By Rob Varnon The Stamford Advocate, Conn.
Sixteen-year-old Autum Ashante moved around the boxing ring of a Stamford gym, flashing jabs and combinations that popped loudly as they landed on the thick, flat, padded mitts a trainer held.
As she patrolled the ring working on a focus drill with the trainer -- Chordale Booker, this year's welterweight silver medalist at the USA National Boxing Championship -- Ashante concentrated on her footwork while intently throwing the combinations Booker called out and warding off a few feints he threw.
Being a female boxer is just one thing people find surprising about Ashante.
She graduated from high school at age 11, and already has a couple of years of college under her belt. She writes and recites poetry, and is looking to head to a four-year college or university to study chemistry.
She's also a good boxer, gearing up for a fight this weekend in New Haven.
Her other interests and accomplishments conflict with the stereotypes people have about boxing and girls, Ashante said Friday during a break from training.
"They freak out," she said, when she tells people that she boxes.
After they get over the shock, she said, people ask questions, and most of the girls end up liking the idea of boxing. She admitted that some of the boys she talks to aren't as supportive, unlike the male boxers at the gym.
"We're a family," she said of the men and women who train at her gym, Revolution Fitness and Training on Pacific Street in the South End.
Ashante has helped to expand that family, bringing some of her friends from Norwalk Community College to the gym to try their hand at the "sweet science."
That hasn't translated into getting fights, however. She's had only one so far, had at least three canceled, and her bout this weekend was in doubt Tuesday due to a problem finding an opponent in her weight class.
Due to an error, Ashante had been scheduled to fight a male boxer. After organizers found the mistake, they've had trouble finding an opponent. The only female fighter available who is close to her weight class is 21, and other opponents would have to move or down too many weight classes to accommodate the change.
"It's a lot harder. There are not that many girls," said Luis Rosa Sr., owner of New Haven's Boxing in Faith, which is hosting the amateur exhibition this Saturday. "It's hard to find the same weight classes."
A tentative opponent from Springfield, Mass., had been lined up, said Victor James, an assistant coach at Revolution Boxing, but she'd have to go up a class to fight. He's been in contact with the coach there and will know by Wednesday if the she's going to be able to fight Ashante around the 106 pound weight.
In the last decade or so, there has been concern about the future of boxing, as young people turned away from the sport for other interests. But James and Rosa both said they've seeing healthy growth in the sport now, especially as the Connecticut gyms work together to cultivate fighters.
"My gym is packed, over 50 kids a day in the gym," Rosa said.
Meanwhile, the exhibition, set for Saturday from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at Fairhaven Middle School, 164 Grand Ave., New Haven, has about 20 bouts scheduled. Many are single-round affairs for younger boxers, he said. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for children under 12.
Fighters are coming from all over the state and region, he said, noting that gyms from Bridgeport and Stamford are sending boxers. James said Stamford has three male boxers scheduled for bouts.
Whether her bout takes place or not, Ashante has to prepare.
She gets to the gym early, around 5 a.m., to work out before heading to school.
"Technique is very important. Conditioning is very important," she said. "If you don't have the strength, you won't go very far."
Ashante started boxing when she was 8 years old, for self-defense, and kept it up as a way to stay fit. Then her coaches asked her if she wanted to fight for real, and she took a swing at it.
She smiled when asked what it's like to be hit.
"It's not fun. The art of boxing is to learn to hit and not get hit," she said.
The sport has a lot going for it, she said. She likes the discipline and focus it requires.
Her father, Batin Ashante, is proud of his daughter and supports her precocious nature. A single father, it's been just the two of them since she was 11 months old. He's a physical trainer, and with some child care help from family, he has home-schooled his daughter, providing tutors, trips to museums and a dedication to fitness.
One thing he and his daughter hope is that her story will attract more girls, as well as boys, to boxing.
Batin Ashante said there are too many youngsters who spend too much time indoors playing video games or on the street doing the wrong things.
"We've got to get them off the street," he said.
He remembered holding his daughter for the first time, he said, and thinking he had this beautiful little girl that he had to protect from the evil in the world. To do that, he embarked on a mission to provide her with an education that lets her talent blossom and gives her confidence in who she is.
In home-schooling, they studied literature and poetry, and she excels at science. They spent hours in museums and both write and perform poetry. Boxing is just part of her education.
"The world is a classroom," he said.
Sometimes, the hard work both have invested for Autum Ashante to get to this stage appears in unexpected ways. Recently, when he called one of his poetry venues to discuss an upcoming event, he wasn't recognized until he identified himself as Autum's dad. It's a designation he finds an honor.
"She's my best friend," he said.