Minneapolis filmmaker follows women into the boxing ring

boxers ringside
Becca Gilgen and Sarah Mickelson mentally prepare for the match. Both are featured in filmmaker Joanna Kohler's new documentary, "Boxers." It's about a women's amateur boxing team from Northeast Minneapolis.
Image courtesy of Kohler Productions

When Minneapolis filmmaker Joanna Kohler was invited to watch some female fighters spar at the Uppercut Gym in Northeast Minneapolis, she had to confront her own preconceived notions.

"I thought that boxing was very violent and I had no intention of making a film, let alone appreciating the sport," she says.

Filmmaker Joanna Kohler. Kohler says boxing, like no other experience, brings women face to face with their fear, and their aggression.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Kohler's opinion began to change when she saw all the challenges boxing threw at the women, from the incredibly rigorous training to the mental acuity and focus it demanded.

Boxing, like no other experience, brought the women face to face with their fear and their aggression, which is why Kohler wanted to tell their story.

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"This is a film about seven women coming together on a team to explore power and it happens to be against the backdrop of the sport of boxing," she says.

Heavy bag
A woman jabs at a heavy bag at the Uppercut Boxing Gym in Minneapolis. The gym is owned and operated by Lisa Bauch.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

The film also documents how a group of women has carved out a corner in a sport that continues to ignore them.

The Uppercut Gym is owned by Lisa Bauch, a former amateur fighter who's become not only the women's coach but also a trainer for professional male boxers. A female gym owner who's also a trainer and coach is rare in boxing.

So is the fact these women have formed a team in a sport that exalts the individual. Kohler says several of the women come from pretty normal middle class backgrounds. One is a teacher. Another is a social worker.

Team ringside
The Uppercut Gym boxers: Left to right, Becca Gilgen, Amy Laboe, Dagney Willey, Rachel Schley, Lisa Bauch (gym owner and team coach) and Sarah Mickelson.
Photo by Rachelle Bigler-Conant courtesy of Kohler Productions

"These women don't look like, stereotypically, what people think they're going to see when they think of a woman boxer," she says. "And so just by existing and interacting with people, they're starting to own the sport in a way that it hasn't been owned before."

In "Boxers," the viewer is never far away from ringside as the women prepare for an international women's boxing tournament in Kansas City. They travel to Chicago and New York, to spar with men. Every interaction with another fighter forces each of them to contend with her fear.

"To say my fear isn't there and to ignore it would be insane," says boxer Becca Gilgen in one scene from the film. "To train so that that fear is negotiated and a part of what goes into the ring with me.... It has to be, 'cause it's going to be there whether I want it to be or not."

Shooting film
Filmmaker Joanna Kohler in action. Kohler shadowed the women boxers for more than two years.
Photo by Janet Whitemore courtesy of Kohler Productions

Joanna Kohler says in society, women are usually victimized by violence. In the ring, victimhood disappears, because the boxers know what they're getting into.

"So even if somebody gets badly hurt, you can't step back and say that that's necessarily violence, because they had all agreed to be there," she says. "And that's an interesting accountability that especially women are not used to engaging with, understanding their own physical power, both seeing it, feeling it, and feeling the aftermath. And you walk out of there and you're responsible for everything that happened in there.

"In the last two-and-half-years years of making this film," Kohler says, "I've watched this birthing of a self-confidence in them that's amazing and it's just gorgeous because they take it into the rest of their world and you can't run them over."

Not all the boxers are able to conquer their fear. At one point in the documentary, Amy Laboe, one of the more talented fighters on the team, describes her difficulty reconciling boxing's athleticism with its brutality.

Boxer Amy Laboe checks her equipment in the mirror.
Image courtesy of Kohler Productions

"Do I think it should be a sport?" asks Laboe. "Yes. Because there's training and there's endurance and there's power and technique and mental training that go along with it. So yes, in that arena it's a sport. But then it's who gets in there with you. Do they think it's a sport or is this an outlet for them?"

In a key scene from the film, Laboe is stunned by the power of an opponent's punch. She decides to stop fighting, though she stays with the team.

The members of the Uppercut Gym boxing team are hoping the documentary will generate more interest and respect for women's boxing.

Put up your dukes
Boxer Rachel Schley. Schley is also teaches boxing at the Uppercut Boxing Gym in Northeast Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

But when asked whether the film conveys what it feels like to be a woman with gloves laced and head gear on, climbing up into a ring, boxer Rachel Schley says, "Nothing can. I mean, nothing can really. There aren't really words that can explain to people what you feel like, those four steps up into the ring before your fight. They're the longest four steps, and then you're there. It's just all canvas."

What filmmaker Joanna Kohler does do is provide a fresh perspective on the sport, a woman's perspective. She says working on the film allowed her to see women's stories in boxing, something she didn't see before, and it changed her image.