Joyce Nieves awakes early each morning at her home in Ocala, makes coffee and sets out clothes and school material for her four youngest children, whom she homeschools. Then it’s off to Tuscawilla Park for several laps around with a couple of girlfriends.
Nieves, 39, then arrives at 12 Rounds Boxing Inc., her registered fight club and boxing gym. Two “woman owned business” stickers are on the front doors. The prominent placement is purposeful, as many people overlook the owner upon entry.
12 Rounds is the only woman-owned boxing gym in the city. People who train there say Nieves offers local young people something to look forward to regardless of their history or finances.
One of them is a Junior Pan American Games silver medalist: Faith Mendez, the third-ranked lightweight female boxer in the nation.
Nieves said she was “screaming and in tears at the same time” while watching online from her home as Mendez, 18, competed in that tournament last month in Colombia.
“She put 12 Rounds in another country,” Nieves said. “We sent a woman to another country to bring back a medal from a woman-owned gym, and she’s kicking a–.”
Mendez enjoys honing her skills in a woman-owned gym.
“It feels good because a lot of people come in and don’t expect a woman to be the owner or to see girls in here in general,” the boxer said. “It feels good that I can help her, and she can help me. We’re helping each other.”
That includes being role models for future female fighters and entrepreneurs.
“I have a lot of little girls that look up to me, so it just helps them to get the confidence to do it,” Mendez said.
Women’s participation in boxing is low all the way from youth and amateurism to professional fighting. Only 26% of youth boxers are women, according to a report by Erasmus+ Sport Project ICOACHKIDS+. In 2018, the Irish Times reported that various boxing governing bodies created nearly 1,900 belts for professional women fighters that year, but only 1,430 boxers were active at the time. Until the 2012 Games in London, women’s boxing had been left out of the Olympics.
Female boxing is often viewed as deviant and therefore discouraged, Anne Tjønndal, an associate professor of social science at Nord University in Norway, wrote in a 2016 research article about its exclusion at the Olympic level.
“When women engage in competitive boxing, they challenge traditional norms of femininity by displaying aggression and power, qualities that are traditionally attributed to men and masculinity,” Tjønndal wrote.
Nieves has infiltrated this boys club in several ways: As a fighter herself, a gym owner and a certified USA Boxing coach, meaning she can stand in any fighter’s corner regardless of who at 12 Rounds trains them.
Passing a background check is a key aspect of the certification process, which is difficult for trainers with criminal records. A person could know everything there is to know about boxing and combinations and still not be recognized as a sanctioned coach.
It’s all about optics, Nieves said. She took on the official title to ensure all of her fighters get a fair shot. You simply can’t be a fighter or a coach with a record, she said.
Nelly Rodriguez, 25, is an up and coming boxer at 12 Rounds. Nieves took him in “off the streets,” he said, and claimed him as her eldest son after his biological mother threw him out in June. He had been charged with battery, but prosecutors dropped the case in September.
Rodriguez lost his job at FedEx and spent time in jail as a result of the charge. His won his first fight once allowed back in the ring, in August and after just 20 days of training.
“I like what Joyce is doing here,” Rodriguez said, adding that “if I would’ve had this in high school … I would’ve stayed out of a lot more trouble.”
With Nieves’ support, Rodriguez promotes his brand through local sponsorships, Instagram and a YouTube channel called ROUNDBOYZ, named after his group of friends. He’s also pictured modeling Title Boxing gear on the company’s website, which sponsors 12 Rounds.
Another setback occurred on Sept. 25, however, when Rodriguez had a stroke. He had to relearn how to walk, and five doctors told him he’d never fight again. He proved them wrong, though, returning just six weeks later to 100% in practice.
12 Rounds treats all of its patrons like family, with Nieves as matriarch. Nearly every sentence she speaks has a “darling,” “sweetheart,” “honey” or “love” attached.
In turn, she said, “Now half of Ocala is calling me ‘Ma.’ As if I wasn’t old enough.”
Matthew Goff has come to 12 Rounds for boxing and jiujitsu lessons since 2016. A patrol officer with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Goff, 30, said Nieves offers as much help as possible to any child wanting to attend the classes, even if they can’t afford it.
“Her thing is, ‘If you stay out of trouble, you keep your grades up, I will help you in the gym as far as I can,’” Goff said. “So as far as the people I’ve seen, it has helped them, because she sets her stipulations, and they’ve got to follow them.”
Nieves had her first fight way back in fourth grade. It was the early ‘90s, so denim and jeans were in; her “Sunday best” cut-below-the-knee floral dresses were not. She was bullied for her fashion faux pas. In addition, as a young Hispanic girl, her schoolmates couldn’t figure out what box to put her in, she said, which made things even more difficult.
Eventually, she got sick of one girl in particular teasing her.
“I grabbed her head, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Nieves said.
The next year, her father bought boxing lessons for her brother, who didn’t want them. Nieves took them, despite her mother’s misgivings, going to a gym every night from 5:30 to 10.
Fast forward to 2013 when her husband Scott Plate, 40, a trucker and entrepreneur, opened a gym in Silver Spring Shores. Nieves helped run it for a while, and eventually started having women inquire about hiring her as a personal trainer. She met those clients at 4 a.m. each day.
In 2020, Plate gave the gym to Nieves after seeing how much she loved it. She soon moved the business to its current location downtown. That was no easy feat, Nieves said.
Usually, such businesses are tucked away in a neighborhood rather than in the heart of the city, she said, so folks didn’t like the idea of her setting up shop “in everyone’s face.” It’s also a tough business to make money. She said 12 Rounds costs her about $8,000 out of pocket per month.
Nieves said she could instead use that money to go on a cruise every weekend.
But she wouldn’t trade the hustle for anything: “It’s what I love.”