It’s a stark contrast to the predominantly male gym where Newsgirls founder Savoy “Kapow” Howe first fell in love with boxing. “When I was at the boys’ gym, the walls were covered in pictures of strong, aggressive men, but there were no pictures of women,” she says.
That’s what made her realize she wanted to offer a better model for women—and for the past 20 years, that’s exactly what she’s been doing.
“We wanted to invent a program for underserved communities to give them an opportunity for physical fitness, which can improve mental health,” Howe says.
The program—which is being funded exclusively through donations—gives sponsored participants a free four-month membership at the Leslieville gym. They can visit as often as they wish to learn “boxing 101” basics, like how to stand properly, how to punch in a way that won’t hurt their wrists and how to stretch to relieve tension. The club also has both speed and heavy bags, and cardio and strengthening equipment.
“Moving one’s body in any way is great—especially if you have been holding in anger or if you’ve been exposed to violence,” says Howe. “I always say that access to a heavy bag is cheaper than therapy.”
She’s also committed to the idea that a boxing gym can be a positive and safe space: “No one is getting hit in the nose, and we ensure that everyone feels comfortable and respected.”
Howe herself came to boxing when she was looking for a confidence boost. When she first moved to Toronto from New Brunswick 30 years ago, she often felt unsafe as a member of the city’s LGBTQ2 community. When she decided to start her own boxing gym—the first in Canada that was female-owned—she solicited funds from friends and well-wishers, cobbling together first and last month’s rent on her 3,500-square-foot space and adding equipment piece by piece.
Outside the Ring was inspired by a previous initiative hosted by the Toronto Newsgirls. Shape Your Life, an outside program that celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2017, offers free, non-contact boxing lessons to women in the Toronto area who have experienced violence. When the program moved to a new location this past spring, Howe had the opportunity to create a program of her own. “We wanted to invent a new program for underserved communities,” says Howe, who has always been keen to share her passion for boxing in what she calls a “safe space.”
She estimates that 40 women have participated in Outside the Ring since the program launched late last year, and that 8,000 women have been through her gym over the past 20 years. She hopes that Outside the Ring will provide an opportunity to groups of women and trans folk who might be intimidated by other gym environments.
For Fazia Ali, a member of the LBGTQ2 community and a participant in Outside the Ring, the program represents comfort and accessibility. “It’s really nice to be around people who don’t question which side of the gym you should change in,” says Ali. “It’s not just a place where you’re welcome to join, it’s a place where someone works really hard to make sure you feel welcome.”
While boxing has traditionally been considered a male domain, more and more women are becoming interested in the sport—whether for personal fitness or empowerment reasons.
“We’re seeing a bit of a revolution for women, and we’re realizing that it’s time to stop being told by men and the media who we’re supposed to be,” says Howe. “Boxing can make anyone feel powerful. By the second or third class, I would see the change in women as they got their power back. One of the best things about my job is teaching women how strong they already are.”