Meet Savoy Howe, Who's Changing Lives and Empowering Women Through Boxing

In this VICE Sports Q&A, we talk to Toronto boxing coach Savoy Howe about busting out of the boys' club, and training formerly meek women into beast mode.

May 25 2017, 7:28pm

Photo by Jacklyn Atlas

When Savoy Howe moved to Toronto from New Brunswick in the late 1980s to pursue her theatre degree, she also came out of the closet. New to the city and far from family, she wanted to learn some form of self-defense. "There were a lot of stories of gay-bashing back then," she says. "I didn't want to walk around afraid. I saw an image of a woman wearing boxing gloves and thought, 'OK, that's an option.' So I went to a few classes and got hooked."

Howe then started teaching boxing classes a few years later as a way to pay her bills. "I threw a bunch of posters up on a pole hoping I'd get like, two or three people who would pay me to teach 'em how to box. Within three months, 40 people showed up."

Since then, the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club has grown from a small rented space inside men's gyms to a sprawling space where she runs three programs—recreational (for people who don't want to get punched in the head), amateur, and a free program for female-identified survivors of violence. The club has around 300 active members, with 3,000 graduates, most of whom are women and trans people. She has trained boxing coaches all over the world.

VICE Sports asked Howe about getting knocked out, busting out of the boys' club, and coaching formerly meek women into beast mode.

VICE Sports: Who trained you?

Savoy Howe: Ray Marsh picked me up and trained me for my first couple of fights. Pretty much after my third fight, I trained myself. I'm kind of a soloist and a good imitator. I would just watch boxers that I liked and take from them the dance moves I liked. I was kind of my own coach. I was inspired by Muhammad Ali. I liked his personality, how confident he was, and he was just a great dancer—he could really move. His punch was like a towel whip — ba-BAM!

What was the boxing scene like for women back then?

I started in '92. In the beginning, the boys didn't want me in the gym. It was a boy's playground and the only place for a gal in there was in the office sitting on the owner's lap. Some guys didn't care less that I was there. Some guys were amazing—sharing their knowledge with us and letting us spar with them, and not killing us in the ring. But there was the occasional guy that wanted to chase me out. One time a guy invited me in the ring and I was all excited because I thought, 'Oh finally, someone's gonna teach me something,' and he beat the crap out of me. I realized he was trying to discourage me from coming back. But the problem was, I had fallen in love with the speed bag, and I just kept coming back because I just wanted to figure that thing out.

Even up until ten years ago, there'd be guys trying to chase you out of the gym—even if they had only been there a week, and we had been there eight years. There are just some guys that think a woman should not be in a gym. But by that time we had learned how to stand up for ourselves. Some guys think they can just touch you and hold you by the waist and show you stuff. When I would bring in clients, I would tell them off the bat: If a guy tries to touch you, say, 'Do not touch me.' If he touches you, slap his knuckles. If he walks towards you when you're skipping and expects you to walk out of his way, skip harder. All of these ground rules to let them know that we're not going to be pushed around. It's good training for standing your ground.

How have things changed?

I started teaching in '96, but we were always sort of an underground club. Because I rented space out of boys' gyms—when their gyms were closed, we could have women's only classes. I think we kind of kickstarted it. It's more normal now for women to be in gyms. Even ten years ago, it was odd to see one or two women in a gym. I think once gyms realized hey, if we let in the women, we might actually pay the rent.

Walk me through your club now.

Our gym is pretty Rocky Stallone. No white walls, get-your-towels-at-the-door type of thing. When people walk in, it's like, 'What an awesome space.' People get to use it and walk away pretty empowered. The gym is a 3,500 square foot playground for hitting things. There's at least 15 things to hit, I just teach them how to hit safely. And we just hit things to loud music. Couldn't be better.

Members of the Newsgirls boxing club. Photo courtesy Tracey Erin Smith

How do you avoid permanent damage?

[laughs] You move your head. Don't get hit. You work on lots of defense. I'll be 51 this month. I think I'm in great shape for a 51-year-old. But I've been punched a lot. Back in the days before there was any discussion around concussions, we'd have the crap kicked out of us. I've been knocked out on two of my fights. You'd get knocked out in a fight and you'd go out drinking afterward, you know? Nowadays, if you take a punch that's a little too hard you don't do any ring work for like, three weeks. Which is good.

For me, I just wanted it all so bad that nothing could stop me. I was coming back no matter what. I had an AVM—it's like an aneurysm. Four years later, I fought at nationals. I wouldn't let my athletes do that, but if I want to do it, I'm just gonna do it.

What were you seeking?

I love the performance side of things. I like to show off, I like to be watched—that's probably why I got into theatre. Boxing is like a dance, it's like an art form. I really worked hard on my dance moves—I'm not just gonna get in there and slug. I wanted to play the game. I don't like punching people in the head, but you have to—it's boxing.

Don't mess with Savoy. Photo courtesy Tracey Erin Smith

It's more of a power struggle with myself. You try to calm yourself down, give yourself little pep talks, [and] be positive, because it's easy to scare yourself before a fight, especially if you haven't done enough work. The battle is more with yourself than with this person you get in the ring with whom you've never seen before.

What do you love the most about this sport?

I love coaching. I've been doing it for about 20 years. I get to show women and trans people how to hit properly. I give them access to things to hit, like heavy bags. They get to see in a very short period of time, even like two hours, how strong they already are. And then I get to see them see that. And that's one of the most exciting things ever. Especially women, you know? Sometimes women are told they're weaker, they're a piece of crap, or whatever. When [they] see that actually I'm not weaker, I'm way stronger than I've been told, that's empowering for them. And I get to witness that.

Any stories in particular come to mind?

I had a woman jump in my free boxing program for survivors of violence. She had just put her son into the temporary care of [the Children's Aid Society]—not because she wanted to, but because she had no support, no money. She wanted to make sure he was going to eat. Her worker said, 'Why don't you go check out this gym, they have a free boxing program.' She thought, 'Boxing? I never thought about boxing before.' She came, she was so bummed out. Within three classes, she realized she was a beast. She had no idea she was a beast. She went back to children's aid and said, 'Give me my kid back.' Around the eight-month mark, she said, 'Savoy, I want to compete.' I'm like OK! Took her to a couple fights, [and she] did very well. At the year mark, took her to the provincials, she got gold. Four months later, took her to the nationals, she got silver.

People who don't want to compete still get an equivalent reward out of it. I hear stories of women who broke themselves out of isolation, especially trans women. Other people who had nightmares every night, once they start moving their bodies they don't have nightmares anymore. Left abusive partners. Finally got the courage to work on their résumé and get off their couch and get a job. Out of depression, you know? They are way stronger than they thought. I can show somebody how strong they are in one two-hour class. All I need is a heavy bag. I love my job. I'll never be rich, but I'm definitely rich in community.

What's your mantra?

Boxing is the art of not quitting. We train through a bell system. We hear a bell, we go at it for two minutes. At the one-and-a-half minute mark, you hear another bell, and that's where you work ten times as hard, so you train your body to work hardest when you're the most tired. It carries over into life. When you train enough in this crazy sport, sometimes a challenge will hit you in life, and it's like, nope! Keep going, keep going.

Savoy (right) with the women of the Newsgirls club. Photo courtesy Tracey Erin Smith

I think almost everything that happens in that gym is a metaphor for life. If someone comes in to train, [and] if their grounding sucks in life, their grounding sucks in gym. When you're ungrounded maybe you're anxious, panicked, it's like your feet aren't in the ground. So I might throw a set of leg weights on you, do lots of footwork.

All of a sudden, your grounding gets better in life. I've seen this for so many years. If your offense sucks, then chances are, outside of the gym when somebody says something to you—and you know you should say no—you don't say it. Then when your offense gets better, you can say no. It carries over. It's pretty cool.

Howe will be sharing tales from her 25-year boxing journey in her solo show, Newsgirl, opening this week.