Fighting for Their Rights

And Their Lefts. Women Foment a Boxer Rebellion

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.

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

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 boxing—a 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 lightweights—literally and figuratively—proving 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 everyone—even the sport's detractors—admits 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.

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.

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.

The reason for this mismatch is that Chelsey is nine years old, and her partner is her father, Tracy Ramos.

"All of my friends are used to it because they've seen videotapes of her fighting in martial arts tournaments since she was four," says Ramos, a 35-year-old single father. "The attitudes are a lot different than when I was a kid—you hardly saw girls in sports, and everyone looked at the ones who did play like they were weirdos."

Harry Keitt, a trainer of several champions, including those featured in On the Ropes, epitomizes some of the changing attitudes in women's boxing. "I'm kind of against women boxing," says Keitt earnestly. "Women should be cuddled, not punched." So why does he continue to teach women to throw bone-crunching uppercuts? "Well, when I see that they are serious and they want to fight, I figure they need to have the same tools as the men fighting."

Now if only promoters would start prizing skills over sex appeal, girls like Chelsey Ramos would have a shot at a new version of girl power.

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