Bonnie Brewster isn't what you would expect in a boxing trainer. For one thing, she's a woman. She doesn't work fighters' camps and corners either; she trains recreational boxers. And she peppers her lessons on footwork and upper-cuts with personal philosophy. "Stand on your own two feet," she yells while teaching the proper boxing stance. "It's the same as in life!"
There are a handful of female boxing trainers around the country, but Brewster, 35, is the first to work at Gleason's Gym, the venerable boxing haunt on Brooklyn's waterfront. The gym didn't open its doors to women until 1986. At the time, Brewster was working as an actor and a writer. She has appeared in soap operas (The Guiding Light, One Life to Live), movies (All That Jazz) and regional theater productions. In 1985 she received an Edward Albee Foundation grant for playwriting, and she has written for several small local newspapers.
In the spring of 1987, Brewster visited Gleason's to research a story. She became so enamored of boxing that she decided to scrap the story and become a boxer herself. Brewster had been athletic all her life, but this was her first venture into such a brutal—and all-male—sport.
She started taking lessons at Gleason's three to four times a week with Hector Roca, one of the gym's most respected trainers. At 5'3", 120 pounds, she had the right kind of body for boxing—short, stocky and strong—and trained under Roca for a year. "But it got to the point where Hector wasn't showing me moves that he was showing the men," says Brewster. "It made me angry."
She tried to find another trainer, but her favorites were busy with pro fighters. So Brewster started watching boxing films and amateur bouts. She broke down the moves and began teaching herself the sport. Occasionally, she would consult Roca to make sure she was executing the moves properly.
Brewster's boxing education convinced her that the gym needed a trainer who worked exclusively with serious recreational boxers, especially women. A year and a half ago she approached Bruce Silverglade, co-owner of Gleason's, about becoming one. "I thought it was a great idea," he says.
She attributes Silverglade's enthusiasm partly to his business sense. "Boxing is at a low point in its history," says Brewster, "and that decay has created a window of opportunity for women. The gyms are desperate for money."
Brewster trains 17 women and three men in one-on-one sessions at Gleason's. Among her students is Alicia McConnell, a seven-time national women's squash champion. Brewster also teaches a coed class at nearby St. George Health & Racquet Club.
Brewster and her students never duke it out, which means they receive the benefits of a boxing workout—getting in shape, learning technique and releasing aggression—without being punched. A typical hour-long session, for which she charges $35, of which Gleason's keeps $5, starts with stretching, jumping rope and shadowboxing. Then the students move to either the speed bag or the heavy bag. While Brewster yells out commands—one, uppercut, one, two, one!—her students pummel the heavy bag in three-minute rounds. They use jabs, uppercuts and crosses in various combinations.
Brewster's advanced students join her in the ring for several rounds of noncombative sparring. She puts on heavily padded mitts and allows her students to slug away at them. To teach students to defend themselves, Brewster retaliates with light blows.