Natalie "Sugar" Brown watches intently as the women duck under the punches their new training partners are gently throwing toward their faces.
Many of the women have a history with fists. They were physically beaten and verbally abused before they escaped to a Toronto YWCA in an attempt to rebuild their lives, and learning to fight wasn't on any of their lists when they moved into the affordable housing development. But Brown has them enthusiastically bobbing and weaving as they learn the difference between a jab and a hook, sweating and laughing as they dodge slow-motion blows.
"You've got to move, ladies," she yells across the room. "You don't want to be where those punches are at – you want to be somewhere else."
Brown – Ms. TooBad when she steps into the ring – isn't your typical community-centre fitness instructor. She's one of the most decorated women in boxing, a Golden Glove winner who's been fighting professionally since 2006, after a long amateur career that included a stint with the U.S. national team.
It's the third time she has visited the women as part of a monthly program developed by the Fight Network – a specialty television channel that broadcasts combat sports to subscribers. The intention is to give these women the confidence to stand up for themselves should they ever face a threat, and feel good about themselves as they learn about the benefits of regular activity.
"I've been where they are," says Brown. "And it's hard to feel good about yourself when that's not the life you've been living. Everything flows from confidence, that's how you turn things around."
Not all of the women have been abused – the community includes low-income housing for women, units for women facing mental-health and addiction issues and a number of units for women over the age of 50. But that doesn't keep anyone from attending and learning to fight.
"For these women this may be the difference between having some control or not having any at all," she says. "Fear is about not having control, that's where a lot of women succumb to whatever is happening to them – they either drop or they fight. I'm teaching them you don't always have to fight – but you can pick your battles."
Most of the women in the class don't know much about Brown's credentials – but they know all about her struggles. She learned to fight after being stalked on a university campus in Georgia, and found herself weighing in at 300 pounds after the birth of her son following a lifetime of peak fitness. These are the stories they want to hear about as she tries to convince them they can take control of their lives.
They barely know her, but within an hour they are cautiously sharing their insecurities with her whenever they take a short break to catch their breath. One woman wants to get rid of the flab under her arms, another would feel good about herself if she could keep her stomach from overhanging the waistband of her jeans. Most of the confessions don't come easy – but she pushes them to state their secret goals, and they eventually respond in quiet voices.
"Whenever there is a commercial on that television you get yourself against the wall and do some push ups against it," she says to the woman worried about her arms. "And when you get all toned and your friends ask you what you've been doing, you just say 'Oh, nothing really.' They don't need to know more than that."
The program runs once a month from the downtown location, but the Fight Network's marketing director Carlie Morrison is looking to expand across Toronto. Eventually, she would like to see more of the fighters who appear on the television channel take part in programs across the country.
"I just think it's really empowering and everyone gets so much from participating," she says.
While the women learn to fight, their children are off to the side learning lessons of their own from Fitzroy Brae, a Toronto-based boxer who has two Golden Glove titles to his name. Brae is showing them how to punch properly, but also telling them it's probably not a great idea to try and fight their way out of uncomfortable situations.
"It's confidence," he says after being pummelled by toddlers and teenagers for an hour. "It's self-esteem."
One mother (who preferred her name not be used) stands to the side, not ready to join the class but willing to watch as her two young children take turns hitting the pads Brae holds up in front of them.
"I don't think I really want them to know about bad things that can happen in the world," she says. "But I don't think it's a bad idea for them to know a little bit about how to defend themselves just in case. You never know what's out there for them … You just never know."