Against the RopesFor women boxers, it's a fight just to get in the ring

Photos are from Women Boxers: The New Warriors, by Delilah Montoya.

More than a decade before Maureen “Moe” Shea was Hilary Swank’s sparring partner in Million Dollar Baby, she was struggling just to get a jab in. “There were gyms that closed the door in my face,” says the now 33-year-old featherweight champion. “One person said, ‘Boxing is for people who’ve been in jail. You should be at home baking pies.’”

When Shea, at 19, finally found a gym that would take her, she still hid her new hobby from her parents to avoid the inevitable questions: “Why are you doing this? Why do you want to get punched in the face?” These days, she’s more concerned with winning, and her laser focus means getting up every day at 4:30 a.m. for punishing days of training.

Shea’s story follows a familiar arc: Fighting, at least at the beginning, was her way out. She initally entered into the world of boxing gyms seeking a way to lose weight, but the power she found in the ring gave her the strength and confidence she needed to leave her abusive boyfriend and eventually go on to achieve an impressive 18–2 record.

And while men often step into the ring with the full support of their families, trainers, and communities, women tend to enter the boxing world facing resistance from parents, partners, or friends. An initial focus on weight loss or fitness is common: Melissa “Hurricane” Hernandez, 2012 WBC and WIBA featherweight champion, first started boxing to lose weight; Monica Lovato, the two-time world champion, was looking for a good workout. Once they fully commit to sparring (the part of training that involves actually doling out and taking punches), they still face oppostion: Jill Morley, amateur boxer and director of the 2013 documentary Fight Like a Girl, struggled with getting her family to accept her love of boxing—“Girls should be sweethearts,” her father says in one interview.

Boxing is, very simply, blood sport, which is why many viewers are uncomfortable with women in the ring—they just don’t want to watch girls get beat up. But once a woman steps into a ring, “there’s some power there that we don’t understand,” says trainer Matt Jones in Katya Bankowsky’s 1999 documentary Shadow Boxers. “There’s no way for women to express that kind of feeling out there in the world.”

And that, says Shea, is what makes female fighters different. Maybe even better.

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Although women have boxed for almost as long as the sport has existed, female fights have been effectively outlawed for most of boxing’s history, with athletic commissioners refusing to sanction or issue licenses to women boxers, and most nations officially banning the sport.

Reports of women entering the ring go back to the 1700s, and the first reported American bout occurred in 1876 in New York. (Female boxing actually made an appearance in the Olympics in 1904, but only as a demonstration fight.) Still, until recently, most women’s matches were viewed by the mainstream as novelty, not serious sport. This dismissal was fueled by the fact that many bouts took place in brothels, bars, or circuses, and that female contenders—whether by design or for practicality—violated dress codes of the era by showing more skin than was considered proper. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that female boxing began to gain serious momentum.

Gail Grandchamp was a welterweight who’d first been denied the right to fight in intercollegiate matches at North Adams State College (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) in the late 1970s and then again by the International Olympic Committee, which at the time banned female boxing. After years of lobbying for a license from USA Boxing, the national governing body for Olympic-style boxing, she filed a gender discrimination suit in Boston and embarked on what was to be an eight-year-long court battle with USA Boxing and the New England Amateur Athletic Union—acting on her own behalf without counsel. Finally, in April 1992, the state superior court ruled it was illegal to deny inclusion in USA Boxing based on gender. By the time of the ruling, however, Grandchamp was 36—one year too old to compete as an amateur.

USA Boxing was sued again for gender discrimination in 1993, when 16-year-old Dallas Malloy was denied an application to fight in the Pacific Northwest Amateur Boxing Association. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Malloy won the case, and in October 1993 she fought in the first-ever sanctioned amateur women’s fight in the United States. Although both Malloy’s and Grandchamp’s stories are compelling and each is a hero to women’s boxing in her own right, it’s notable that of the two, white, blond-haired Malloy’s case is hailed as the watershed moment more often than boxer of color Grandchamp’s case.

Still, it would be two more years until the Golden Gloves, the nation’s premier amateur boxing vehicle, allowed women fighters to join. And it wasn’t until 1997 that the United States hosted a sanctioned women’s national championship. When a women’s bout was finally shown on prime-time network television (1998, between Lucia Rijker and Mary Ann Almager), it was broadcast opposite the Academy Awards, a notorious dead slot. The BBC didn’t broadcast a women’s match until late 2010, and it wasn’t until 2012 that women’s boxing became a recognized Olympic sport. Even the bylaws and application forms used by many boxing vehicles are biased: The International Olympic Committee did not add female pronouns until 2013.

A black and white portrait of New Mexican boxer Holly Holm by Delilah Montoya.

Each of these changes has had a cascading effect on female boxing; in the five years after the Golden Gloves began allowing women, the number of applicants rose tenfold. The 2012 Summer Olympics debuted three events (flyweight, lightweight, and middleweight), resulting in 12 first-time medalists for the sport. This shows without a doubt that the problems facing women’s boxing lie not with women themselves—whether attributed to lack of interest (and thus lack of willing participants) or inherent unsuitability for the sport—but with a world where well-documented waves of exclusion based on race, class, and gender have affected who is and is not allowed to participate in sports for centuries. Women boxers have fought long and hard for the right to fight at all, and they aren’t going to give it up. But, despite ample interest in the sport, many would-be female fighters have missed out on their short window to contend while waiting for the glass ceiling to break, and today’s media coverage isn’t helping.

Although mainstream interest in men’s boxing has declined in recent years, its silver-screen image remains relatively untarnished: Body and Soul, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, and of course, the Rocky series remain classics. Perhaps the best-known women’s boxing film, 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, which won an Oscar for Best Picture and pulled in more than $216 million at the box office, focused more on the internal strife of the white male trainer (Clint Eastwood) than on protagonist Maggie (Hilary Swank), also white (although arguably the most vibrant female-boxing scene in the United States today is Latina). The hierarchy of characters in the film paralleled the hierarchy of power in the boxing world, with promoters at the top, followed by trainers, and, at the bottom, boxers themselves—with the least amount of control over their lives and fortunes.

Coverage of real-world female boxing is likelier to appear in style or editorial sections, and sports-page space is sparse where it exists at all. Boxing magazine The Ring has featured only one female fighter on its cover in its 92-year history, and Bleacher Report’s boxing coverage features an almost exclusively male roster. Meanwhile, there’s no dearth of stories in high-profile publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times about whether women fighters should be required to wear skirts.

Television coverage isn’t much better. Until 2010, HBO had never shown a single female boxing match, either on cable or on a pay-per-view telecast. “I’ve heard a rumor HBO has chosen not to show female fights,” says Shea. “Are people going to get turned off by one female fight on a seven-fight card? I don’t think so. [Networks] keep saying there’s no market. But we’re in the freakin’ Olympics, we’re obviously not going away.”

The lack of mainstream media coverage of women’s boxing goes beyond just money, markets, and sexist sportswriters. “Men get to watch video of their opponents before they fight them,” Shea says. “But do women? Nope. People ask me all the time, ‘Who are you fighting?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know’—I can’t research my opponents because the fights aren’t filmed or televised.”

“It’s not easy for women boxers to move from amateur to professional ranks,” says Katie Taylor, the reigning Olympic, World, European, E.U., and Irish lightweight champion. “We still don’t get equal publicity with men. I’ve worked my whole life to get where I am, and no television coverage for those fights is not fair.”

For Taylor, though, money is the main disparity between the worlds of women’s and men’s boxing. “If a man won the Olympic gold and turned professional, the contracts would be huge, but the signing of contracts is not as good for a woman.” Although she loves boxing despite the hard work and low pay it offers, she says she had “no idea how hard it was for women’s boxing to get the recognition it deserves—that has been the fight of my life.”

“Even for world title matches, women will get as low as $3,000,” says Morley. “Men get up to $25-, $30-, maybe even $50,000.” Indeed, making a living as a professional fighter—while a struggle for all but the most elite athletes in nearly every sport—is particularly difficult for women pugilists. Top-ranked Puerto Rican featherweight Hernandez holds down a day job as a security guard and doesn’t have a car. While ESPN ranks men’s boxing as the 12th-highest-paying sport (Manny Pacquiáo raked in a minimum of $50 million in 2011), women’s boxing doesn’t even make the list. And the United States is known for its particularly paltry pay. German Regina Halmich, the highest-paid performer in women’s boxing to date, turned down a $20,000 bout in the United States in favor of staying in Germany, where her compensation was much higher. There, she received a record-setting $731,000 for her fight against Hagar Shmoulefeld Finer in 2007, televised and watched by eight million fans.

Halmich is still the exception. “I had seven fights in 2011 and I earned, in total, $6,000,” says top-ranked pro boxer Lisa Garland. “Once I got just $500—less than I spent on air travel—for a belt. I am a world champion but you wouldn’t know it from my bank account.”

When income directly from fights is sparse, many athletes turn to endorsements and sponsorships to make a living. Here, too, inequalities are apparent, with race, class, and perceived femininity—or lack thereof—intersecting and affecting athletes’ financial success. Contrast young black American boxer Claressa Shields, who took home the middleweight gold at the 2012 London Olympics, with fellow black gold medalist Gabby Douglas, a gymnast. While both young athletes are blazing new trails for black women in sport, Douglas has appeared on cereal boxes, billboards, and multiple TV shows, and was predicted to earn around $10 million in sponsorships in 2013.

As the first African American gymnast in Olympic history to become individual all-around champion (and facing her own share of racism in the media and sports worlds), Douglas deserves every accolade she’s received. Yet Shields, despite taking home a gold medal at 17, has no national endorsement deals or glowing media attention. Gymnastics is a highly feminized middle- and upper-middle-class sport, while boxing is a masculinized, working-class one. The confluence of class and femininity in sports contextualizes the disparities in media portrayals of Douglas and Shields for the consequences on the young women’s careers—promotion and good marketing are integral to a boxer’s success. Without publicity, and lots of it, it’s hard for fighters to snag good opponents and decent pay.

But visibly muscular, label-defying women don’t make for good marketing. Even Nicola Adams, the British flyweight who took Olympic gold in 2012, nearly gave up boxing due to lack of sponsors. With each determined, talented woman who is turned away from the sport, it becomes harder for current female boxers to find sparring partners and fighting opponents—crucial for them to develop their skills.

“There are so few of us that it’s hard to find a lot of women in your size—my regular sparring partner is 145 pounds,” says 110-pound Morley. “I reach out to a lot of different gyms, and I can shadowbox and hit the bags, but the only way you can really improve is to spar.”

The lack of opportunities for female fighters to develop their careers is significant—without proper promotion, sparring, and training opportunities, a fighter loses out on the ability to advance. In July 2012, a group of female boxers wrote a letter of complaint to sportscotland, Scotland’s national agency for sports, about a lack of opportunities to develop their careers. In the letter, they alleged a lack of financial investment and no regular training camps or tournaments, and cited instances of derogatory language used to describe female boxers.

“How can we get better if we are not getting the opportunities and the training that the boys are getting?” asked amateur Scottish boxer Stephanie Kernachan in an interview with the BBC. Evidently, the letter did little to change the state of female boxing in Scotland—two years later, in January 2014, one of Scotland’s top female boxers anonymously accused Boxing Scotland of gender discrimination, taking her case to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

***

Despite these struggles, women in other forms of combat sport are making significant headway and gaining mainstream coverage.

The growing world of mixed martial arts (MMA) features an all-female fight series, Invicta, started by Shannon Knapp in 2012. And in the past year, controversial Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promoter Dana White has had much success with fighters like Ronda Rousey, a UFC bantamweight champion. Rousey’s cavalier attitude and penchant for first-round submissions have been making waves since she began her professional career in 2011, and along with White, she has moved the needle on mainstream exposure for female combat sports.

But “boxing doesn’t have a Dana White, we don’t have an Invicta,” Morley says. “We need promoters to get behind us.”

The United States and the United Kingdom could look to Mexico for examples of how to treat women boxers: The country regularly features all-female fight cards with nary a controversy. “Women [boxers] are so accepted in Mexico,” says Shea, who is of Mexican and Irish descent. “Every Mexican woman I have fought has been so passionate. They fight with everything they have. I love fighting with the Mexican women. I fought an all-female card in Mexico—it was sold out and people loved it. Are we going to get that in the U.S.? I hope so.”

Boxing is and always has been a study in power differentials. The young fighters overwhelmingly belong to a class of people who lack social power, often in multiple forms. The sport’s best moments come when scrappy underdogs rise to the top through spirit, grit, and determination. Women boxers go even further, fighting for the right to fight at all.

Shea and others are hopeful and determined. “It’s gonna happen for us. It’s a movement,” she says. “There are promoters out there; we have got to keep banging down their doors. Is it fair? No. But things can change, it’s just gonna take some time.”

“And,” she says, “if it doesn’t happen now, I’m going to pave the way for it to happen for somebody else.” 


Sarah Brown’s work on the intersections between gender, sexuality, and media and pop culture has been featured in BitchAlterNet, Jezebel, and xoJane, among others. She tweets @mediocreventure and blogs at rainbowreverie.net.

 

Read more from the Tough issue here.

 

This article was published in Tough Issue #63 | Summer 2014

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