Fighting Words

Boxer Lucia Rijker, Helena’s prison lover on The L Word is still famous for beating Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.


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Photo: © 2007 Elisa Shebaro

The cheerfully patriotic red, white and blue motif does little to distract from the lack of air conditioning in the hot and sticky boxing gym. Lucia Rijker, however, breezes in through the back door, looking fresh and focused on this 90-degree-plus summer day.

Rijker is one of the top female boxers and kickboxers in the world. Undefeated in both sports, she is perhaps best known in the United States as the woman who knocked out Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.

Today, it’s me climbing into the ring.

Holding a cell phone to a full head of curly hair, wearing a white tank top and jeans, Rijker looks more like a rock star than a professional fighter. When she emerges from the dressing room, she’s wearing black and red Lycra tops, boxing boots and knee-length, black boxing trunks with “Everlast” emblazoned over a good portion of her flat stomach.
She flashes a wide, perfect smile and offers her hand, a not-so-firm grip for someone who devastates people with her fists.

Boxing gyms are wall-to-wall mirrors so I couldn’t help but notice: Lucia Rijker doesn’t have a bad side. From every angle she is fit and curvy—but not the bulky, vein-popping brute you might expect from an undefeated champion who’s known as “the most dangerous woman in the world.”

Now, what the hell am I doing stepping into the ring with a woman who scared the shivers out of me the first time I saw her? I remember thinking in the darkened movie theater, just before she made daisies out of Hilary Swank, that I’d hate to come face to face with this petrifying pugilist.

But in the light of day, what makes Lucia Rijker seem dangerous may also be what makes her insightful, intriguing and so darn impressive.

Ilene Chaiken must think so, too. The L Word creator met Rijker before her groundbreaking show started airing on Showtime. Chaiken was consulting with Rijker on a script about a woman athlete. Once The L Word took off, the project was shelved, but Rijker became Chaiken’s trainer and was eventually asked to do a guest spot on the show. She appeared as herself a couple of seasons ago, doing road work with Dana, the tennis pro.

For the fifth season, Rijker came back on The L Word as a bad girl doing time. She found herself in high-class company, however, when society girl Helena (Rachel Shelley) somehow got herself sent to the slammer, too.

Rijker has acted before in her native Netherlands, in the film Rollerball and on an episode of JAG, where she played a sergeant who fights for the right of women to box in the Navy.

“I could totally relate,” she says. “I’ve been fighting my whole life for the rights of women all over the world.”

Rijker is a huge celebrity in the Netherlands, where she still appears on talk shows and game shows, and is a spokesperson for a human rights organization that focuses on the rights of women in oppressed countries.

“We here in the West are so powerful,” she says with only a slight European accent. “We can choose what we wear, what job, what education, we walk the streets, where we buy a house, who we marry. [Many] women don’t have any choices.”

Officially, her home is now Los Angeles. On this sweltering day in the boxing gym near her apartment, Rijker tells me to watch myself in the mirror. I look about as coordinated as Homer Simpson on a tightrope, so I find it more interesting to watch Lucia Rijker. She moves fluidly, with perfect balance and grace. It gradually becomes clear that her quest for success in the ring is not just about physical strength but inner strength as well.

“Only when our lives are at stake do we really dig deep,” she says, explaining her choice of sports. As a practicing Buddhist for 14 years, she believes it’s the elements of danger in combat sports—the threat of injury, humiliation or even death—that help you “dig deeper and really connect with your spirit.”

Rijker grew up in a working-class home, the daughter of a Creole father and a Dutch mother. She doesn’t identify as black or lesbian or anything else.

“You could say I don’t discriminate,” she says. “I don’t want to be categorized.

“I see African American people discriminate, I’ve seen gay people discriminate and I’ve seen white people discriminate, and I don’t want to be any of those people.”

The youngest of four, Rijker played in the streets and wore her brother’s hand-me-down clothes.

“Kids tease you in school when you don’t look hip,” she says. “I couldn’t control what I wore, but I could control being the best in anything I did. Maybe the drive to be the best was a way for me to fit in and to be accepted.”

So little Lucia became a fencing champion, an all-star softball player and accomplished at judo. She eventually followed her older brother into kickboxing.

That’s when she really started kicking ass.

“Don’t think,” she scolds me, her uncoordinated trainee. At first that sounds like a contradiction. She obviously puts a lot of thought into what she does, who she is and the person she wants to become.

But a boxer can’t afford to analyze what’s before her in the ring; she has to react on instinct, honed from hours and months and years of training. Combat sports are not about emotion.

“Anger is going to dilute your focus,” Rijker says. “You’ve got to be laser sharp and infused with this energy. You’re detached. It’s not about hurting, it’s about perfecting your skills, bringing out the best of you as an athlete.”

Even with instruction, I can’t get the dangling punching bag to go rat-a-tat-tat-a, rat-a-tat-tat-a, until Rijker takes my right hand and allows me, just for a few seconds, to feel what that rapid-fire staccato is like.

I learn to jump rope the right way, use the body blade (the blades were a gift from Hilary Swank, who trained with Rijker in preparation for her Oscar-winning role), and, finally, step into a real boxing ring.

The floor is mushy, so if the punch doesn’t break your nose, a face-first collapse probably won’t either. No punches are thrown during our session. Instead, we shadowbox, then Rijker teaches me what I call the slow-mo dance.

We stand face to face. I push her in the chest; she deflects my hand, pushing me back. Our arms and torsos move back and forth in this sort of hypnotically rhythmic motion that on a dance floor under dim lights might seem downright erotic. It gets so that I don’t have to think as we sway back and forth in a fluid, continuous motion.

This, Rijker told me later, is what she did with Rachel Shelley on the set of The L Word to help prepare for their love scene.

Love scenes are awkward, even for trained actors. So to get ntimate with a stranger, Rijker needed to connect in a way that was familiar to her.

“Rachel was so good with me,” says Rijker appreciatively. “She had to open and let me lead her, so to speak. It’s very intimate to be physical with a stranger. I don’t care whether they call it acting, you don’t want to violate the person because you have your own approach.”

Of Rijker’s awkward “love moments” on the L Word set, some were nerve-wracking, some just funny.

“One time, the director says to me, ‘You’ve gotta give it more than that because she’s making a hell of a noise.’ I was just totally doing my own stuff. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ And she just laughed at me.”

For an athlete who’s used to preparing so that she can react on instinct, acting poses some unique challenges.

“I’ve never had a love scene before. You don’t really talk about it, like, when we kiss, how do I kiss you, do I hold my tongue? I didn’t know how to handle it. Thank God I’m a physical person, so I can always connect physically.

“But I still freaked out,” she says, laughing. “Then the director says, ‘OK, now I want you to kiss longer.’ I was like, ‘Oh God!’”

While she understands that nudity can be important to a scene, she didn’t feel comfortable baring all as a guest star.

“In my country, I’m a very respected athlete. When you’re an actor, there’s nothing wrong with nudity. If I’m a regular on the show I’d say, ‘OK, you need to do what you need to do.’ But I wanted to set a boundary for myself.”

Now, as she waits to hear if her role on the show will be extended (and we wait to see if we get to see more of her), she’s sorting through the questions that her on-camera interlude has raised.

“I like challenging myself. What’s this fear? What is this shame? What’s going on here? That’s what I like about acting, it always challenges psychologically.”

While she is arguably the best female fighter in the world, Rijker can probably make a better living as an actor. There is little money in boxing or kickboxing for women, and female fighters don’t yet have a shot at Olympic gold.

Opportunities have presented themselves. After the success of Million Dollar Baby, she was offered a chance to put her sport and her causes in the spotlight. Promoters in Las Vegas set up a fight between Rijker and another top female fighter, but Rijker blew out her Achilles tendon while training.

“Goals are important to bring out your fullest potential, but the moment you become attached to them they can destroy you. I was attached to that big fight,” she says. “The impact that I thought I was going to have on women, because all my interviews were about being a trailblazer and making history…I thought I was on top of the world. I was blowing money to have the best team around me. Jay Leno was going to fly me to his show in a private jet, and the moment I popped my Achilles tendon everything and everyone was gone.”

Then her mother died. Her Buddhist faith helped get her through it, she says.

“I’m an extremist, that’s why Buddhism fits me so well. I sacrificed a lot.”

Since then she’s been re-evaluating her life. She will be 40 soon and must decide whether to compete again.

“My whole life I had long-term goals, [which is] a good thing and a bad thing. I wasn’t opened to the moment because I had tunnel vision, which helped me develop self-discipline and endurance. On the other hand, I missed out on a lot of things.

“As an athlete, I did not go through adolescence, when you develop who you become, you go dating, go to the disco. I was training, I went to the gym.

“That’s my time now. Hey, there’s more to life. Let me see what’s out there.”

She recently got an offer to fight in Japan, but to accept would mean “becoming a monk again,” she says.

“It’s a lifestyle. You have to really let go of a lot of things, to totally think and breathe and act like a warrior, because that’s what made me good. That’s what I did to be the best.”

Since she’s given up her monk-like existence, her life has expanded to include speaking engagements and teaching all over the world. In September, a documentary film about her spiritual journey premiered at a Buddhist film festival in the Netherlands. She’s worked in Thailand and has represented an aid organization in Bangladesh.

“I’m really enjoying this second part of my life,” she says. “I’m realizing there is so much more, and there’s also a time to start to give back and to share. It’s a natural cycle, and when you follow the natural cycle then your life goes well.”

Maybe she’s not so dangerous after all.
 

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