Picture credit: Ty Sbano
Hello50 had the privilege of interviewing Beki Light, who last year became the oldest woman ever to win a professional boxing match at the age of 53. Beki defies the norms of what a woman her age “should” be as she pummelled obstacles along the way to achieve her success. Beki’s accomplishments in the ring grabs your attention but what pulls you into her story is her life experiences. She has not only pushed her physical limits but her emotional limits have also been tested. Now at 54 years old, Beki discusses with us how she overcame her childhood abuse, endured both sexism and ageism, and emerged as a fighter for other women in addition to being a champion for social justice.
How did you get into boxing?
I started boxing at age 49. I had been training and teaching, mixed martial arts before that. It was when I suffered a knee injury while grappling that I knew I had to change what I was doing. I had wanted to box for years, but never got my act together to make it happen. That injury made me realize I would no longer be able to focus on kicking or grappling, so I knew it was time for me to start boxing. If I didn’t do it then, I never would. I knew people would think I was crazy starting so late in life, but I just wanted to become a good boxer.
When I began boxing, I didn’t think about competing because I didn’t think there would be the chance to compete. I just focused on learning to box and on sparring. A year into it, I got the chance to have an amateur fight, and I loved it! I wanted to keep fighting. It took another year, but I got a second amateur fight.
There are strict rules in amateur boxing for older fighters that severely limit your chances for getting fights. After my second fight, the only way possible for me to keep fighting was to become a professional. I was not ready to give it up yet. I felt like I was only getting started in the sport .That’s why I turned pro in 2017, and had my first pro fight that same year,
Did you grow up playing sports or did you get involved in athletics later in life?
I was never into sports growing up, although I did train in dance, so I was very athletic. I had been interested in sports when I was young, but didn’t have the opportunity to play. It was a very different time in the 70’s, and there were not really sports programs for girls. I did join a summer basketball program once, but they didn’t teach us anything. There was no coaching whatsoever. We didn’t even know basic techniques or rules. They would just pick us up for games and tell us if we won we would get ice cream. Of course we always lost because we had no skills or training! It was incredibly embarrassing and demoralizing. So I became uninterested in sports because really I was angry about the lack of respect I saw for girls.
Tell us about confronting barriers, not only in terms of ageism but also as far as succeeding in a male dominated sport?
I have been confronting barriers my whole life, so it really is nothing new for me. I grew up with a mentally ill parent and not much contact with other family. I dealt with poverty, emotional, and sexual abuse, and constant relocation. I was forced to leave school at age 14 and support myself and my mother on minimum wage jobs, sometimes working 80 hours a week. I didn’t even get the option to go to high school. I felt hopeless, suffered from depression, incredibly low self-esteem, and saw absolutely no way to a better future. Somehow, I persevered in life until I was able to mold myself into the person I wanted to become. So I have always fought against obstacles, and have had to think outside the box. I guess that’s why I didn’t hesitate to jump into boxing the way I did, and keep going no matter what.
I have definitely faced a lot of crazy ageism related barriers in boxing. From the uphill battle to get my pro license, to having contracts switched on me last minute, being unable to find fights, being unable to get officially sanctioned to fight even when all sides have agreed on the contract, being forced to go through an amazing amount of medical tests every year at enormous expense to me, the list goes on. I think what it comes down to at this point is that they don’t want me to win against one of their younger prospects, and they know I can win because I am a good fighter. So they just won’t let me fight any legit fights. The ironic thing is if I wasn’t a very good boxer it would be easy to get fights, because they would bring me in to lose!
To be honest, if I was a young fighter, with my skills I would be a prospect, and be able to get signed to a promoter and sponsored. However, because of age discrimination in boxing, I will never be given a fair fight, and I understand that, and deal with it. I have been robbed of victories for fights that I have clearly won, and that is not a good feeling. However, every time I fight, I gain new fans, and that means alot to me. People come up to me and say they are inspired by what I do. To me, that makes everything worth it!
I didn’t have the chance to develop as an amateur fighter, I have had to develop as I go. This is another form of age discrimination, because younger fighters get to fight in tournaments and gain great experience that way. I have had to work harder, grow faster, and prove myself more than most. But that gives me pride in my accomplishments, because it is all very hard won.
In terms of sexism, my first boxing coach refused to train me at first because he didn’t believe in training women. It took about six months, but he finally saw I was serious and talented, and then started coaching me. I was the first female he ever trained to be a fighter. Now he has changed his opinion, and coaches women! There was also an incredible amount of sexual harassment I dealt with from his other fighters. But eventually, they had to respect me because I trained harder and I am more focused than anybody, and they watched me become a good fighter.
Getting my pro license was a year and a half uphill battle that took an amazing amount of faith in myself. I was struggling against age and gender discrimination from all sides — the athletic commission, doctors, the politics in the boxing world, people laughing at me, and also the internal self doubt that I would really be able to do this. But fighting in the amateur ring woke up a dream in me. There’s something in me that just knows I’m a champion no matter what the world says. I just kept pushing and pushing until they gave me that license!
Who has inspired you or mentored you?
I had no positive role models growing up, but as an adult, I learned to study people I admired, and grew from seeing how they did things. I found inspiration from ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Anybody who I noticed was doing something positive with their life was an inspiration to me.
I lived in Hawaii for a long time, and I was very influenced by people I was close to in the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement. I also had a mentor for a while named Joy Aulani Ahn, who was active in Sovereignty struggles, from a revolutionary perspective. She influenced me alot. She is no longer living, but I still strive to make her proud by what I do!
I got my foundation in teaching from my martial arts teacher Professor James Hundon. He is an amazing martial artist and self defense teacher who has not been given his due recognition because of racism against African Americans in the martial arts world. There are actually a great many African American martial arts masters who should be legends that nobody hears about. It is infuriating, but what makes it even deeper is that the roots of ancient Asian martial arts can actually be traced back to ancient Africa. My teacher and I did a lot of research on this history that has been covered up.
I am very inspired right now by the younger generations who are leading the struggles for Black liberation, against police brutality, and also struggles for indigenous lands and culture. They have cut through the cynicism and demoralization in society and are fighting for a healthier future. Young folks are so much more conscious than we were back in the day. I am so proud of them!
How supportive are friends and family of you and your boxing?
Everybody is really supportive of my boxing, although some people had trouble adjusting to the fact that I sacrificed my social life for the sport. Boxers really don’t have time to do normal social activities. People took that personally at first, but now they understand I’m just always training!
Tell us about training others in self defense or boxing, especially women over 40, 50 or even older?
I train people of all ages, but I have had a number of older women come to me for self defense, boxing, fitness, or a combination of those things.
I find that older women really love physical training, and find it empowering. I have trained females from their 50’s-70’s, and every one has different goals. Some just love the feeling of boxing, of punching. Some want specific fitness or rehab goals while also learning self defense techniques. So far I have not had any women older than their 40’s ask me to train them competitively.
I have also worked with and collaborated with other older female athletes, and science is starting to catch up to what we already know: many of us are in our athletic prime at this stage of our lives, and we have the ability to be competitively athletic way longer than previously thought.
Boxing and self defense training are two different things, and I am always very clear on that when teaching. Boxing is a sport, and it does not directly translate to having appropriate self defense skills.
Self defense is based on understanding natural weaknesses of the body and it does not require strenuous physical training, although I do think it’s important to regularly do drills for reflexes, good body mechanics, breathing, and being able to handle the adrenaline response of a live situation. To protect yourself on the street, you have to be prepared to do what you need to stay safe. It doesn’t always make sense to punch, especially if your assailant is huge compared to you. You might have to gouge somebody in the eye, poke them in the throat, stomp on their foot, or kick their knee out.
One thing I see missing from most self defense training marketed to women is that it does not address the fact that a majority of violence that women face comes from somebody the woman knows or has an intimate relationship with the offender. There are complex emotions in these situations that are not addressed in the typical training scenario. For example, if your intimate partner tries to physically harm you, have you trained your mind to be able to switch into survival mode in that instant, or are you stuck on the fact that they are supposed to love you, and emotionally hurt by that in a way that immobilizes you? I believe that self defense training should incorporate mental/emotional drills to be able to respond to threats from people close to you, and as well as strangers.
What does a typical Beki Light day look like when you are training for a fight and when you are not training for a fight?
I train to stay ready to fight year round, although when I’m in fight camp the training will be more intense. Other than that, there’s not much difference between the two.
Typically, I wake up and work on boxing business things I have to catch up on for about half an hour. Then I go to work, which is in a packaging factory near where I live. After work, I will take a small break, maybe eat something and relax. Then it’s off to the boxing gym where I first do my training, then any coaching I might have scheduled on that day. Then I rush home, eat dinner, maybe spend some time with my life partner. Then sleep and do it all over again. On weekends I get more time to train, spar, coach, and develop my projects.
Tell us what “Warrior Path” means to you.
The “Warrior Path” is what I call my approach to coaching, and I apply it to myself as much as I do my students. It is based on the duality of fighting and healing, which is deeply meaningful. I believe it is important to focus on both sides of this duality in order to be balanced. Traditional martial arts from around the world have always included healing as part of their curriculum.
At the most basic level, warriors have always had to know how to heal themselves and others from battle injuries. From another angle, warriors fight for what they (or their society) perceive as right, and this can also be seen as an act of making healing change in society. Another way to understand this is the fact that In order to become the best warrior you can be, you must face your shadow self, you must find healing for the things you have been scared to face within yourself. That healing aligns your body, mind and spirit, which makes you a more effective warrior. So in order to fight in the world you must heal, and in order to heal the world you must fight.
The Warrior Path is about transforming adversity into success, becoming more deeply who you are in a way that is meaningful and liberating. It is using the warrior/healer paradigm to find clarity and transformation through a combination of boxing and mindfulness. Boxing is all about self expression in the ring. The Warrior Path is about self expression in the world, being the change you want to see.
The sheer physicality of boxing, combined with the emotional dynamics of survival and self esteem that fighting evokes, makes it a powerful tool for personal healing and growth work. People turn to boxing to change their lives. Many credit boxing with saving their lives. Of course this also depends on having an ethical and conscious training environment, because the opposite can be true—trauma can be triggered and compounded in an unhealthy situation.
You talk about advocacy and social justice in your posts. Tell us about the work you are doing.
I have been active in many grassroots struggles since the 90s. I was living in Hawaii during the first Persian Gulf war, and became active in the anti-war movement there. Then I got involved in revolutionary politics, and also became an active ally in the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement. I have also worked on the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and against police brutality and murder of Black people, immigrants rights projects, and indigenous land rights.
I did grassroots organizing for many, many years, and was blessed to work with some amazing people. At a certain point, I realized I needed to pull back for a while, to do some personal growth work. That is when I began my martial arts journey, and eventually, my boxing journey.
At first I felt guilty for focusing on my own growth at the expense of my activism. But later I realized that the best activist work I can do in the world is by helping others find their own path to change the world. For whatever reason, that is my gift. Because I have found a way to turn obstacles in my life into positive growth, I know that anybody who wants to can do the same thing. That is why I teach.
While I focus on boxing and coaching, I actively support many issues, and show up for what I can. Things close to my heart are Black liberation, and Indigenous liberation and land reclamation. I believe in this part of the world those are key issues that will begin to bring liberation for all of us. I am planning on developing a project that links Warrior Path training with parts of the Ohlone indigenous land reclamation movement here in Oakland.
I started a Go Fund Me page with a student of mine for people in Kampala, Uganda, and I really hope readers of this will consider donating to it! The link is also on my Instagram bio. I have friends there in the boxing community who are distributing food to families who are facing starvation right now, due to the government curfew (covid shutdown), that does not allow people to work and make money. There are no unemployment benefits in Uganda, so people have absolutely no way to get food. Government forces are also shooting people just for being outside. It is a very horrific situation that people are dealing with there. In America people just have no idea the kinds of things that are going on.
What else would you like our Hello50 community to know about you or about boxing, and self defense?
I just really want people to know that they can do anything they see their minds to. Obstacles are there to be turned into opportunities. If you want to do something, go do it! It doesn’t matter how old you are or what difficulties are in your way. If it’s something that speaks to your soul then make it happen!
Beki Light Is Not Slowing Down
Beki has demonstrated such resilience in her life to overcome challenges and create her own path forward. She explained that while training in Tai Chi, her instructor told her that in Tai Chi years, middle age is actually like your teen years. He told Beki that it is a time to become better, stronger, and more powerful. She agrees and believes that, and as long as you live a healthy life with the right mindset, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished as we age over 50. Sounds like a great message for all of us to consider as we age.
Next Up, self-defense training and techniques
We can all appreciate Beki’s commitment to boxing and marvel at her talent despite a later start in life. However, lacing up gloves and getting into the ring for a boxing match is something completely different and certainly not for everyone. Stay tuned for our next article about self-defense and how women over 50 can re-imagine their physical power.