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Manly art of self-defense not solely manly anymore

July 26, 1997

Rose Johnson knocked out some of April Wright’s teeth when they met.

``I hit pretty strongly for a girl,″ said Johnson, an aspiring pro boxer.

The unanimous decision June 20 in Philadelphia meant a 1-0 record for the 33-year-old, 115-pound Johnson, who started training in January.

``I had no experience at all,″ she said. ``There is so much to learn, I had no idea _ different techniques, different moves, where to be when the punches are thrown.″

Johnson, who fights as a bantamweight or flyweight, trains at a gym in Rockville, Md. There is only one other woman at the gym, so she trains mostly against men.

But women are pushing open the gym doors in boxing as they earlier had entered the karate dojo. Johnson sees herself as leading by example: ``The women, the more they see it, they are encouraged by it.″

Karate has not been solely a manly art of self-defense for decades, said Jo Mirza, chairman of the martial arts council of the Amateur Athletic Union. Current AAU adult karate membership is 32 percent female; youth membership (under 18) is 42 percent female, he said.

``What we are seeing is the destruction of the idea of a `boys’ thing’ or a `girls’ thing’,″ said Mirza, who teaches karate in the Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich, Ill. ``Women came out of the idea that they can’t do martial arts.″

But women had to work their way out of it, said Veronica Burrows, who teaches aikido at Arizona State University, Tempe, where she is a professor of chemical engineering. Burrows started learning aikido 21 years ago as an activity she could do with her boyfriend _ now her husband.

``It was (considered) something very odd and weird,″ Burrows said. ``But in the context of doing it with a male partner, it seemed to be OK.″

The women’s movement indirectly helped women start martial arts training by fostering an attitude of ``they better let us,″ Burrows said. The college students she teaches today have a different attitude _ simply taking it for granted that they can do anything.

Men and women spar with each other in her dojo. ``If women are smaller ... and are perceived as less physically intimidating, they are handled more gently,″ Burrows said ``Smaller ... men often get treated more kindly than the big wompers.″

There are maybe slight differences in the mental approach, Burrows said. ``I might occasionally see somewhat more of a tendency of men to get headbutt competitive,″ she said.

But Johnson does get highly competitive. Seeing a videotape of her fight, ``I couldn’t believe how focused I was,″ she said. ``I took on a whole different persona. There was nothing feminine about me, and I am a very feminine person.″

End Adv for weekend editions, July 26-27

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