IT wasn’t until there was mention of hair being cut that it dawned on me there was a difference between an injured male boxer and an injured female boxer. It was precisely at that point, when told how difficult it was for Alejandra Ayala to see herself in the mirror with her hair shaved, the difference became abundantly clear – at least to me.
Until then, I had tried to take the same approach to a women’s fight going wrong as I would to a women’s fight going well. Which is to say, rather than focusing on the subtle but key differences between females fighting and males fighting (namely, shorter rounds, shorter fights, and perhaps less power on display), I treated it the same, viewing the Ayala incident no different than an injury suffered by a male.
It was, after all, her decision to fight, both that particular night (May 13 in Glasgow, Scotland) and in general terms. Moreover, she was, with 19 pro bouts to her name, more than equipped to handle herself in the company of Scotland’s Hannah Rankin, 11-5 at the time. It was not, on paper, a mismatch, nor in reality would it become one. She also later informed me that she had done everything she could to prepare for the fight and was, following three months of hard graft, in the best possible condition to not only compete but win.
Even so, I’m only human. Therefore, in May, news of a female boxer being injured still shocked me. It shocked me, predominantly, because injuries in women’s boxing tend to be rarer than they are in men’s boxing, owing both to the relatively short history of women’s boxing and, also, the shorter rounds, shorter fights, and reduced strength and punch power on offer. It always comes as a surprise, then, or more a jolt to the system, whenever receiving news of an injury suffered by a female fighter and, for me, Ayala’s was no exception.
Furthermore, because it was not a fight I had watched live, it became hard to fathom how the Mexican had ended up in a coma as a result of spending 10 rounds trading punches with Rankin, someone with whom she was seemingly well-matched. At first, I couldn’t begin to imagine how it had ended, nor, for that matter, the type of fight the pair must have produced for it to conclude with one of the two going to hospital.
Then, of course, I remembered the boxing rule of thumb: sometimes these things just happen. As with the men, an injury to one of the fighters doesn’t necessarily have to be the result of a brutal, gruelling fight, though often it is, and it doesn’t have to be the direct result of one final, devastating blow, either, though occasionally it will be. Sometimes, sadly, a fighter, whether male or female, can have an undetected problem going into the fight, or they can be susceptible to blows due to damage accrued in previous battles, or they can simply be unlucky on that particular night.
Without speaking with her, I didn’t know which of these was true in the case of Ayala back in May. All I knew ahead of our interview in July was that, after surviving a 10-day coma and getting rebooted, she had been concerned about her hair and was scared it would never grow back. That seemed, on the face of it, a superficial kind of fear given all she had overcome, yet in the context of her being a young woman of 33 with her whole life now ahead of her, it kind of made sense to me. Not just that, it helped to highlight another difference between men’s boxing and women’s boxing and, in doing so, made me think of her injury and its ramifications differently than I would if she had been a man.
Being female, her hair was part of who she was – and is. It is, to some degree, her identity. To go through life without it, or with it in some way altered, would perhaps be an obstacle harder to overcome than stopping boxing, this cause of the problem in the first place. It would be a constant reminder, both of what had happened and the woman she used to be.
It’s with some relief, then, that I can report Alejandra Ayala’s hair is on its way back and that, whenever discussing it, she can now laugh. The incident, too, is one Alejandra today speaks about with maturity, presenting an almost philosophical view of it all. She calls the fight “one of those things” and the subsequent 10-day coma a “long sleep” and the gaps in her memory don’t appear to bother her, either. Rather, she quite likes the idea of her family filling them in for her, feeling it brings them closer, and has embraced the opportunity to press stop on her life and consider, at the age of 33, what it all means.
Indeed, it would be fair to say that while I have interviewed many boxers over the years – active and retired, healthy and damaged, male and female – not a single one of them taught me the things Alejandra Ayala taught me while she was based in Glasgow in the aftermath of her biggest fight. Though boxing was of course our bond, what she taught me had nothing to do with boxing, or even anything pertaining to it. Instead, and much more valuable to me, I was taught the crucial things those who taught me about boxing sadly take or took for granted. She taught me, for instance, how fleeting life can be and how just being alive gives us a chance to do something to change our current situation. She taught me about family, the importance of it, and that, in competition, giving up – losing, quitting – is okay. She taught me, also, the price of patience and taking one day at a time, and how just because you used to run 10 miles a day and can’t do the same now doesn’t mean you give up or weigh yourself down further with bitterness and regret. Finally, and perhaps best of all, Ayala would teach me that taking care of others, while ostensibly a good thing, must be an act secondary to taking care of yourself. Do that, she said, take care of yourself first, and those around you, those who love you, will in turn feel better about themselves. That’s her plan now, by the way: take care of herself to ensure both she and those who care for her have a happy life.
I’ll admit, it’s odd to think Alejandra realised all these things when emerging from a 10-day coma but it’s true nonetheless. Boxing – that is, hitting people in the head and getting hit back – may over the years have taught her the virtues of discipline, hard work, and determination, yet it wasn’t until boxing decided to deal her the cruellest of blows, bringing her close to death, that Alejandra Ayala finally discovered true life lessons, the kind applicable to both regular life and a new life. In other words, as if somehow now enhanced by the experience, it wasn’t until she was forced by boxing to stop boxing that she saw the light. “I’m happy,” she says today, meaning to be alive, of course. But also, one suspects, to no longer have to fight.