Chand Nirankari is one of Work Train Fight’s first boxing students. On a Sunday in 2010, she accompanied her partner to the first ever class offered at the gym, although it never occurred to her boxing would be something she would try for herself. Fast forward eight years: Chand has been boxing at Work Train Fight since day one, a journey that encouraged her to quit her job of ten years, and which eventually led to her position as one of the founding board members of WTF’s non-profit organization, Youth Boxing for Change.
RI: Tell me the story of how you got into boxing?
CN: Originally, I went to WTF for personal training. Back then, it was so much smaller. The locker room was co-ed. My trainer at the time said to me, “Alberto really wants to teach boxing classes… do you know anyone who would be interested?” I thought of my partner Zul, who had done martial arts. He had never been to WTF, so I went with him to the first class.
I had never considered, even for one second, that boxing could be for me. I grew up not being good at athletics, really overweight as a child. It felt like that defined me… it affected every other part of my life. I never had the chance to think to myself, “Oh, I’m too scared to try boxing,” because boxing never even seemed like a possibility for me. But when I brought my partner to the first class, Alberto turned to me and was like, “Oh, you’re coming, too.” I didn’t even know him. All of my insecurities were rolled into one emotion: I can’t. I can’t do this. But Alberto just looked at me and said, “You’re here and you’re going to.”
RI: Can you talk to me about the experience of the first class? What was it like to punch for the first time?
CN: During that first class, I realized boxing is like dance. Everyone says that, but it’s true. There’s choreography. You move your hand this way and you twist your hand that way. It’s not like, here, go fight someone. Yes, it is about the endurance, but the technique is what I like about it. My mind is always engaged.
When I started sparring, there was a voice in my head saying, “you can’t,” kind of like the first class I ever took. But when you force yourself to do the thing you are most afraid of, it’s liberating. I had so much doubt. Every time I showed up to spar, I thought to myself: I’m the worst person in this class. Every time I got punched, I felt emotional, I would hear the words, “It’s my fault, I’m terrible.”
RI: Do you feel like your definition of strength has changed?
CN: I don’t feel like I have to look the way I thought I had to look. Maybe it has to do with being part of the WTF community that doesn’t push an ideal body type. Or maybe with age I’m getting more comfortable with myself. Strength, to me, feels like thinking to myself: I can do this. I can do a class, and sometimes I can do it well.
RI: And what does strength mean to you outside the gym? There’s so much osmosis with boxing, what you take to the ring but also what you take from it.
CN: Now that I think about it, it’s funny, the time that I started sparring was actually the time I quit my job of ten years without a plan. I recently realized those things happened at the same time. I had been working at this job for so long and I was unhappy there, but I was also comfortable and safe. And then I decided I just needed to jump.
RI: So what happened after you jumped?
CN: I decided to do a web development boot camp, and after that I got freelance work, and then last year Alberto asked me to work at Work Train Fight managing the website.
RI: I know that you helped formalize Youth Boxing for Change as a non-profit… how did you become involved?
CN: I went to art school, and I studied photography and video, but it felt like I didn’t have purpose there. I’m a caretaker and a nurturer. So I went into the nonprofit sector, which is where I spent most of my career.
RI: For you, what is the mission of the program?
CN: The official mission of program, which is what resonates for me, is social responsibility through boxing, as well as empowerment through boxing.
But one thing in particular that I really love about this program is that boys are involved. Many programs are girl-centric. And hey, I think the world needs to be better for girls and women, but what I think is a mistake in many of the narratives I’ve seen is that we make spaces for girls only… and don’t get me wrong, there should be those spaces. But to be clear, if we don’t work on boys and men, things won’t get better for girls and women.
RI: Talk more about your experiences with girls and boxing.
CN: What I like about boxing for the girls (and I know this because I am one)… girls are more timid. We aren’t encouraged to punch things. But by the end of the semester, with some of the girls, when I’m holding mitts for them, I’m thinking, you’re gonna knock me down. I encourage them to be strong. When I’m doing mitts with them and they’re tapping me gently, I’m like, “You can hit harder than that!”
RI: What about your experiences with boys and boxing?
CN: Some boys are timid, for sure, but some boys come in and think they know everything, and maybe some of them have been in a street fight or two, and they’re like, I want to go into the ring, I can fight, I want to be a fighter. One kid said to me the other day, I’m gonna be a UFC champion. But they don’t know how to punch and it’s humbling. To quote Alberto, “With the boys, you break them down and then you build them up.”
When the boys aren’t good at boxing, they don’t want to continue. Some boys come once or twice, and maybe they feel humiliated, and then they don’t come back. The three of us who are running the program on a daily basis are women – myself, Justine and Elena. It’s so important for boys to have different role models, and for girls too. I think it’s important for boys to see strong women. That’s why we put them together. The girls have been doing it longer. And the majority of the girls are better than any of the boys.
RI: That’s badass.
CN: I remember one of the male trainers was telling one of the boys to go easy on me and the boy was afraid to punch me, but I made him punch until he hit me hard enough. I said, you’re not gonna hurt me. But he was scared. I don’t want boys to think girls aren’t strong enough, because that’s part of the problem. We can take it, if we have to or if we want to. Respect is good, but if I’m telling you to hit my mitts, then do it. It’s about learning how to listen to each other.
RI: So when you’re working with someone, whether you’re the trainer or the student, you see them clearly. You’re in a vulnerable position on either end. I’m such a nerd but, the etymology of “vulnerable” is from Latin, meaning “to wound.” The idea that you can be hurt in boxing, both physically and emotionally… there can be play, but it is a serious thing. There’s responsibility. Can you speak to that?
CN: Boxing can be so vulnerable. I know this from both ends. As a student in a boxing class, or when you’re doing mitts with someone new, and you’re trying to learn a new combination… when you can’t get it, it’s so frustrating, and the impatience you mentioned is there. It feels like being a kid again.
Once, one of the boys [during a class I was helping out in] was super quiet and vaguely dismissive of me. During one of the exercises, I kept telling him to keep his hands up, but he kept dropping them. So I shuffled next to him and tapped him on then head, and I was like, “That is your opponent. And he could hit you a lot harder than I just did, that’s why I keep telling you to keep your hands up, to be able to block their punches.” He just looked at me, and said, “Wow, how long have you been fighting?”
RI: That’s amazing. And working with kids totally mirrors boxing. You have to be calm but you have to be able to talk back sometimes.
CN: Exactly. And have fun, too. I’m always like, “Teach me the latest lingo!” And they’re like, Chand, no one says “lingo.”
RI: I love that. It seems like YB4C is partly what make WTF different from other gyms. There’s soul, or heart, or purpose, or whatever you want to call it behind everything.
CN: Exactly. That is why I believe WTF is so special. And boxing is also a meditation… I’m the kind of person where my brain is moving a million times a minute, I’ve tried so many things, the apps, the classes, but I can’t do it. Traditional meditation actually makes me more anxious. But boxing is an active meditation, you’re focusing on one thing, it’s the only time my mind can actually be clear.
RI: And anxiety can be transformed into strength, into power or energy when you find something to channel it into.
CN: Yes. Boxing forces you to be present, forces you to trust the moment and yourself. If you’re not present, you get punched in the face. That’s why I’ve stuck with it. You never stop learning. I’ve been here for 8 years and I still have so much to learn. And I’ll keep coming back. Boxing has become a medicine I take every single day I can.