For Gabriela Fundora, boxing is a family affair

At age 8, in 2010, Gabriella Fundora is probably the youngest girl boxer in Florida. The 8-year-old loves life inside the ring and outside as a little girly-girl wearing dresses and ribbons in her hair.
At age 8, in 2010, Gabriella Fundora is probably the youngest girl boxer in Florida. The 8-year-old loves life inside the ring and outside as a little girly-girl wearing dresses and ribbons in her hair.
Published July 3, 2013

Chapter 1: prelims

Gabriela Fundora started boxing when she was 7.

Her family had just moved to Seminole Heights and her father, Freddy, 39, quickly located a boxing gym on the edge of Ybor City where he began to train three of his sons. He never considered not introducing his only daughter to the sport. An early picture shows her in the gym with a bloody face and missing front tooth. It was knocked out in the ring.

That was four years ago. Now 11, Gabby has had six official matches against other girls. It's hard to find opponents so she has traveled as far away as California for fights.

"Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men," wrote Joyce Carol Oates in On Boxing, published in 1987. Not so much anymore. In nearly every segment of American society, including front-line combat, age-old gender barriers are disappearing. Last summer for the first time, women's boxing was an official event at the Olympics.

Later this month, Gabby plans to box at the Junior Women's National Silver Gloves in South Florida. It will be her first time competing in an all-female event.

Chapter 2 Training camp

Gabby trains five days a week, three hours a day — more than 3,000 hours in the gym over the past four years.

With hip-hop music in the background, Gabby's routine starts with punching a heavy bag or a dummy. She hits the speed bag and runs three laps around the block. She does 100 situps and 14 pullups, which "are easy," she says. Wearing padded mitts, her father teaches her to throw and duck combinations.

Some nights she climbs into the ring to spar. About half the time her sparring partners are boys. Sometimes, she makes them cry.

The excitement she feels in the ring is hard for her to describe.

"In my body, deep down, I feel like I need to do something," she says. "I'm ready to knock out somebody. I have to do something."

Sometimes when the training goes past 9 p.m., Gabby lays her head on her gloves like a pillow and naps.

Chapter 3 Family pride

In the amateur boxing circuit, everybody knows the Fundoras. Ring announcers drag out the name: "Fuuuuuun-dora." Gabby loves to hear it.

Sometimes at a match, another boxer will trash-talk one of Freddy's kids. Freddy tells them: "Talk with your fists, not your mouth." He tells them to be humble yet confident. He reminds them as they enter the ring to greet the other boxer and to thank the referee.

He tells his daughter the name Fundora will be on everyone's lips when she gets to the Olympics in 2020. Her path, he says, will be paved by her two oldest brothers in the 2016 Olympics.

They are a boxing family, they like to say. A showcase at the front of the gym holds three elaborate and oversized belts Gabby has won and a collection of other trophies won by her older brothers.

Freddy never boxed professionally. His earliest memories are of his uncle teaching him to box in Cuba. In 1977 he left the island with his parents, who were seeking political asylum. When his first son, Alberto, was just 2, Freddy hung a punching bag in the living room. That was the beginning.

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Chapter 4 Taking a hit

When Gabby was 10, in the summer of 2012, she got into a ring in Coachella, Calif., to spar with a boy who was 11 or 12. She didn't keep her hands up to protect her face, she says now.

"He hit me in the head. He threw that 'two' on me," she says, referring to the second punch of a combination. "I wasn't expecting it."

At the end of the round she found her dad in her corner. Hot tears slipped out.

"Suck it up," he told her. "Don't cry.

"It's going to be easy," he said. "Don't worry."

Being able to take a punch is "God given," says Christy Martin, who was a pioneer of women's boxing in the 1990s. "It's not something you can get used to."

For a time, Martin, 45, had a gym in Apopka, and she remembers meeting Freddy and his kids. She passed along some advice to Gabby: "Keep fighting forward," she said. "Don't let people discourage you."

Back in California, when the bell dinged for the next round, Gabby turned back to the boy and she held up her hands. It was easy then.

Chapter 5 crowded house

Gabby and her family live in a two-bedroom bungalow in Seminole Heights. She shares a room with two of her four brothers. The oldest brothers, 15 and 17, sleep in a shed in the back yard.

Her top bunk is decorated with a flowered bedspread and two pictures — of a Navy ship and a sea otter. She wishes she had a room to herself.

The family goes through 9 gallons of milk a week and spends more than $1,000 a month on food. Sometimes they struggle to pay bills, but have never applied for government assistance. They do without things like health insurance. Freddy runs his own business, installing fire prevention systems, and Monique, his wife, is an office manager.

Low rent allows the family to spend their money on boxing. It's an expensive sport, with equipment and traveling to out-of-state competitions.

For their first two years in the house, they didn't have a TV and rarely ran the air conditioner. Freddy preferred the simplicity, he says. He and Monique dream of buying a house. He's aware of Gabby's need for space, and it bothers him.

Chapter 6 Mama

Gabby doesn't remember her mother. Her parents separated when she was a baby. Freddy says his ex-wife, who is Mexican and speaks only Spanish, never liked boxing.

The divorce was messy, and in the end, Freddy got custody of their children. Gabby identifies herself as Cuban, like her father. Like her brothers, she doesn't speak Spanish.

Monique is Puerto Rican and inherited a love of boxing from her father. Monique boxed briefly, winning her three fights. She gave her pink gloves to Gabby.

"When you're in the ring, fight like a boy," she says. "Out of the ring, act like a girl."

While Freddy motivates with a quiet voice, Monique is more forthright. She was a military police officer in the Air Force before meeting Freddy 10 years ago. She runs an organized home.

"Your mouth is training more than your feet," Monique says to Gabby. "When are you the prettiest?" Monique asks. Gabby answers: "When I'm quiet."

"Boxing keeps us together," she tells the children. "Your goal is the Olympics. This is what you're destined to do."

Gabby calls Monique "Mama." She would rather not talk about her other mother.

Chapter 7 Whose dream is it?

Freddy fills a room. He jokes and talks about religion and history and good food and all things boxing. He teaches his kids to appreciate classical music.

The kids know Freddy could be on the couch at home watching TV. Freddy sees it as his job to motivate his kids. They won't get to the top on their own, he says.

Once, another coach accused Freddy of being in it for the money. Freddy was insulted. All he wants, he says, is for his kids to be successful in life.

"A lot of parents don't understand it," he says. "They say I'm pushing them. Yeah, I'm pushing it. What is wrong with that? If I see my kids failing in school and they don't want to go, I'm not going to push them?"

For the record: Gabby brought home A's, B's and a C on her fifth-grade report card. Teachers say she is chatty and a leader. At the beginning of fifth grade, she started a school newspaper, signing the first edition with her boxing name: Gabby "Sweet Poison" Fundora.

Freddy says the boxing gives his children discipline and focus.

"People always think of boxing as something in a back alley with men with barbecue sauce on their wife-beaters going at it bare-knuckled," Freddy says. "People say, 'How can you do this to your kids? It's like fighting dogs.' "

His own parents didn't care when he dropped out of high school in his senior year. He won't push his own children anywhere they don't want to go.

"If my daughter wants to play the clarinet," he says, "fine."

Chapter 8 The fight. The risk.

On a Saturday evening last August, Gabby ducked into a ring in a school gym in Kingsland, Ga. She was 75 pounds and 5 feet tall. Her game plan: Stop her opponent in the first round. She was happy, she said, because "I get to beat somebody up."

She was matched with another 10-year-old, named Mya. Before the fight, Gabby was aware of Mya studying her from the bleachers as Gabby warmed up. Gabby didn't look back. "I know I will win," she said.

In the first round, the girls, wearing protective head gear, traded punches evenly. Judges score based on the number of blows landed in the torso and face with the knuckle portion of the glove. Fights last three one-minute rounds.

In the second round, Gabby backed Mya into a corner with a series of punches. "Get off the ropes," Mya's father yelled.

The girls are so light the chances of a knockout are small. But given research that indicates traumatic brain injury can occur even without concussions, some wonder whether young fighters are doing lasting harm.

"There are long-term and acute effects that may not be apparent," says Gianluca Del Rossi, a University of South Florida researcher. "The sport of boxing is great for fitness. But when it comes down to intentional hits to the head, knowing what we know, it's surprising parents still steer kids into it."

There are risks to everything, says Freddy. His children spend most of their time training and very little fighting. "At least in boxing, you know who's going to hit you," he says. And, he adds, the training pays off: "They rarely get hit."

Gabby tried, but couldn't deliver the knockout. After three rounds the referee held up the winner's hand: "Gabriela Fuuuuuun-dora."

Chapter 9 At the dance

It was the first time she had worn high heels.

"I'm older now, aren't I, Mama?"

Monique told her to close her eyes while she sprayed her hair.

"Now you know, this is only because this is a special occasion," said Monique, smudging glossy pink on Gabby's lips. "No makeup. No nail polish. Till you're 50."

Every year, Freddy takes Gabby to a father-daughter dance at Grace Family Church.

The two are "like peas and carrots," said Monique. If her brothers want something, like a snack on the road, they get Gabby to ask because she's more likely to get a yes from Freddy.

Freddy says he can see the kind of woman Gabby will be. She's considerate and ordered in a way that reminds him of Monique. He expects she will be a good mother.

He sees it when she makes him a cup of tea or sometimes an egg. On long drives to competitions, when the boys climb into the back seats of the van to sleep, Freddy can count on Gabby to keep him company up front.

Gabby says she doesn't know if she will have kids one day. But if she does, they will box, too.