By THOMAS BRUCH
Jessie Bushman's back grazes the top rope of the ring, making it vibrate gently in contrast to the violence all around. Her hands, mummy-wrapped and fitted with two red gloves, are pinned to her abdomen. She's trying to breathe.
Jessie is in a cavernous shed next to Ruth Lake Country Club west of Chicago — her first round in her first fight as an amateur boxer. Tall lights shine in four corners of the shed lighting the ring, elevated just above the ground-level chairs.
Her opponent has been ordered to the opposite side of the ring by a referee with a crew cut and thick mustache. Jessie's inhales and exhales are short, terse.
She's getting a standing eight-count from the referee after four consecutive blows to the head. The first punch, a right hook that connected on her left chin, knocked Jessie off her footing.
She staggered slightly, her right foot awkwardly crossing her left. Her arms dropped and her body became a vulnerable offering. Jessie extended her arms, but her opponent plunged through the halfhearted defense and mashed Jessie's head three more times with two hooks and a loop.
The referee stepped between the fighters to halt the mayhem. Jessie doesn't register any repercussive effects of the punches. But her lungs, they plead for air.
Before the fight, 25-year-old Jessie was too excited to be nervous. She had trained for eight months at Luyando's, the little boxing gym tucked near downtown Champaign, molding a body she once considered physically adequate into what she thought was a jabbing, 141-pound wrecking ball.
The boxing had started as exercise classes for Jessie and her girlfriends. She had rarely played sports growing up, just a few years of volleyball in middle school. But she liked staying in shape. She and her friends giggled while waiting their turn at a punching bag, fearing that the gym's real boxers would cut them in line.
Slowly, Jessie's friends stopped coming. Jessie remained.
For reasons she really can't explain, she decided she wanted to get strong and good enough to fight an actual match. Jessie is a gentle soul, shy and soft-spoken. Crystal blue eyes, clear skin, long brown hair, 5 foot 8.
She owns Bella Vita massage in Champaign, and her body has always been well-muscled for a woman. But she wasn't carrying a deep anger that made her want to punch somebody or harboring a fearfulness that made her want to learn to defend herself physically. She just wanted to get in the ring once and fight.
Thirty minutes before tonight's match, Jessie suited up in the changing room, adjusting her protective bra shells, tightening the blue shorts that drape to her knees, yanking her mahogany hair back into a tight ponytail. Nelson Luyando, her stocky coach who grew up boxing in the Bronx, shadowboxed with her to warm up.
Once in the shed, she scanned the room for her opponent, not a difficult task considering she was the only other boxer in the place with breasts. They locked eyes for a moment. She seemed normal.
Oddly, Jessie wondered what the young woman's body-fat percentage was.
When music and cheers mushroomed, Jessie walked toward the illuminated ring. She couldn't remember a time when a crowd was watching only her. Maybe those volleyball games in middle school, but far different.
She saw a crowd of about 100 men who were spiritedly sauced for a night at the fights. They were betting on the many scheduled matches, and some had their money on Jessie.
She paced in her corner, then shifted her weight from one leg to the other, then jogged in place. In the seconds before the match began, she wondered if she and her opponent would touch gloves after the bell had rung? And would she remember to retreat to a neutral corner if her opponent's mouth guard fell out?
Getting her head bashed repeatedly was not on her mind. Neither were concussions or bruises or drunken men, or even something so simple as breathing.
The bell rang. The women touched gloves. It was Jessie's first fight, and she knew her skills were limited, that she had mastered only a few punching combinations. So she focused on keeping her right hand up, at the ready, for defense or for offense.
For the first 30 seconds, she was winning, landing jabs and deflecting her opponent's punches. The dance was in motion, and Jessie was leading.
Boxing rounds are only two minutes long, but they're equivalent to a 400-meter sprint. And after a minute, Jessie had lost her breath. She couldn't get enough to fuel her next punch.
Her mechanics deteriorated with each halting inhale, and her right hand dropped. Her opponent capitalized, landing those four punches. Each blow felt heavy on impact, more crushing than those of her male sparring partners at Luyando's. But it wasn't the punches. It was the breathing.
Jessie hasn't caught her breath yet, but she wants to keep fighting. Once the referee says eight, she knows he will determine if she can continue.
The referee clutches the sides of Jessie's face and looks into her blinking eyes.
"Can you go?" he asks.
Jessie nods. The referee is convinced. He drops his arm to signal that the fight can resume.
Jessie takes two steps forward and the bell rings — Round 1 is over. After 30 seconds in her corner, Nelson motions to Jessie that it's time for the second round.
At least Jessie figures he must have motioned, because she later can't recall a word he had said in those 30 seconds. But here she is, on her feet stepping again toward the middle of the ring.
She isn't afraid. She knows she is being beaten. She was confident just two minutes ago, and she tells herself she needs to get back to that feeling.
She stares at the woman who had just used Jessie's head as a punching bag. Jessie wants to hit her, hit her back, hit her harder. That's what those punches to the head had caused: a desire for retaliation. Jessie is woozy, but she still plans to get the knockout.
That sounds vicious, but her opponent knows what she signed up for. Jessie knows what she signed up for. She's ready.
Except for the breathing.
The referee flings down his arm to start the second round. The women both swing, each landing their first punches. Jessie hangs tough for the first 10 seconds and deflects a few jabs while connecting on some of her own. But the gasping for air comes again, and Jessie is soon lunging and flailing.
Ten seconds and ten shots to Jessie's head later, the referee performs the eight-count on Jessie again, although she's not even noticing the counting.
1 3 ... 6 ... 8
This time, the referee finds nothing in Jessie's crystal blue eyes to indicate she can continue to fight, and he waves his hands to confirm a technical knockout. Jessie absently walks back to her corner, feeling as if the woman had opened her skull and taken a blender to its contents. She sees Nelson and bashfully apologizes.
"What are you talking about? That was great!" an enthused Nelson yells.
She doesn't understand what he means. A few more people, boxers and spectators alike, congratulate her, and after a while Jessie feels like hopping back in the ring and going a few more rounds.
She didn't lose any love from anyone by losing the fight. No one thinks less of her. Why would they? It took guts and grit to climb in that ring.
She'll get back to work in the gym. She'll get better. She'll learn more combinations. And she'll work on better breathing techniques, run more wind sprints, pound the bag longer and harder. She will own that ring someday.
And that's pretty much what will happen. In the next three months, a better-trained, better-honed Jessie Bushman will win two fights. New women training at Luyando's will look at her with awe and seek her advice.
"How did you get so good?" they will ask.
And Jessie will have a new goal: To win in the Chicago Golden Gloves amateur competition in March.
Her next fight can't come soon enough.
Thomas Bruch is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class during the fall 2012 semester that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.