Standing 4’11, 95 pounds and a menace in the ring: Inside the mindset of Meiya Berkey Article by Ben Painchaud & Photos by Caroline O'Connor

For a Tuesday afternoon at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass., the basketball gym is busier than usual. Members of the UMass boxing club are hard at work.

At one end looms “The Wall,” a 10-foot high contraption that, when activated, rolls down like a conveyor belt, forcing you to climb its rungs frantically in order to keep up. Currently, it is dormant.

Meanwhile, about 20 feet from center court of the base’s gym, a flurry of punches are unleashed and absorbed, accompanied by grunts and the patter of gloves and torso connecting. A sparring match is taking place in between one of the hardwood’s white-lined boxes.

An automated bell sounds out, and both fighters tap gloves to pay their respects. They take a short break, and Meiya Berkey gives feedback to her sparring partner.

“Every round, you have to pick one single thing to focus on,” Berkey instructed.

After resting a bit, they go at it for another round. It’s clear Berkey is going half-speed, trying to build the confidence of her fellow UMass teammate. She provides advice and support as they go. Toward the end of the round, she gets her opponent square in the face with an overhand, and they call it.

A pair of mitts airing out in the bleachers emits a poignant smell of sweat. Meiya approaches and takes a seat. She slips off her headgear and gloves. Exhaling, she flashes a beaming smile and begins to talk excitedly about what she saw in her opponent.

Berkey could be anywhere else right now, but here she is at an off-campus military base in the late afternoon on a cold November day, sparring with a less-experienced teammate, passing on her wisdom—and happily. She’s right in her element.

Or so it would seem.

Meiya Berkey reflects on UMass boxing career and future in martial arts

In truth, Berkey doesn’t exact much enjoyment from the sport itself.

“Honestly for me—I think it differs for me from other fighters because, to be fair, I never actually enjoyed fighting,” Berkey said. “I just did it to do it. Like, I can do it, I’m physically able at this age, why not? I’m never gonna have this opportunity again. But I wouldn’t take great enjoyment out of the training, out of—every time before I fight, I want to puke. I’m like ‘this is so nerve-wracking. Why am I doing this?’”

For Berkey, getting involved in boxing was really just a matter of trying something new and seeing what happened. As a freshman, she figured that there would be no other time in her life when her body would be as able to respond to the sport’s rigors.

Meiya Berkey rests on the benches of a gym located at the Chicopee, MA Air Force base, Dec. 4, 2018. Photo by Caroline O'Connor.

Upon joining the club at UMass, she never had an agenda, much less a list of awards she wanted to achieve. All she was concerned about was going out and giving it a chance.

The fact that she was physically capable of doing it at her age wasn’t Berkey’s only reason for joining the club, however. Knowing that she would be enrolling at a large state university, personal safety and security was another factor.

“Senior year of high school—the summer between senior year of high school and freshman year of college—I was like ‘I’m going to college at a really big university. I’m very tiny.’ And I was worried for my safety,” she said. “So, my town was giving free self-defense lessons at this gym that I still go to, and then after punching and kicking things, I was like ‘this is awesome! I feel so strong.’ I just wanted to continue something along those lines, and then I had friends in the boxing club, so that’s the route I went to.”

Once she joined and begun sparring, the fear of falling behind kept Berkey motivated.

“I’d force myself to go because I knew that if I didn’t go—I think it was the fear of getting hurt in a fight because I wasn’t prepared for it,” Berkey said. “So, I was like ‘I have to train, train, train, train, train.’”

It would take a couple of months before she would even go down to base in the first place. Rocky Snow, the coach of UMass’ boxing program, remembers her initial timidity and hesitance as a freshman.

“I’m not boxing. I’m not going to the base. I’m not sparring. I’m not boxing,’” Snow recalls Berkey saying. “All she was gonna do was stay here [at] school because you can’t spar here on campus.

“So, she was just gonna take the classes here [in the Rec Center] and learn how to hit pads,” Snow added, “then five weeks later she shows up at the base and then the rest is history.”

Her first bout was February of 2016, when she competed in the Western New England Golden Gloves tournament in the 106-pound division. As there was only one other girl fighting in her division, they were able to bypass the quarterfinals and semifinals, going straight to the championship.

"Between the second and the third round, between that break, I went back to the corner and was like, ‘I wanna quit…This is awful,’” Berkey admitted. “I thought I’d lost, and I was like ‘it’s okay, it’s whatever.’ And then I found out that I’d won and I was like ‘Oh s---.’ And then I got a big trophy.”

From there, the southpaw never looked back. Over the course of her collegiate boxing career, she’s competed on 11 occasions, picking up seven wins while suffering four defeats. She’s since added another Western New England Golden Gloves championship, as well as an All New England Golden Gloves title to her resume.

Berkey credits her success in the ring to her brawling style. After realizing that the more punches she threw, the more points she’d be rewarded, Berkey resolved to continually push forward and committed herself to being a high-volume puncher. By stalking down her opponents and refusing to give them a break, the southpaw knew she would eat a few punches along the way, forcing her to develop an iron chin. And despite her small size, Berkey can pack surprising power into her swings.

“I’m not very fast, and I can’t throw long combinations, and the people I was facing were a lot bigger than me,” Berkey acknowledged. “So, what ended up working for me was if I just threw—I have a lot of power for my small size, so that’s what allowed me to compete against higher weight classes, because I can take the punches that they can throw, and I was more powerful.”

Meiya Berkey, right, spars with a new girl on the UMass Boxing Club, Dec. 4, 2018. Photo by Caroline O'Connor.

Her ability to go up against bigger and taller opponents is what allowed Berkey to compete in nationals last April, where she placed third in the country in the 112-pound division. As 112 was the lowest weight class for women, Berkey had to sacrifice more than 15 pounds to compete. Nonetheless, she advanced all the way to the semifinals before losing a decision to the reigning national champion in the division, a girl from UC Berkeley.

“So, if [she was] gonna lose, at least [she] didn’t lose to a nobody,” Snow said.

While she doesn’t extract much enjoyment from the sport itself, Berkey is grateful for the connections she’s made and the sense of community she’s enjoyed.

“I’ve always found that if the gym is a good one, it’s more of a family setting,” Berkey noted, “because you’re all dying and going through the same rigorous training you all kind of support each other, and so it’s just really nice, a nice community.”

The supportive community she’s found has allowed Berkey to become a more positive, confident person overall.

“After my first fight I was like, ‘If I can do this, I can do a whole s--- ton of stuff,’” Berkey said, “So, the confidence and the ‘I can’ attitude is just very much now part of me and that’s what I try and teach to other people in my own self-defense class. Show people that you’re more capable than what people think you are, and just try and spread that.”

With her success in the ring and her newfound conviction, Berkey has blossomed into one of the main leaders in the club. She may not be the brash, outspoken type who’s constantly getting on you throughout practice, but her quiet lead-by-example style is just as effective.

“She’s not really loud-spoken, but she’ll demonstrate everything she does very well,” said Alexei Cross.

“She doesn’t really speak unless it has purpose, like she’s not saying frilly things,” added Julia Griffin, a senior in the club. “She just carries herself with such high confidence.”

What freshman Zach Glanz seems to appreciate most is the thought and care that Berkey puts into the feedback she offers.

“She’s very good with giving crafted, constructive criticism specific to whoever the person is,” Glanz said of Berkey. “It’s not kind of a blank statement to whoever it is…She’s always watching, she’s always taking videos, giving advice…Very easy to come to.”

For Anton Pritchard, vice president of the club and in his third year with UMass boxing, he is impressed by her calm countenance.

“She has a lot of experience and she’s really comfortable with it,” Pritchard noted. “She’s very relaxed. She looks it.”

In the ring, she’s a stone-cold killer. Beneath the surface, though, her mentality and motivation might surprise you.

A nutrition major set to graduate in December, Berkey isn’t entirely sure yet of what she wants to do with her life, but knows boxing and mixed martial arts will continue to be a part of it.

“The immediate plan is to work, save money, so that by the time my lease ends, I’m considering just doing a huge road trip—seeing the country, checking out other gyms, checking out what’s out there, really, before settling—because I don’t want to settle,” Berkley said.

Long-term, she dreams of one day opening her own gym so that she can create a supportive, nurturing community for others to feed off. She would want the gym to incorporate jujitsu—which she just began learning this year—and other mixed martial arts, not just boxing. She would also want her gym to emphasize the importance of proper nutrition, since “a lot of gyms don’t do that, and it’s really unsafe.”

After graduation, Berkey will seek to end her amateur career with a bang by tacking on another Western New England Golden Gloves and All New England Golden Gloves championship.

In hindsight, although she says she’s “pretty happy” with where she’s ended, Berkey does regret not having competed as much as she could have. She never competed in regionals or nationals until last April. She missed significant time while studying abroad, and time management troubles hindered her ability to participate in the club during the fall semester of her sophomore year.

Had Berkey not missed so much time, maybe her legacy would be a bit different. Maybe she would be considering a career in boxing after college, after all. But there’s no sense in wondering “what if?” Nothing can be done to change the past now.

Hers isn’t exactly the typical warm and fuzzy ending you want to hear, but for Meiya it’s a perfect one, because her story is far from typical.

Ben Painchaud can be reached at bpainchaud@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Ben_Painchaud.

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