Linda Dahl could not have predicted that life would take her to marquee boxing matches as a fight doctor for the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, and Mike Tyson.
Through her delightfully colorful memoir, “Tooth and Nail: The Making Of A Female Fight Doctor,” Dahl recounts her journey, starting with her Midwestern roots to becoming a doctor with some of the best stories at any dinner table.
Born to Syrian immigrants in the United States and raised in a conservative Muslim home in North Dakota, Dahl says her father pressured her and her siblings to pursue careers in medicine. “He would tell us that this is the most recession-proof job you can have.”
While in college, Dahl tried her hand in the theater department but the excitement of pursuing the arts was short-lived.
She started medical school shortly after.
Dahl’s post-med school residency brought her to New York. It was there, while working in an overburdened hospital in the Bronx, that her then-husband suggested she watch boxing.
“My ex-husband would watch it because he’s an artist. He was always watching and drawing it. I was experiencing so much violence in the hospital, and then I’d come home and this is more violence,” she says. “Through him, I realized that if I really wanted to understand the Bronx and how people function, having some knowledge of boxing was a great way to connect because I didn’t know how to connect with anybody. Our backgrounds were so different.”
In striking up a conversation with a patient who worked for HBO, she blurted out that she wanted to be a fight doctor.
“I didn’t even know what that meant,” she says. “I didn’t even know the rules of boxing. I’d never been to a live fight.”
Her patient said his bosses would like the idea of having a female doctor. Nine months later, she got her first fight assignment, making her one of the first women doctors to participate in boxing matches big enough to land on cable TV.
Not to be confused with the movie version of a person who stitches up fighters during a bout, the doctor role Dahl fulfilled in her boxing years was quite different.
“Ringside doctors or fight doctors don’t work for boxers,” Dahl explains. “The physician’s role is a state appointment. They appoint you and then you work for a boxing commission. Your job is to watch the fight and prevent the boxers from dying or being hurt so that they can’t ever function again.”
“There are two doctors, at least one at each corner,” Dahl says. “You’re watching the fight, and you’re responsible for the fighter in your corner. So at any point, if you feel like he’s gonna die, you have to stop it. It’s a really intense role.”
From the start, Dahl had some reservations about her new role in the contact sport.
“I was watching them going, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to die’ and look what’s happening to his head – he’s not going to recover from that,” she says. “You’re watching the trauma happen as a doctor and knowing what it’s doing to them was horrifying. I realized how much it channeled my own rage just to see it. I wasn’t proud of that. It was in me, and it pulled it out of me.”
Dahl’s ringside nights only lasted a few years. She moved on from the residency, gave birth to a daughter and divorced her husband. Nowadays, Dahl only visits boxing rings on an infrequent basis, sewing up post-fight injuries. She’s more focused on her private practice and on raising her now 15-year-old daughter.
Two years ago when her daughter went away to camp for the summer, Dahl finally found the extra time she needed to branch out into something creative. She enrolled in memoir writing classes and swapped drafts with one of her teachers. She wanted to write about her time in and near boxing rings. That eventually turned into “Tooth and Nail.”
Dahl has been working on a play and another book based on her misadventures with online dating, a pursuit she has pulled back from.
“I can online date or I can write a book,” she says. “I’d rather just do something creative. I feel really lucky that the process of writing – even though it can be isolating – the experience of it feels so connecting. I think that’s what people try to aim for when they look for relationships: They want to feel connected and loved. I can get so much of that from writing.”