A/P/A Heritage Series

A month-long series of Asian-Pacific American stories to celebrate A/P/A Heritage Month

Photo by Corky Lee
Dee Hamaguchi at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Photo © Corky Lee.

Deidre Yumi Hamaguchi aka “Dee” really wants to kick your ass. Trained in both judo and boxing, Hamaguchi stands at 5’1-1/2” and 105 lbs., and she is planning an MMA debut this summer. She also just turned 50 this past March. You read that correctly.

Her Twitter profile is filled with snippets from her vigorous training routine, which she estimates at a little over 6 hours a day, Monday to Saturday. She’s worried there won’t be any women to fight her because of her smaller size, but that doesn’t keep her back from training like a beast.

Dee Hamaguchi is perhaps best known for her role in ending discrimination against women’s boxing in New York’s Golden Gloves amateur circuit. The story goes that in 1993, she saw a poster for the national amateur tournament in the gym where she trained, run by Connie Bryant, former trainer for middleweight champion Iran Barkley.

Though she was told women couldn’t enter, she knew from taking a fair housing course in college that amateur sports could not discriminate against women according to NY state law. So she applied, putting down only the initial “D” as a first name.

“I was grinning because I was enjoying the fight, I love to fight.”

The application was accepted, but she couldn’t register that year due to a freak snowstorm that held up her paperwork. Regardless, Hamaguchi’s defiant act has been credited as opening the door for amateur women boxers in New York. Her efforts were consistent with the swing in women’s boxing nationally as USA Boxing was forced, after losing a federal lawsuit, to accept women in 1993.

Hamaguchi went on to box professionally, and won her first match in 2003, at the age of 38. She made a name of herself by picking tough opponents. After a 2004 draw against Ria Ramnarine, when reporters asked why she was smiling so much during the fight, she replied, “I was grinning because I was enjoying the fight, I love to fight.”

When I ask her what the hardest part of boxing was, she replies, not without a bit of zealousness, that it’s the only sport you’re allowed—indeed encouraged—to hit someone in the face. When she was boxing, she regarded her opponent as an object to be defeated, a non-human with no personality, a physical entity to attack.

She took up karate for a bit, but gave it up because she hated the way competitive karate granted points without full contact, for hypothetical set ups and openings and not actual throws or hits. Her frustration with karate, and her desire for contact and realness, eventually landed her in boxing.

This is the kind of woman and fighter Hamaguchi is.

***

It’s the only sport you’re allowed—indeed encouraged—to hit someone in the face.

Hamaguchi was born in Montreal, Canada, to well-established Japanese Canadian parents originally from Vancouver. Both her parents (her father an engineer, her mother a nurse) were interned during WWII, into the interior parts of British Columbia, she thinks. She doesn’t have much to say about this family history, other than the fact that her parents could talk about their internment experience for days, but that it all seems so distant to her. Her childhood was spent in Peterborough, Ontario and Ottawa, before she left to study architecture at Yale.

It was in Ottawa, still a child in elementary school, that Hamaguchi discovered judo. Little did she know then that the sport would come to influence every part of her life and game. She speaks fondly of growing up in the famous Takahashi Dojo, run by Masao Takahashi and his wife June. The couple held black belts, and eventually so did each of their four children, which includes two Olympians. She credits this familial and ethnically Japanese Canadian atmosphere, full of role models, friends, and peers, for cultivating her love of the game.

Yet, despite her rich childhood history rooted in Canada, it is when she talks about Harlem, with a drawn-out accent that makes it sound closer to “Hah-lem,” that she gets the most passionate. Harlem, after all, was where she trained when she won the 1990 Empire State Games judo championship, and the 1998 US National judo title (48 kg and below). Harlem had been her home for nearly twenty years, until she moved out West in 2010.

Hamaguchi had spent a little bit of time in NYC after college, working for the city to renovate abandoned buildings into affordable housing. When she moved back again, this time to Harlem, she saw with her own eyes the deep history of martial arts in African American culture and politics. There could be as many as 10 different dojos and gyms within any 3-5 random blocks of Harlem, she recalls. It was in Harlem she cultivated her adult judo game, the neighborhood style consistent with her own emphases on self-discipline, perfect execution, and spirituality.

During the latter part of her time in Harlem, Hamaguchi turned to teaching judo students in the ways she had been taught herself. She is proud of the years she spent training kids, in community centers and the basement of public schools throughout the neighborhood. She recalls that on her black belt diploma, it says to not only continue to strive for technical excellence, but also to promote the awareness of judo. She is adamant that this was the bigger impact she has made in the world, perhaps more so than her vanguard act in the Golden Gloves.

***

Hamaguchi has clearly lead a rich and colorful life structured by her love of sports. Her recent turn to MMA makes sense, considering her two previous careers in judo and boxing. The newly-transplanted Los Angelino takes it all into stride, commenting that her MMA training is just another thing she’s doing these days. The only fighter she admires more than Ronda Rousey is Rousey’s mom, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, who was the first American to win the World Judo Championship in 1984 (56kg and under). The feat is significant, considering women’s judo was not an Olympic sport until 1998. (Rousey, of course, would be the first American woman to win Olympic gold in 2008.)

Ronda Rousey (left) with her mother Dr. AnnMaria De Mars.
Ronda Rousey (yellow) with her mother Dr. AnnMaria De Mars.

Both De Mars’s and Rousey’s successes prove, as Hamaguchi points out, that everything comes back to judo. She remembers how trainers used to describe De Mars’s floor game and her infamous arm bars: “she’ll rip your freaking arm off.”

MMA fans might be in for a treat this summer, as Hamaguchi plans on doing the same to whoever takes her up on the challenge.


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SERENITY JOO

Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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