Women's Boxing: A Noble and Uphill Battle for Acceptance

Christopher WarrenContributor IDecember 12, 2008

And when that person is a woman it becomes even more undesirable. But why are there so many women and girls attracted to the sport of boxing?

The first appearance of the sport was in the Olympic Games in 1904, as a demonstration bout. Female boxing remained a taboo and was banned in most countries for most of the twentieth century. Most societies saw boxing as a man’s sport.

In the 1990’s, there was a boom in popularity for women’s sport in general. Big names started to emerge like Laila Ali the daughter of Muhammed Ali.

At an amateur level, the popularity of the sport continues to rise. Jennifer Santiago is a boxing trainer at the Printing House Sports Club in Lower Manhattan. As an amateur, she won the USA Golden Gloves tournament two years in a row.

She said: “In the beginning it was mostly males, but six-and-a-half years later, it’s majority female.”

Despite this growing popularity, professional women’s boxing is a long way from being able to compete with the male sport. There are very few incentives for professional women boxers according to David Carter, the assistant professor of sports marketing at USC Marshall School of Business.

Said Carter “Denial of entry into the 2008 Beijing Olympics by the International Olympic Committee is yet another blockade that ruins any opportunity for potential business in the sport.”

Ray Stallone is the vice president of HBO’s media relations. He said “There is no incentive to do one fight. We like to do a series of fights.”

Asked whether HBO would ever screen women’s boxing he said “HBO would definitely entertain the idea of women’s boxing, just not right now.”

But do people only participate in sport to become professional? The huge popularity of amateur women’s boxing suggests not.

Jim Atkinson is a trainer at Fitzroy Lodge boxing club in Lambeth, south London. Atkinson said “Fitzroy Lodge is fully in support of women’s boxing and we installed a women’s shower and changing room at our own expense.”

In Dunfermline, Scotland, Jayne Mowbray hopes to organize the first all-female boxing bill. Mowbray, a 28-year-old social worker, trains amateur women boxers from all walks of life at Mickey’s Gym. Many of her clients wish to fight competitively, once their affiliation with Amateur Boxing Scotland is formalized.

Mowbray said “Several (boxers) are married with children and are using boxing as a means to boost their confidence and condition their bodies.”

Mowbray’s star pupil is 29-year-old Venture Scout leader, Frances Elder.

She said “The thought of getting hurt doesn’t bother me at all. When you’ve been running a scout troop you get used to being knocked around a bit.”

However, boxing manager Adil Ciftici of Fight Night Events in Berlin said “Knowing that the average boxing fan doesn't fancy women’s boxing as much, it needs a special combination of capability, personality and physical attraction in order to have a chance of achieving something big in this sport.”

Even if a woman boxer succeeds in turning professional, the gender fight continues.

In Zambia the International Boxing Federation (WIBF) world super featherweight champion Esther Phiri had a disagreement with her sponsor National Milling.

Managing director Peter Cottan allegedly advised Phiri not to marry, in order to sustain her career.

Phiri disagreed and said “It’s not true that having children can disturb me. I could have been married if I wanted to and still be a boxer.”

In Congo, Africa, the popularity of women’s boxing is fast growing.

After many years of civil war, women have become accustomed to horrors like beatings and rape. Boxing offers hope to some of these women.

In the capital Kinshasa lies the Tata Raphael stadium in which Muhammed Ali defeated favourite George Foreman in 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle”.

Jeanette Mukendi is a 27-year-old mother of twin girls, who became captivated by watching the women boxers or ‘mammies’ boxing in the stadium. She said “Knowing how to fight, of course, serves a purpose.”

With domestic violence occurring regularly, Mukendi feels that self defense in a place like Congo is very important. They welcomed her into their group eight years ago. Their story is now the subject of a new French documentary by Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret called Victiore Terminus, Kinshasa.

Founder of women’s boxing in Congo is coach Judex Tshibanda, a former boxing champion, who grew up with nine sisters.

He said “It just came to me like that one day in 1995. I said to myself ‘I need to train women.’”

He already had four women boxers when the sport didn’t have any support from the authorities.

In 2000 Laila Ali and George Foreman’s daughter Freeda became professional boxers. In the same year Tshibanda was given permission to hold bouts for his women. Although there is no professional women’s boxing in Congo, the support of the amateur scene by Congo’s authorities is a starting point that many women have dreamt about.

In this country, women’s boxing is bringing hope to women who previously had none.

Mukendi said “I love my children. I box, and one day boxing will pay for their food.”

Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby has helped to inspire many females to take up the sport, while also outlining the dangers. Becky Zerlentes is the only known woman to die in a boxing bout in America.

Zerlentes was a 34-year-old amateur boxer from Fort Collins. She died after sustaining a head injury.

Katie Dallum’s story is eerily similar to the one presented by Eastwood. Some believe it inspired the short story which the film is based on.

Nine years ago, Dallum fought her only professional match. After taking almost 150 blows, she was left severely brain-damaged. She suffers partial blindness and memory loss. It took her two years to be able to speak again.

Dallum was a recovering alcoholic and was working to help other addicts. She was inspired to box by a fighter she watched on TV. The fighter later appeared on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

When she was 37, she started to look for a trainer. The one she found was nothing like the one played by Eastwood in the film. Katie's trainer told her she was ready to turn pro after just six weekends of work. The decision to trust his judgment almost proved fatal for Dallum.

She was slowing building a new life for herself. Those seven minutes of her professional boxing career almost cost her life.

Some women boxers have been able to build a successful career in the sport. Ann "Brown Sugar" Wolfe is probably the most successful female boxer of all time.

 She once held world titles in four different weight divisions.

Wolfe from Waco, Texas moved into pro boxing in 1998 after competing in the 1998 USA National Championships as an amateur. She had four fights as an amateur with a record of  3-1.

Her career spanned almost a decade, in which she won all the major women’s titles. In 2004, she defeated former basketball star Vonda Ward after two minutes of their IBA world Light Heavyweight championship. Ward was rushed to hospital with serious neck and head injuries.

Fortunately, Ward recovered and the punch was described by television commentators as “the greatest knockout in women boxing’s history.”

Now retired, she concentrates on training boxers, including James Kirkland, the unbeaten Middleweight talent.

The sport continues to grow and is proving a hit with underprivileged and professional women alike. Most local boxing clubs actively support the sport. While it seems that the authorities are also warming towards it.

Wilmslow High School in Cheshire runs boxing fitness classes in conjunction with Crewe Amateur Boxing Club. Joey’s Anti-Bullying Scheme (JABS) is the idea of ex-British light-welterweight champion Joey Singleton.

English teacher Tim Fredericks has run the club for nearly four years. The club runs as a breakfast club before school starts.

Mr Fredericks said “Each day students run through a set warm-up, then through a boxing fitness program of skipping, bag work, sessions on the focus pads—everything but sparring.”

One school in Bromley has taken it a step further. The head teacher of Orpington’s Priory School, Nicholas Ware, said “With all the right safety equipment and close supervision from the Amateur Boxing Association, those who have been through this year’s initial training are now engaged in sparring.”

With these activities open to girls and boys, they are proving very popular. Maybe these schemes will eventually produce a women’s world champion, or at the very least help to make the sport more socially acceptable.


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