I recently caught wind of a new push to propel women's back into the limelight where it..how to put this delicately…it hasn't been for a bunch of years.
Me, I'm not one of those guys who applauds that. I say to each his own, if your eyes are wide open, be it man or woman, you should feel free to enter that ring and test yourself. I know that warrior hearts, unlike my own “regular” one, are placed into the bodies of people of both genders…
I thought this time frame before the renewed push to make the female pugilists a more marketable group would be a good time to check in with author Malissa Smith. She just released a book called “A History of Women's Boxing,” and I wanted to pick her brain about the past, present and future for the females who dare to enter this male dominated realm.
Q) You just did an event for the book at the famed Gleason's Gym, in Brooklyn. Can you tell me how it went at Gleasons?
It was a wonderful event. It lasted for approximately two hours and included an exhibition of women's boxing and a reading from A HISTORY OF WOMEN'S BOXING.
Q) How was the turnout? What were the highlights?
A) Forty to fifty people attended in all including the WBC's Jill Diamond, Harold Lederman and his wife Eileen, and Julie Lederman. I was truly honored that they came to show their support for women's boxing. The biggest highlights for me was having two champions, Alicia “Slick” Ashley and Keisher “Fire” McLeod-Wells give a two-round exhibition. They wowed the audience, many of whom had never actually seen a female bout. Boxer Sonya “The Scholar” Lamonakis acted as MC and gave the audience background on the sport — and of course having the opportunity to address the crowd of assembled guests was an amazing feeling for me. I not only read a passage, but talked about the pride women boxers should take in knowing that women have been boxing for hundreds of years.
Q) Can you tell me how you started liking boxing, and a bit more about you…where did you grow up?
A) I grew up in Manhattan on the Lower East Side — East 12th Street to be exact — in the early 1960s. I was first exposed to boxing there and I grew to love the sport watching Muhammad Ali fights. Another of my favorites was Ken Norton, who had that devastating overhand right. When I was 12 my uncle taught my brother and I the old “one-two” and I was hooked, though it never occurred to me that I could actually box myself until the late 1980s/early 1990s when I began to hear that women were boxing. I finally “crossed the divide” myself into Gleason's Gym in late 1996 and have been training there off and on ever since.
Q) What were your top takeaways from researching for the book?
A) The main one was to learn how entrenched in the culture female participation in the sport truly was whether as fighters, practitioners for exercise, spectators, or behind the scene as managers, refs and even trainers. When I started the project I really didn't know what I would find, just that I'd read that women had boxed in the early 1720's alongside James Figg, who was a big proponent of female prize fighters, and the story about the female bout for a silver butter dish at Henry Hill's in 1876. What I discovered was a rich, well-documented story of women of the ring pieced together through press clippings from the eras I researched. The other thing was understanding how entrenched female boxing was in popular culture — whether negative or positive, and even to the point of having a female boxer named Hatttie Stewart (The Female John L. Sullivan) on a playing card in the mid-1880s as one of the best athletes in the world. I was able to come to the conclusion based on the amount of ink on the subject in the press, and not only the big city dailies, but reprinted from the wire sources in newspapers across the world. It was truly startling revelation.
Q) Is the public ready for the females in boxing to once again step to the fore? We had Christy Martin, and Laila Ali…but there has been a lack of coverage and interest for a spell.
A) Certainly if one attends fight cards with female bouts, the crowds are wildly enthusiastic about the fighters — however, it is hard to know the interest level when fights are broadcast–as there have been so, very, very few over the last few years. From the perspective of media promotion–we LOVE a heroine of the stature of Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker or Laila Ali, and right now there are MANY talented female fighters, frankly with greater skills, or certainly the equivalent of Lucia Rijker, who from a pure skill-level was the best of her generation. The problem is, since there is no TV coverage, they are only known by the fans who follow them and the select few boxing writers who report on the sport. Two factors which may help propel the sport into the limelight again are: 1) the rise of female MMA bouts which have wowed audiences with their remarkable skill levels and athleticism and 2) the fact that the sport is now contested at the Olympics. I'll tell you, Michael, I've just been at the Women's National Golden Gloves and was blown away not only by the skills of current USA Boxing members such as Christina Cruz, Virginia Fuchs and Marlen Esparza (incidentally a bronze medal winner in 2012), but the young girls who boxed, some as young as eight, were truly gifted boxers. What we all saw there were the future of the sport: those who will contest and win medals in 2016 and 2020, and those who will make the transition to professional boxing every bit as skilled as true boxer's boxers as their male counterparts.
Q) Has there been a correlation between the women's rights movements, and how females are treated as a whole in the US, and how popular and accepted female boxing is?
A) That is a particularly perceptive question and very apt when it comes to the acceptance of women in the sport. If one looks at the long arc of participation, say going back to the 1880s on through contemporary boxing, women who box and frankly who participate in any way in the sport, including as spectators, skirt the edges of presumed female interests and behavior. Boxing has, after all, been associated with a kind of hyper-masculinity all the way back to Greco-Roman times–and it is, I believe, hard to break through the association of boxing and maleness for many people. And, even though we talk about acceptance of strong women, there is a reluctance to do so. There are two periods were the women's movement had it's greatest effect: with the rise of the suffragist (EDITOR NOTE: A suffragist is one who works to get voting rights for people who don't have them.) movement, which paralleled the concept of the “New Woman” roughly from the period of the 1880s – World War I, and the late 1960s-early 70s, when women's militancy led them to take to the courts to garner equal rights, including the right to box. Interestingly, and counter-intuitively, women of the ring are *very* accepted in places we would think of as having particularly “macho” cultures — such as Mexico and Argentina. I truly have not been successful in really accounting for why Americans are uncomfortable with seeing women in the ring boxing, but have no issue with MMA, judo, and other martial sports. What I fall keep falling back on is the deep-seated association of boxing with manliness, something, quite frankly, women never really consider, but still seems to be a pervasive meme in popular culture. Where that goes from here is anyone's guess.
Q) What do you want the average reader to take away from the book?
A) My hope is that readers not only gain an appreciation for the history of the women in the ring, but also for the place of women in general in the eras I researched. We do not often gain insights into the work-a-day world of women from earlier eras, and it is my hope that readers will be wowed by all that women were able to accomplish.