There are two types of amateur boxers, says Friday Night Fights Gym proprietor Mike Tata. There are thrill seekers and those with professional ambitions. Kim Vu-Dinh counts herself comfortably in the former category, but it’s not for lack of commitment.
“I’ve turned into this insane workout junkie, and it’s all to be able to work the bag,” she says. “It’s all to be able to punch and not get tired.”
Vu-Dinh has trained, on and off, for two years. She followed the gym from its original location on Freret Street to O.C. Haley Boulevard, where she spends four days a week going through excruciating repetitions on the speed bag, the weights and the concrete floor.
With a red bandana wrapped around her glossy knot of hair, Vu-Dinh jumps and shifts her welterweight frame around a bag almost as tall as she is. She throws the same awkward combination of punches over and over until it feels natural. She speaks of boxing like the sport is some sort of wildebeest – artful if you look at it the right way, and dangerous only if you don’t respect it.
“I used to not be able to watch it because I thought it was violent, but it’s two consenting people who have decided to punch each other,” she says. “There’s something really cool about that. Like, there are rules that they’ve decided to follow, and they decided to just punch each other. There’s a certain kind of elegance, I think.”
Somehow, with her earbuds in, she can tune out the Def Leppard playing throughout the gym but still hear the bell. It rings every three minutes, conducting her routine, cueing her to switch from one punishing rep to another. She wants to get in the ring. That’s what all of this work is for, after all. But, as a female in her 30s in a town without a major boxing scene, it can be difficult to find a partner for a sanctioned match.
And then there’s plain old bad luck. The gym is famous for its monthly Friday bouts, on hiatus while Tata works through permitting issues at the new location. After scheduling and rescheduling, it appears certain that the fights will relaunch this weekend at the old location at the corner of Freret Street and Napoleon Avenue. (Wear a banana hammock or a “complete bikini” for free admission!) But by the time a date was nailed down, Vu-Dinh had already bought a plane ticket to visit her family.
It may have been her family who first planted the seed of her interest in fighting. Vu-Dinh and her dad watched kung fu movies together when she was a kid. Or maybe it was Manny Pacquiao, her boxing hero. She admires the way he hopped effortlessly all over the different weight divisions, snapping up world titles. She works to emulate the control and strength of the Philipino superstar boxing champion, television crooner and politician.
But more likely it was her naturally aggressive spirit and her love for the combination of order and adrenaline. A lawyer by training who now works in low-income housing development, Vu-Dinh tried channeling her self-described “competitive issues” through her work as a public defender in Alaska. She found herself energized by a challenge in court, and she appreciated the logical framework of the proceedings. It proved, however, to be mellower than she’d expected.
“It’s a low-key state and, you know, judges wear shorts under their robes,” she says.
So, for the first time, she looked for a fix outside of her work life. She tried out and quickly excelled at other high-adrenaline sports, like ice climbing, while learning to play bluegrass in what she described as the typical Alaska-solitary-cabin experience.
“For a mild exercise, I would ski,” she says.
But nothing prepared her for the thrill of boxing. And although she feels pressure to prove herself, she loves the environment.
“People are actually there to work out,” she says. “It’s not a meat market. It’s not full of blowhards.”
As Vu-Dinh moves from her work-out into a “cool down” period of sit-ups, her feet tucked under the bottom rails of the ring, Tata slips in under the ropes to coach a boxer on landing punches and protecting his head, then returns to his chair to take in the landscape of the gym. What he speculates used to be a department store is now busy with athletes – all male that afternoon, with the exception of Vu-Dinh – lifting weights and jumping rope.
Besides being the brains behind the bouts, Tata is also the lead character in his in-production reality show, itself called Friday Night Fights. The heavily bleeped trailer looks like trash TV extraordinaire, but it also promises a sincere glimpse into the motivations of all the dedicated partiers, athletes, rappers, drag queens and other performers drawn to the event. “Basically, it’s about drinking, fighting and f***ing,” Tata says. Each fight makes three episodes, and he needs at least eight episodes before it airs on truTV.
While Kim waits to step into her own role in the drama, she treats her training as an opportunity to get her adrenaline fix and to mitigate the risk she’ll eventually face in the ring. Her trainer has crafted a brutal routine to help her build technique and endurance, without building up a level of bulk that he thinks would be unnatural to her physique and performance.
To some degree, she just shrugs off the risk as inflated. After all, she points out, Tata’s sanctioned amateur bouts are significantly shorter than those in the professional arena.
“If you want to be an amateur fighter, you’re really exposing yourself to a very short period of risk,” she says. “I mean, yes, you can die. There are all sorts of things that can happen if you box for nine minutes.”
She rolls her eyes and laughs. It’s just the type of thing you’d expect from someone who climbs frozen waterfalls for fun.
This photographic essay by Jason Kruppa showcases a workout by Kim Vu-Dinh. Enjoy:
Molly Davis writes about New Orleans for NolaVie. Catch her tweets about Southern art and politics at www.twitter.com/journsouth.