Fighting for Their Rights

And Their Lefts. Women Foment a Boxer Rebellion

The spectacle that pitted the daughters of boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier against each other in a multi-generational grudge match added fuel to arguments about the sport's credibility. The June 8 rumble at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, was the first pay-per-view tussle headlined by women.

Boxing critics slammed the fight. The duking daughters were far from being the best bruisers to step onto the canvas. Boxing afficionados cried foul, claiming that the match was nothing more than media hype. Yet the fighters received six-figure fees.

Currently, most women turning pro pocket just $800 a match and $3000 to $4000 for title fights. Though pros, neither Ali nor Frazier-Lyde has fought a title match—nor have they settled for the customary couple thousand bucks.

A minor hit: Chelsey Ramos working out at Gleason’s
photo: Sylvia Plachy
A minor hit: Chelsey Ramos working out at Gleason’s

After her victory over Frazier-Lyde, Ali did have the grace to say that she was no longer interested in brawling with the daughters of boxing legends. She was planning instead to hone her skills for title bouts.

"The momentum and popularity of women's boxing was helped by the Ali-Frazier fight, but at the same time it undercut the seriousness of the sport because these two women are not at the level to be promoted as a main event," says Katya Bankowsky, director of the award-winning women's boxing film Shadow Boxers and a 1995 Golden Gloves competitor.

These matchups, which outrage boxers and fans alike, continue to be staged because boxing promoters are under no obligation to pit the top fighters against one another.

"Wall Street is a billion-dollar industry that is tightly regulated, and still there is some level of corruption. Boxing is a billion-dollar industry and there are few rules or regulations—just think of the corruption," says Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason's Gym, New York City's oldest surviving school of hard knocks.

Considering the lawlessness of boxing and the cultural taboos concerning women and violent behavior, it's surprising that the sport continues to grow. There are now more than 2000 amateur and professional women fighters routinely putting on breast protectors and delivering punches in the United States.

"It's interesting that when women learn to give a punch, we become alarmist," says Mary Jo Kane, sports sociologist and director of the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Women and Girls in Sports. "It's a pity that we haven't cared as much about women when they've been on the receiving end of punches as victims for so long."

Kane says sports are a key area in which male superiority continues to be considered biological destiny, but, she contends, "In a culture where physical violence is the last bastion of male control, there is this idea that if social norms and rules don't keep you in line, there is always physical force—you can be raped, brutalized, or killed. So a sport like boxing has the potential to be enormously threatening and to disrupt everything we know as 'normal.' "

How does women's boxing survive with the political wrangling, the dubious attention paid to women in the ring, and the ingrained cultural resistance?

"Women's boxing is changing at the grassroots level," says former HBO exec DiBella, who currently heads DiBella Entertainment, a company that represents professional boxers. "There are more women who are boxing and taking it seriously."

As with the development of most other sports, including women's pro basketball, this grassroots change is slow, and DiBella makes no predictions for the sport's future, saying, "I don't know if it's going to take off—ask me in a decade. If it's going to be a serious world-class sport, it has to develop at the amateur level and become an Olympic sport."

Since the early '90s, aspects of the sweet science have been used in box-aerobics and conditioning classes in upscale health clubs, and that has helped lead women to the ring. "It gets more women throwing a jab," says promoter Englebrecht, "and that's good for the overall level of competition."

And some of the places where women are sparring are serious fight gyms. At Gleason's, where the bags have been pounded by the likes of Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson, women members are now nearly one in six, up from a handful in the 1980s.

A little more than a decade ago, Silverglade battled with his partner over letting women box at the gym. "I convinced him that when I take the money to the bank, they don't know if it came from a man or a woman," he says. In the early days, says Silverglade, they would close the gym early to let women train—they had only one locker room at the time. Now Gleason's is the home to women's world champions Kathy Collins and Jill Matthews and national champ Alicia Ashley, and it has taken the team trophy at the Golden Gloves every year since 1995.

Not that women boxers are universally accepted. "The feelings were—and continue to be—split down age lines," says the 55-year-old Silverglade. "Younger guys in boxing are simply more accepting of women boxing because they've seen women do everything else, so why not box?"

** It's 8 a.m. on a soupy summer morning in Brooklyn, and Chelsey Ramos is decked out in her padded headgear, mouth guard, and red boxing mitts. She ducks a punch and answers with a jab of her own, as she and her training partner move around the floor at Gleason's. Chelsey is a picture of focused fierceness, even though she is toe-to-toe with a partner who is about three feet taller and 150 pounds heavier.

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