Deirdre Gogarty's determination to enter women's boxing, and her skill once she arrived, made for a world-championship career.
Deirdre Gogarty's determination to enter women's boxing, and her skill once she arrived, made for a world-championship career. By Dan McDonald photos by robin may
The "pop, pop, pop" from leather violently meeting leather echoes around the Ragin' Cajun Boxing Club gym, the sound made even louder ringing off the metal walls.
It's music to Deirdre Gogarty's ears. She's at home on that 16-foot-wide canvas, which used to be white, surrounded by vinyl-covered cables (calling them ropes indicates a softness that's not there) that keep the opponent from straying too far away.
She's in the ring on this day with Jalen Castille, a 20-year-old UL Lafayette student who's obviously not a newcomer to boxing. Castille's large black gloves are beating a steady rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat on the blue hand pads that Gogarty is wearing, a training device she's using to help Castille develop punching speed and location.
It's an unspoken form of coaching. Few words are exchanged until the electronic timer drones its chime, indicating the end of the three-minute round. The hands finally stop, only then giving an indication of their earlier speed. The irony of wearing black and blue on those fists, in a sport where bruising is a fact of life, is probably lost on both of them.
Castille slips out of the ring through the misnamed ropes, heading over to another area of the gym to hit the weights or punch the speed or heavy bags. But Gogarty's still in the ring as another student joins her. Larry Chaisson's only 8 and just starting to develop the hand-eye coordination that is vital in boxing but also handy in everyday life.
Chaisson's smaller and bright-red gloves begin to mimic what Castille was doing, but this time things are a lot lighter. Gogarty and her young pupil are both smiling broadly at different points, making a connection despite the 34-year difference in their ages. Minutes later, Gogarty's doing the same with 50-ish Jolie Talley, who has dropped nearly 60 pounds through her boxing workouts.
"It comes very naturally and very easy to me," Gogarty says of training people and especially the younger members of the Ragin' Cajun Club, "but that's because I've been in the sport so long and seen so much. I love coaching because my coaches were always looking out for me, back when women's boxing was considered a waste of time."
From some, that last statement would sound bitter. Anyone who's read My Call to the Ring, Gogarty's recently published memoir written with local writer/editor Darrelyn Saloom, wouldn't blame Gogarty at all if she wallowed in her own bitterness. After what she went through to chase a dream - ignored, snubbed and sometimes ridiculed in her homeland, forced to leave for America and the opportunities it promised in the fledgling sport - it would be easy for her to be angry at the world.
Even the book's subtitle, A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box, indicates a lack of fulfillment.
But that would be so far from the truth. Married to the love of her life with a world-championship title belt hanging on her wall - along with operating her own successful business and having the opportunity to coach people in the sport she loves - and just back from a successful 16-day book tour in her native Ireland, Deirdre Gogarty's life right now is a unanimous decision, if not a clean knockout.
So is the book she and Saloom spent nearly six years bringing to fruition, one whose existence is still a near-miracle.
"I chalk it up to total serendipity," Saloom says. "I'm not a boxing person at all. But sometimes you look back at your life and you wonder what would have happened if you hadn't done particular things. Working with her was really special."
Gogarty's last sanctioned bout was in 1998 when she lost a 10-round decision to Beverly Szymanski in Atlantic City for the International Women's Boxing Federation world featherweight title. She'd torn a rotator cuff during training and aggravated it in the second round of that bout - in effect, boxing the final eight rounds with one arm. After that, comeback efforts were repeatedly stymied through cancellations and opponent withdrawals, and she formally retired in November of 2003 with a career 18-5-2 record with 15 knockouts.
|Gogarty's been training Jolie Talley, who has dropped nearly 60 pounds through her boxing workouts.|
Gogarty won the world title in March 1997, beating Bonnie Canino in a 10-round unanimous decision at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, but it was her bout with Christy Martin one year earlier that put women's boxing into the forefront. Martin won that nationally televised bout in a close decision on the under-card of the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno heavyweight title fight, but Martin took a beating from Gogarty's quick hands and was a bloody mess at the end. That image - Martin's face and pink top covered and saturated with blood from her broken nose - is iconic in the sport and made many realize that women's boxing wasn't the powder-puff sport of its own stereotype.
The bout with Martin, her title-fight victory and many other fights are chronicled in the book, but Saloom is quick to point out that it's not a book about boxing. Instead, it's about a woman realizing her dreams, and the cover picture - the image of a 10-year-old girl standing high on an Irish Sea railing, her gloved hands outstretched - says volumes about the content inside.
"The book is from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico," Saloom says. "It represents her journey and symbolizes her dream."
Women weren't sanctioned to box in Ireland until 2001, but that didn't stop Gogarty from developing a burning passion for the sport in her formative years.
"There's such a backstory," Saloom says. "It's remarkable because her family was so not a boxing family. Her dad was a surgeon and her mom was a dentist during the time that women in Ireland didn't do that."
Gogarty had to break down barriers that frowned on her even training in the sport, but she was finally allowed to train at the St. Saviours Boxing Club in Dublin when just out of her teen years. She had a couple of "underground" fights including her "debut" in Limerick in June of 1991, when as a 21-year-old she won a six-round decision over Anne-Marie Griffin. The details of that bout are meticulously documented in the book, mostly due to Gogarty's uncanny memory and her ability to paint a picture of the dank surroundings and the small crowd of boxing fans that wasn't sure what to make of women in the ring.
"Most of my memories are good ones," Gogarty says, "because I was finally getting my chance. But it bothered me a little that people sort of blew it off, because boxing's a very serious sport and you have to put your heart and soul into it. For people to not take it seriously and not think I was going to go anywhere with it, I really wanted to prove them wrong."
Several months later she won a fight in Yorkshire, England - where women's boxing was legal but still not culturally accepted - and it was hours after that fight that she and her coach at the time, Paddy Sower, agreed that her future resided across the Atlantic.
Excerpted from the book, in Gogarty's words:
"You ever 'ear of a Yank cauled Beau Williford?" Paddy Sower asks as he grabs a copy of Nat Fleisher's The Ring Record Book from his collection. "Have a look in there," he says and hands me the book. "He was a professional fighter. But he's a manager and trainer now."
To my amazement, I open the hefty yellowed book right to Williford's record.
"There ya go, that's 'im. That's the feller I'm talkin' 'bout," says Paddy. He tells me Williford revitalized the careers of two English boxers and helped them both to world titles.
"Nice fella is Beau," Paddy continues. "Write 'im a letter, Deirdre. He'll know if there's any fights for you in the States. Believe me, anything Beau Williford don't know, ain't worth knowing."
Gogarty came to the U.S. exclusively on those words and correspondence with Williford, the founder and still coach-in-chief of the
Ragin' Cajun Club. Williford saw something in the rail-thin blonde, began working with her, and the rest is history.
Even now, Williford's eyes light up when he watches Gogarty working with those like former Club member Jesse Saloom, who unwittingly became the book's catalyst. After all, his mom happened to be an acclaimed writer.
"Jesse almost died of thyroid disease when he was younger," Darrelyn Saloom says, "and he was sneaking off to the gym and training with her. They became very good friends, and one day she was talking to him about how much she'd love to write her memoir. He said that his mom could help ... but that meant he had to confess that he'd been sneaking off to the gym all that time.
"After him, I understand what her parents must have thought. I mean, that was their daughter in there."