Reflections from the OHC’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow

Rudy Mondragón is the Oral History Center’s 2019 Graduate Student of Color Fellow. He  is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles working on a project that looks at the sport of boxing and the ways in which black and brown boxers politically and culturally express themselves via the famous ring entrance.

During the summer of 2019, he traveled to Rhode Island to interview professional boxer Kali Reis. When complete, his interview will be archived in our collection.  Below are his reflections on this experience and how this will shape his graduate work.

“The Heart Beat of Our People”: My Experience With a World Champion

By: Rudy Mondragón

I spent three days in Rhode Island with a world champion. Kali “K.O. Mequinonoag” Reis is a fighter who is of Seaconke Wampanoag, Cherokee, and Nipmuc heritage as well as Cape Verdean. In her 11 years of boxing professionally, Kali has earned the International Boxing Association (IBA), Universal Boxing Federation (UBF), and World Boxing Council (WBC) middleweight world titles. In addition to these prestigious accolades, Kali made history, alongside her opponent Cecilia Brækhus, in becoming the first woman to be on a televised Home Box Office (HBO) fight card. This was the first time in their 45 years of televising fights that HBO showcased a women’s fight.

Kali Belts
Kali Reis with her IBA, UBF, and WBC world titles. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

My research examines the ways in which boxers (un)intentionally utilize the ring entrance as a political space to communicate their politics, new identities and subjectivities, and at times the performance of dissent and resistance. I first heard about Kali leading up to her May 5, 2018 fight against Cecilia Brækhus. The way she centers her indigenous identity demonstrates the possibilities that exist in ring entrances for boxers to express themselves in a plethora of ways. My initial thought was that she is a curator of her ring entrances, creatively using fashion and style, music, and her entourage to communicate a powerful message of belonging, dignity, empowerment, and storytelling. When I saw her ring entrance that night, I knew it was necessary that her story be documented and incorporated into my dissertation research. 

The timing of the UC Graduate Oral History Center Fellowship was perfect. Being a recipient of this award allowed me to do two things: First, it gave me the necessary resources to make the trip to Rhode Island and meet Kali in person and second, to document a 6-hour oral history that would be archived in The Bancroft Library for future use and public access.

Kali in Ring
Kali Reis training at Big Six Boxing Academy under heat lamps used to simulate
the conditions of fighting under the hot lights. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

I made the trip to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in mid-June. Immediately after landing in Boston, I hopped into my white Hyundai rental car and made the drive an hour south in the pouring rain to Kali’s home. There were warehouse buildings to my left and to my right was McCoy Stadium, the home of the Pawtucket Red Sox minor league baseball team. I finally arrived at her home, which was on the corner of a residential intersection. I knocked on the front door and out came Kali with a big smile and welcomed me inside.  

I waited in the living room as she prepared for our first of three interviews. In her living room were her three championship belts as well as a signed purple 8-ounce Cleto Reyes glove that she intended to wear for her fight against Brækhus. Due to boxing politics and the demands of her opponents’ team, Kali was forced to wear 10-ounce gloves instead. 

Kali called me over and walked me down to the basement of her home, which is a multifunctional space. In the room is a meditation tapestry wall hanging, a buddha, massage table for her reiki healing treatments, and tranquil waterfall sounds. The other part of the room is used by her partner, Stephanie, for her hairdressing and nail-tech work. The time had finally come for our first conversation.

Kali Day 3
Day 3 of interview with Kali Reis. Photo by: Rudy Mondragón

As a critical sports studies researcher who uses ethnographic methods and conducts in-depth interviews and oral histories, centering the voices of professional fighters is a critical priority. The stories that fighters share are not simply stories. They are a way to remember the past and connect it with the future. Storytelling, according to Russell Bishop, is a useful and culturally appropriate way to represent multiple truths because the storyteller retains control of their narrative.  

In the three days and six hours of interview time with Kali, we were able to peel back the layers of her elaborate ring entrance. She described the parallels of her ring entrance with her experiences in attending powwows and fancy dancing: 

“It’s a grand entry. So, at the beginning of a pow wow, to open up ceremony of a pow wow, you’ll have your warriors, your veterans, and you have the tribal flags. And there’s usually no video taking. It’s very sacred, you’re opening up the circle, you’re allowing your elders and everybody to open up that circle for you. So, basically my (ring) entrance is the same way. It’s becoming a grand entry, because every time I fight at home, there’s more and more dancers. But it’s a grand entry into that battlefield, into that square circle.” 

Kali’s breakdown here demonstrates the ways in which her lived experiences as an indigenous person directly inform and manifest in her ring entrance. Her ring entrance is very similar to a powwow’s grand entry, the only difference, as she states, is that the end of her entrance marks the beginning of her battle inside the ring. 

Her ring attire, created by Angel Alejandro from Double A Boxing, consists of a process that includes Kali sharing her vision for her ring robe and trunks with Angel. That is followed up by conversations between the two so that visionary and designer are on the same page. The ring attire she wore in her fight against Brækhus for example, included the colors white and purple, which represent royalty. Purple is the color of wampum shells, used for jewelry and belts made for Sachems and Chiefs. On the back of her sleeveless robe are two feathers, which represent her two spiritedness. Since the feathers are placed upward, they signify war. Feathers down, she states, symbolizes peace.

Kali Trunks
Kali Reis’s ring attire for her May 5, 2018 fight. Photo courtesy of Kali Reis

Kali’s entourage is something that is created on a fight to fight basis. In addition to making sure that she has “strong women dancing” her to the ring, she also believes “that the creator will send the right people to dance in front of me.” This is exactly what she did for her fight against Brækhus. The week prior to her Cinco de Mayo showdown, Kali put out a call on her social media platforms, calling on all “CALIFORNIA NATIVES.” She specifically asked if there were drummers and dancers willing to walk her to the ring. On the night of the fight, she had three dancers walk her to the ring. Two were of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara heritage and one was Mashpee Wampanoag. 

And in terms of her music, Kali described the drums in her ring entrance as “the heartbeat of our people” and “the voices that sing those songs are the cries of mother earth.” If Kali has indigenous people walk her to the ring, she allows them to pick whatever drums and songs they want. She does this because she firmly believes it’s the right way to honor them for honoring her and the collective of indigenous peoples around the world.

The original vision for my dissertation was to breakdown chapters thematically, intersecting boxing with how boxers deploy fashion and style, music and soundscapes, and entourages in their ring entrances. In the six hours I spent with Kali, she deconstructed her ring entrance to the extent that the three themes of expressive culture I analyze in my research were strongly articulated. This presented a new possibility, which has inspired a shift in the vision for my dissertation to add an additional chapter on oral history as a method and case-study that will focus solely on Kali Reis.

I reflected on my trip to Rhode Island a couple of days later and remembered a moment that meant a great deal to me. As Kali and I drove back to her home after enjoying a delicious vegan meal at the Garden Grille, she asked me who I thought would win in the upcoming fight between Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman. Here I was, sitting in a car with a professional practitioner of the sweet science, asking me for my thoughts on an upcoming fight. She asked me a meaningful question that resulted in a rich conversation. It made me think of the first time I ever reached out to Kali via Instagram and subsequent conversations that followed. Since then, Kali and I have built rapport and collective trust that contributed to the in-depth stories that she shared with me. 

I can never see Kali as solely a research subject. I see her as a multifaceted and complex person who is the narrator of her story. She’s also become a friend of mine. There is no distancing myself from Kali as I begin the process of analyzing her oral history. On the contrary, there is going to be ongoing communication as well as ever increasing pressure. This pressure that I feel is not bad at all. I see it as an ongoing reminder that I have an obligation and responsibility to represent Kali’s story in an honorable, humanized, and just way.  

This approach, in my opinion, is the right way to honor Kali’s story.