Back to school. Those three nerve-jangling words are enough to strike terror in the hearts of students, parents and educators alike even before the daylight hours begin to noticeably dwindle down after dinnertime and the sunscreen and sports drinks are moved to less prominent places on store shelves to prematurely make room for Halloween-themed candy and costumes.
There is no such apprehension or sense of creeping dread bedeviling Sonya Lamonakis. A 7th grade teacher at P.S. 183 in Rockaway Beach and a world champion heavyweight prizefighter, Lamonakis is well accustomed to the anticipatory sound of a bell summoning her to the center of the boxing ring as well as to the front of her classroom.
“I love my career, it’s my passion,” Sonya tells me as we sit in her small meeting room at Gleason’s Gym which is cooled off on this hot and humid afternoon only by a tabletop fan. “I make sure I get everything done during the summer so that I go into my school year with ease. I’m planned and organized and I set up my classroom early so it doesn’t affect my training.”
“They love it,” Lamonakis remarked when I asked how her students feel about their teacher being a boxer. Although the parents have brought their kids to a match of hers once or twice, she acknowledges the factors that prohibit this from being a habitual occurrence. “It’s expensive and it’s late,” she concedes before elaborating on the reciprocal nature of their relationship.
“They’re supportive and they make me signs. I always make sure to build their confidence. They do exercises in the classroom with me. Pushups, squats, sit-ups, planks. I set my classroom up like a ring, in a square. My style of fighting carries over into my teaching style because it’s my personality which is that I’m very disciplined, I’m very structured, I’m very organized. My kids learn and they respect me and they grow as people by the end of the year.”
Though it’s comical to imagine him sprawled across a blanket beneath the blazing sun in his leather jacket and blue jeans, Joey Ramone used to sing about having to “hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.” Fortunately for her, Sonya Lamonakis doesn’t have to worry about taking a bus ride that’s too slow where “they blast out disco on the radio.” Her commute to the classroom is a quick one. “Not hard, not far to reach”, like Joey would warble in a doo-wop staccato over Johnny’s seething punk riffs.
“I live on the beach in Rockaway. I love the beach, I love my mom, I love to shop, I love to cook. I’m Greek,” she laughs. “Filo dough dipped in butter all my life stuffed in my mouth. That’s why I’m a heavyweight.”
As fond as Sonya is of her current mailing address in Rockaway Beach, it took a bit of a roundabout odyssey to get there which, I got the sense during our conversation, helps account for her deep appreciation of all that she has earned along the way and everything she contributes in return.
“I was born in Mytilene,” the capital of Lesbos which, as Lamonakis explains, “is close to Turkey. It’s the third largest island in Greece. It’s one of the main islands that all of the refugees have been going to.” With a pride that is undeniable and completely understandable, Sonya maintains that “The Greek way is to help people and feed them. I came here as a baby but I’ve been back many, many times. It’s my country. It’s my homeland.”
How Sonya arrived in the United States from her homeland makes for a very heartwarming story. “I was adopted. My mom and dad are both Greek and my mom couldn’t have babies so she went to Greece to pick me up,” recalls Lamonakis. “My brother was at the hospital–he’s not my birth brother but now he’s my brother–and the doctor said that he’s up for adoption, so my mom said she’ll take them both. One if by land, two if by sea, and we flew over the ocean and came home.”
Home for the happy Lamonakis family was Turners Falls, Massachusetts. “My mom is still there. My dad has passed. We still have a house there, we still have a business there,” Sonya says of the relatively small unincorporated village which is part of the town of Montague, nearly encircled by the Connecticut River and not far from the Vermont state line. “The town supports me, I have signs in the bars, they all have my pictures, my newspaper clippings hanging up. I had a great childhood. I was blessed with two wonderful parents. I grew up in a Greek seafood restaurant, a convenience store, a deli, a liquor store. You know, the Greek way. It was a blessing for me to have them as parents.”
Obvious empathy and a healthy intellectual curiosity inspired Lamonakis to undertake studies of “American history and ancient civilizations. I love the beginnings of a new America,” she professed. “Any kind of history to me is great. I like to read novels and books that have stories behind them, not ones that are fake or just created. I’m not into Harry Potter and all those kinds of things. I like books that give you something like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, The Alchemist, books like that.”
Lamonakis excelled in both softball and field hockey as a young woman, first at Stoneleigh-Burnham prep school in neighboring Greenfield before heading with her softball team at Mitchell College in New London, CT off to the USA Nationals and ultimately transferring to Springfield College. This not only brought Sonya close to home but led her as well to nearby American International College where she earned her Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.
Shaken up and feeling as though she was caught off guard by being robbed at knifepoint while withdrawing money from an ATM machine at the age of 27, Lamonakis was urged by a friend to take boxing classes for the purpose of learning self-defense. “I went down to the South Bay Community Center in Springfield and fell in love with the sport and took my first fight three months later and have never left,” she summed up tidily for me.
After claiming two New England Golden Gloves titles, Sonya relocated to New York. Not to chase bigger and better opportunities under brighter lights. The real reason why is not at all what you would expect. “Tragedy. Finding my best friend murdered in our house. I didn’t want to live there anymore,” she confided. “I needed something new, something fresh. I packed my stuff and left Springfield because I couldn’t be there anymore.”
Having secured a position in New York’s public school system, Lamonakis continued to split her time between the classroom and the squared circle, winning four consecutive Golden Gloves between 2006 and 2009. “The first year I beat Tanzee Daniel who was the reigning champion,” she affirmed. A five-time champion to be exact. “And that’s what gave me the most popularity, by beating this girl because everybody was like, ‘She’s going to whip your ass’ and I was like, ‘Ok, I can’t wait.’ That’s what I always say when they tell me they’re going to knock me out.”
Sonya’s luminous amateur achievements caught the watchful and discerning eye of Lou DiBella, whose foresight concerning the potential of promoting female prizefighters put him well ahead of the progressive learning curve most others are still reluctant to navigate for fear of the disparity between financial risk and ideological reward.
“He’s done ‘Fire’ (Keisher McLeod Wells), me, Maureen Shea, Heather Hardy, Amanda Serrano, Alicia Napoleon, so he’s given women opportunities. I respect him for that when a lot of other promoters wouldn’t do it. So, to me, he’s a good man,” Lamonakis makes sure to emphasize. “He’s given me the opportunity of a lifetime. If not for him, I never would have gotten it. No one cares about a woman heavyweight. Maybe a one-twenty-five blonde white chick but not a 220-pound heavyweight woman.”
“My last fight at the Golden Gloves, I had about 120 people there. He must have been at the fights and I guess he saw the Greek flags and the Greek shirts and I had a great fight,” she recounts for me when I asked how exactly she came to DiBella’s attention. “He asked if I wanted to turn pro, and I said ‘sure’ and had my debut in Worcester, Massachusetts which is kind of close to where I’m from. I sold a bunch of tickets my first night and stopped the girl in the second round.”
The girl Lamonakis refers to is Kasondra Hardnett, who went into their bout with an 0-2 record but also a 40-pound weight advantage, a recurring occupational hazard within the women’s heavyweight division. Her fifth professional foe Gigi Jackson, for example, tipped the scales at 285, an astounding 62 pounds heavier than Lamonakis. “She was a monster,” Sonya chuckled. “They called her ‘The Refrigerator’. She’s huge.” Nevertheless, she toughed out a four-round unanimous decision versus Jackson in a prelim bout preceding the Andre Berto/Victor Ortiz 2011 Fight of the Year at Foxwoods.
Backtracking to her pro debut, Lamonakis seemed nonplussed by the weight discrepancy against Hardnett, nor by the fact that she was scheduled to fight on a school night. “I’ve done that many times,” she attests in prosaic fashion. “When I went to St. Maarten to win my first world title (a split decision over Carlette Ewell for the IBO belt in December 2014), it was a Saturday. I woke up Sunday, drove back to the airport, and went back to work Monday with a black eye…and the belt,” she added following a slight pause, almost as if for dramatic effect. “So, it was worth it.”
Tanzee Daniel had a difficult time dealing with her loss to Lamonakis at the 2006 Golden Gloves finals. In fact, she seemed to take it personally to the extent that she single-handedly manufactured an antagonistic friction that spilled over into their professional careers, the paths of which would soon collide. “She was calling me out when I was 3-0. I happened to be boxing in a pink skirt and she said, ‘Real boxers don’t wear pink’ and I was like, ‘I’m going to whip your ass in a pink skirt.’ And I did, at Foxwoods,” remembers Sonya. Their first conflict as professionals was featured on the Sergio Martinez/Serhiy Dzinziruk undercard. “She was 4-0 at the time and I was 3-0 and I wasn’t looking to build my record playing patty-cake. I wanted to go balls to the wall and I did and I beat her and it was a great show.”
Two further defeats at the hands of her rival sent Tanzee into an emotional tailspin that couldn’t be corrected. “I guess I derailed her career because she’s pretty much done,” Sonya surmised. Indeed, a despondent Daniel fought on only one subsequent occasion, a 10-round shutout loss to Martha Salazar for the vacant WBC World Heavyweight Title in 2014, almost a full fifteen months after her third fight against Lamonakis.
Speaking of Salazar, it was she who dealt the 7-0-2 Lamonakis her first professional loss. “Not to take anything away from her, she was the better boxer. She had more experience, she beat me that night,” confessed Sonya regarding the six-rounder in Sacramento on April 13, 2013 fought under mitigating circumstances beyond her control.
“They never picked me up at the airport, they never got me a hotel room, she never came to the weigh-in,” she ticked off the list of indignities for me. Evidently, there were also concerns over the brand of gloves selected and the fact that no representative was made available to supervise the wrapping of either fighter’s hands. “I was already out there so the commission asked, ‘Do you want to fight?’ and I was like, ‘Of course. I’m out here, I’m going to fight.’”
Taking into consideration that women’s bouts are traditionally contested with each round expiring after two minutes rather than three–with rare exceptions and only after obtaining the consent of and providing monetary compensation to both participants–there was one other highly significant factor that neither Sonya nor, apparently, Salazar were made aware of beforehand. “About the third round I told Marcos Suarez, who was in my corner, ‘These are three-minute rounds.’ He was like, ‘What can we do?’” The answer to that question was provided by referee Edward Collantes who offered little in the way of assistance or sympathy by suggesting, “Just keep fighting.” Which, true to her Spartan roots, is precisely what Lamonakis did.
While she admits, “I don’t know if two-minute rounds would have made a difference,” Sonya made her displeasure known to the ringside officials after the scorecards were tallied in Salazar’s favor. “The commission talked about it and said that it would be a technical win for her.” Lamonakis filed a formal protest with the California State Athletic Commission to overturn the verdict and enter it into the record books instead as a no-contest but “they wouldn’t change it.”
Out of the tightly-knit friendship Sonya had formed with Alicia Ashley, Ronica Jeffrey, Keisher McLeod, Alicia Napoleon, and Melissa St. Vil emerged ‘The Royal Six’, a fellowship of female championship prizefighters who utilized Gleason’s Gym as a base of operations from which they sought to carry out an audacious plan that the male-dominated boxing world just wasn’t (and, in certain segments, still isn’t) ready for.
“We tried to get a couple of sponsors to get all six of us on one card and make it a women’s show. Maybe in another five years it’ll fly but right now I don’t think it’s going to,” Sonya lamented. Even with Lou DiBella’s blessing and backing, shopping the idea around New York proved to be a tough sell even though all-female professional cards have been successfully staged in California (which hosted the first of its kind in 1979), Florida, Nevada, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela, and New Zealand (ironically, the April 16, 2016 bill in Auckland featured both Jeffrey and St. Vil in title-winning efforts).
“Lou’s a businessman, he’s going to want to make money,” Lamonakis states pragmatically. “He would put it on if it was paid for and he was going to make money but he’s not going to sponsor it for free, that’s just not his style.” The painfully slow evolution of women’s boxing has not eroded the bond between ‘The Royal Six’. Even as I spoke with Sonya, Alicia Ashley could be seen strolling through the maze of practice rings assembled throughout Gleason’s main workout area and Ronica Jeffrey was training a client in the corner nearest the entrance to the Brooklyn gym’s new location on Water Street in the footprint of the Manhattan Bridge. “The six of us support each other, we encourage each other and we still consider each other teammates,” said Lamonakis. “It’s just that to get on a card and get sponsored is very difficult.”
While some boxers benefit from some old-fashioned home cooking on the judges’ scorecards, Sonya’s second bid to capture the UBF World Heavyweight Title (the first being a split decision loss to Gwendolyn O’Neil in St. Maarten in 2015) left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth. “Back to Worcester for the fight, ten rounds for the UBF world title,” she recites with a sportscaster’s panache of squaring off against the 10-7 Laura Ramsey in her third bout at Mechanics Hall a little more than two months ago.
“The first two rounds I gave her. I took the last eight rounds but they gave us a draw and I was really disappointed. It’s part of the game. It’s not a loss, it could’ve been worse and, at this point, it’s not my entire life so I take it with a grain of salt and I move on.” To ‘The Scholar’, a return bout was a no-brainer. “It’s going to be in Wisconsin. The promoter bought the rematch from the promoter who did it in Worcester. I don’t know if it’s going to be in November or December.”
Whether before or after the Ramsey rematch, another tremendous opportunity looms in the near future for Sonya, who will turn 43 in October though you’d never know it to look at her. “I got a call from Lou DiBella this week and he’s working on negotiating with Showtime for me to fight Alejandra Jimenez who is the WBC champion from Mexico,” revealed Lamonakis. The thing is, it should have happened already. “Mauricio Sulaiman sat in this office with me and Bruce (Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym) and had a meeting five months ago. He said, ‘I will give you the fight in August. I promise you’re next in line.’” Needless to say, in a business built on broken promises, it didn’t go down like that.
“She (Jimenez) is 9-0 and she just fought a Canadian girl (Vanessa Joanisse) who was 3-0,” Sonya told me. The bout took place on August 12 in Cancun. “So, when I saw that, I was really upset because I have two belts as a pro, I have fifteen fights as a pro, and you’re giving it to someone who is 3-0 and fought three pro-debuters? That’s not fair. At that point, I was like, ‘Fuck it. What am I going to do? It’s boxing.’ Then, a week later, DiBella calls and says, ‘I’m working on something big for you for Showtime.’ So, if that can happen,” she says hopefully, “that will be a once in a lifetime for me and I’ll make sure I’m in great shape and great condition to blast. He’s looking at Foxwoods on one of the big Showtime cards. That’s what he put in my head, so we’ll see what happens.”
Just twelve days after the 10th anniversary of Sonya’s first New York Golden Gloves finals victory over Tanzee Daniel, she was inducted into its Hall of Fame in a celebration held at the Barclays Center last April. “That was an honor,” Lamonakis beamed. “It was an honor to be part of the organization and win four Golden Gloves titles in a prestigious tournament which is the one that everybody in America knows about. I cried. I was thankful. I got inducted with some great people.” The other boxers so enshrined were Riddick Bowe, Gerry Cooney, Chuck Wepner, Michael Bentt, and (posthumously) Coley Wallace.
“It was a really special thing and, right after that, I went into the Ring 8 Hall of Fame,” said Sonya, referring to the not-for-profit organization that lends assistance in a variety of ways to former fighters in need and holds its own New York State Hall of Fame induction ceremony each year. “I got Fighter of the Year for Ring 8, so I was happy about that. Plus, I’m giving back to the amateurs being the president of USA Boxing Metro. Now I’m helping these kids as they come up, so it’s a pretty cool thing.”
When I had bumped into Sonya at the Premier Boxing Champions show at the Nassau Coliseum on July 15 (where her ‘Royal Six’ teammate Alicia Napoleon was scheduled to compete for the IBF Super-Welterweight World Title until her bout was canceled the day before), she had come straight from the airport, having just returned from coaching the New York Golden Gloves winners at the National tournament in Florida. “I took them down to the Nationals. We got three golds, one silver, and one bronze,” she informed me. “And I took five girls, so everybody medaled. We had a really good time. I had some really good coaches with me and it was a good experience.”
Lamonakis had gone on a retreat in the Catskills the weekend prior to our interview as part of Gleason’s Give a Kid a Dream program which provides academic and athletic mentorship to low-income and at-risk youths in a nurturing environment. “I help out Bruce as much as I can. I don’t have as much time as I used to because now with USA Boxing I have a lot of responsibility, but I make sure on the back end everything gets done. I make sure I balance everything out and help them not to be champions in the ring…to be champions in life.”
I’m not exactly going out on a limb by submitting my humble opinion that Sonya herself has earned straight A’s in both those categories.
Class is dismissed.