“They would take kids and throw them in ovens – they’ve discovered bodies that are just ash now. They [adults in positions of power] would impregnate young, Native girls and sexual abuse was very common – those are just some stories that I’ve heard. The last residential school was closed in 1998. That really affects me personally because that’s in my lifetime. I could have been going to that school had I been in a different place or had there been more schools built. I could have been one of those kids.”
Kali Reis is wedged awkwardly between monumental cultural and personal life events. The reigning and defending WBA and IBO super-lightweight world champion was recently announced as one of four entrants into DAZN’s undisputed championship tournament, consisting of semi-finals to be hosted at the close of this year. But while the Cape Verdean, Native American fighter is one of the sport’s front runners and most intriguing characters, boxing is merely one of the vessels at her disposal when hunting for justice for her forgotten race.
In February of this year, Reis (18-7-1, 5 KOs) told Boxing Social about the Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women movement, provoking discussion around the treatment of women within communities similar to her own. Too often, these women disappear without a trace, lured under the false pretence of life in ‘modern America’ and never seen again, mistreated and sometimes even killed. Since that initial conversation though, it was Native children who’d have been a similar age to the champion who’d tragically obtained the world’s attention.
In June, reports began flooding through that up to 215 bodies of Indigenous children as young as three-years old had been found, buried, forgotten in Canada. That number quickly rose to approximately 5,200, but Reis won’t be surprised when many more are uncovered: “It was about time; it was about to happen. The longer you try to hide something, the more the outcome is gonna affect people, and it’s gonna be worse. Let’s face it, it was more genocide they were trying to put on our people. That whole ‘Kill the Indian, save the man’ stuff came from those schools. They were trying to get rid of us as people. We couldn’t speak their language, and they were cutting off our hair which is very sacred.”
“My last fight, I wore orange. Orange is a colour we’ve used very often throughout the years to represent children in these abusive situations and every child matters,” concludes the fighter, focusing her attention on other things briefly. She initially greeted me with a “Bonjour” – delivered with a suitably impressive French lilt, speaking from her hotel suite on the outskirts of Paris. Just days earlier, Reis was in London, working the corner of her friend and stablemate, Ebanie Bridges, but now, the boxer-turned-actor will walk the red carpet herself at a French film festival a couple of hours away. The type of event you’d really need your luggage to have arrived for, right? Sadly, after a mix-up by the airline, not on this occasion.
We should talk about boxing. And we do. But things have changed since she last spoke to Boxing Social. As well as the release of her first film, ‘Catch the Fair One,’ she’s now engaged to be married to her manager and best friend, Brian Cohen, and the pair are staring across the ring apron at the opportunity of a lifetime – to become the undisputed world champion of a weight class she’d never seriously considered this time last year.
After overcoming a virus and vicious chest infection when beating Diana Prazak in August, it was on to the next. Focusing on her upcoming bout with Jessica Camara, the professional veteran of 13 years explained her initial reaction at the thought of emerging with every single world title belt next spring: “It’s gonna give me a chance to build on top [of my career] and become undisputed champion. When they were first thinking about it, I was like, it would be awesome if we could do the semi-finals on the same card – there would be more anticipation, all four of us all fighting who we have to fight that night, and then finding out who we’ll fight in the finals.
“We’re gonna have a crowned, undisputed champion at 140 pounds. This is gonna be really exciting. I was fighting at 156, 160 for the majority of my career, fighting to get into this position. To cross over in less than a year to 140 – a weight class that I’d never even dreamed of being in – and now holding two belts consecutively and to be fighting for the undisputed championship, it’s… it’s just surreal. It just feels so good. I still don’t really believe it when I step on the scales the day before the fight and I’m 139 pounds. It’s quite the adjustment. I’m still getting used to my body being smaller, but it’s definitely the right place to be.”
The successful resurgence of the Providence, Rhode Island-native is in part down to the masterful management of now-fiancé, Brian Cohen. Reis, dubbed ‘KO Mequinonoag,’ a tip of the cap to her Native heritage, was a tough, battling professional with a record of 7-5-1, after dropping a unanimous decision to Hanna Gabriels six years ago. That defeat seemed to suggest that maybe her time at the top was ticking away, as it was her fourth loss in a six-fight slump. Since then, however, and especially since linking up with Cohen, their fortunes have dramatically improved. It’s now five wins on the spin, and Reis explains that having invested management has been essential in unlocking her true potential.
“The man is so smart, and that’s not coming from a fiancée’s point of view. I know the business – not everything – but I’ve been in pro boxing for 13 years. Because of the tough road I’ve had, I’ve had to learn and he’s just really good at it. He loves the sport, he has the connections. He just understands how female boxing works and a lot of these other promoters are just learning. And if he doesn’t understand something, he’ll find out. He’s really aggressive when it comes to that. I get inboxed from a lot of female fighters who are interested in working with him and I keep it real. If I thought he was somebody that wasn’t guiding my career in the wrong direction, I’d have stopped working with him. I haven’t lost a fight since I’ve been with him as my manager. That’s a testament to my own career, but he knows every single fighter he has individually and what’s best for them.
“A lot of people know him as an asshole. Listen, he’s an asshole if you mess with the people around him or with his fighters – he’s very loyal. If you’re on his side, you’ll have the best version of him, and he’ll do whatever he can for you to give you the best opportunities. If you’re on the other side – which Rick Ramos [undisputed welterweight champion, Jessica McCaskill’s trainer] found out the other weekend – you’ll get slapped in the fucking face,” teases Reis, referencing an apparent altercation between Cohen and Ramos, with the pair often at loggerheads via social media. A potential clash up at 147lbs has been mooted between both champions – in boxing, who knows what the future holds…
There were no words of war waged for opponent Jessica Camara, no ill will. Reis is ready to focus her energy on boxing again for what seems like a short stint; a few months in camp, a few weeks of media, and a fight. The level of performance on the night must be optimum, as unlike filming, there can be no cuts and no B-reel tape; there are no rehearsals and little improvisation is permitted. Fighting is different from screen acting, while protagonists in both attempt to dazzle behind the lens for their audience. In boxing, there are no outtakes, just stories of what could have been, like pages of dialogue discarded before table readings or scenes lost and never witnessed. But the intensity that Reis dedicates to both has been integral to her recent successes.
“Filming the movie is another thing and another situation that feels surreal. We started in 2017 and fast-forward to right now where I’m in France about to go to an international premiere, which is crazy. I thought and I knew [I could do it], but I didn’t know how big it could be. It’s exciting but it’s just another avenue for me to bring awareness to things. Any kind of platform that I can get on, even just a fight or a movie, I’m a living, breathing Indigenous person in mainstream media. I’m showing people that I can do it, and that’s important to me.
“I was getting told by the producers and the director that the feedback I was getting personally was great,” the project’s lead continued. “I thought: ‘Okay, people [close to me] are gonna tell me I’m great’. This is on a global scale now and it feels really good. It’s just a testament to the work we all put in for this entire project and once you see the film, the character I played, she spent the entire duration of the film on her back, struggling, just her. I could put on one page the amount of lines that I had to say – it was a lot of emotion. We all agreed when writing it on the sense of loss, the heartache, the desperation of this character. For people to ‘get it’ feels really good, and we haven’t had to explain our aim or what we were trying to get across once. Not once. And that just feels great.”
From talking to Reis back in February and revisiting our conversation now, some things have changed, while some remain the same. Chatting to the fighter was brief; chatting to the woman behind the cause was far more dominating. That background and mixture of struggling cultures, the proud and sometimes-brash manner in which she yanks back the carpet, desperate to reveal what has been brushed underneath, all deserves enormous respect. Reis drapes herself in red or orange, paints the bloodied hand of the MMIW group on her face and refuses to go quietly. Often people drag out the tired line ‘Life is bigger than boxing,’ but for Reis, boxing is just a small, exciting, impassioned part of her life. It’s her vessel for change – and you wonder, despite her exceptional talent and achievements at the highest level of professional boxing, if maybe that’s enough for her?
“This is exactly why – any chance I get – I love to have conversations about it, to talk about it, to make it the forefront of what I do. The first step of healing is to admit there was a problem and to bring the problem to the surface,” said Reis. “That’s what the uncovering of these children’s unmarked graves are doing; it’s forcing everybody to see that this is a problem. I love people asking questions because I want people to recognise what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It’s not easy for these communities to hear about what happened or to finally hear what happened to their long-lost aunties, sisters, anybody. It’s a time for mourning and a time to recognise this happened. It is a real problem.”