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Cashmere Jackson rises from the gyms where male boxing champs were made

Leaking confidence at every turn, Cashmere "Lady Cash" Jackson darts about the ring with a swagger. When a right hand connects against her opponent's side, the deep echo rattles around the Zelma George Rec Center in Cleveland's Kinsman neighborhood. The girl hits hard.

The center's glass walls face the messy sundown, throwing the evening practice into an orange haze the bloodshot tint of an overexposed photo. Twenty-two-year-old Jackson and sparring partner Willie Nelson, an undefeated professional, peck at one another while their coach, Renard Safo, shouts instructions. Competing hip-hop tracks blast in from different stereos, derailing into a single sonic pile-up of unsyncopated beats and mashed rap.

"Use your knees now Cash! The knees!" Safo shouts.

Lanky Nelson towers a good six inches over his longtime friend. But his apparent advantages don't slow Jackson down; she stays in close, trading rhythmic hits to the head and side. All at once, Jackson throws a hailstorm of jabs into her partner's flank; Nelson's long arm ropes around and catches the woman's side. Reeling, Jackson heads to the corner, slumps over the ropes, coughs into a bucket, and jumps back in for more abuse.

That bulldog determination, along with an impressive toolbox of moves, have made Jackson a buzzworthy newcomer in women's boxing — a sport that has finally crawled from its novelty-act origins. The Olympics voted last year to debut women's boxing at the 2012 games in London, and so Jackson's focus has sharpened.

She's currently undefeated, her 12-0 record bolstered in July when she clinched the USA Light Welterweight National Championship at a tournament in Colorado Springs. With the country's top amateur honors hers, Jackson has turned her attention to international boxing. Early this month, she'll compete with the U.S. team at the Women's World Championship in Barbados.

"I get to pound on someone else besides people in my country for a change," she says with a rare flashbulb grin. "I can't imagine another girl out there being better than me."

The upcoming trek marks a crossroads in the young fighter's career. As she rockets into higher levels of competition, she's growing apart from the tight circle that has surrounded her since the early days. Also, with new prestige comes pressure to turn pro and cash in, and Jackson regularly fields calls from interested promoters sweet talking about the face-melting glare of fame.

It's welcome banter for a young fighter of humble origins. She grew up in public housing on the east side of Cleveland and attended Collinwood High School. Boxing was a fixture early on: Her father Gregory was a lifelong amateur who trained constantly. When Cashmere turned 14, she and her brother — one of six siblings — was taken to a gym run by Safo. The challenge: Submit to three months of training. After that, they were free to walk away. But Jackson didn't.

"I put her to spar right in with the boys, with her brother, and she beat her brother up," Safo recalls with a laugh. "We told him to stay home after that."

Safo is a legend in local boxing. For almost 20 years he's trained amateur and pro talent. By day a U.S. Postage carrier, Safo finishes his daily rounds and is in the gym five days a week with his fighters. He noticed a special kind of determination in young Jackson and began picking her up after school to train.

But those early days weren't easy for Jackson, at least outside the ring. Word spread quickly that a girl from the block was trying to box; soon enough, tough guys were rolling up to her on the street and challenging her to fights.

"They would say stuff like 'Yeah, you can box but you can't beat me though,'" she recalls. "I would tell them exactly what they were getting themselves into. I would put my arm out and say, 'As long as you're outside my arm reach, it's cool. But if you come closer, it's going to get physical.'" She often had to fight to prove herself; she usually won.

Egged on by the flack, Jackson hit the gym. She became close with a clique of fighters known as the "Fab 5." Along with the 15-0 Nelson, the crew includes 2009 USA National Champ Terrell Gausha and 15-1 pro Prenice Brewer. Jackson honed her skills alongside them and developed a style that matched her will to win.

The payoff comes when Jackson steps over the ropes. She's a poised presence in the ring, her movements fluid; she ducks and weaves around incoming punches like a tarp caught in wind. In addition to the quick aerobatics, she is separated from her peers by her punch, an exploding horizontal stack of bricks.

"She was just in there with [Nelson], and she caught him with a body shot," Safo laughs. "He looked at me and said, 'Man, that hurt.'"

As she finishes her round, Jackson climbs down from the ropes and begins working the bag. She's 5 foot 6 and muscular, clad today in a sweat-soaked white long-sleeved shirt and black shorts, her braided hair tied back. The only feminine touch to her outfit are white Nikes sporting a pink swoosh and neon laces. A red flower tattoo blooms on her neck.

For Jackson, fighting style has nothing to do with sex. Most managers treat their female fighters like a Million Dollar Baby, she says, excusing poor form or bad habits because their fighter isn't a guy. But Safo's never given Jackson any room for error.

"I don't focus on looking cute in the ring; I focus on looking professional," she says. "There's not a girl's way to fight or a boy's way to fight. There's a right way to fight and a wrong way to fight. My coach teaches me how to fight the exact same as he taught these boys."

Jackson's maturity parallels a new day for the sport. Ten years ago or so, women's boxing was more of an opening act than a main attraction, featuring fighters who were cast-off ex-athletes, pretty faces, or the progeny of famous champions. Today, the field is thick with contenders. The new momentum comes not from the Vegas marquee, but from local gyms; Safo's alone has seen an increase in female boxers, including 15-year-old Darnasia Blackmon, ranked second as a USA junior, and 22-year-old Patrice Ray, a Great Lakes Regional champ.

The World Championship will throw new challenges in Jackson's path, and not just in terms of international competition. She'll be fighting with U.S. team coaches in her corner — her first fights away from Safo. Neither coach nor fighter thinks the step outside the comfort zone will upset her game. "I've already taught all she needs to know," Safo explains. "It's up to her to go out and do it now."

An impressive run in Barbados will add international bouts to her record, increasing Jackson's chances of snagging a spot on the first Olympic team.

"I'm not thinking about turning pro right yet. The money will come later," she says. "I'm more worried about the Olympics. I want Cleveland to have an Olympian."

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