MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The sound of boxing gloves hitting a punching bag, like loud snaps, can be heard from the end of the winding driveway at Andrea Nelson’s home on Madison’s west side. In a converted shed is a home gym that has everything a boxer needs to train: punching bags, weights, benches and an area for sparring.
Briana Che is the source of the percussive snaps. Quick and powerful, she hammers the bag with a flurry of punches as Nelson looks on.
At least twice a week, Nelson, 53, can be found in her home gym training boxers like Che, a Golden Gloves national champion. On other days, she’s ringside at Ford’s Gym on Winnebago Street, teaching boxing techniques to aspiring professional fighters, after-work warriors trying to get in shape or total novices, some as young as 13.
“It doesn’t matter how good they are,” Nelson said. “If they’re willing to put in the effort, I will give them that time and energy back.”
And as president of the Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation, she works to promote amateur boxing and raise money to buy equipment, pay for gym fees and help athletes like Che travel to tournaments. Lynch, the former trainer and promoter who was the face of boxing in Madison for decades, turned over stewardship of the sport to her five years ago.
At every level of the sport in Madison, Nelson is at the center.
“She’s the lynchpin, no pun intended,” former Golden Gloves boxer and current trainer Pat Sullivan told The Capital Times. “Andrea is everything in this organization.”
And with Che, her protege, deep in preparation for the Olympic trials in Louisiana next month, Nelson’s profile as a trainer could be on the rise.
Che, 28, was a young girl in 1997 when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield met for their second fight. Coming off a loss to Holyfield seven months earlier, Tyson responded to a Holyfield headbutt by biting his ear. Twice.
The fight was the biggest story in sports and Che was entranced. She played soccer and ran cross country growing up, but found her way to boxing a couple of years ago.
“I love that two alphas go at it and then the person who wins is the biggest alpha,” Che said when asked why she loves to box.
In sports, she has always idolized the alpha. She thinks it might have something to do with wanting to differentiate herself from her twin sister. It’s why she played goalie in soccer. When the ball came around her area, she stood alone against her opponent.
She met Nelson at Ford’s Gym. According to Nelson, it was a quiet day and someone she was training didn’t show up for an appointment. She noticed Che working out by herself.
“She’ll tell it different, I’m sure,” Nelson said as she showed off Che’s big national Golden Gloves championship belt hanging on the wall at Ford’s.
Normally, Nelson said, she doesn’t approach random people in the gym. But Che’s size (she is 5-foot-10 with a long reach) and athletic build made Nelson wonder if Che had ever considered boxing. Che said she was interested.
Nelson boxed professionally until 2003, when she retired and began working as a trainer with Bob Lynch Boxing. Nelson could tell the way Che was training that they shared a similar type of work ethic.
“She picked it up right away,” Nelson said. “She’s got the athleticism and the drive. She’s one of those ones I gotta put the reins on sometimes. I think we’re a lot alike in some ways, in terms of training too hard. So I kinda get her because I trained the same way.”
Che remembers getting a lukewarm reaction at home when she told her parents she was going to start fighting. She said they pictured the worst happening, but after her first fight they began to realize that she was going to be OK, and could excel at the sport.
Che has won five of her last eight bouts and won the national championship at the Golden Gloves in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in May. She then made the finals of an Olympic qualifying event in Columbus, Ohio, where she lost in a split decision. But her second place finish allowed her to continue moving forward in the Olympic qualifying process.
Next up are the Stage 1 Olympic trials in Lake George, Louisiana, starting Dec. 7. If Che wins the tournament outright, she will advance to a multi-nation training camp in Colorado Springs in January. She will then be able to compete in a tournament in Bulgaria.
After completing those stages Che would be part of the 2020 USA Boxing Olympic Qualification Team that will participate in a qualifying event in Buenos Aires next March.
“It’s just a weeding out process,” Che said about qualifying for Tokyo. “They take the best of the best. Eight people will make the team, but only four will really qualify. So I’ve started a six-week training camp with Andrea. We train two times a day, three times a week.”
Che will fight at the welterweight class (152 pounds), down from middleweight (165), where she was ranked third in the country by USA Boxing last month.
“I think I’m faster at 152. I’m more fit. I was strong at 165 but I think 152 is my weight class,” she said. “My height is an advantage, my reach is an advantage. So I think all around it’s a lot better.”
The action was subdued at Ford’s Gym on a snowy night earlier this month. Two young boxers made concussive contact with a practice bag while a few people lifted weights nearby. Nelson prepared the ring for open sparring, scheduled for later that evening.
Nelson’s own fighting career began in martial arts when she was 25. At the time, she was living near Lone Rock and training at a gym in Dodgeville.
“I did a lot of forms and weapons, Okinawan style,” Nelson said. “I did some point sparring a little bit with the karate, but I didn’t really like the sparring. I got into kickboxing and it just turned out that my sensei also did kickboxing and had trained under Bob Lynch.”
After Nelson earned her second-degree black belt in karate and her first-degree black belt with weapons she began to tire of doing martial arts and decided to try boxing.
“I saw Christy Martin on an undercard of a Mike Tyson fight. That was in like 1996 or 1997. It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman boxing. It had never even occurred to me,” she said. “I saw that and said ‘I wanna do that.’”
Nelson looked up Lynch, who was training Eric Morel at the time. Morel boxed in the 1996 Olympics and was training to turn professional.
“I was living out in Dodgeville at the time so I traveled to Madison three times a week and trained with Bob. I started competing right away. It was hard to find any bouts so I took kickboxing matches just to get ring time,” she said. “I did the first-ever women’s national Golden Gloves. I lost my first bout but I lost to the person who won the whole thing, so that was good.”
Nelson was encouraged by her first trip to the Golden Gloves and began training harder. She worked out daily with Morel, a flyweight.
“Eric Morel was my main training partner. Eric and a guy named Jose Ortiz, who was just an excellent boxer. So I had more of a pro style actually,” she said. “I trained three-minute rounds. In women’s boxing it’s two minutes. I think my style wasn’t quite what I needed for amateur boxing and I was older too. I was 33 and they cut the age off for amateur at 33.”
In 2000, Nelson competed in a three-weekend Toughman competition (which is a chance for novice amateur boxers to test themselves on a big stage) and was paid for one of her bouts, so she was forced to turn professional. She pointed out that pro boxers don’t wear headgear and use 10-ounce gloves instead of eight-ounce, both of which she preferred.
Nelson came up in the sport when organizers didn’t really know what to make of female fighters. Was it a legitimate sport? Were the women real athletes? Or was it a gimmick? Women didn’t start boxing in the Olympics until 2012.
“It would have been so different if we would have had Olympics then,” Nelson said. “Women’s boxing wasn’t taken seriously when I was doing it. There was almost always a women’s fight on a pro show, but it was almost as though promoters didn’t know if they wanted it to be taken as seriously as an athletic event or more of a sideshow.
“There were some females that were just incredible boxers. But I said then, that until it became an Olympic sport, it wasn’t going to be taken seriously.”
Nelson helped found the Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation in 2014 as a way to help local boxers travel to tournaments around the country. Nelson said back when she was boxing, Lynch would often take boxers to national tournaments on his own dime. But today, that is harder to afford. The foundation makes sure fighters reap the benefits of their training by participating on big stages.
On Mondays and Wednesdays at 5 p.m., she oversees sparring at Ford’s. She does her best to pair newer boxers with experienced ones so they can learn how to compose themselves and improve their technique.
“All of my coaches were male growing up. I’d never had a female coach before except once for soccer in high school. But I feel like she gets me,” Che said about Nelson. “She’s in a male-dominated field, I’m in a male-dominated field. She understands the mental struggles.”
Jesi “The Rabbit” Klabak likes to fight. It’s that simple. She said that’s what motivated her to train under Nelson with the goal of getting in the ring at White Collar Fight Night at the Red Mouse in rural Cross Plains on a cold Saturday night in early November.
“It’s fun,” said Klabak, a nurse. “I like it. I like hitting people.”
The event, a fundraiser for the Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation, brings together novice fighters who have taken boxing classes from Nelson at Ford’s Gym. There are nicknames — The Erradicator, Wild Fire, Roy Jones Jr. Jr. — and a website with videos for each boxer.
Volunteers working the door said this year’s event — the fourth installment — broke an attendance record and its 11 bouts were the most they’ve ever had. Of the 22 boxers, six were women. The energy around the event reflects a renewed interest in the sport in the Madison area, which many attribute to Nelson, president of the foundation.
Now 85 years old, Lynch was the face of boxing in Madison for decades before handing the reins to Nelson in 2014. He’s perhaps best known for training Morel, the Golden Gloves champion and Olympian.
At the Red Mouse, Nelson, busy and excited, was a blur as she darted around the ring area setting everything up.
In the ring, Klabak was gaining the upper hand in her match against Monica “MadCat” Myers. She was landing more punches and Myers looked winded. But she kept coming.
“Get her to the ropes Jesi!” shouted Shah Evans, Klabak’s corner man, as the noise from the crowd intensified.
After withstanding several body shots, Klabak steadied herself and sent Myers to her knees with a series of accurate jabs. At the bell, the referee raised her hand in victory and she joined Myers at ringside where both were examined briefly by Pat Sullivan, an anesthesiologist at Marshfield Clinic. Sullivan, a former Golden Gloves fighter, has been involved in boxing for 60 years. He provides medical help for the White Collar events and trains fighters himself, including Cade McManus, 18, who won his weight class at Golden Gloves Wisconsin in March and went on to represent the state in the national Golden Gloves tournament.
Sullivan loves seeing the promise and the enthusiasm in the face of young fighters like McManus. Before the event, he chatted with Che, someone he thinks is representative of the rebirth of boxing in the area.
He said Nelson is responsible for all of it.
“Andrea was a hell of a pro,” he said. “She was in there back when Bob had Eric Morel in there, a couple of guys that I trained, too. The people who did Golden Gloves before were trying to make a buck ... They were in it for profit and this is supposed to be about community service. But now you see what Andrea has done. Now it’s been so wonderful.”
That sentiment flows throughout the event. During introductory remarks, one organizer said: “You’ll never see Andrea Nelson get in here and grab the mic and make some speech. But the entire reason we’re here tonight is Andrea Nelson.”
Half of the proceeds from the night’s event were dedicated to helping Che travel to the Olympic trials in Louisiana. It’s not lost on the crowd at the Red Mouse that a fighter in their midst, who trains in the same gym where many of them train, could represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
Golden Gloves is one of the governing bodies for amateur boxing in the U.S., along with the Amateur Athletic Association and USA Boxing. There’s a youth division for ages 15-17, a novice division for less experienced fighters and an open division for fighters with competitive experience.
Before the Lynch Foundation took over Wisconsin Golden Gloves in 2018, organizers were criticized for looking to profit from the tournaments without looking after the athletes. Those accusations, coupled with concerns over the potential for brain injuries and the rise of mixed martial arts, meant amateur boxing in the area was at a low point.
Since 2018, with Nelson in control, the climate has taken on a grassroots vibe. She will not say anything that disparages how Golden Gloves was run previously, but those close to the sport compliment her for the professionalism she has introduced.
In March 2020, Nelson and the Bob Lynch Foundation will host their second state Golden Gloves tournament at the Marriott West in Middleton. The 2019 event drew more than 300 spectators. Many of the winners went on to represent Wisconsin at the national tournament, where Che won the title belt in her division.
She’s been on a mission to make the 2020 Olympic team ever since and Nelson wants to help get her there, while making sure she’s not burning herself out.
“I hope she’s enjoying the process instead of just being so stressed about wanting to do it,” Nelson said. “Enjoy it while you’re there. I think she’s got a big shot at making the team. ”Now that boxing is an Olympic sport for women, Che and others like her have something concrete to train for as amateurs.
“Now all of a sudden there are some incredible female boxers out there because coaches are taking it seriously,” Nelson said. “Not treating them like girls. That always (irritated) me ... to treat them like girls. They’re athletes.”
Information from: The Capital Times, http://www.madison.com/tct