Diane “Dynamite” Clark, a former light heavyweight boxing champion who broke barriers for women boxers, was on the ropes — down and almost out. Just a few months ago, she had hit the canvas and was living in a shelter for women in Prince George’s County.
After her story ran in The Washington Post, Ring 10, a nonprofit foundation that helps boxers “who have fallen on hard times,” reached out to her.
She now has a one-bedroom apartment in Greenbelt.
“Ring 10, they saw the story,” Clark said during an interview Sunday. “They all got together, and in the winter time… they sent coats, sweaters, pants, hats and scarves. One of the Ring 10 board members called me at the shelter to see how they could help.”
For more than two years, Clark had been hoping for such a call. At the shelter, she hung onto hopes of making a comeback, any recognition of her days as a trailblazing boxer. Each day she would rise at 4 a.m., long before many of the other shelter residents. In the morning darkness, Clark, who is now 61, would work out, exercising with leg lifts, calf raises and push-ups.
Near her cot, she would put on her shoes, using them as boxing gloves, and punch.
Upper cut, shadow boxing in the shelter, aiming to make it out after a long life of ups and downs.
I interviewed Clark at the shelter in September. I remember asking her to demonstrate her boxing technique. She jabbed so fast and with such force, I had to duck.
Then she sat down at a table in the center’s recreation room and told her story of being bullied as a child, and learning to box.
At 16, her father took her to meet Lee Blackmon, a legendary boxer at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, she began training, and in 1979, Clark, who was at the top of her form, won a title fight in Louisville against Jackie Tonawanda.
But she did not receive the title belt that night, something she had dreamed of receiving as a little girl.
“When I was little, I had a regular belt, and I would jump up and down on my bed like I had won the championship,” Clark recalled. “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 could from another boxer — nearly knocked her out. That night in Louisville in 1979 was the last night she was really happy.
“I felt great, like I was on top of the world,” Clark said. “I was making a stand for myself. When I was little, I remember getting beat up. They put me in retarded classes. But when I learned how to fight, it felt like I was fighting for my rights for who I really am. I didn’t get the belt, but I did win the title. I was proud I made it. I did become a champion, and I held onto my dreams.”
Devastated about not receiving the title belt — which the promoters never explained — her life spiraled out of control into a web of drugs. On a drug binge, she eventually moved out of her parents’ house and ended up on the streets of New York, living in abandoned buildings.
“I remember lying on the floor and covering myself with a dirty blanket,” she recalled. “There were rats running all over the floor. They were bigger than cats. I could feel the rats running over my legs, but I never got bit.”
She ended up in prison for writing bad checks. After her release, she moved to Texas, where she fell ill with the West Nile virus. Her family moved her to Maryland. But soon the house she was living in went into foreclosure. Because of her disability, she was not able to work. Recently, she found out she had kidney failure and had suffered a stroke that left her partially blind.
The life of a boxer, Clark said, is hard and often misunderstood. Ring 10, she said, related to her story.
“They said they read my story in The Washington Post,” Clark recalled. “They said they had heard my name years ago, and the story really touched them. Everybody at Ring 10 read it and saw the video.”
Clark said one of the board members of Ring 10, whose stated mission is to “help retired boxers through the toughest fight of their lives,” came to the shelter with boxes of clothes for Clark.
After she got an apartment in Greenbelt, with the help of social workers at the shelter, Ring 10 donated furniture to Clark.
“I was jabbing right and left and fighting my way out of the shelter, and I made it,” she said. “Now, I have a one-bedroom apartment. I’m enjoying it, and I’m just doing everything to uplift me.”
Clark also spends her time telling her life story at schools.
“When I go to classrooms, the first thing I say is, ‘A champion is not a bully’,” Clark said. “A bully is a coward.”
She tells students the story of how she was bullied as a child for having problems reading.
“I tell them when I was young, I wanted to be a boxer,” Clark said. “I fought with my fists. But there are other ways to fight. You can fight with your brain. You can fight with your self-respect. You can fight with what you believe in. I tell them there are lots of ways to fight. You don’t have to fight with your hands. I tell them everyone is a champion.”