Boxing by the Book: Deirdre Gogarty’s Call to the Ring
Her boxing life has been (and continues to be) an uphill battle, defined by resilience, dignity, self-reflection and courage…
“The thing I love most about boxing? The people. Definitely the people.”—Deirdre Gogarty
March 16, 1996—In his third fight since his release from prison, “Iron” Mike Tyson sought to complete his comeback in a title fight against the United Kingdom’s Frank Bruno, the WBC heavyweight champion.
Many who tuned into the pay-per-view telecast early to watch the Tyson-Bruno undercards didn’t even know that a professional women’s boxing circuit existed, let alone that we’d be treated to a championship women’s fight. But there we were—pizza on the way—about to watch a real live women’s boxing match (for most of us, the first time).
Most of the pre-fight chatter focused on American Christy “The Coal Miner’s Daughter” Martin, the favorite (28-1-2 at the time). Her opponent in the fight was Deirdre Gogarty or, as many of us knew her then, “the Irish girl.” That neither women was physically imposing nor appeared threatening further piqued our curiosity—were these two women really going to box?
The bell rang and before we knew it, the fists were flying.
That the fight was an offensive-dominated affair was less surprising than the fact that both women were so skilled—none of the flailing arms and wide-angle punches that typify raw, underprepared amateurs. It was a high-action, thrilling back-and-forth battle ending in a Christy Martin unanimous decision victory. Those who saw that fight can attest to it being a war and on the shortlist of “Fight of the Year” candidates for 1996.
The Martin-Gogarty bout was a pivotal moment in women’s boxing, helping to propel the sport into the international spotlight. Christy Martin became the face of women’s boxing in America, even gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But what about “the Irish girl?”
Unless we were to follow women’s boxing closely over the next decade, most of us would never hear her name again. In My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box (Deirdre Gogarty with Darrelyn Saloom, Glasnevin Publishing, Dublin), we learn the story of Gogarty in a beautifully written memoir that straddles several lines effectively: biography of women’s boxer and enchanting coming-of-age story.
“As it always seems to in my life’s story, something comes along to balance the score.”
Fundamentally, boxers trade punches for a living, a dangerous act that tells a unique biography of the human condition, one that blends order with chaos, and simplicity with complexity.
Boxing is simple because its rules aren’t predicated on man-made ideas like the “inning (baseball)” or the “free throw (basketball)” but primal acts of aggression (the punch). The complexity half of boxing involves both the sport itself—its rules, laws, cultural norms and scientific principles—and the people who dedicate their lives to “the hurt business.” This complexity can be recapitulated by the (almost) rhetorical question: “Why the hell would someone want to do this?”
The answer to this question forms the centerpiece of My Call to the Ring. It tells the story of Deirdre Gogarty of Drogheda, Ireland, former WIBF featherweight world champion. Because she is largely unknown outside of boxing circles and hasn’t made a personal fortune, her story provides us the ideal model system to examine the source of boxing’s gravity. After all, Gogarty didn’t box to chase wealth or fame (there was none to be had), nor because her participation was welcome or encouraged. Her boxing life has been (and continues to be) an uphill battle, defined by resilience, dignity, self-reflection and courage.
“Gogarty will dream her life away…”
The story begins in Drogheda, a humble industrial town on the east coast of Ireland. Beginning in grade school, she found herself alienated by her peers, uncomfortable and without much of a social circle. Gogarty becomes accustomed to social awkwardness, keeping few close friends while embracing the visual arts, a hobby that fits her introverted disposition. In My Call to the Ring, we learn that her seeming contentment with seclusion was mostly a façade, an adaptation to a world in which young Gogarty had not yet found her place. Secretly she longed for love, acceptance, community and family.
And Gogarty did have an immediate (biological) family that she loved very much. The interaction with her family as described in the memoir is difficult to label—a type of love built on a fragile foundation and tested by a steady stream of destabilizing events. Young Gogarty grew up with an autistic brother, a mother who suffered from mental illness and other challenges. While she weathered them well, it’s clear that her overall reclusiveness and longing for acceptance directly relates to her inability to find it at home.
”…for tonight I’ve witnessed the dance of the magicians.”
Gogarty describes being instantly drawn to boxing after watching a broadcast of Jack Dempsey’s TKO victory over Jess “The Pottawatomie Giant” Willard (July 4, 1919). What fascinated young Gogarty was not the violence but the fact that Dempsey was able to defeat a man so much larger (six inches and sixty pounds) in such convincing fashion. Perhaps Gogarty was drawn to boxing because, in Dempsey’s defeat of Willard, she found a fitting metaphor for her struggle with loneliness.
Notably absent from the forces driving young Gogarty to the boxing gym is propensity towards violent behavior. And unlike other famously peaceful boxing personalities (e.g. Micky Ward), violence wasn’t a part of her upbringing nor was she raised in boxing gyms. Gogarty’s embrace of boxing was one hundred percent organic.
It is in describing Gogarty’s organic quest for acceptance through boxing that My Call to the Ring strikes the strongest chord: the images of entering a gym for the first time; finding friends and comrades among the pugilists; building a family of people who accept you for who you are, yet work tirelessly toward the fulfillment of your potential. Through the story we learn that it is these connections, more than the punches, that fuel Gogarty’s passion for boxing.
But the punches are relevant too, and the memoir provides the gritty details of Gogarty’s rise through the ranks of boxing. From the Drogheda Amateur Boxing Club, to Saint Saviours gym in Dublin, to the “Crawfish Boiler” in Louisiana, the reader is taken inside the sparring sessions, the early morning jogs through the streets and swamplands, the competitive, sometimes bloody rounds of her professional fights. The action reads like a novel, with well-crafted rising action and climaxes, all while retaining the magic and charm of an introspective memoir.
“I remember feeling very lonely and isolated; I think about young people; I want people to know that they are not isolated and alone.”
The study of pioneers, while important, can often uncover paradoxes that are difficult to reconcile—we might care about pioneers because they are unique, but often discover that they spent most of their lives trying to fit in and be normal. And so, by focusing on their differences we risk misrepresenting the entire message.
While Deirdre Gogarty might be a pioneer in women’s boxing, her memoir is neither the simple biography of a boxing trailblazer nor the story of a heroine who slays dragons, stumbles on a magical spell or becomes the star of The Hunger Games.
My Call to the Ring is a literary memoir about a humble girl who becomes a woman; who falls is love; has her heart broken; loves again; befriends; battles depression; learns to forgive herself and others; finds a lifelong passion; creates a goal; embarks on a personal quest; wins; loses; wins more; wins a lot; moves onto other challenges; laughs; cries; disappoints others; is disappointed by others; learns to love herself.
It is a coming-of-age story of the highest order, a tale of perseverance and purpose.
And the most powerful, perhaps unintended consequence of the memoir: boxing as a sport is humanized just as much as Deirdre Gogarty is. That boxing can provide refuge for such a delicate spirit gives us another reason to love the sport—at the proverbial “end of the day,” boxing really is about the bonds that are formed and relationships cultivated, the kind that bring many troubled souls out of the darkness.
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