Women’s boxing pioneer fights for a way out of Prince George’s homeless shelter

A trailblazing champion in women's boxing battles for a brighter future. The Fold's Whitney Leaming caughts up with her in Prince George's County. (Lee Powell/The Fold/The Washington Post)

Diane “Dynamite” Clark jabs, shuffling her feet, circling and throwing punches — left, right, uppercut.

At 60, Clark punches with such ferocity that an onlooker pulls away. Jab. Jab. Pop. Pop. She’s wearing a pink headband and hot-pink blouse as she shadowboxes in a community room in a Prince George’s County homeless shelter.

She ducks an imaginary blow, her thick hands curled inside imaginary gloves, her eyes fixed on an imaginary slow-moving target.

“Whew,” she finally says after a series of rapid-fire jabs, “that’s enough.”

She sits down at a table in the shelter that was once a Capitol Heights elementary school. Blind in one eye from a stroke, Clark peers intensely with the other, ready to tell her story. She pushes her self-published book, “Ka-POW! Get the Record Straight,” across the table. The black-and-white cover photo shows Clark in her 1979 title fight in Louisville against Jackie Tonawanda.

Diane "Dynamite" Clark is featured in the Louisville Courier-Journal on Feb. 17, 1979. (Courtesy of Diane Clark )

In the photo, Clark leans back on powerful, thick legs, her arm cocked in midair about to throw a right-hand punch at the woman who towers over her. The frame has frozen “Dynamite” in her prime, in better days.

“That’s me in the corner. And that’s her,” Clark recalls. “They called her ‘Lady Ali.’ She was bigger than me, but I had more muscles — look at my legs.” She beams.

After six rounds, Clark was declared the winner over Tonawanda by a split decision.

“I remember when they said I won, I jumped up. They said, ‘The light heavyweight champion of the world: Diane “Dynamite” Clark!’ I jumped up and fell to my knees and prayed. I jumped in my trainer’s arms.”

Then she waited for the presentation of her title belt. “But they didn’t give it to me,” she says. No one ever explained why.

Clark pauses and a big tear drops. “When I was little,” she says, “I had a regular belt, and I would jump up and down on my bed like I had won the championship. That was my dream — not to just win a bout but to have the belt.”

She never got the belt from the promoters that night, and it crushed her like no blow from another boxer ever could. That night in Louisville, she says, was the last night she was on top of the world.

‘Fighting through struggle’

Thirty-four years later, Clark is living at Shepherd’s Cove, the only homeless shelter for women and children in Prince George’s.

“This is where I am for now, until I find an apartment,” she says with resignation.

She wound up here after her landlord’s property was foreclosed upon. Her sister, Joyce Chase, 61, who lives in Suitland, says she offered to let Clark stay with her family, as she’d done once before when Clark had a serious bout with the West Nile Virus. But Clark declined.

“I called Social Services and found a shelter because I didn’t want to be a burden on my family,” Clark says. “I need to be independent.”

Vania Fields, manager of Shepherd’s Cove, says she is amazed by Clark. “She has a phenomenal story,” Fields says. “I tell people, you never know where life will take you. We are all one car accident, one sick family member away from a shelter.”

Because of Clark’s partial blindness and renal failure that requires dialysis treatments, shelter officials are helping her find housing suitable for her disabilities.

Jill Morris, one of Clark’s nieces, says Clark has always been an inspiration. “She was dubbed in the family as the person of steel,” says Morris, 43, who lives in Gaithersburg. “She thrives off fighting through struggle.”

At the shelter, Clark unfolds yellowed newspaper clippings that show her breaking barriers in a male-dominated sport.

“Clark dispatches Tonawanda,” declares the Feb. 17, 1979, headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Women’s boxing in the United States was in its infancy then, not the Olympic sport and professional draw it is today. Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier — the daughters of heavyweight boxing champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — had yet to command a pay-per-view audience by squaring off in 2001. (Ali won.) People don’t know the history of women’s boxing in the United States and how difficult it was for women to get licenses and fights, Clark says.

In 1979, Clark had been a last-minute replacement for another fighter, Lillian Wells, and her victory over Tonawanda was an upset.

The paper quoted Tonawanda complaining after the fight: “Tonawanda said she shouldn’t have fought because she was ill, she was out of shape and her legs were weak. Besides, she added, titles shouldn’t be taken away on close decisions.”

More than three decades later, Clark is still seething. Tonawanda, who died in 2009, would later claim she had 36 fights and 34 knockouts, and some records would credit her with the title.

“That’s funny,” Clark says, “because during the time we were fighting, in the light heavyweight category there weren’t many female boxers to challenge. If there were more challengers, I would have fought them.”

‘Women don’t box’

The first time Clark saw a boxing match, she was 7. Clark had been a quiet child — so quiet, she says, her school in Queens labeled her “retarded” and put her in special classes. Other children used to call her names, take her lunchbox and knock her down.

Then her stepfather asked her to watch a boxing match on TV with him. Clark was instantly fixated.

“I saw two men boxing in the ring. It wasn’t one man punching on another and getting beat up. He was fighting back. I just stared and watched,” she says.

The next time kids picked on Clark at school, she got into a stance like a boxer. “I wobbled my head and I was moving my feet,” she recalls. “My teacher came and pulled me away. From that day, I felt like I grew up, like I wasn’t afraid anymore of anything.”

Her mother enrolled her in dance school, but Clark insisted that she wanted to be a boxer. She wrote an essay about her aspirations when she was 13. “I wrote I wanted to be a boxing champion,” Clark recalls.

Her teacher “had me read my essay out loud to the class, and everybody started laughing. I just stood there.” Then her teacher went over to her and said: “I’m sorry. This is a man’s sport. Women don’t box.”

But Clark refused to accept her exclusion from the sport. At 16, her father took her to meet Lee Blackmon, a legendary trainer at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn where Ali, Frazier and Mike Tyson had trained. Blackmon asked her if she could really fight. She told him she could. Blackmon took a swing at her, and she ducked.

“He said, ‘I will train you,’ ” she recalls.

She had to go to Canada to fight, because women in the United States couldn’t get boxing licenses. Finally, in 1978, Clark was licensed to box in New York along with Tonawanda, Marian “Lady Tyger” Trimiar and Cathy “Cat” Davis.

“These boxers paved the way for some of the women now,” said Rosemary Clark, editor of Undefeated magazine and no relation to Diane.

But professional fights for women remained rare in the late 1970s, when Clark was in her prime. The pay was so low — Clark says she earned only $500 a fight — that many of the best women boxers had to find full-time jobs.

Clark says she took a job at Rolling Stone magazine, cleaning the cubicles of writers. Then she started partying and her life hit the canvas: drug addiction, a suicide attempt and later, two years in prison for writing bad checks.

But she never stopped fighting — for recovery, for respect and for recognition of the title she’d won. Finally, she got a taste of what she was looking for. In 2008, two years after Clark’s release from jail, Undefeated magazine and Amber Sports reviewed her career and awarded her the belt she never received from the boxing commission.

Presenting Diane Clark with a belt was a way of showing appreciation for her place in women’s boxing history, said Rosemary Clark. “Now, she has something she can frame on the wall and say, ‘Somebody recognized me for that history.’ ”

At the shelter, Clark keeps the belt and her other boxing memorabilia in a black bag. “This is what is most precious to me,” she says.

Every morning, she wakes at 4 a.m., showers, then sits on her bed and begins her exercises. “I do 50 of these,” she says, demonstrating leg lifts. “I do 50 wall push-ups. I do 100 calf raises.” Then she takes her shoes and uses them as boxing gloves. She punches, lightning fast, shadowboxing. Pow. Pow. Pow. Determined to make a comeback.

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.

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