a week and a half for her first fight in Ningbo City, receiving a bye in the 12-boxer field to the quarterfinals of the light heavyweight division. On the night of Wednesday, Nov. 26, she finally entered the ring. Her first opponent: Egypt’s Nadia Mohamed. Wagoner’s first opportunity to prove her advancement to China wasn’t as fluky as people thought.
“I think that was the most important fight for me,” Wagoner said. “That was like, ‘Do I deserve to be here? Am I good enough to fight in the world championships?’”
After the first round, Wagoner had her answer. She wasn’t a notch below the world’s best like she speculated. In fact, she held a slight 3-2 points advantage in the three-round fight. (Olympic-style boxing features a point system that measures the number of clean blows landed, rather than assessing physical damage to a fighter.) Then, Wagoner slammed the door on her opponent, destroying Mohamed over the final two rounds, 7-2, to gain a 10-4 victory.
Yosh had won her first ever fight at the world championships and was moving on to the semifinals.
She barely had made it out of the ring when tears swelled in her eyes.
“You’re not supposed to cry when you win,” her teammates razzed from ringside.
“But you don’t understand,” Wagoner told them.
How could they understand? Every single one of them had won at least one match to validate their invitation to the world championships. Now, Yosh finally had her own verification.
“For me, that right there was when I said, ‘OK, I belong,’” Wagoner said.
In the semifinals, she pummeled Romania’s Fetti Paraschiva, 8-4, taking a 7-1 lead into the final round and coasting to victory. Only in the championship did she run into trouble. There, Wagoner fell behind China’s Jie Li Tang, the No. 1-ranked light heavyweight in the world, 3-1, after one round. Li Tang took care of Wagoner from that point on, earning a decisive 11-1 victory.
But Wagoner walked away with her head high and with a nice parting gift: a silver medal from the world championships.
The experience only made her convictions for boxing stronger, and she has said she wants to accomplish more. Men’s boxing is the only Olympic sport without a women’s counterpart on the Olympic program. Should a bid for women’s boxing be accepted next year, Wagoner is hoping to become the first gold-medal winner in the women’s light heavyweight division at the 2012 London Olympics.
One of the first things Wagoner did upon arriving back in Lawrence was sift through the clothes in her closet. She found her national championship jacket from her walkover victory in Colorado Springs.
No more internal debate or uncertainty existed in Wagoner’s mind. She took out her jacket and wore it for the first time.
Show of respect
As practice from her first session back from China ended inside Pontiac Hall, Wagoner readjusted her do-rag and began stowing away her black headgear and gloves. She still hadn’t removed the tight, blue wrapping around her hands when Riley stopped everyone who remained in the gym.
He had one final announcement for the evening.
Riley disappeared in a storage room and reemerged holding an oversized gray hooded sweatshirt. Inscribed in black marker on the front were the words “Haskell Boxing Club” with the club’s insignia underneath. The back of the hoodie, etched in big, bold bubble letters, spelled out three sentences on separate lines: “Mioshia Wagoner. AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships 2008. Silver Medal.”
Riley drew it himself.
Despite his tough exterior, Riley admires and respects hard work and dedication. In two years, Wagoner has gone from an unknown novice in the sport of boxing to the top women’s light heavyweight in the country and a No. 2 world ranking — a status that wasn’t handed to her in the form of a walkover.
“I’m proud of you,” Riley said.
“This is so cool,” Wagoner responded. “Thank you.”
If it gets cold enough during these winter months, Wagoner can always wear that sweatshirt under her letterman jacket.