By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Boxing fans had rarely been more bored than they were as they watched Mike Tyson dispense with Frank Bruno in three rounds of a lackluster March 1996 bout in Las Vegas. But then, in an undercard bout, Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty came out swinging, supplying the fast and furious action that the men's match lacked. Upward of 30 million TV fans were jolted awake that night by a fight that left Martin bleeding profusely from the nose, but victorious.
The nonstop, aggressive action of the women's competition landed Martin on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in the pages of Time. She made the TV morning-show rounds, quickly becoming the most visible figure in women's boxing.
Never missing the chance to make a buck, fight promoters realized that two brawling, bloody women in Lycra were a huge turn-on for many male fans. A trend was born. Here, seemingly, was every heterosexual man's fantasy. Using this new formula for infusing interest into the men's game, more and more boxing cards were spiced up with a women's battle.
Yet women's boxing has not maintained the attention it grabbed in 1996. In an era when the WNBA fills Madison Square Garden, the question is: Did women's boxing hit its peak instead of its stride? A better question: Is the thought of women being rendered unconscious or leaving the ring with broken noses too much for even the hardiest boxing fans?
Despite the boost boxing received from such recent films as Shadow Boxers, Girlfight, and On the Ropes, all of which featured fighting females in lead roles, the ugliest fight in women's boxing is not for a world championship belt, but for legitimacy. Making things more difficult is that women boxers are tethered to the same managers, trainers, and promoters who have a choke hold on men's boxinga sport mired in controversy and under attack as dangerous, corrupt, and senselessly brutal.
Insiders say that promoters, aware of the titillating effects of foxy boxers, increasingly replace heavy hitters like Gogarty and Martin with glamorous lightweightsliterally and figurativelyproving that looks, who you know, and who your daddy is still trump tenacity in the boxing ring for women.
With matchmakers preferring tits and ass over talent, it is no wonder that many people who follow the sport grouse about the lack of high-quality fighting.
Evidence of the struggle for legitimate fight coverage in the face of, well, un-coverage can be seen on the high-traffic Fight News Web site, which features a link to www.babesofboxing.com ("Your home for ring card girls, sexy women boxers and the hottest babes in boxing!"), making the site a source for both serious fight stats and eye candy.
Women who have stepped into the ring have also encountered resistance from some die-hard fans.
"When I announced a women's match, I had a dozen male season ticket holders call to complain, saying, 'If we want to see that we'll go see mud wrestling or go to a strip club,' " says Roy Englebrecht, who in 1995 was the first promoter to put a women's fight on a male card in California. But the women's contest turned out to be the fight of the night, says Englebrecht, "and the same guys who complained were throwing money into the ring"apparently the highest compliment in boxing. Or maybe the men thought they really were in a strip joint.
It's not top-notch battles getting the guys going. "Promoters have used women's boxing as a gimmick to sell tickets," says Lou DiBella, former executive vice president of HBO Sports. HBO has a policy of not televising female fisticuffs because of the poor quality of the fighting, he says. "In women's boxing right now, all but the top fighters have very little defense and virtually no ability, which is exciting for some viewers."
So where are the knockout artists who everyoneeven the sport's detractorsadmits are out there? They can be found in gyms across the country.
"If you are too good, no one wants to fight you, because the tough girls, the Lucia Rijkers and Bridgett Rileys, would destroy the women on television, who are there only because they've been marketed," says Englebrecht, adding, "If you are good and female, you'd better have a side job.
"If you have a good-looking female fighter who sells tickets, who wants to see her beat? Promoters want to protect their fighters, have their day in the sun, and that's it."
Lucia Rijker, a professional boxer with a record of 14 wins (13 of them knockouts) and no losses, who is often cited as the world's most skilled female fighter, agrees. "Boxing is about who is the best promoted, and the prettiest, or whose father has the biggest name," she says, referring to the recent Laila Ali and Jaqui Frazier-Lyde fight. Rijker was at one time the sole woman signed with powerhouse promoter Bob Arum, who dukes it out with Don King for turf in the boxing world.
Since then, she's been released by Arum, who replaced her with former Playboy model Mia St. John, whose name is routinely invoked as an example of someone short on pugilistic talent who can nonetheless draw a crowd.