Joy Liu studies government by day, delivers hard right hooks by night
By Ken Gewertz
Joy Liu leans forward in her chair -- lunges is more like it.
"You know what I really hate?" she asks. "In women's lacrosse and field hockey, you have to wear a skirt. What's up with that? I know it's tradition, but, come on, get over it."
When it comes to sports, Liu '99 is about as nontraditional as you can get. As president of the Harvard Boxing Club, she can be found most afternoons in the Malkin Athletic Center trading hooks and jabs with other pugilists, male and female.
What's more, she's a titleholder. This February, she won the New England Golden Gloves championship in the women's lightweight (139 lbs.) novice division.
A government concentrator and Eliot House resident from Cheshire, Conn., Liu has always loved demanding, "hard-core" sports -- basketball, rugby, martial arts, snowboarding. As a child, she idolized her older brother and would rather hang out with boys than girls.
"I was totally a tomboy growing up. My mom had to pay me a nickel to get me to put on a dress."
In grade school, gym class was her favorite. "You didn't have to do anything, just play."
Even as a child she was a fighter, scrapping with classmates, especially those who made racial taunts.
"Then, around the sixth or seventh grade, I mellowed out. I'm a normal girl now, but I still like doing guy stuff."
In general, Liu's parents have supported her athletic interests, although they have always insisted that academics must come first. "I think my mom wished I was a more traditional Asian girl, but my dad was really supportive. He came to all my basketball games and track meets. He even came to practices."
At Harvard, Liu has not gone out for a varsity sport because she feels it would be too great an investment of time. She is, however, a regular participant in pickup basketball games and serves as a referee in intramural sports.
It was while climbing the stairs to the fourth-floor basketball courts at the Mac that she became fascinated by the door marked "Harvard Boxing Club" and decided to check it out. That was a little over a year ago. She is now one of about 10 female members of the club, three or four of whom come regularly to daily practice sessions.
Once she became involved in the club, Liu fell under the spell of its coach, 89-year-old Tommy Rawson, a one-time New England lightweight champ who has coached boxing at Harvard off and on since the 1930s.
"He's the greatest," Liu said. "When people come in, he spends time with them one-on-one, teaching them the groundwork. And if you're having a problem, he can always tell you exactly what you're doing wrong."
Competing in the Golden Gloves in Lowell, Mass., showed Liu how revered Rawson is in the boxing community. "He's like the godfather. Everybody knows this man."
Rawson returns the compliment. "She's a terrific girl. She has the skills and she has the footwork. In the Golden Gloves tournament, she didn't get hit more than two punches in three rounds. She boxed like a champion."
Female boxers at Harvard are nothing new. There have been women members of the Boxing Club for the past 17 years. Rawson said that he was a bit perplexed by their appearance at first and went to then director of athletics Jack Reardon for advice.
"He said to me, 'I'm sure you'll handle it.' So we handled it."
Rawson's approach has remained the same whether he is working with women or men. "My primary purpose is to make sure nobody gets hurt. I teach them to box. I don't want anybody slugging."
Rawson creates equality between sparring partners of different size, strength, and skill level by restricting the kinds of punches the better boxer is allowed to throw. For example, a more experienced boxer may be allowed to throw only left jabs while his opponent can use the full arsenal.
Because she is larger and more skilled than most of the other women in the club, Liu spends the majority of her time sparring with men, who, in most cases, can use everything except a right to the head.
Watching Liu spar with senior Adam Kleinbaum, it is evident that neither boxer is taking it easy on the other. Kleinbaum stalks Liu aggressively while she repeatedly slips under his lead to pummel him with rights and lefts to the body. Both boxers are breathing hard, their plastic mouth protectors protruding beneath their upper lips.
"When I fight guys, I'm really careful because they can hit harder than most girls," Liu said. "But I can hit pretty hard myself. I can make it pop."
Developing the capacity to throw a hard punch, to do damage, is one of the things Liu likes best about boxing.
"It's cool to know you could hurt someone if you wanted to. Women aren't supposed to feel that way, but I bet a lot of them do. They just haven't been told they're allowed to."
Liu is thinking about competing in next year's Golden Gloves in the next category, the open class. But she doubts whether she'll ever turn pro.
"There's just not much money in it, and I wouldn't want to mess up my head."
But in the mean time, the sport is providing Liu with the sort of physical challenge she craves.
"Boxing whips you into shape. It's gotten me to push myself. I've learned more about what my body can do and what it can take. I like to work myself really hard. Otherwise, what's the point?"
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College