Teenager Brianna Jones remembers the first time she punched her mom in the face.
"I'm sorry, Mom," she told Kathleen Jones. "I love you, so I'm hitting you."
Understanding perfectly, the 43-year-old mom admitted, "It's tough to hit your daughter."
The pair say the punches they exchange make their mother-daughter relationship stronger for this Mother's Day and give them reason to celebrate. Last month, 5-foot, 3-inch Kathleen Jones won the 125-pound master's championship in the prestigious Chicago Golden Gloves boxing tournament, after finishing second last year.
"She's the first one who came back with a title," says Carlos Cruz, who trains the mother-daughter combo at his Charley Co. Boxing Club in Oswego, where the rest of his boxers are male. A Marine who did three tours in Iraq, the 34-year-old Cruz was a boxer in his youth. He was working out at a local health club five years ago when he spotted Kathleen punching one of the heavy bags hanging in the room where most women do yoga or Zumba.
"It was raw talent. The form was there, but she needed a serious tuneup," Cruz remembers. "I kindly asked her if she ever needed help, I'd be willing to help her."
Their training paid immediate dividends for both of them. "In eight weeks, I dropped 20 pounds just boxing. I'm in better shape than ever in my life," Kathleen says.
"She inspired me to do this," Cruz says about his decision to open his own USA Boxing-sanctioned club, where Kathleen and Briana train four or five days a week. "I take pride in these two."
Not all moms are fans of boxing, including Kathleen's mom. "Her favorite thing to say before every fight is, 'You know you can die from that,'" Kathleen says. Brianna, a 17-year-old junior at Oswego High School, has a stiff neck at the moment, but Kathleen says neither has been seriously injured.
"Our headgear is so padded. They pretty much wrap you in Bubble Wrap," says Kathleen, who works as a clinical director for a heart clinic. But even with heavily padded 16-ounce gloves, punches still get attention. When she absorbed that first punch from her mom, Brianna remembers thinking that she was about to fall over. The daughter has delivered some decent punches, too.
"I don't want to hurt my mom, but I don't mind hitting her if it's going to help her," Brianna says.
"There are not too many people in the gym with her speed. Most of the people are guys and heavyweights," Kathleen says.
Training for three-round fights in the Golden Gloves, Kathleen fought a 12-round fight against the men at Charley Co., Cruz says, explaining how a fresh boxer every round helps Kathleen build endurance.
"We've bonded with our guy teammates. You spar, and then you hug and talk about your day," Kathleen says. But she works hard. In one three-minute practice session, the mom threw more than 400 punches, Cruz says.
"I think of her as a role model in boxing," Brianna says. "It's definitely unique."
The pair have gone inline skating and hiking together. And they cook together.
"She polices me on my food," Kathleen says of her daughter. "At Easter she took my chocolate."
Brianna also braids her mom's hair before fights and attends every bout.
"She's watched me get hit and wipe my nose under the headgear and give me water," Kathleen says. "People give punches easy enough, but to take them is another thing. So much is going through your mind. It's not just throwing a punch. It's strategy."
Brianna says boxing clears her mind after a day of school with homework, tests and the usual teenage angst.
"It's a good stress relief for me," Brianna says. "When I hit bags and get all my anger out, it feels better."
Having a boxing champ as a mom can intimidate some of her peers, Brianna says.
"She makes sure to wear a shirt that shows off her muscles," Brianna says, noting that reactions range from "Wow! Your mom is ripped," to "Oh, my gosh, your mom looks so scary."
"I think it's pretty cool," she said.
During the usual disagreements between mother and daughter, they sometimes joke about "taking it to the ring," but say they always work it out peacefully. Boxing even solves the Mother's Day gift quandary for Kathleen. She takes off a boxing glove to show how the cloth wrap underneath molds into the shape of her hand, as if it were a cast.
"It's almost like a sculpture," Kathleen says. "I'm sending my mom one for Mother's Day."