“Defeat is not an option,” reads the bold tagline for Jennifer Huggins’ business, and the mantra for her life’s journey.
I first met Jennifer a few years ago at her gym, Kingsway Boxing Club, tucked away in the sprawling industrial streets of West Toronto. I was immediately amazed by her determined spirit and dynamic success. As well as being an established owner of two locations in the GTA, she is a boxing coach, an official AIBA referee, a travelling magician’s assistant and the creator of the Fight To End Cancer annual fundraiser.
Although now heavily immersed in the boxing world, Jennifer’s eclectic odyssey didn’t begin in the ring. Rather, it began in the rink. At age 14, she was training as a national figure skater when an unfortunate neck injury put her in recovery for over a year. During this time, she stumbled upon a nearby boxing gym. “I realized…I wasn’t in love with the sport of figure skating. I was in love with the competition,” she said.
Off came the skates and on went the gloves as she worked her way through a world that was permeated by an old-school mentality. For Jennifer, this both attracted and challenged her, as she tried to find a footing in the industry. “I found myself going from a female-dominated sport where I couldn’t get any attention, to being in a male-dominated world where I got a lot of attention for the wrong reasons- being a female, being in a male-dominated sport, being, quote unquote, ‘too pretty’ to be a boxer,” she told me.
And it wasn’t just her gender that turned heads, but her age as well. Working with veterans in the ring, Jennifer often felt that she was looked at as inexperienced or undeserving of her achievements. The lack of support was only exasperated when the Hollywood flick, Million Dollar Baby was released, she told me, prompting many to question whether boxing was a suitable path for a young woman—or, really, for anyone. What they didn’t realize, she says, is that, no matter who the athlete, boxing is actually a very safe and technical sport.
It was at this point that Jennifer used her rivalrous attitude to power a journey of education. Supporting herself and working out of her apartment studio as a personal trainer, she offered free boxing lessons to newcomers, hoping they would walk away with a new appreciation of the commonly misunderstood sport and its participants. And, luckily, it worked.
Within a few years, her business was booming, which led to the opening of not one, but two boxing gyms in her west end neighbourhood. The rapid success, however, also spurred an unexpected sense of guilt. Her community had offered her so much support, she recalls, that it was now time to give something back.
Partnering with Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation in 2011, she founded the Fight To End Cancer (FTEC) annual charity event. FTEC invites CEOs, executives and leading corporate players to step into the boxing ring- many of them for their first time. After six months of intense training, the contenders go head-to-head in Olympic-style boxing bouts at the charity’s annual black-tie gala. Since its inception, FTEC has donated over $850,000 to cancer research and is gunning for a $1 million goal at the 2018 gala this June.
Nodding back to the slogan that’s defined her journey, Jennifer hopes that in illness, and in life, “defeat” is a word that will one day be abolished. “In sports, for example, you’ll hear, ‘Canada was defeated by Russia,’ or ‘Canada defeats Germany,’…“That’s one thing I’d love to see people fix the definition of, or not use it anymore, because it’s such a finishing term,” she said. “I think what we need to learn is that defeat is not an option…you always have something to fight for.”
A true fighter, day in and day out, Jennifer has become somewhat of a trailblazer in Toronto’s female boxing scene. When I ask about her thoughts on the #MeToo movement, she tells me that it’s this same sense of fearlessness that’s been the movement’s greatest triumph. “It’s definitely made way for more open dialogue for people, and for women especially, who didn’t feel comfortable with certain things, to actually bring them to the forefront,” she said. “Where this movement is really helping is allowing people to feel confident in letting others know, you know what, this is not OK for me, and I think that’s what was lacking before.” Matching the re-ignition of confidence that this movement has sparked, Jennifer too hopes to inspire courage in every person that walks through her gym doors.
“I guess the common theme is that there’s so much we’re capable of,” she concluded. “Watching people empower themselves, and being a part of that process, is something that will always keep me going.”
Photography by Vincent Dayrit