Kali Reis: “Boxing is Beautiful Chaos.”
By Chris Akers
Most children express themselves in one form or another. The forms Kali Reis would use to express herself were through sport and art.
“I grew up as a sporty kid and the youngest of five kids,” says Reis during our Zoom conversation. “We’re really into music, everybody plays an instrument. I was always following my brothers, trying to do what they did. They rapped, they sang, they played basketball. My mom’s very girly. She did hair and ballet. I was the total opposite.”
This expressiveness also incorporated her heritage, as her mom brought her up in the traditional ways by going through different Native American ceremonies. Yet being mixed Native American and black Cape Verdan, along with her father leaving when Reis was very young, meant that she struggled to stabilise who she was.
“My father left. My parents got divorced when I was two or three and he was in and out. It was a little tough, especially being bi-racial, mixed black Cape Verdan and Native American in an area that wasn’t predominantly native based. I just had to find my footing. I wasn’t enough for either side. It was tough, especially when I started getting older. I went through a few different things. Very expressive as a kid.”
While still very young, she developed an interest in boxing. There is no other sport that has been written and depicted in an artistic form more than boxing. The brutality of two people trying to punch each other has been articulated in so many different ways. An extremely tough battle can leave so many splodges of blood on the canvas, that from a bird’s eye view it looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. As Reis describes it herself, boxing is ‘beautiful chaos.’
Despite been drawn to the most brutal of sports, Reis just didn’t think boxing was around where she was living in Rhode Island, seeing as Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States.
“I thought I’d have to go to New York or Philly, but I ended up finding out one of my mom’s friends was an indigenous boxer from the early 90s and I used to bug him like hell to teach me some things. He would kind of blow me off here and there. When I was 11 or 12, I just hit a point where I was going through some things so I just needed a different outlet. He showed me a few things and then he blew me off, and I ended up going to Peter Manfredo Sr’s gym. Took a couple of classes, sparred, and fell in love with it.”
More than basketball, more than softball, boxing was the one sport that gave her focus. It made her responsible for herself.
“Boxing was something parallel to what I was experiencing, as far as I couldn’t trust anybody and I had to be very self-accountable. In boxing, if you have an off day you can’t have people sub you into your fight. You have to show up every time. That resonated with me. Also being a mixed Native modern-day warrior, it was kind of a representation of fighting for my people that I found later on in my journey, in my career. I started off playing violin when I was nine, my grandmother taught me how to paint. It was very artsy, very expressive. So I found the artsy side of boxing. It’s a sweet science.”
Reis’ first amateur fight showed her how chaotic boxing could be when in her own words she “got my ass whopped by an older lady, a kickboxer lady.”
“It was either I turn and forget it as it’s not for me, or I turn a hard right and say how do I not let that happen again,” explains Reis. “That’s the road I took. I’m a perfectionist by heart, so I like to dissect and do things full fledge. I didn’t have much of an amateur career. Number one I didn’t have the funds to travel. Number two I had coaches but that was a time where Mat Godfrey, Jason Estrada, Peter Manfredo Jr were in the Olympics. It was really hot. I was getting coached but I wasn’t the priority. I didn’t have much of an amateur background, only 10 and four. Plus I don’t have an amateur style.”
She can still remember vividly what it was like walking into that gym for the first time.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Reis reminisces. “It was a hot August day. My father was with me. He brought me to the gym and Peter Manfredo Sr said ‘You don’t want to be here. You want to be at the beach somewhere.’”
If that statement was meant to dissuade Reis from becoming a professional, it was never going to work.
“Just from that statement alone, the fact that he told me what I want to do and that I didn’t want to be there. If you tell me that I can’t do something or tell me that it’s not for me, I’m gonna make it for me. So I showed up back there, took a couple of his classes, and they all saw my determination and the hard work that I put in. It was hot, there was sweat everywhere, there was jump rope and sweat everywhere, but it was magic to me. I was like ‘Oh this is hard work. I get it!’”
Reis turned pro and lost three of her first 10 fights. Determination kept her going and she soon got her just rewards, but not after a serious accident.
“My very first world title was the IBA middleweight title in 2014. This was after I had a long break from boxing. I have no pro title fights in 2012 and I got hit by a car on my motorcycle on my birthday. I tore my knee up and was told that I probably wasn’t going to box again. I had my helmet on but had a little head-to-head injury. Again somebody told me I wasn’t going to do something.
“About a year later I got myself back, no surgeries or anything, and my first world title fight ever was against Tori Nelson in 2013, which I lost, but that was my first world title fight in my first comeback fight. Fast forward to the IBA world title in Bermuda against Teresa Perozzi. That’s probably my most meaningful win to date because everyone told me what I wasn’t gonna do, what I wasn’t gonna do. After doing a lot of things, a lot of trials and tribulations. Even where I fought, to beat someone from there, where my ancestors were brought do as slaves, to kind of take my ancestors back was meaningful. So fast forward to the WBC middleweight title. That’s the pinnacle of boxing. Even if you don’t know boxing, you know the green and gold. When I had an opportunity to fight somebody from the States Maricela Cornejo in New Zealand, neutral ground with neutral judges. To go out there and perform and snatch that up pretty easily against someone who I was supposed to lose to, as it was et up to give the Mexican the WBC belt, it felt good. It felt like an a-ha moment like I can do it. I call myself the monkey wrench of the early stages of my career, cos people wanted to fight me, seeing losses thinking ‘She not that good,’ and then the bell ring and they’re like ‘Oh wait a minute!’”
As great as that win was for Reis, it served as a reality check as to the power plays and politics that can be detrimental to the sport and especially to the boxers themselves.
“I don’t normally talk junk about sanctioning bodies, but the way the WBC handled me as their champion was very disrespectful. I got treated very unfairly with them. The WBC showed their true colours, which are not green and gold! It was an honour and good for me, but it was one of those moments where they say don’t meet your heroes, as I was so excited and was so disrespected that I was heartbroken. Then I got blackballed and pushed against the wall to go and defend my title against my mandatory in Germany.
“It was an amazing time. I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I saw the reality of what boxing can offer, the good and the bad simultaneously.”
Losing the title later that year to Christina Hammer, Reis had three straight wins before losing to Cecilia Braekhus for the undisputed welterweight title 18 months after her last world title fight. Reis decided to go down to 140 pounds, a division she never expected to ever fight in.
“I never thought I would be fighting at 140. 147 was my cut-off. That’s where I was comfortable. I loved 147. I was fighting at 160 on a whim. I had no direction. No management, no promotion, sometimes no trainer. So I was getting the calls and I walking around at 160. I was knocking these people out at 160. So why not? When we had the idea to go down to 140 as an opportunity, it was almost like a revamp to my career.”
Then late last year, she was victorious in a world title fight again, beating Kandi Wyatt to become a world champion.
“When I won the WBA back in November 2020 through a pandemic, through one of the hardest years in my personal life, it was a relief again. It felt right. It felt that this was the start of something really good. I’m at my prime right now, I have a good team behind me. I’m not just getting shipped out to Spain with one other coach to possibly fight for a title. This is right.
“I fought a lot to get to my training camp. My father passed away, my dog passed away, my grandmother passed away, and I was fighting at a different weight class I never fought before during a pandemic with a 15 month lay off and I pulled it off. It was very emotional.”
I put it to Reis if her win against Wyatt was a Buster Douglas effect. That the death of those closest to her may have galvanised her in such a way to make her more focused and more determined to have her hand raised in victory. Reis seems to agree.
“I took everything I was going through and I had to be laser-focused. If it wasn’t for the people I surrounded myself by, my coaches, my manager, to be able to help me create that space to work. It’s a fine line where you can completely break apart or you can use it. I had to use it and with the experience that I have been on these stages already, it was a Buster Douglas effect.
“I could have gone left or right. I was at a crossroads. That’s why at the end when they announced my name, it was so emotional. I could finally let go. I had no time to focus, I had no time to grieve. I had no time to bury my father. I had no time for anything. It was quite the emotional rollercoaster.”
In the present day, Reis’ hard work, skill, and desire have been rewarded by the creation of a four women tournament between each of the titleholders at super lightweight. Reis brings her WBA title to a tournament that involves WBC titleholder Chantelle Cameron, Mary McGee’s IBF crown, and Jessica Camara’s WBO belt. This has been in the works for the past 12 months.
“We’ve known for a while now since I got hold of the WBA and Chantelle Cameron’s been putting in work defending the WBC. I work closely with my manager, who works closely with my promoter who works closely with Eddie (Hearn). I knew that they had an idea about this and we’ve been trying to make this work for the past year, but some things happened.
“I feel confident that it’s finally happening. Even if it wasn’t me. Even if it was in a different weight class, the way this is set up is awesome. I want to see this at 130, 135. I want to see this in every weight class. We’ve never had this for women. We’re had the Super Six with men, but this is the type of tournament that fans can enjoy and I’m the type of fighter that wants to fight the good fights. I want to fight the best fighters. I want them to bring the best out of me. I don’t want to cherry pick.”
From the expressions on her face as she discusses this tournament, it is clear that Reis is excited about this road to unification at 140 just as a fan let alone a boxer. This comes across most when giving her thoughts on the first semi-final between Cameron and McGee.
“I’m excited to see that fight. I want to be there if I can. I don’t think anybody knows what to expect with that fight. Chantelle’s a hell of a fighter. She’s young, she’s hungry, she’s up and coming, she’s learning, she’s getting better and better. Mary is a dog. She has a heart. You can’t teach heart like that. She’s gotten better and better as well. She’s been off with a bit of a layoff with injuries. But you can’t teach heart. You have to shoot her to beat her at this point. Someone with that mentality, it’s gonna be fireworks. Anything can happen with that fight.
“With the four of us, no matter who you match who up with, it’s going to be an interesting fight.”
Lately, the artistic side of Reis has been displayed on the silver screen after she was cast in the film Catch The Fair One. The film had its film premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and Reis’ role is not in the background, but playing a main character.
“The director Josef Wladyka reached out to me in 2017. He slid into my DM and said ‘I’m a director. I have an idea for a film. I was wondering if you’ve ever considered acting.’ So I checked him out. He has directed Narcos, The Walking Dead. He’s a big TV director. He came up to Rhone Island where I was living. He got to know me, I read his script. Just the context of what the script was about based loosely around missing and murdered indigenous women. He had just started finding out about that. Using my boxing platform to bring awareness to different issues that we have in indigenous culture, Native American culture, I was intrigued by it, in the way he went about trying to tell the story, and getting my perspective on it was impressive to me.
“In the beginning, he asked me to be a collaborative and creative partner in the writing process in the revamping of the story. Fast forward to what we ended up with in the final script, he used parts of my real life – i,e the boxing, the name. But it’s not my story, it’s a story about a woman that was a boxer that lost he sister, fall from grace, and all she wants to do is find her sister. But I had a huge part in the creative side of it, writing the story, coming up with the characters.
“Fast forward to the pandemic when we were in post-production. Everything got put on hold so it was a tough time with all industries, especially the film industry. But lo and behold we got into numerous film festivals including Tribeca. I was saying this to Josef the other day as we were in France for our international premiere, that we haven’t had to explain anything in the film. We didn’t have to explain the themes we were trying to get across and we’ve got some great feedback. The questions that people ask tell me that they’ve been paying attention.
“The ending of the film is done with a purpose. It’s not a happy ending. Personally, going through the whole process was very cathartic. I thought that I’m going to do the best I can to tell this story. Regardless if it was me, it’s just a story that needed to be told. Native American indigenous people are so underrepresented in mainstream media, so any opportunity I get to represent, I’m going to take advantage of. Just like I dedicate my entire being to boxing when I train for it, that’s exactly what I do for this film. I’m excited to see the response globally. The response we got the whole week in France was amazing. We were amongst some serious films, some serious filmmakers and artists. This film is in no way shape or form an answer to the issue. It’s just a story to bring awareness to this issue.”
The super lightweight tournament will have a lot of eyes on it internationally and Catch the Fair One has had good reviews both in the States and in Europe. Through boxing and film, Kali Reis has found two mediums that not only helped her discover who she is as a person but have also allowed her to express who she truly is.