What did “Million Dollar Baby” do for the sport of women's boxing? It set the stage for what could be the biggest and most lucrative fight in the sport. The movie, first and foremost, established Lucia Rijker as the new “face” of women's boxing. Before the movie became a hit, Rijker was primarily known in the boxing community as the kickboxer who made the most successful transition to the sweet science.
Beginning in December 1996, Rijker reeled off seventeen straight wins, fourteen by knockout, but she was probably best known in the boxing world as the fighter who could not or would not (depending on which camp you listened to) get a bout with Christy Martin, the aboriginal “face” of women's boxing.
Succeeding Martin at the top of the sport was Laila Ali, by far the best and the brightest of the group of “famous daughters” who invaded the sport just prior to the turn of the century. When Ali fought Martin in August 2003, it only took Laila four one-sided rounds to KO Christy, firmly establishing Ali's succession to the top spot in the sport.
She maintained that lofty position until “Million Dollar Baby” hit the movie screens and Lucia Rijker emerged in the villainous role of Billie the Blue Bear, the champ who uses unbelievably foul tactics to bring down Maggie Fitzgerald, the heroine of the film played by Hilary Swank. Not only was Rijker the blackhearted malefactor in the movie, a role she played with stoic intensity, she also was a key figure behind the scenes, coaching Swank how to move like a fighter inside the ring. As a result, Lucia Rijker is, at this point in time, the best known female boxer in a sport that has long been starved for publicity with the general public.
The question is now: Which way does Lucia Rijker turn? Does she continue her career in the ring, the real ring, or seek fame and fortune in the entertainment world? If she chooses the former, Rijker has the opportunity to be part of the most exciting and financially successful boxing match in the history of women's boxing. Prior to “Million Dollar Baby,” not only was the sport on the backburner of public awareness, but neither Lucia Rijker nor Laila Ali, or for that matter any other female boxer, was viewed by promoters as having the ability to carry a big money boxing telecast. “Million Dollar Baby” changed that. Now, not only is the general public more aware of the sport than it has ever been, but newspapers and television stations – who prior to the movie possibly knew that women boxed, but didn't know women's boxing – are breathless in their desire to provide column inches and airtime to the sport and its fighters.
So who does Rijker fight? The answer is the fighter most observers currently consider the best female fighter in the sport, Sumya Anani. Anani has been campaigning in the ring for over eight years. Unfortunately, most of those years she toiled in undeserved obscurity as far the mainstream sports world is concerned. Anani has compiled a 25-1-1 record, and that win total would be considerably higher but for the fact that, over the latter part of her career, many fighters avoided stepping into the ring with this hard-hitting fighter. In just her twelfth pro fight, Anani fought and beat Christy Martin. Martin, who was fighting her fortieth bout, was shocked. So was the rest of the boxing world.
Anani is convinced that her win over Martin canceled out a Martin/Rijker match: “I screwed that up . . . I found out that a promoter was going to pay a million dollars between the two of them, but when 'some girl from Kansas' beat Martin, the backer quickly pulled out.”
Martin/Rijker never happened. A Martin/Anani rematch never happened. And despite Anani's ongoing efforts over the years to make the match, Rijker/Anani never happened either. “I offered to fight Rijker for expenses only and donate my purse to charity. That would have put butts in the seats,” Anani says. “And now with the movie, it would be the biggest thing ever in women's boxing.” That sounds, as they say in showbiz, like box office gold: the best-known woman boxer, Lucia Rijker, against the best woman boxer, Sumya Anani.
Rijker has talked about fighting Laila Ali, but that bout has a distinct “been there, done that” aura to it. The Ali/Martin mismatch proved that the boxing adage, “a good big fighter can beat a good small fighter every time” is true and also applies to women's boxing. “How did that fight between the two biggest names in women's boxing help the sport?” asks Anani. “The answer is it didn't. It's just fortunate it didn't do any irreparable harm.” In talking about an Ali bout, Rijker has said that she'll need to go up in weight, while Ali will have to come down in weight. That's a very unlikely scenario since Ali already has two competitive opponents, Ann Wolfe and Leatitia Robinson, at her comfortable weight. Rijker also has a very competitive fighter waiting at her comfortable weight, and her name is Sumya Anani.
And speaking of movies, could there be a better venue for Rijker/ Anani than Hollywood? The bout defines “event” boxing and Hollywood is all about events. Clint Eastwood and Hillary Swank would certainly be ringside rooting for Rijker. And can Sylvester Stallone fail to recognize the “Rocky” quality of Anani's career (isn't there a “Rocky VI” on the drawing board)? If the movie types who now claim to have contributed to the success of “Million Dollar Baby” show up, the Staples Center will be full. How big could this bout be? It's probably big enough to move the Luddites at HBO to make it a main event on their schedule. It could and should be big enough to bring Don King and Bob Arum around for another look at the sport of women's boxing.
Is Lucia Rijker ready for her close-up, up close and personal with the best female fighter currently in the ring? Rijker was an athlete and a boxer long before she was an actress playing a boxer. She has also excelled at the sport for over eight years and now has the opportunity to hold center stage in the sport. Anani puts it to Rijker this way: “Lucia, Clint has called, 'It's a wrap.' The time for acting is over. Let's you and me show people what real boxing, real good boxing, is all about.”