Knock-out Professor



Christine Raia

Professor Alice Dailey came to class on Sept. 25 with a welt the size of an orange on her left shoulder. Two days later, she walked in with a black eye.

“Sorry, guys; it’s only going to get uglier,” she told her class about the shiner.

Bruises on a woman beg the expected questions. But what most people don’t know is that Dailey willingly spars with a partner – one inside the ropes.

Dailey shows up at the Upper Darby Boxing Club when the doors open at 8 a.m., six days a week. By midmorning, she’s teaching English. Nestled among the Filipino quick marts and Irish pubs of Drexel Hill, the one-room gym is hidden down an alley and up a steep flight of stairs. It’s easily found only by its regulars. However, Dailey nearly wasn’t one of them.

“I found the place online, and when I called, the guy on the other line started interrogating me,” Dailey says. “What was my experience? How much could I bench press? Finally he said, ‘Why don’t you come down, and we’ll take a look at you.’ It took two weeks before I got up enough guts to go down there.”

She looked good enough. Dailey picked up boxing during the time she spent teaching in Los Angeles. Having just finished her doctorate at UCLA, Dailey was on the prowl for something to occupy her time. A kickboxing class at the nearby LA Fitness proved more exhilarating than the miles of swimming that her fitness routine previously consisted of, and when the instructor noticed she had promise, he took her on as a private client. And just like that, boxing became her main method of staying in shape.

“Something happens to a woman’s body in her late 20s or early 30s,” Dailey says. “You can’t eat what you want anymore. There are so many ways in which our culture teaches women to be dissatisfied with their bodies. You can either reject this and be satisfied, you can starve yourself or you can go to the gym. I’d love to be able to do the first, but the messages are so strong. I found my physical identity through weight lifting and boxing. I realized I’m not going to be thin, but I’m going to be strong.”

She wasn’t always strong. A valve deformity caused fainting spells that limited her physical capacity to be active as a child and young adult. Medication now keeps the heart condition under control, but her husband of 12 years, Josh, says, “Boxing provides her with tangible evidence that she is as physically capable as anyone else. After all, who is tougher than a boxer?”

For the first nine months Dailey spent at Upper Darby, almost no one spoke to her. There were already deep cultural rifts at the club, supplied by the Drexel Hill melting pot. Populations of older Irish men, younger black men, talented Filipinos, drug dealers and ex-cons learned to coexist with a common interest, but tension escalated when another gender was thrown into the mix. Jets have cooled since Dailey’s first arrival, and the men have come to respect her dedication.

* * *

Steve Marigliano has just finished working out with a heavy bag. He throws a towel around his shoulders and strolls over to a wall that is plastered with newspaper clippings and photos of the gym’s boxers. Centered among the black-and-white collage of fighters in action or champions with trophies is a color photo of Dailey. She’s a knockout in a black strapless dress with a black shawl draped over her alabaster shoulders, her cropped red hair shining. She playfully looks away from the photographer; on the table in front of her is a glass of white wine.

“Seeing her box, it’s like seeing a different person from that picture,” Marigliano, who fought in the ’70s, says. “That girl’s got spunk. I see her running, doing sit-ups with those medicine balls. That’s tough, man. She’s got spunk, and she’s a hard worker. She works just as hard as the men.”

Standing near the corner of the ring, an imposing black man straps on his wrist guards.

“I’ve seen her,” Bernard Hopkins says. “I haven’t sparred with her, but I know she’s good. It might look like a piece of cake when you watch it, but man, it’s hard. She works hard. She’s good.”

The man knows what he’s talking about. His face matches the pictures on several posters on the walls that advertise fights. He held the title of World Middleweight Champion for 10 years, and he’s the reigning World Light Heavyweight Champion.

So Dailey’s proven she can go pound-for-pound at Upper Darby. Yet, proving herself to those not in her boxing world was just as challenging. Dailey’s parents and husband are encouraging – much more so, Dailey says, than they were when she volunteered at a tiger sanctuary in Austin while working on her dissertation.

“Clearly I have a propensity for danger,” Dailey jokes. “I have to get my kicks somewhere.”

Harder to convince, however, was Dailey’s close friend, Dr. Matt Kozusko, a professor at Ursinus who was shocked by the brutality of the fight he attended.

Dailey knocked down her opponent with a straight right punch in the second round, and while she tried to explain that the sport did not feel like blood lust, her friend couldn’t understand.

“What it feels like is sport,” Dailey says.

“You work on something and you master it, and that’s why it’s satisfying. It’s not satisfying just to hit someone.” Dailey says boxing takes so much discipline that raw aggression just won’t fly. It involves setting up combinations, defense, learning the opponent’s patterns – all this literally coming at a boxer.

“None of it’s about a person,” Dailey said. “It’s about a process. It feels technical, not visceral.”

Visceral. Dailey’s footwork in the ring is as smooth as the ease with which she combines the sport’s terminology with a vocabulary worthy only of an English professor. She speaks of having to “shuck and jive” then describes an opponent’s strategic lean as a “succubus.” And with that, you’re reminded of her other life. Dailey would love to solely exist exactly as Marigliano and Hopkins describe her: someone whose work ethic and skill differs little from her male counterparts.

“There was this one time a guy at the gym told my trainer, ‘She’s so hot,'” Dailey remembers. “And my trainer goes, ‘Yeah, but she’ll kick your ass.’ In that minute my trainer saw me as a boxer, not as a woman. And that’s what I’m there to be. I always wonder if the men mind sparring with me, and my trainer said to me, ‘Nah, they don’t mind. They say you smell good.’ And the moment was lost. It’s funny how the ring’s the one place I’d want my gender to be erased, but it’s the one place it can’t be.”