“It's time for the girls to stop being made a sideshow attraction for the men and have a platform of their own. There's a tremendous number of talented women boxers who can't get fights on a regular basis. We're going to change all that.” It was January 2005 and this was Arnie “Tokyo” Rosenthal, longtime boxing promoter and broadcaster. Rosenthal was referencing the soon-to-be-launched women's boxing program – “A Ring of Their Own” – that he had co-founded with Ken Weiss under the banner of Rock and Sock Productions. After nearly eighteen months, with “A Ring of Their Own” on the verge of the tenth program in the series, it's a fair time to assess the impact of the program on the sport of women's boxing.
Has this ambitious program “change(d) all that”? The objective answer is “No,” the sport continues to suffer from many of the ills that existed when Rock and Sock presented their first show on January 29, 2005: the top fighters in the sport continue, for the most part, to refuse to climb into the ring with each other; there continues to be a dearth of mainstream media coverage of the sport, particularly “live” TV coverage of bouts; and many of the best fighters continue to be reluctant to leave the protective cocoons of their hometown venues to take fights. Thus, in the year and a half since “A Ring of Their Own” debuted, it has been, unfortunately, business as usual for the sport of women's boxing. However, when it to comes to assessing blame for the malaise that continues to plague the sport, one would do well to look elsewhere rather than at “A Ring of Their Own.” Arnie Rosenthal, Ken Weiss and company have fought the good fight in their attempt to improve the fortunes of the sport.
Over the initial nine “A Ring of Their Own” boxing cards, fans of women's boxing have been treated to bouts that have featured, for the most part, competitive fights between well matched and skilled female boxers. Has every fight been a bell-to-bell, action-packed, crowd-on-their-feet bout? No! But the vast majority of the bouts, on those nine cards, have featured boxers who know how to box, who do not embarrass themselves or their sport in the ring. The resulting fights have, for the most part, produced a single thought: “this is a good fight, not just a good female fight, a good fight.”
And if you don't think that's a step in the right direction, take a look at any recent week's schedule of female boxing bouts, or better, review the “competitive” characteristics of the recent seven bouts of the self proclaimed “face” of women's boxing. That, of course, would be the female fighter with the most famous name in the sport of boxing, the fighter who, in a display of disingenuous irony, recently told New York Daily News writer, Tim Smith, “one of the big problems with the sport of women's boxing is that the good fighters don't fight each other.” In comparison to the usual fare of female boxing bouts and the last several years of Laila Ali's ring activity, the nine boxing cards presented on “A Ring of Their Own” have been a veritable gold standard of good, watchable, competitive female bouts.
And yet, the television exposure of “A Ring of Their Own” has fallen short of the original aims of the promoters. No television network, over-the-air or cable has picked up the show on a regular basis. Earlier this year, the telecasts devolved to weekly one hour telecasts, a reduction from the original TV incarnation of a two hour syndicated telecast of each boxing show. Even with the condensed TV version, “A Ring of Their Own” telecasts remain limited, from a coverage standpoint. For example, the shows have long lacked a local outlet in the New York TV market, the country's largest. However, it should be noted that lack of TV coverage is not the sole province of “A Ring of Their Own.” The entire sport of women's boxing has suffered thru a period of benign neglect in terms of coverage from mainstream TV, and it is to Rock and Sock Production's credit that they have continued to produce a telecast of their bouts. They have done this with scant help from the boxing establishment or mainstream media outlets and yet there has been a consistent and compelling quality to most of the fights presented on the nine cards. Rock and Sock Productions has fought the good fight.
And on this coming Friday night, June 23, they will continue that good fight with two more strong female boxing matchups. Returning to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, “A Ring of Their Own” has scheduled female bouts featuring three top ranked Canadian fighters along with one of the best known names in the sport. That “name” comes in the person of Mia St. John, making her boxing debut for Rock and Sock Productions. St. John will face off against Jelena Mrdjenovich, the highly regarded lightweight from Edmonton. In the other bout, Lisa “Bad News” Brown will attempt to regain her super bantamweight title from Jeannine Garside, who took the title from Brown last November in the featured bout on “A Ring of Their Own” program.
I spoke with all four fighters recently, by phone, from their various locales and they are all looking forward to June 23 in Edmonton. Lisa Brown, now living in Ontario, speaks with the lilt of her native Trinidad: “I took the first fight for granted. That was a mistake. I've watched the film over and again, and believe me, I know exactly what to do this time. I've been eating, sleeping and thinking about the return bout almost from the day after the first fight. I got yelled at by (husband/trainer) Errol and even by my sponsor, Nu-Life Nutrition. So, yeah, this next time will be different. I don't like to be yelled at.”
Jeannine Garside, who took time out from gardening at her home in Windsor, Ontario to talk on the phone, not surprisingly had a bit of a different ‘take’ on the upcoming bout: “I received a lot of advice about the first fight with Lisa, including it was too soon to take a fight like that. When I won, it was considered an upset by a lot of people, except one, me. I had a lot of confidence going into the bout. You have to have that in this sport. I feel exactly the same way about the second bout, confident.” The first bout was surprising, as much for the margin by which Garside won (99-90, 98-90, 98-91) as for the fact that Garside, with only three pro fights, was able to handle Brown, a veteran of 16 bouts.. The return matchup will probably be closer, since Brown, a veteran fighter, has shown that she learns from tough fights. She came back from a draw with Kelli Cofer in July 2003 to win a decision two years later. A Garside/Brown bout is a potential main event on any boxing card in the country.
The actual “main go” on the June 23 program features Jelena Mrdjenovich, 23 years old with sixteen fights, against Mia St. John, 38 years old, 51 fights. St. John, in the late stages of a ten-year boxing career, has recently stepped in with some of the top fighters in the lightweight division, and, having done TV commentary on previous Mrdjenovich bouts, knows the younger fighter to be “young and aggressive.” St. John notes that she is very happy with the scheduled ten-round distance. “I'm, historically, a slow starter and I like to move around as I get into the rhythm of the bout. I think my experience will pay off the longer the fight goes, so I very much prefer ten rounds.” St. John readily concedes that the end of her boxing career is in sight, “Not too much longer, maybe one or two more fights. I know for a fact I won't be fighting when I'm 40.”
Jelena Mrdjenovich knows that St. John is, by far, the most experienced boxer she has faced. “She moves well and I'll try to pick my spots as the fights progresses and, at some point, move in and try to land some big punches. I'll be at 135, the heaviest I've ever been in the ring and that may take a bit of getting used to. It will be an interesting fight. I'm really looking forward to it. After that, I hope to be able to answer some of the challenges that have come my way from fighters in Canada and the U.S. All are interesting opportunities, but right now, Mia St. John is the most interesting.
Asked about “A Ring of Their Own” and the effect the program has had on the sport of women's boxing, Garside, Mrdjenovich and Brown all agreed that Rock and Sock Production has done as much, and probably more, than any promoter to further the sport by providing a platform where female fighters are the main attraction. St. John, perhaps exhibiting the pragmatism of a fighter who has been around much longer than the other three fighters, tempered her praise just a bit. “They (Rock and Sock) are promoters, pure and simple. I'm glad they're supporting the sport, but bottom line, like all of us, they're in this business to make money and the niche they've chosen is women's boxing.” St. John's comments are clear-eyed and possess a refreshing candor, reflecting the thinking of a veteran boxer who has, over ten active years, in and out of the ring, seen every facet, good and bad, that exists in the sport. The truth of the matter regarding the impact of “A Ring of Their Own” on the sport is probably somewhere in between the two views.
Certainly, Rock and Sock Productions is in the boxing business to make money and they have chosen a previously uncovered and largely neglected aspect of the sport within which to operate. They are, as St. John said, “boxing promoters, pure and simple” and that label has encompassed, over the years, both admirable and not so admirable attributes. Over the past eighteen months and nine boxing programs, Rock and Sock has had success and they have experienced pitfalls along a rocky road of marketing the sport of women's boxing. They've done it, largely, alone, and as with every fledgling enterprise, in every business, they've made their share of mistakes and experienced their share of successes. To my eye, the successes have outnumbered the mistakes and, like the vast majority of the female fighters who have stepped into the ring for Rock and Sock, “A Ring of Their Own” has fought the good fight. They continue on June 23, doing exactly what they've done best, presenting compelling female boxing bouts. And if hard work, quality fighters and competitive bouts are a path to success, “A Ring of Their Own” and the sport of women's boxing may soon be looking at better days.