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Erica Sugar, at 35, needs a nickname. Boxers need nicknames, especially professionals. She’s a pro. Finally.
“I’ve been thinking of ‘Showtime,’” Sugar tells me. “I need something catchy.”
After years of anticipation and some real doubts about whether it would happen, Sugar had her first fight two weeks ago. Even when she comes up with a nickname, the Garrett Park native won’t be your typical pug. Fighters typically aren’t as female or as old as she is when they get started in the ring. And most can’t claim to have taken on a life-threatening virus, as Sugar did, and whupped it.
In more ways than one, boxing saved her.
In 1998, just as Sugar was to make her fighting debut, she was diagnosed with hepatitis C. She’d gotten the blood test as part of the process to get a Maryland boxing license, which is required of all fighters.
That’s no common cold. It is, however, alarmingly common. According to the National Liver Foundation, the strain of the virus that was found in her system currently affects more than 4 million Americans, many of whom have no idea they’re carrying it. Hepatitis C, if not properly treated, can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. It is the cause of the majority of liver transplants in the U.S. and is responsible for 10,000 deaths a year.
“It’s a stealth virus,” says Alan Brownstein, foundation president. “We estimate that as many as three-quarters of the people who have it don’t have a clue. Most people don’t even find out they have hepatitis C until they’re very sick, after they’ve already had it for years. You’re lucky to find it early.”
Sugar didn’t feel lucky when she got the bad news. She admits that, when she was younger, she practiced all the risky behaviors now known to pass on hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus transmitted the same ways as AIDS. But all that was long before the positive test—she figures she may have been carrying the virus “15 to 18 years.” At the time of the discovery, Sugar was in fine physical shape.
Fit enough to run a marathon, in fact. She’d originally taken up boxing as a way to cross-train and help with her primary competitive outlet, which was distance running. She didn’t intend to actually punch somebody, or, much less, take a punch.
But after so many days of jumping rope and hitting the heavy bag, her view of the sport became less, well, jaundiced. She contemplated actually getting in the ring with an opponent, and when the sparring sessions went well, Sugar decided to become a real fighter.
“I had never been in a fight in my life,” she says. “But I got this surge from boxing, from the competitiveness, from the technical aspects, from hitting somebody. I wanted to box.”
No amateur boxing association would sanction a fighter her age, so Sugar was forced to make her debut as a pro. Finding an opponent in her weight class—135 pounds, or lightweight—took several months, but once her blood came up dirty, all the training and administrative chores were for naught.
She spent the next year getting poked three times a week with needles at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the treatments had side effects similar to those associated with chemotherapy. But doctors told her that if she played things straight, she should soon be absolutely clean of the virus.
“I still planned to fight,” she says.
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Sugar fought through the nausea and fatigue caused by the treatments and continued working out. She stopped sparring, however, to avoid passing any of her tainted blood onto an opponent. Trainer Junious Hinton, who runs the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center—the Palmer Park, Md., gym where she trained after being diagnosed with hepatitis C—admits that he initially didn’t take her seriously.
“I didn’t think she’d make it, but she was so determined, so I gave her a try,” says Hinton.
Hinton, 58, was a fighter himself, in the stable of noted New York trainer Gil Clancy. When he left the ring, he had a 31-13 record. He says that many of the losses came during a comeback attempt that ended when he was 34 years old. In other words, even with the comeback, he’d retired when he was younger than his protegee. He had other reasons to be skeptical about her, too.
“She would come to the gym looking tired and worn out, and then tell me stories blaming that on medicine,” he said. “Well, I’ve been in this game long enough to have heard every story, so I thought she was doing things she shouldn’t be doing. But she showed up every single day, and she worked so hard.”
When her doctors at NIH told Sugar her virus was in remission, allowing her to go off the medication and pose no risk to other fighters, Hinton says he saw the difference in her stamina and realized she’d been telling the truth.
And her dedication, he says, made him think of the high hopes he had once had for his youngest son. Jemal Hinton, a former national amateur champion who fought with Detroit’s legendary Kronk stable, had a 22-0 record as a pro and was on his way to a title shot when he quit boxing. (The elder Hinton doesn’t discuss Jemal’s reason for retiring, though trainer Emanuel Steward has said the fighter left to pursue his religious beliefs.)
“Erica didn’t have any quit in her,” Hinton says. “Nothing was going to get in her way.”
Sugar’s next obstacle came in finding an adversary for her debut. Because of her age and lack of experience, no manager would take her on and do the legwork. And on her own, Sugar found that her medical history only added to the difficulties she had run into before the diagnosis. She’d disclose her condition to all potential opponents, and in return she got some e-mails blasting her for even trying to fight.
But then, three weeks ago, a promoter from the Detroit area called her up and said that he needed a woman to fight somebody named Bonnie Wherry on the undercard of an ESPN televised event. He offered $800 if Sugar would make the trip. Neither Sugar nor Hinton had heard of Wherry, but from the promoter’s pitch, they understood that Sugar was being brought in to lose. They took the offer anyway.
“He said he was looking for an ‘opponent’ for his fighter,” Hinton says. “That means somebody they think is going to lay down. It’s nothing intentional or dirty—it’s just an understanding that they’re looking for meat to be thrown to the dogs. They saw Erica’s age and no fights, so they figured she’d be the meat.”
As it turned out, Sugar did the feasting, knocking out Wherry in the fourth round of a scheduled four-round bout.
“The look on Erica’s face when she stepped out of the ring was amazing,” Hinton says. “If you don’t fight, I can’t explain to you what that look was about. But I know.”
Sugar’s look also included a black eye and a body full of abrasions. But when she returned to her job as a consumer safety technician the following Monday, she was able to tell excited/concerned co-workers, “You should see the other gal.”
After a scheduled post-fight checkup at NIH went swimmingly, Sugar went right back into training. She hopes to fight again within a month—and to keep up a heavy schedule for as long as her body lets her. Hinton’s already talking championship, though the bizarreness of such thoughts makes even him chuckle.
And after deciding on a nickname, Sugar’s got some other chores to take care of.
“Since I’m my own manager, I’ve got to come up with ways to screw myself over,” she laughs. “This is boxing.” —Dave McKenna