Right, swing, left

Can this female boxer win an October championship bout and a chance to compete in the Olympics?

Marina Ramirez, foreground, trains daily with Cary Williams-Nunez in a quest to be one of the first women to box in the Olympics—and to bring new respect to the phrase “fights like a girl.”

Marina Ramirez, foreground, trains daily with Cary Williams-Nunez in a quest to be one of the first women to box in the Olympics—and to bring new respect to the phrase “fights like a girl.”

Photo By Kayleigh McCollum

For more information on Prime Time Boxing, visit www.primetimeboxing.com. For more information on the USA Olympics boxing team visit http://usaboxing.org. Get updates on women’s boxing at www.womenboxing.com.

Marina Ramirez’s skin has yet to break a sweat, but she’s starting to breathe just a little bit harder as she talks.

It’s 2 p.m. on a hot, sunny weekday afternoon, and the tiny boxer is already on her second workout of the day, kicking her feet up and out through a jump rope, swinging in an easy, paced rhythm.

This afternoon she’s concentrating on strength training, conditioning and neverending sets of combos. Earlier today—as she does every day—Ramirez hit Capitol Park for a series of pre-dawn laps.

Although she finds that daily pre-dawn wake-up call brutal, Ramirez, 21, isn’t about to hit her snooze button anytime soon.

In September, the Las Vegas resident temporarily relocated to Sacramento for an intensive, training bout with Cary Williams-Nunez, co-founder of Prime Time Boxing, the Sacramento-based gym she owns with husband, former pro boxer Angelo Nunez.

The goal: Training for the National Pan American Game Championships, scheduled to take place October 3-8, in Toledo, Ohio. The event is the last chance to qualify for the early 2012 Olympic Trials which, in turn, mark the first time women will have the chance to punch their way to a gold, silver or bronze medal.

There is, you see, no time for bodies to rest, pause or relax. It’s run, jump, kick, punch and swing, again and again and again.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Today, Williams-Nunez works Ramirez through a series of drills. A shrill bell marks the start and end of each set as Ramirez uses a right hook maneuver to shadowbox an imaginary opponent—back and forth, right, swing, left.

The only sound in the gym, besides the squeak of Ramirez’ size 5-and-a-half boxing sneakers on the mat and the even, steady grunts of her breath, is Williams-Nunez calm, reassuring voice.

“Watch that—when you do that move you’ve got to bob under and bring it all the way back,” Williams-Nunez says, stepping into the ring to guide Ramirez’s shoulders through the proper motions. “There—better?”

Ramirez nods and then continues with the drill—back and forth, right, swing, left—executing a fluid two-step with ballerina grace.

“I’ve been running through that combo in my head all night,” she says without breaking stride.

Williams-Nunez stands back and watches for a moment and then grins.

“Wow,” she finally says, satisfied. “You’ve really got it.”

Williams-Nunez, 39, first noticed Ramirez in 2010 during a trip to a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, as she and her husband worked with athletes, Williams-Nunez thought about what would happen once camp was over.

“There are a lot of girls there that don’t have help when they go back home,” she says. “Some of them aren’t getting a lot of attention, but they’re serious about the sport and they have a passion.”

Ramirez, Williams-Nunez adds, stood out among the other girls.

“She came in last [during a bout] and felt sort of defeated, but I saw that she had such a sweet demeanor and [her talents] could really be honed,” Williams-Nunez says.

“She was a hard worker, a diamond in the rough, so I invited her to come to Sacramento to train with me.”

Ramirez made her first trip here in June. Now, she’s back again—taking a break from her job at the Hard Rock Cafe on the Las Vegas strip—to gear up for the PAL championships.

Williams-Nunez, who paid Ramirez’s travel expenses, says it’s worth it for the chance to work with a promising boxer at a time when women will finally have the chance to compete at the Olympic level.

“It just feels really good to be able to help someone who’s dedicated her life to the sport—to see how far she’s come without much help,” Williams-Nunez says. “To be able to help her get to the next level—to see her face light up when something works, to be a part of that is exciting.”

It’s also exciting, she adds, to have the chance to shift people’s perceptions about the role of women in boxing.

“A lot of people still won’t go watch girls box,” Williams-Nunez says. “I’m doing everything I can to change that.”

Still, she adds, there’s been definite progress since her days in the ring.

The fit, muscular Sacramento State grad didn’t start boxing until she was 30. Then Williams-Nunez, who earned a degree in environmental sciences, was working with her husband at their new gym, managing sales while he trained clients. As the business grew, however, Williams-Nunez moved into the ring to help.

“I was in the corner assisting, and I told [Angelo] that I wanted to compete so that I didn’t feel like a hypocrite because I didn’t have the experience.”

And so she did, working out with teens half her age, running sprints and learning the moves.

“These kids were training—the speed and skill they have is phenomenal—and it pushed me to keep up with them.”

Not only did she keep up, Williams-Nunez—who says that growing up she more of a “big nerd” than an athlete—started competing at the amateur level.

But it wasn’t easy.

“I had to travel to Oregon to find girls in my weight bracket; there was just nothing out there.”

She stopped boxing when she was 35, the cutoff age for amateur boxers, and focused on training—and the future.

“When I was competing there wasn’t talk of the Olympics—that would have been phenomenal,” she says. “It’s different now [and] there are a lot more girls boxing.”

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Hard work continues

Marina Ramirez studies herself in the gym mirror, locking eyes with the reflected image before pushing her body into another round of drills. Lately, she’s been working on “feints”—carefully choreographed moves designed to fake out the opponent, and between bells she’s always in motion, never at rest, always moving into another two-step, jab, swing or duck.

Measuring in at just 5-feet tall, Ramirez sports a wide, easy grin and a girlish demeanor that belies a determined, combative strength.

“I’m great with the body shot,” she says. “If I hit another girl with my full body shot, then they’re going to be hurting.”

Ramirez has always liked sports. As a kid growing up in the tiny town of Parma, Idaho, she practiced karate before moving on to team sports, such as basketball and softball.

Then, in high school, she set her sights on boxing. As a child she’d watched the sport on TV with her dad, fascinated by the athletes’ grace, skill and toughness.

“I liked that it was an individual sport [and] it challenged me mentally and physically,” she says.

“I knew it was one of the toughest sports out there, and I was excited to get into the ring and see just how hard it was.”

Ramirez, who also competed in track, enjoyed the sport’s routine and discipline, regularly driving 30 miles to train with a coach in a neighboring town.

She competed in her first national tournament in 2008 and ranked third.

That win, she says, significantly changed her perspective—and her drive.

“At first, it became a hobby, and then it became everything,” she says. “I realized this was a bigger deal, and I took it to a higher level.”

Ding. Ding. Ding.

These days Ramirez spends a lot of time focusing on her endurance and strength training in an effort to bring her weight up to 112. The Olympics divide female boxers into three weight categories, and Ramirez still needs to gain a few pounds to make it into the featherweight division.

It’s a lot of work, day in and day out, countless punches thrown, an infinite amount of combos, two-steps and swings.

It is, she says, always a learning process.

A recent fight in Pacifica, for example, didn’t go quite as planned.

“The whole time I thought I was winning—I was smiling like, ‘I’ve got this,’” she says now with a laugh.

In the end, however, judges awarded the high score went to Ramirez’ opponent—leaving the young fighter to contemplate strategy and skills.

“I’m working a lot on movement, on throwing full body punches—on showing more confidence,” she says.

Besides, she adds, each punch thrown before October’s championship bout is simply part of this exhaustive effort to join the ranks in the Olympics’ freshman class of female boxers.

And so she continues, back and forth, right, swing, left.

“I’m sure some people still don’t [like] the idea of women boxing,” she says. “But to me, it just shows women can do the things men can do, and the world is changing.”