In the ring at the Wild Card Boxing Club, Rita Valentini wears bright green boxing gloves and works the mitts hard with Pepper Roach, brother of owner Freddie Roach. A professional boxer, Valentini won her last fight with a first-round knockout.
A bantamweight with a 5-3 ring record, she boxes at 118 pounds and "walks around" at 124. Slender but strong, she says her jab is her best punch. In the ring, she likes to move around, come off the ropes and handle opponents, physically turning them around.
When she's in the ring, her trainer Marcus Harvey, a former cruiserweight, is "looking for the form, the things we've worked on
When she's on the heavy bag, he "is looking for her to place her punches effectively ... for her to move. When the bag swings a certain way, I'm looking for her to step around. I'm not looking for her to stand there ... and look at the bag, and punch, boom, boom, boom. I want her to use her jab to set up another shot."
Preparing for her ninth fight, which she expects in a couple of weeks in Stockton, Valentini, 26, runs to build stamina and goes all out at the gym for two hours a day, six days a week. She skips rope, shadowboxes, hits the bags and works the mitts. She also works with strength and conditioning trainer Justin Fortune, an Australian boxer who once fought Lennox Lewis.
She started fighting five years ago after moving from Alberta, Canada, to Los Angeles, where she lived next door to a boxer.
"He was always practicing and we would watch the fights. I started getting into it. I've been in sports my whole life," says Valentini, who ran track, figure skated, danced and played ice hockey and soccer. "I'd work out with him a little bit. He showed me some things, and he thought I had some potential."
She took that potential to Wild Card, told the legendary Freddie Roach that she wanted to turn pro and asked him to train her. "People thought I was just ridiculous because I had no fighting experience," she says, "Never mind I was a girl."
He took her on. For three years, they worked.
"He always believed in me. Nobody else would have done that at that level," she says.
During a break, her ponytail soaked with sweat, Valentini notices a world champion coming into the gym. "That's Israel Vasquez," she says. He holds a world super-bantamweight title and works with another titleholder, Manny Pacquiao, whom Roach is training for a unification fight in March in Las Vegas.
"He's the Muhammad Ali of the Philippines," Roach says, explaining that he has banned his hordes of distracting fans from the gym, except on Saturdays.
Even champions, Valentini says, are willing to help. "The relationship between the men and the women fighters, there is like so much respect, patience and professionalism. They will watch you. They want to come over and show you a better way, work with you, because they know you're in there too. You're fighting. You're getting hit."
To finance her dream, she supports herself by working in catering, occasionally doing extra work and doing a boxing exhibition for the Internet.
"I live in one room. I have a bed. I don't have a car. I ride my bike everywhere," she says. For years, she didn't own a television until the guys at Wild Card gave her one. "I live just enough so I can take care of myself and continue to do this until I achieve what I want, which is to be the world champion."