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NYF Exclusive Q&A With Kali Reis: Champion, Activist & Now Actor

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NYF Exclusive Q&A With Kali Reis: Champion, Activist & Now Actor

I was lucky enough to draw an interview assignment with Kali Reis and Josef Kubota Wladyka, the director of her film Catch The Fair One at my other writing gig over at Awards Daily. While that was a great film-focused conversation, I just knew I wanted to talk to Kali solo for NY Fights and really focus on her career in boxing, while also touching on her fledgling film career. Kali Reis is not only a great champion boxer, but a person with an extraordinary life story, a true activist, and now, an actor too. 

She’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve talked to in boxing or film. It was a great honor to have her agree to speak to me a second time. This round, we focus more on the sweet science, but you’ll learn about her movie here as well. And let me just say, it is well worth your time.

NYFights: You have a unique cultural background, tell our readers about your upbringing.

Kali Reis: Well, you know, I was a wee lad… (Laughs). No, I’m the youngest of five kids. No one in my family boxed,so it wasn’t like somebody passed it on. As far as my heritage, especially on my Native American Indigenous side, I can tell you exactly what lineage I’m from. There was a great Wampanoag chief by the name of Ousamequin, Yellow Feather, and he was a great ruler of the Wampanoag Nation all the way up to the Maine/Vermont area all the way down to Rhode Island/Connecticut/Mass. He had two sons, Wamsutta and King Philip. I’m sure you’ve heard of the King Philip’s War. King Philip was Ousamequin’s successor after his brother Wamsutta got poisoned by the English. They had a great war chief/right hand man by the name of Annawan. My line is directly from Annawan, so that kind of going to war, battle, warrior spirit is just in my DNA. 

Coming from a very artistic background everybody did something musically, artistically. My Grandmother taught me how to paint, she was involved in theater, I was always involved in something. My dad was actually on tour with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. He’s a musician, just a really creative family. Coming from my diverse background – I don’t really like saying “half this and half that”, but being both Cape Verdean, and being Native or Indian – I didn’t come from your normal neighborhood. it wasn’t a terrible, bad, crazy neighborhood but it wasn’t a good neighborhood. I didn’t grow up on a Reservation so it was one of those things where I felt like I wasn’t Native enough, I wasn’t black enough, so I didn’t really fit in a box. 

This is a school photo of young Kali Reis.

I got into sports. I played softball, basketball, but it was the solo aspect of boxing and the self accountability that really attracted me to the sport pretty much before I even knew that was the reason. Coming from a broken home – my father wasn’t there – my parents got a divorce when I was really young, and I had a pretty decent age gap between myself and my mother’s other son. We just bumped heads. Growing up in the culture I like to say that I'm a first generation Wampanoag woman from my family that was actually brought up as a child into the culture remembering our ceremonies, learning our language. It was almost like my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother couldn’t say they were India.. I take great pride in being able to relearn everything as a child, what my mom was, what my grandmother was. First peoples were damn near wiped out. 

As I got a little older, I was going through some things. I got raped by a kid in my neighborhood, that I thought I could trust, when I was twelve years old. Dad wasn’t there, brothers were older, sisters were older and me and my mom were bumping heads just because I was a teenage girl, and because she was Native American and also a Christian, so I was really confused. Very, very confused. I started smoking weed when I was eleven. After that (the assault) happened to me when I was twelve, I immediately turned to alcohol. I started drinking and those things weren’t doing it for me. I found boxing through a man by the name of Domingo Talldog, he’s a wampum jewelry maker and I got wind at a pow wow that he used to be a fighter, so I started bugging him at his jewelry stand. He said  “Yeah, yeah, no, no girls shouldn’t be boxing” in his very New England accent. Finally I convinced him to come by the house and show me a few things. I had a bag in my back room and everything so I thought I was hot shit.

Kali Reis pictured here in 1993 on her first day of school.

Then my father actually ended up coming back into my life. He moved back up from Florida and he knew of a cousin of his that had a daughter that he was training for kickboxing and boxing. He also knew of Manfredo’s gym. So I started training in Peter Manfredo’s gym. The first time I ever walked into that gym and went to go train it was the first time where everything in my head that was so chaotic just shut up and I was able to listen and focus and do that one thing and everything else didn’t matter for a minute. It wasn’t like when you drink and you wake up and you're sober up but you’re like “Shit, here’s my problems again.” 

It was something that I really enjoyed doing. My first fight was a smoker and not sanctioned but it was against a very much older white lady and I got my ass KICKED. It was like a deciding moment where you could take that turn and say “Hey this isn’t for me” or that hard left. I always take the hard left. I wanted to know “How does that not happen to me again” and I was hooked. I still played basketball and volleyball throughout my high school years but boxing was really it. With team sports if you’re having a bad day there’s four other people on the court and you can get a sub in or something. Boxing it’s you. If you don’t do something, that’s your ass. You can have your people, your team outside the ring seeing what you don’t see. You trust them number one with your life and then you gotta put all your trust in yourself. As cliche as it sounds, it was love at first punch. I just wanted to know how do I get good at this?

I didn’t have much of an amateur background, because I was in a weight class that wasn’t very thick. I didn’t have the funds or resources to travel to these different tournaments because my mom didn’t really want me boxing, my dad was still in and out, there just wasn’t money to do so. Also, I don’t have an amateur style, so I would say I had maybe all of fifteen amateur fights – one being the 2007 Rocky Marciano Tournament which I won, the New England Golden Gloves – I won that too but it’s nothing crazy. I don’t even count the 2007 New York Golden Gloves because I won by walkover. There were a lot of unsanctioned fights that I did. I had that goal of being a World Champion, winning that green and gold one day, but I couldn’t picture being where I’m at now – way exceeding my expectations. My career has been crazy. I’ve had ups, downs, in-betweens but I wouldn’t change it. 

NYFights: Only recently has women’s boxing started to get a healthy amateur program. Looking at it now, are you aware of what you missed out coming up at the time you did?

Kali Reis: Absolutely. I went pro in September 2008. I feel like the day after I went pro, the announcement that women’s boxers were gonna be in the 2012 Olympics was made. That was kind of a kick in the butt. I knew the experience was something that I lacked. I had smokers against the nobodies in Rhode Island. Rhode Island’s the smallest state so I was well aware. Being a female in a male dominated sport, especially in the gym, I had to work three/four times as hard. I’m just somebody who always grew up fighting for something; acceptance, this, that, and the other thing. So, having my back against the wall felt comfortable to me. I very early on found comfort in being uncomfortable. I knew I was at a disadvantage. People didn’t know who I was. I had no amateur background, so no promoters or managers are even gonna want to work with somebody who’s from Rhode Island they don’t even know about without that amateur background. 

NYFights: And now women are co-headlining, and even headlining cards with male fighters on them. How do you feel about where women’s boxing is headed?

Kali Reis: I feel like we’re going in the right direction. I’ve had the privilege of being in the game for thirteen and a half years,  being thirty-five, and being one of the most relevant female fighters currently. It’s crazy to even think that, but I also had the ability to grow with the sport. Around 2014/15 we started fighting differently. I mean I had to change things up. I remember sparring with Katie Taylor, one of my regular sparring partners, but when she did her pro debut, that’s when she started training in Connecticut. I was training to go fight Christina Hammer in Germany again, and I got wind that nobody else wanted to spar her, so I was like “I’ll go. Sure I’ll get some rounds in.” I remember being in the second round and I was like “ Oh this is how we’re fighting now, oh shit.” (Laughs). But I want this. I want to know what’s going on, what’s coming out of the amateurs, what’s coming out of the Olympics. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I got to grow with the sport. 

You have Amanda Serrano and Katie Taylor having this million dollar fight, headlining one of the biggest fights in women’s boxing. You have the hype for Savannah Marshall vs. Claressa Shields. You have all these household names that are with the other regular male household names. We have promoters like Lou Dibella, like Eddie Hearn, that have always supported women’s boxing and are treating it just as boxing. I believe that we just need to keep making these strides.

I feel that the next step, cause I know that this whole three minutes/two minutes round thing comes up a lot…The next step for me, especially because I’m lined up to fight for the undisputed titles would not be three minute rounds, because I’m not going to do twice the work for less pay, but for undisputed? They need to add two more rounds.. Here’s the reason why: there should be twelve rounds for World Title fights and undisputed fights. I think that would get people used to seeing the twelve rounds. That’s gonna give us two more rounds to do more damage. You’ve already seen  people like Alycia Baumgardner, there are knock outs and there are ugly knockouts in female boxing, adding two more rounds to a title fight can add more to that.

Also, if you ever see a bad male fight, eight rounds, it’s a long ass boring bad fight. If you see a female fight, nine times out of ten they’re not boring, even if they suck it’s exciting cause we got one less minute and there’s no head movement. (Laughs). But if you see a bad female fight it goes by quicker so promoters are more apt  to put female fights on networks – we’re getting so much TV time now. It’s not going to be this thirty-six minute fight, it’s gonna be about twenty-five minutes. It’s going to be shorter, so you’ll get more females on that way. We don’t need to do three minutes yet, but I believe we need to add the two rounds. 

NYFights: You know, there was a time when people thought women couldn’t run in marathons, that their organs would fall out if they ran 26 miles (laughs). Do you feel like women can hang in three-minute rounds, even if you don’t think it’s necessary yet?

Kali Reis (L) with Ebanie Briedges (C).

Kali Reis: I can hang! I’ve knocked dudes out in the gym sparring three minutes. It’s funny because we don’t train for two minute rounds. I’m speaking for myself, but because I’m also a trainer, I can speak for how I’m training Ebanie Bridges. I know two weeks out we gotta go to two minutes, because we’ve got to get you picking up the pace a little bit. If it was me, being such a perfectionist, I had to get out of that three minute mentality, because we had one less minute. It’s not a matter of “Can we hang?” We can hang and damn well. There’s been three minute round fights. I think the pay will follow. Start with the two extra rounds. The pay is already getting better. The minimums for women to even make pro debuts now are thousands of dollars more. The price has gone up, so I think we’re going in the right direction. We have such talent coming out of the amateur ranks and we have females fighting six rounds for their pro debuts. Trust me I ain’t gonna be around in five years with these girls beating my ass. I see how they fight now. (Laughs).

NYFights: It’s funny, because sometimes I think the two-minute rounds actually increases the damage a female fighter takes on, because the fights get extended due to the shorter rounds, and fighters getting saved by a quicker bell.

Kali Reis: It’s like a double edged sword because we know we have one less minute so we’re throwing a lot of punches, you know what I mean? If I had two extra rounds or one extra minute when I fought Cecilia Braekhus, I would have been the undisputed champion. There was no way she was gonna get out of round seven, eight, or ten. But it is what it is. I loved that fight and learned a lot from it, and actually I think I gained more from the loss. An extra minute you might see more knockouts, but even an extra two rounds you might see that. Let’s start there and see how it goes.

Photo Credit: The World Boxing Association (WBA)

NYFights: You took a few losses early in your career before becoming a champion. Did you ever get discouraged when your record wasn’t so pretty?

Kali Reis: I always say I would never change my journey, because I was a female in a male dominated sport and I was working in the shadows of the likes of Jason Estrada and Matt Godfrey and Peter Manfredo Jr. Everybody in the gym was more of a priority. I didn’t have a trainer. I wouldn’t trade the losses. I remember being six and three or six and two and I’m like a loss doesn’t feel good but when I lost, I never got beat up. That’s one thing. I lost on the card maybe because I just didn’t do enough but I never got “damn look at that” knocked out. That I can take pride in. All my losses were in other people’s home countries. I didn't have a manager to negotiate, I didn’t have a promoter to negotiate. I had to learn on the job. Number one skill wise, number two business wise. I didn’t have anybody. I didn’t get built up. I was thrown into it. 

There were those times when I was really discouraged, but I knew that I was learning, and I knew I wasn’t getting beat up. I wasn’t hanging them up. I didn’t get an actual manager until 2016 after I won the WBC in New Zealand when Brian Cohen was out there with his other four fighters and we started working together. From there, just to understand his business mind because we were friends prior to that, I’ve known him thirteen/fourteen years now, and then kind of trusting the process and understanding you do need some kind of guidance and a manager. From there he had a game plan. A game plan is so important in the ring and outside of the ring. What is your game plan? What is your vision for your fight? What do the next two-three years look like? What is the best way to go about that? And I didn't really know because I was just answering the phone “What, wait, when, who? Anybody wanna go to Spain next month?” (Laughs). That’s how my whole career has been. So when I got the guidance from Brian and then I felt confident enough that somebody even wanted to work with me…even up until then I didn’t want to believe that I am as good as I am. I’m not the GWOAT, but I’m not bad. I’m pretty good. So it helped me with my confidence once I had that person. I had him really believing in my career.

Then I had not the best promoter, Joe Laguardia, but I had a promoter, so I felt like Ok now I had the support. Then I started coming to training camps. I never had a training camp before. I had two or three jobs at the same time, I had a fiance and a daughter that I had to take care of. Plus I had to train. So I actually had a camp and saw what I could do with somebody I used to idolize in the sport, being Cecilia Braekhus, wanting to do what she did, watching and always saying I’d fight her one day. In that fight going into the fifth round, Brian wasn’t my chief second but he jumped in the ring because he knows how to talk to me. He was like “Yo K wake up you’re supposed to be here!” The whole dynamic of that fight changed from that point on and I think that was the exact moment I realized I was supposed to be where I was at. Besides that loss, I haven’t lost since 2018. 

NYFights: This hard path you took has now led you to the movies, and earning an Independent Spirit nomination for best actress for your performance in Catch The Fair One (now in select theaters and streaming on demand).

Kali Reis: Absolutely. It’s funny because I call him my dad, Pop, Dr. Roland Estrada, Jason Estrada’s father, I’ve been working with him since I was like fourteen/fifteen. He’s just a family guy. He always joked “Boxing is gonna be a catalyst. You’re good, but you’re gonna be in the movies one day.” he  said that to me as a teenager. He’s another one that saw something in me before I even saw it myself. Boxing has been such a great platform for me to promote what I care about.. You don’t see a lot of Indiginous Native people in sports, period. To use my voice on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous women, that’s how I got recognized by (Catch The Fair One) Director Josef Kubota Wladyka. It has opened so many doors. I’ve missed so many everythings, but I’ve had other doors open because of boxing. It has launched me into this position to be here. If I wasn’t boxing, if I had just decided to hang it up, maybe you would never know who Kali Reis is as a person. Josef was just interested in me as a person, how my mind works and my activism through my boxing platform. Again with the six titles and two different weight classes, I couldn’t even imagine being in this position, but it was boxing that put me here. 

NYFights: Catch The Fair One is about a boxer searching for her missing sister. It’s not really a “boxing movie.” It’s a movie that sheds a light on the poorly covered crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women. It also has a lot of heavy drama in it. You really have to act, and often without being very verbal, but just through the expressiveness of your face. Did you feel like your experience in boxing helped you prepare for the role? Boxing is entertainment, after all.

Kali Reis: You hit the nail right on the head. Number one boxing is entertainment. We have to perform. We have to not let them see you sweat. If you’re tired, you can’t show that to the judges. There’s a lot of things you gotta think about that’s not just throwing punches. The punches are your dialect, but your body language says a lot. If I’m working a corner and I see this one breathing like this or I see their foot here, it shows a lot. The slightest move will show a lot from the fighter’s perspective and a coach's perspective.. You can't talk in boxing, you know what I mean? So that absolutely was an assist. The technicality of being on set was very much a help, between knowing how to take direction, how to take criticism, how to be able to hit marks and have peripherals, and just being able to adapt quickly because boxing is about milliseconds and millimeters.

There were a lot of parallels. I put two and two together. It was almost like a primal sense, like a sixth sense. The fact that I’m a boxer and hypervigilant about my surroundings was extremely helpful, especially being someone who doesn’t generally trust people easily but trusts a director and trusts my coach to direct me. You see what I don’t see behind that camera just like they see what I don’t see in the corner, so I trust you. I trust me to trust you. Besides the fact that Josef’s such a wonderful human being and just such a talented person, it was a lot of help from boxing. 

Kali Reis at the weigh-in in November prior to her decision victory in the ring.

NYFights: You’re hardly old, but 35 is an advanced age for any athlete, and certainly for a fighter. How long do you see yourself staying in the game?

Kali Reis: My next fight we’re set up, you know we had this 140 pound undisputed tournament and I won my last fight, so did Chantelle Cameron, so now the next step is an undisputed/undisputed match. When I started boxing, I knew I wanted to leave when I turned thirty-six/thirty-seven years old. I just knew starting at twenty-two I didn’t really want to overstay my welcome. I saw that progression. I saw the punchy fighters. I don’t want to be that guy. I didn’t know where boxing was going to take me, all the way around the world, meeting different people. As far as that fight is concerned, right now, there’s no date yet. We are working on it.

NYFights: You’re a natural actor. Knowing that you can’t box forever, do you want to continue to pursue acting?

Kali Reis: I’ve already got representation and I got bit by the acting bug, so I plan on taking this head on and as far as I can. Boxing isn’t forever. I see myself retiring in the next two years if not sooner. I definitely want to take this on. People saw something in me and I love it. I want to hone in on this craft and let’s see. You might see me in a Marvel movie or something, you never know. (Laughs)

NYFights: I hope you’re very proud of your work in Catch The Fair One. It’s a great movie, and your performance is truly special. As you know, I’m a movie guy too.

Kali Reis: I love people who are movie people and hearing that. Josef said the hardest thing is to convince the audience that you’re feeling something without telling them. I said Ok. I’m a people person, people watcher, imitator and I’m a Virgo, so I’m a perfectionist. Josef explained things crystal clear. I’m really good at imitating. I’ve got to give it to him, teaching me the way he did and giving me the information he did. I appreciate that. Just like my boxing, I put my heart and soul in it. It might not have been how somebody else would have done that character but that’s how I wanted to do it.