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(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Wonder of Ann Wolfe

Former boxer and trainer Ann Wolfe is finally on a big stage in the new ‘Wonder Woman’ film. But her journey to the spotlight has been as complicated as it has been heroic.

When the trainer Ann Wolfe returned home to Austin, Texas, in spring 2016 after nearly five months in Europe filming Wonder Woman, she took a break to spend time with her children. Her sabbatical ended with the announcement that James Kirkland, Wolfe’s longtime fighter, would face five-time former world champion Miguel Cotto in February 2017. The match was anticipated only because of Wolfe. She was the selling point.

Kirkland, nicknamed "The Mandingo Warrior," is a different boxer under Wolfe’s tutelage, a brawler with power, limitless stamina, and a hunger that propels him forward and forward and forward until he is triumphant. He is undefeated when Wolfe, a former world champion in her own right, is in his corner. But Wolfe and Kirkland have had a volatile on-again, off-again relationship, partly due to Kirkland’s own on-again, off-again tolerance for Wolfe’s training. He hasn’t had much success on his own, suffering early knockout defeats at the hands of Canelo Alvarez and the unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida; HBO’s Jim Lampley once described the latter as a bigger upset than Buster Douglas’s victory over Mike Tyson.

"She knows how to motivate me and push me in a way that a lot of trainers don’t. A lot of trainers are scared to take it to that limit," Kirkland tells me. "Every workout makes you think, ‘Fuck, am I really built for this?’ But then you think, ‘Did Mayweather do this? Did Muhammad Ali do this? Did Marvin Hagler do this?’ She is someone you want to make proud."

And so the pay-per-view had its built-in narrative: Ann Wolfe gave Kirkland a puncher’s chance. But because Kirkland fractured his nose sparring, we never learned whether this was a case of false advertising. With the fight canceled, Kirkland, once again, separated from Wolfe.

On a sticky Wednesday night in Austin, Wolfe, 46, sits in Pappasito’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant just off I-35, sipping a margarita and pondering a future that may or may not revolve around boxing.

She’s been bound to the sport since the mid-1990s, when she first entered a gym, a homeless woman with two young daughters looking to escape her past. Wolfe, who retired in 2006 with a 24–1 record, became the only boxer in history — male or female — to capture and defend four world titles in four weight classes simultaneously. And as a trainer, she led Kirkland to the cusp of greatness before legal problems, injuries, and wavering commitment derailed him.

Through it all, she mentored hundreds of kids, mostly wayward youth, in her gyms; the most recent incarnation, Ann Wolfe’s Boxing and Fitness Studio, opened in North Austin’s Highland Mall in August 2012. Wolfe trained hard and loved hard. She cared, perhaps too much at times. When she learned that one of her fighters was a domestic abuse victim, she said she beat the woman’s husband with a PVC pipe. She once whipped with an extension cord a man that Wolfe said she suspected of molesting one of her youngsters.

It was impossible for her not to be emotionally invested. When her partner of 12 years broke up with Wolfe, she recommended that Wolfe take time away from boxing. But it wasn’t until her gym closed in January 2015 that Wolfe took a step back to assess her life. For all the chatter within boxing circles of Ann Wolfe burning out her fighters, it turns out that Ann Wolfe’s fighters burned out Ann Wolfe.

"I was overwhelmed with it," Wolfe admits. "I was taking care of other people’s children for 20 years."

"Boxing," she says, "has left me with a bitter taste."

Parked in front of a plate of steak fajitas, Wolfe is a picture of serenity at Pappasito’s. She wears a schoolboy cap, a plaid shirt, matching gray work pants, and hiking sneakers. Her ex-girlfriend Hannah is there, along with their 8-year-old son, Zion. Though no longer dating, they raise the child together. "Zion deserves to have a life with two parents," Wolfe says.

The boy was reared in gyms across Austin. When he was two days old, Wolfe held him in her arms in between sessions hitting the mitts with her longtime trainer, Donald "Pops" Billingsley. Soon it was Zion’s turn to lace up the gloves and, as it turns out, he was a prodigy. "That boy is a masterpiece," Pops tells me. "A boxing masterpiece."

Wolfe is itching to return to work. She scurries when her phone rings during dinner. "This is CAA or something," she says sprinting from the table for privacy. Like any middle-aged striver contemplating a career change, Ann Wolfe would like to transport her old skills into a new profession; bonus points if it’s more lucrative and less stressful. In Wolfe’s case, her most marketable attribute is her reputation as one of the toughest women on the planet, which is why she was cast as Artemis, the fearsome Amazonian warrior, in Wonder Woman.

A longtime admirer of Wolfe, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins believed it was imperative that a movie about powerful women feature real powerful women. "I wanted the real deal," Jenkins says. "I wanted someone walking around that you look them in the eye and you knew you didn’t want to mess with them."

Jenkins’s bosses — the producers, Warner Bros., DC Comics, "they," as she referred to them — had concerns, chief among them Wolfe’s lack of acting experience, and soon they held auditions for Artemis. Jenkins was undeterred. "Ann was always the one to beat," she says. "Finally, I put my foot down and said, ‘I want the real thing in there. I want Ann Wolfe.’"

As with most newcomers to Hollywood, the slow pace of moviemaking — the number of takes, the meticulous setups, the hurry-up-and-wait mentality of it all — surprised Wolfe, but it didn’t stop her from establishing her presence on set. Jenkins described it as "the way of a warrior, much more circumspect and capable than just bravado or threatening looks. The threat comes from a different place."

Wolfe says the Wonder Woman experience was greater than anything she’s accomplished in boxing. And she has some advice to men’s rights activists protesting the select all-women screenings of the film: "Cut your dick off and go."

If Wolfe becomes rich and famous from action movies or reality television, it would be long overdue. As a boxer, she was almost too good too soon. Ann Wolfe was one of the most dominant female athletes in sports at a time when women in sports — particularly women in combat sports — were even more marginalized than today. The closest she came to the spotlight was following her May 2004 fight against undefeated 6-foot-6 super-heavyweight Vonda Ward.

Two minutes into the bout, Wolfe knocked out the former University of Tennessee basketball player in one of the most devastating one-punch knockouts in boxing history. If it had occurred today, "The Punch" likely would’ve led SportsCenter, trended on Twitter, and instantly become a meme. Wolfe made $30,000 that night, reportedly more than all of her other fight earnings combined; Ronda Rousey, meanwhile, made $3 million in a 48-second defeat in December.

A million-dollar payday against Laila Ali, the privileged scion with the marketable name and endorsement deal portfolio, was rumored to be next. Ali and Wolfe sniped at each other in the press for years, but the fight never happened. When asked about it today, Wolfe tells me, "I’m not gonna keep that negative shit going." Wolfe made peace with Ali in a Facebook post published after the death of Muhammad Ali last June.

Valerie Mahfood, who faced both women in the ring, thinks the dream fight would’ve been one-sided. "Ann Wolfe would’ve killed her, which is why Laila didn’t fight her." Mahfood believes this even though she defeated Wolfe in the first of their three fights. Wolfe’s power, she says, would have neutralized Ali’s speed and technical prowess. "Ann Wolfe is the person who has hit me the hardest in my life," Mahfood says. "I’m a prison guard and I have fought grown men — big, bad, rough men, 6–5 men who work out all day — who didn’t hit as hard as Ann Wolfe."

And yet Wolfe’s power wasn’t her greatest attribute in the ring. She owned an inhuman dedication to her craft that manifested itself in a code that she still follows: To become great you must sacrifice and suffer.

Pops was willing to issue the punishment. He had her spar against men, light heavyweights and heavyweights sporting massive weight advantages over her. "Sometimes they hurt her. Sometimes she hurt them," Pops says. "She wasn’t scared though." She was an apt pupil who did as she was told, whether it was spar 24 rounds or run hills until she vomited.

To this day she’ll sometimes shun food and water while cutting the 10 acres of grass on her property. In her view, these struggles forged a fighter’s character, not black eyes and cracked ribs. Human beings could perform superhuman feats when pushed, she believed, but only when the mind could match the body in strength. She performed self-flagellating acts during training camp, like wearing a burlap sack to sleep every night, which served no purpose other than to turn her into a mean SOB. It was itchy and made her miserable, and then she unleashed that fury on her opponent.

"What I been through," she says. "I had nothing to lose."

Oberlin, Louisiana, was the kind of rural Southern town where a black woman would feel compelled to tell her 9-year-old daughter, "Don’t go looking for something. Don’t go looking to see if a person is racist or not." Home, for Wolfe, was a shack with no running water or electricity. Her parents were Theresa Eve Walker, a home health aide, and David Wolfe II, a businessman who owned a general store, meat market, and night club. Wolfe was not close to her father.

One day after school, Wolfe fought off two white kids who had jumped her on a back road. As she walked away, one of her attackers threw a rock at her head and called her the N-word.

"The way he said ‘nigger’ to me — that hurt me more than when they hit me with the rock," Wolfe remembers. She was still crying when she reached home. "I said, ‘Mama, is ‘nigger’ a bad word?’" Wolfe’s mother dragged her along to confront the boys’ father, who apologized before whipping his sons with his belt.

Walker did her best to shield Wolfe from the family’s poverty. But when Walker got sick, Ann felt compelled to drop out of school in the seventh grade and help the family, even though she couldn’t read or write; Wolfe was diagnosed recently with severe dyslexia.

But Wolfe was genetically blessed. Legend has it that her father could jump 5 feet high while standing flat-footed. He boxed while incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he was known for his one-punch knockouts. Wolfe also excelled at sports. As a teenager, she had six-pack abs. She could dunk a volleyball and outrun and outfight most of the boys, which led to girls showering her with attention. Wolfe realized early on that she was gay. "I knew from when I was a kid," she says. "But I didn’t want to be because I’m from a Christian home. I still, to this day, don’t say I’m gay. I just say that I’m Ann."

Sometime during her childhood, someone molested her and her sisters, which she revealed to HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. "When that happened to me, I vowed one thing," she told Andrea Kremer. "I would never be weak again." She then said that anyone was welcome in her gym. Anyone but child abusers.

The layers of trauma piled up. Wolfe’s mother died after a bout with colon cancer in 1989 at the age of 46. She left behind six children. Walker had a warning for Ann before she died. "‘Y’all got that Wolfe in you. It’s gonna come out. You a killer,’" she remembers. "I tried to hide that shit. After my mom died it was time for me to be a Wolfe."

Three weeks after her mother’s death, she said, she pistol whipped a man, knocking out three teeth. She dealt drugs and acted as her own enforcer. She once slashed a woman with a machete. Death didn’t frighten her — she told people that she wasn’t scared to meet Jesus.

"A kid like me, I would have been one of those motherfuckers that shot up a whole Pappasito’s like this," Wolfe says, looking around the cavernous restaurant. "I was a motherfucker on edge. That’s how bad and depressed and fucked up I was."

Several months in a Florida prison didn’t change her, nor did her father’s murder. He was shot 13 times. Then one day, a young woman offered Wolfe her baby as collateral for $10 worth of crack. She looked at the baby. She thought of the woman smoking her product. She never sold another crack rock.

Another tragedy brought her to Austin. In 1993, Wolfe’s brother Rickey Lee died in a confrontation with police after robbing an IHOP. She arrived with her daughters searching for answers, but the family was forced into homelessness. Wolfe worked construction during the day — she says a local employee snuck her children into day care. When the sun went down, they’d look for shelter anywhere, on a bus, under a boat in a parking lot, in a 24-hour Walmart or the emergency room at the University Medical Center Brackenridge, the setting of Wolfe’s origin story.

One night in the waiting room she saw two women boxing on television. She turned to an old woman sitting next to her and asked whether the boxers got paid. "Baby, if it’s on TV," she said, "they getting paid for it." The next morning Wolfe arrived at Pops Billingsley’s gym. He said he didn’t train women. But he ended up relenting, eventually turning Wolfe into the most dangerous woman in the sport.

And then, when Pops got sick, suffering multiple strokes and battling prostate cancer, he realized that his prized pupil should be his heir apparent. Wolfe would train Pops’s fighters, the most promising of which was a tough southpaw named James Kirkland.

When Wolfe took over Pops’s gym she doubled down on his draconian methods. Her boxers would spar two men at a time. Middleweights would spar with heavyweights, sometimes for 20 rounds. Instead of the standard three sparring sessions a week, Wolfe’s fighters often did so every day. Road work lasted for hours in the oppressive Texas heat. She drove a pickup truck rigged with a heavy bag on its side, challenging her boxers to keep pace while throwing haymakers.

Wolfe spouted aphorisms that became mantras: If you weak, you die; if you strong, you live. She knew how to inspire each fighter, when to humble them, when and how to rebuild their confidence. If the boxer had kids, she’d use the kids as motivation. "You want to go three more rounds," she’d ask, "or do you want to take the chance of your children seeing you on your ass in the ring?"

And at the end of the day, after the sparring, the road work, and the pain, the fighters were whipped across the back with a jump rope with enough force to leave a welt. "The way they tried to break slaves was they would tie your ass to a tree and whip you with a whip. … I learned that if you can take that kind of tolerance from that type of pain, it brings you to another level. I believe that in my soul," Wolfe says. "I don’t think you should beat kids. I don’t hit none of my amateurs. But if you’re a pro, it builds up your pain tolerance."

When James Kirkland was deep into training camp and feeling strong, he’d ask for three more lashes following his obligatory 15 licks.

Kirkland overwhelmed opponents at super welterweight and maintained a perfect record, but two long prison sentences, beginning in 2003 and 2009, respectively, halted his rise. Kirkland did not return to Wolfe once released from prison in September 2010, not until after the humiliating defeat to Ishida in April 2011.

He redeemed himself later that year in Cancún, Mexico, against the rugged pressure fighter Alfredo Angulo. Perception among boxing insiders was that Golden Boy Promotions was feeding Kirkland to Angulo in hopes of building the Mexicali fighter into a pay-per-view attraction. When a right hand floored Kirkland 30 seconds into the fight, it all but confirmed that Wolfe’s fighter was merely cannon fodder for the man nicknamed "El Perro." But Kirkland got off the canvas, and, after suffering a terrible beating in the first round, mounted a comeback, eventually stopping an exhausted Angulo in the sixth.

Ann Wolfe (Getty Images)
Ann Wolfe (Getty Images)

Because he had already gone through hell in training camp with Wolfe, Kirkland was prepared to withstand hell in the ring. Afterward, he hugged Wolfe, dropped to his knees, and made the sign of the cross. When asked in the postfight interview what had changed from his loss to Ishida, Kirkland said, "I trained super hard. Me, Ann Wolfe, and Pops, we stayed up night and day."

Kirkland couldn’t build on his career-defining victory. Four months later, he struggled in a DQ win over Carlos Molina. Kirkland then left Wolfe to train in Northern California for a December 2013 bout with Glen Tapia, but Kirkland reunited with Wolfe in Austin five weeks before the fight. He looked fit and focused, stopping Tapia in the sixth round and sending him to the trauma center. Then, once again, he separated from Wolfe.

Why doesn’t Kirkland always work with Wolfe? "Nobody likes working with Ann because Ann doesn’t do anything that’s normal. Even when you run it’s not normal — no one is going to run eight miles every day. Listen to the sound of that: eight miles every day. The human body can’t take that."

Despite it all, Kirkland stresses that he’s on good terms with the trainer. "We are still friends. People get it confused like Kirkland don’t mess with Ann or Ann don’t mess with Kirkland. It is kind of confusing. It’s a weird-ass relationship, but it’s definitely how we got it."

After Wolfe was featured on HBO’s Real Sports in 2009, it was expected that she would soon land some large new accounts, name fighters looking to hook up with this renowned super trainer who had worked wonders with James Kirkland. It didn’t happen. Wolfe shuns the type of mercenary work — parachuting into a veteran boxer’s career to offer a quick fix — that most of her peers perform.

She believes that developing a fighter is like raising a child: values and morals must be imparted at an early age. "I care about a kid the way I care about my own kid," she says, "or I don’t want to train him." Which is a difficult way to function over the long haul, for both boxer and trainer.

Boxing is the loneliest of sports. A monastic experience. There are no teammates. There is no one to lean on aside from your trainer. In the case of Ann Wolfe, that trainer holds a unique worldview, one that’s been shaped by poverty, abuse, death, and homelessness. "Life does not give one shit about no one," she says. "Life is a motherfucker and then you die."

Ann Wolfe is not dead yet. She is alive because she is hard. She does not believe in positive reinforcement. She will fling a medicine ball or two. She will whip grown men with a jump rope. She will ban iPads, iPhones, laptops, and electronic devices from training camp. Don’t even think about alcohol or smoking or going to the club, because you have to spar 20 rounds and then cut some goddamn grass in the morning. Volunteer work is also expected because that makes you humble and builds character. She expects a lot. And so when her fighters — her kids — aren’t receptive or walk away, it stings.

"Everything I asked them to do," she says, "I did and even more."

Ann Wolfe no longer obsessively follows boxing. We meet a few days prior to the Canelo Alvarez–Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. bout, and when I mention "the big fight this weekend," she does not know what I am talking about. (Lucky her.) Then, after she praised Andre Ward for his faith and maturity, I asked if she thought he deserved his controversial unanimous decision over Sergey Kovalev. "I didn’t even watch it," she says. "I’ma tell the truth."

Wolfe has plenty of beefs with the sport. She abhors the politics of the industry, how certain boxers construct undefeated records "against sorry motherfuckers" and are then discarded once a blemish appears on their résumé. "Now if you have two or three losses, you’re fucked," she says. "Imagine if the San Antonio Spurs lost five games and no one wanted to watch them anymore. … They are building a few fighters. That’s why boxing is dead as fuck."

Where does Ann Wolfe go from here? She still might train. She says she’s talking to fighters. James Kirkland anticipates another reunion. "I’ll put it like this: Ann Wolfe gets me in the best condition, both mentally and physically. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," Kirkland says. "No matter if it’s three months from now or whenever, I definitely want to work with Ann to make it happen."

Wolfe says she’s also considering a reality show and is currently shopping her life rights in hopes of making a biopic. "I want to work hard, take care of people, and do what I want to do," she says. "But I want to have a good, balanced life. I want to laugh and have fun."

Back at Pappasito’s, a hulking man approaches our table, asking Wolfe for a picture with his family. "Yes, sir," she says. "I’ll come over there."

‘Wonder Woman’ (Warner Bros.)
‘Wonder Woman’ (Warner Bros.)

With the night coming to an end, we talk again about the missed opportunities. She flicks away the discussion with a wave of her hand. "Being rich and famous and all that is a bunch of bullshit," she says. "I want a kid to see me in Wonder Woman and go, ‘Miss Ann, she was homeless and now she’s in movies.’ That’s what I want.

"I’m going to go over there and have a picture with that family. That’s going to make me so happy and be so content, and that’s where I’m going to be with it."

Wolfe walks over to the family and poses for almost a dozen pictures. She then heads toward the exit. Hannah and Zion wait for her in the parking lot, and everyone piles into the black Honda Accord for the drive down I-35 toward downtown Austin. Wolfe sits in the backseat next to Zion.

The car is quiet. The road is dark. The hour is late for an 8-year-old. With his eyes now shut, Zion rests his head on Wolfe’s lap. She strokes his hair and stares silently out the window, ready for her next fight.

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