Blood Sport: Woman's First Pro Fight is Her Last
The Kansas City Star
June 8, 1997
By Joe Posnanski, Staff Writer
No woman in the United States has ever died boxing. Only one has ever come close. This is the story of Katie Dallam. She almost died shortly after her first fight. This is the story of Sumya Anani. She was the woman who punched relentlessly.
They met briefly before their fight on a Wednesday in December at the Firefighter's Union Hall in St. Joseph. Anani talked about her days as a yoga instructor and massage therapist. Dallam talked about her days as a drug-and-alcohol counselor for the state of Missouri.
They spoke nervously, like two women sitting in a dentist's waiting room. Then they walked into the hall, into the roar and the haze, and struck each other for seven minutes.
The two women tapped gloves.
The crowd screeched at the sight of blood.
Dallam collected $300. Anani made $400.
Few saw the ambulance leave the building.
Everybody remembers the details differently, but that's not unusual on nights of tragedy. One remembers shrieks where another recalls silence. One sees fury where another senses calm. Danny Campbell, the boxing promoter, remembers Dallam talking freely when the fight ended. Stephanie Dallam, Katie's sister, remembers only silence and a deadness to her eyes. Katie Dallam herself remembers nothing. She sees the fight only in her painting, with red strokes blushing against canvas.
Then, nobody sees women's boxing itself quite the same way. Close to the mainstream Women's boxing yanks a million emotions out of people. It is violence and blood and sex and gimmick and sport blended together so intensely, so furiously that no one can feel one part without tasting another. In a few weeks boxing's biggest promoter, Don King, will put on the first ever pay-per-view card with all women fighters. Some people laugh. Some are sickened. Some cheer. Some plunk down their money.
In England and other European countries, women's boxing is banned.
In the United States, it swims toward mainstream. "You have to understand this is not powder-puff stuff,'' boxing promoter Danny Campbell says. "These girls really fight. That's one of the reasons it is becoming so popular. And it is becoming popular, I tell you.
"Women are not educated boxers, understand? They're still learning the sport. They don't know how to slip punches or block punches. They just stand in front of each other, punch away and the toughest girl wins. Blood flows; you might see a nose broke. They're exciting fights.''
Campbell promoted the Anani-Dallam fight of Dec. 11. He says everybody wants to see women's boxing these days, and he gives the same reason every boxing promoter gives: Christy Martin. She fought Ireland's Dierdre Gogarty on the under card of a Mike Tyson fight, and they stole the night with a six-round spectacle. Martin won the fight, though blood covered her face and body. Soon afterward she glared from the cover of Sports Illustrated. Women's boxing had its first legitimate star. Martin now demands a six-figure purse for her fights.
Martin is one extreme. Another is Kansas City's Mary Ortega, who just turned 17, wears braces and says she has her mother's permission to become a professional boxer. She spars with men, hungrily hits the heavy bag and hopes to have her first pro fight in August.
"There are just no opportunities for women in amateur boxing,'' she says.
Another is Julie Ardwin, who lives in Kansas City, gives physical examinations by day and then throws stiff left jabs under smoky lights. She began fighting a year ago to get in shape. They told her she could make money in this gig. She has won five of six fights. She is tall, intelligent, athletic and stunning.
"A beautiful girl,'' trainer Joe Gallegos says. ``Believe me, that sells.'' "Promoters come up to me and say, 'I'm going to make you a star,''' Ardwin says. "And I say, 'How are you going to do that? ' They just smile. We're a sideshow. There's not a lot of legitimacy in women's boxing.'' Last week Julie Ardwin fought two fights. She won Monday in Kansas City. She was knocked out Thursday in Baton Rouge, La. "I guess that's pretty stupid, huh? '' she says.
Her first pro fight
The first view of the Anani-Dallam fight comes from ringside.
Danny Campbell did not know much about Katie Dallam. In the program the fight was listed this way: Female welterweights, featuring Sumya Anani.
Reporters were told that Dallam was a 26-year-old fighter from Jefferson City. Actually, she was 37, had a master's degree from the University of Missouri and had lived in Columbia her entire life except for the four years she spent in the Air Force. This was her first pro fight. She had been training for six weeks with Gallegos.
She had trained as a kick boxer for a while but had never stepped in the ring. Her entire ring experience consisted of one round in the women's portion of a Tough Man contest. She lost.
"(Gallegos) called me and said he was looking for a fight for his girl,'' says Campbell, who was more interested in Anani, the fighter he promotes still. Anani had been fighting for only six months, but she won all three of her fights. She was 24. She grew up in Kansas City but had briefly been a massage therapist and a blackjack dealer in Jamaica. Campbell called her the Island Girl and the Jamaican Sensation. It was tough narrowing down from there.
Dallam outweighed Anani by 35 pounds. The Missouri State Boxing Commission does not allow boxers to fight out of their weight class unless special permission is granted. It was granted for this fight.
"There are not many women's fighters,'' Campbell says. "They're pretty lenient about weight differences.'' The day before the fight, Dallam received her boxing license.
That night, she was in a car wreck serious enough to send her trainer into the hospital.
"She was driving and seemed OK,'' Gallegos says. "I was covered in blood from head to toe. But then, I'm a bleeder.'' Campbell says he was never told about the accident, nor was the Missouri Office of Athletics. After a routine pre-fight physical, the fight went on as planned.
"It was the kind of physical a 90-year-old man could pass,'' Dallam's sister, Stephanie, says.
"This is absolutely sickening to me,'' says Tom Moraetes, an amateur boxing trainer in Augusta, Ga., for 24 years and the tournament director for the first-ever amateur women's boxing championships this July. "I can't even believe this fight was sanctioned. She's 37. She's never fought before. She's trained for six weeks. She's in a car wreck. This is the worst of boxing, right here." The fight began at 9:51 p.m. Anani wore a yellow sports bra and shorts.
Dallam wore a black, oversized tank top.
Anani began landing punches almost immediately.
"It was an incredible fight,'' Campbell says. "It was a lot better than I expected it to be. Sumya decided to go toe to toe with the girl. She would just throw so many punches. That other girl was just not in the kind of condition to survive all that later in the fight. She wouldn't go down, though - showed a lot of heart. '' Dallam's nose began bleeding less than a minute into the fight.
Anani was simply too quick for her.
In the cloud of memory from the fight, Dallam would only vaguely recall the first punch, and it seemed like four gloves coming at once. Anani flailed away. In the second round, Anani landed blows time after time to the head, including a four-punch combination to the face. In the third round, people in the crowd screamed for Anani to finish her off. It was a 12-punch flurry to the head in the fourth round that prompted the referee to pause the fight for the first time and give Dallam a standing-eight count. Gallegos threw in the towel.
Dallam remained on her feet the entire fight. She never stopped trying to fight back.
The videotape shows Anani landed 119 punches to the head. Dallam landed fewer than 40. Because it was a professional bout, neither fighter wore headgear.
When the fight ended, Dallam slumped to her corner. Many things happen at the end of a fight, so many it is hard to keep track. The ringside doctor, C. Daniel Smith, says he briefly checked Dallam, found her responsive and let her go. Katie's sister says the doctor never got up from his seat. Anani says she tried to speak to Dallam but got no response. Stephanie Dallam says her sister's arms were ice-cold.
"She didn't even recognize me,'' she says.
Gallegos says Dallam didn't feel faint until she reached the dressing room. She asked for an aspirin. She couldn't swallow it. She collapsed. By the time Dallam reached Heartland Regional Medical Center, her brain bled profusely.
Stephanie Dallam's life revolves around her sister. Entirely. She spends her mornings in Olathe taking Katie to speech therapy, then they visit a psychologist and then there's physical therapy.
Stephanie reminds her sister to eat. She drives her around town. She tells her several times a day what is next on the schedule. Katie can't remember for herself.
"In a way I'm lucky,'' Katie says. "I don't remember any of it.
It's like my short-term memory is gone. I see stuff on television, and it's almost like the whole thing happened to somebody else.
Stephanie remembers everything for me. '' The memory haunts Stephanie Dallam. Not just the aftermath, when Katie Dallam lurched in and out of coherence following a one-day coma, when her eyes sunk deep into the sockets, her face was black, her body clung to a respirator, a blood clot weighed on her brain.
Doctors said she might not survive. "That night,'' Stephanie Dallam says, "I kept waiting for the phone to ring (and for someone) to ask me if we wanted to donate the organs.'' No, it goes beyond the coma, beyond the 3 1/2-hour surgery to repair a vein that had been torn at the top of the brain, beyond the broken nose and the hollow eyes, beyond the terrible moments at the bedside when she thought Katie was dead, beyond the terrible moments when she understood that Katie might survive but would never be the same.
It goes beyond the weeks in the hospital, beyond the brief time when Katie wanted to kill herself, beyond the daily grind of telling her sister the same stories again and again. Stephanie Dallam had been a critical-care nurse in Columbia. She had seen pain before.
"I've seen hundreds of people die,'' she says. "It was agonizing watching Katie in pain.'' No. The fight itself is what haunts Stephanie Dallam.
"A women's boxing match in rural Missouri is one step up from a dogfight,'' she says. "I'm not even sure it's one step up.
"Everybody knew they were supposed to be rooting for the other girl. She came in wearing the shorts; she was cuter, and so everybody screamed for blood. Katie was just an opponent. They just threw her in and let her get beat up. And they wouldn't stop it. It just kept going on and on, and the people were screaming, 'Kill her,' and nobody stopped it. ''
Stephanie Dallam is angry. Katie can't return to her job as a counselor. She can't drive, because she forgets where she's going. Small changes frighten her. She can't read, because it hurts her eyes. She can't jog, because it jars the brain. And often by the end of sentences, she forgets what she was saying. Doctors say it will take six more months to determine whether all the damage is permanent. They are not optimistic.
"We don't ever talk about the future,'' Stephanie says. "It upsets Katie too much. She had a master's degree. She was an athlete. She ran half-marathons. Now we have to deal with the fact that this might be Katie's life, and it's just too hard. We look one day ahead. We can't look beyond that.'' Stephanie and Katie have hired an attorney, Sly James, and they are contemplating a lawsuit. James won't specify against whom.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Dallam fights insurance companies. She fights with Social Security people. She takes care of her sister. The fight has changed Stephanie's life completely, too.
"These people ... they threw her in the ring and didn't protect her,'' she says. "I used to be naive. I used to believe that people would do the things they promised. They promised my sister everything would be all right. '' Campbell explained, however, that both fighters had signed a customary disclaimer acknowledging the danger. No one, he added, promises safety in the ring.
"I hate what happened to Katie,'' Campbell says. "But there is risk in boxing like there is in all sports. You get hit in the head. Everybody who steps in the ring knows that. ''
Since Katie Dallam has left the hospital, she has longed to see a video of the fight. She wants to know what happened. She wants to see where everything went wrong. Stephanie vows to never see the tape.
"I saw the fight once,'' she says. ``That was too much. ''
The healing touch
Sumya Anani is a contender. She has six victories and zero defeats now. She has knocked out two opponents since that night in December. Christy Martin's people have called for a fight. Others shy away. "Women are scared of her,'' her trainer, Barry Becker, says.
"I don't want to hear that tough-guy, male-dominated garbage,'' Anani says. "Nobody is afraid of me. That's the kind of stupid stuff you hear in male boxing. 'Oh, he's afraid. ' That's so stupid. It makes me mad. I want women's boxing to be different than that.'' Anani says she fights only to spread the word of the healing touch. She studies holistic healing. "I know that sounds kind of weird,'' Anani says. "But I know that's why I'm here. People always say, 'Why am I here? ' I know. I'm here to tell people that life is in their health. People make themselves sick. I'm hear to spread the word that they don't have to live with the pain.''
Anani did not hear about Katie Dallam's injury the night of the fight. When she heard the next day, she went to the hospital and held a candlelight vigil in the waiting room. She asked to give Dallam a healing massage in the intensive-care unit. She wrote a long letter to Dallam and asked her to move in. "We'll climb trees togeth er and sing songs,'' she wrote.
"I'm sure they thought I was a quack,'' Anani says. "But I was a wreck. I kept writing and writing, and I'm no writer. I had my book on the healing touch with me. I just wanted to do something to help her.'' The two have not seen each other since the fight. Katie Dallam says she does not blame Anani. These are the things that happen in the ring. But she has no desire to see her. Anani has not tried to make contact since that day in the hospital.
"I asked them to call me, and they never did,'' Anani says. ``I feel bad. I considered quitting boxing. But I don't believe things just happen by accident. I think there's a reason this happened. I think someday we will connect again. I believe that.'' For now, Anani works out three times a day. She says she's ready to fight anytime. She might have a fight sometime next month, though things change quickly in this game. She says the publicity after the Dallam fight has given her an opportunity to tell more people about the healing touch.
"Ironic, isn't it? '' she says.
Painting for anger
One day Katie Dallam painted the fight. She does not remember the fight. She does not remember the weeks leading up to the fight. She does not remember the weeks afterward. All of it is a blur, a nightmare forgotten. She knows only that she is not the same anymore. And that there was a fight.
"Sometimes, I think I remember things,'' she says. ``But then, it's gone. I guess it's good I don't remember too much.'' Talk comes hard. Before the fight, Dallam spoke breathlessly, crashing words together, but now she squints and pauses, struggling to find the simplest words. Each day she works with a speech therapist. Progress is slow.
So, without the words, she painted the fight. Details still hide behind her memory. She often painted before the accident - she was an art major at Missouri - though she usually concentrated on things like cactuses and people in her portraits. She painted for love in those days. This time she painted for anger.
"Sometimes, I think it's hard for Katie to express the rage of what happened to her,'' her sister says. ``Sometimes, she still doesn't understand what happened to her. ''
Dallam painted an angry crowd that gazes down, a man with horns, deformed faces, faraway eyes. She painted a cage, and inside the cage is a big fighter throwing a hard jab. Inside the cage there is a little fighter, trying to cover up, only she cannot cover up, and a dark red spills from her head; it spills out into the cage, into the ring, and off the canvas.
Funny, she still likes boxing. She watches it when she can. She hopes the doctors let her work out again someday, though she never wants to step in the ring. No, she would just like to hit the heavy bag for a while.
"Boxing made me feel strong,'' Dallam says. "I had never felt strong before. I had always been afraid. I didn't want to be afraid anymore. I wanted to be strong. It made me feel so good.
"If I knew everything beforehand, I would not have fought. I thought it would be, like, a sport. I didn't think anybody would get hurt. I had seen women box before, and nobody got hurt. No woman had ever gotten hurt like me, I guess. I don't know what happened. I guess I'm bitter about it, but I don't know.''
Katie Dallam looked down at her painting, the cage, the red, the howling faces. Stephanie asked her sister what she thought about when she painted it. Katie stared blankly.