Sugar Ray Leonard walks this way. It is a very deliberate manner of moving: measured, self-contained steps on the balls of the feet, shoulders slightly back, chest out, head held level. There is a regal quality to it. It is a little removed, cool but not snooty.
Kathy Long has the walk of champions, and she has earned it. She is the undisputed women's featherweight world kick-boxing champion. And during the past year she has become perhaps the most popular kick boxer on the planet.
Long teaches kung fu and kick boxing at the Academy of International Martial Arts in Bakersfield, Calif. She trains there six days a week, even when she doesn't have a bout scheduled. Her conditioning regimen, surely one of the most rigorous in professional sports, includes such exercises as jumping rope, shadow-boxing, going 12 rounds each day with a 225-pound heavy bag and having a 16-pound medicine ball repeatedly bounced off her stomach. In addition, she regularly squeezes out dozens of one-armed push-ups, runs two five-mile uphill courses as well as eight flat half-milers and, upon completing her roadwork, trudges up and down the steps at Bakersfield College stadium with a 140-pound sparring partner on her back.
As she walks into the academy's gym, Long winks at the little crowd of spectators who have been waiting for her and approaches the boxing ring, a big smile splashed across her face. She is startlingly good-looking, with high cheekbones and clear blue eyes. Her blonde hair cascades down her shoulders and spills across her back in ringlets. She's wearing matching black shorts and a loose-fitting tank top. Her deltoids are large, firm, round and highly defined; the muscle groups in her forearms dance. Using yellow elastic bandaging, she quickly and expertly wraps her wrists and hands. "What do you weigh, Kathy?" shouts an appreciative male voice from ringside. "Twenty-four," she says, meaning 124 pounds. "I always weigh 24." As she speaks, she tugs on a pair of 12-ounce boxing gloves.
Long always weighs 124 because she is perpetually on a training diet. She seldom eats anything other than grilled chicken and steamed fresh vegetables; sometimes she has a pasta dish without cheese. She drinks orange juice, water and, once in a while, a decaffeinated hot tea. On an occasional Sunday evening—"cheat day," she calls it—she will allow herself a half-dozen Oreo cookies.
Now she fastens her curls in a ponytail, wraps her ankles and feet, then steps barefoot through the ropes to meet a male sparring partner who outweighs her by about 20 pounds. The tissue around his eyebrows is deeply scarred; he has a thick mustache and badly bruised thighs and calves.
The bell rings for the first round, and Long dances a few steps to her left. She throws a couple of clean, crisp jabs that get her inside, from where she digs a straight right in under his rib cage. She springs a hook in near his right kidney, doubles it up to the head, then dances to the side and out of reach, her hair bounding behind her. After a couple of minutes, you notice the elegance with which she moves. The mechanics of her punches are nearly perfect. Former world lightweight boxing champion Pernell Whitaker, a fan of Long's, has said, "She's the only woman I've ever seen who can fight, the only one who can really do it."
Long drops her gloves to her side, sticks her face out, teasing the sparring mate, pulls her head back when he throws a jab, and immediately leans back in and stabs him flat on the bridge of the nose with her own straight left. It is a move that was patented by Leonard, her boxing idol. The sparring partner throws a couple of jabs that Long slips; then she spears him again with a left and kicks him hard on the inside of his left thigh. The slapping sound is explosive in the small room. The crowd oohs and aahs. He catches her with a right cross that snaps her head back and to the side. She grits her teeth and kicks him on the right shin with her own shin. The noise the blow makes is unmistakably that of bone against bone. One spectator winces and unconsciously bends to rub the bottom of his own leg. As the source of the bruises on the sparring partner's legs becomes obvious, so does the fact that kick boxing rules have changed fairly dramatically in recent years. Kicks to the legs are not allowed by several sanctioning bodies.
Long goes 12 three-minute rounds, frequently changing sparring partners. When she steps from the ring she spends a few minutes signing publicity photos for people who want autographs—"Hugs and punches, from Kathy Long, 5-time world champ," she usually writes. When she has finished signing, she reaches into the pocket of her shorts and produces a necklace with a small gold boxing glove attached to it. She fastens it about her neck as if it were a talisman, and then she leaves the gym.
Over a lunch of broccoli, carrots and rice, Long is prompted to talk about herself, something she seems a bit uncomfortable doing. Although she's soft spoken, her voice is rich and deep. She has a dead-on way of looking at you that is disarming. She talks about the '60s and '70s folk music she listens to (Carole King and Don McLean are favorite performers), about the poetry she writes and about her pencil sketches. Before she became a martial arts celebrity, she had hoped to make a living as a commercial artist. When asked to talk about her fights, she recounts the story of her first ring experience, against a 190-pound opponent. "I was way scared," she says. "The other girl had had several amateur fights and was so damned big that she couldn't find anyone to fight. Because of the difference in weight, it was called an exhibition. I only had nine days to prepare. I didn't even know how to throw a jab. After the contest everyone said I broke her nose. I don't know, but I do know she immediately retired from kick boxing."