A History of Women's Boxing: Malissa Smith interview
Luke G. Williams
Malissa Smith's painstakingly researched and admirably wide-ranging 2014 book 'A History of Women's Boxing' is the definitive work on female pugilism. Luke G. Williams quizzed the author about the book and much more besides...
BM: Can you explain your own background in boxing? Where did your love of the sport originate from?
MS: I grew up in New York City in the 1960s. Kids in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side boxed - and while it never occurred to me that a girl could break down those barriers, I used to love to watch boxing and wrestling on our small black-and-white television, never mind a tumble or two with my brother. When I was 12, my uncle taught my younger brother and I the 'old one-two'. For years I carried that lesson of how to turn my left fist for the jab followed by a quick straight right as a point of pride. Fast forward to lifetimes later - when in the early 1990s my interest in boxing resurfaced. It still took some definite fits and starts like 'boxercise' classes at a local health club before I was ready to fully embrace the sport, when I walked into the storied Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York and began to learn the 'sweet science' in earnest in 1997. I’ve boxed there ever since and, with the exception of a few periods of inactivity, train at the gym thee days a week to this day. While I’ve never competed, I do spar, and love the camaraderie of boxing people.
BM: What spurred you into writing 'A History of Women’s Boxing', and what were some of the research challenges you faced?
MS: I went back to college to obtain my Master’s degree in Liberal Studies at SUNY’s Empire State College and around the same time started a blog called Girlboxing that tackled the sport both in terms of my personal journey and the issues facing professional and amateur female boxers. Those experiences led me to write my Master’s thesis on the topic of women’s boxing with respect to gender boundaries. Finding material on the history of women in boxing proved difficult when I wrote my thesis. Luckily, Rowman and Littlefield, who were looking to expand their titles on topics in women’s sports, approached me. We agreed that the timing was perfect to put out a history of women’s boxing.
The greatest challenges in writing the book were the dearth of materials available. Some scholars had written books, articles or dissertations about topics related to the sport, but there were no histories. Given that I wanted to demonstrate the place of women in the sport back to England in the 1720s, the challenges were even greater. What I found, however, was an opportunity to explore contemporaneous newspaper sources - and by tracing the articles and topics across newspaper syndicates, cities, and even continents, a picture began to emerge of how women not only fit into the sport of boxing, but of its place in popular culture from generation to generation and place to place. The most exciting part of that research was realising I was among the first scholars to truly mine the information. The more recent eras were augmented with original interviews - though I wished I’d more time to spend on that. I also would have liked to spend time in England to dig through archives to discover even more about what boxing was like in the early 1700s, in the era of James Figg and Jack Broughton.
BM: For those boxing fans who haven’t read the book, can you summarise the main reasons why they should read it?
MS: The book satisfies two things. For one, it provides (most humbly), a good source of detailed information on women’s boxing from the 1720s through to the Olympics of 2012- along with some thoughts on the challenges facing today’s female boxers. Of particular interest to me as I wrote it was to learn how big the sport was in the 1880s – early 1900s, especially on the variety theatre stage, which became a platform for 'smoker' fights after the performances were done. That was definitely not what I expected to find.
Aside from boxing - I really tried to provide a context for the place of women in any given era that I wrote about, and the reasons why boxing may have been more, or less, accepted. From that perspective, the book also reads as a history of the place of women in popular culture through the lens of boxing, a sport that has long been considered 'hypermasculine,' but one that has accepted women, however begrudgingly, from time to time!
BM: What has the response has been to the book since its publication in 2014?
MS: The most amazing thing about the reception of the book was having The Ring Magazine proclaim the book 'The Bible of Women’s Boxing'! Aside from that, the book has been well received by the press, the academic world, and most importantly by the women who box. It is my privilege to train alongside many world champion female boxers at Gleason’s Gym - and seeing how hard they struggle up-close, spurred me on in the first place to represent what they do with as much attention to detail as possible. That trust continues to spur me on - with the hope that the book can be a platform for other scholars to expand and improve upon what I started.
BM: The book draws to a close around about the time women’s boxing was finally afforded full Olympic status. What are your feelings about how women’s boxing has developed in the five years since the London Olympics?
The struggle for recognition of the sport by the Olympic Committee was epic in and of itself. Since then there has certainly been an even greater push to gain recognition and acceptance of female amateur boxing athletes. Some countries have begun to support their national team financially and AIBA, the world boxing organisation, has pushed to expand the three Olympic boxing weights to five. As well, elite amateurs now fight three-minute rounds, which was a huge change towards greater equity.
On the professional side, the struggle continues - certainly in the US, where only in the last year or so have female fights been shown on television after a dearth of at least ten years. Pay also remains very, very low. Internationally, however, there is greater acceptance in some regions, Mexico, Argentina; parts of Europe and Asia have seen growth in the sport. Another phenomenon has been the recent change in status for some of the Olympic stars of the 2012 and 2016 Games. Claressa Shields (2x Gold), Nicola Adams (2x Gold), Katie Taylor (1x Gold), and Marlen Esparza (1x Bronze), are among a group of Olympians that have turned professional since the 2016 Games. It remains to be seen what the impact on the sport will be - or whether it will spur the sport to greater heights and paydays for the athletes.
I also think the rise of women’s MMA in this period is having an impact as well and, given the high level of boxing skills of the Olympians, they will have an opportunity to have a lasting impact on the viability of the growth of women’s boxing as a sport popular with the fans.
BM: If you were to pinpoint, say, three figures from the history of women’s boxing as the ‘most significant’ (or particularly significant) who would they be and why?
Hmm. That’s not easy - but in terms of looking at women’s boxing from the 1950s on forward, it would have to start with Yorkshire’s own 'The Mighty Atom of the Ring' Barbara Buttrick. Not only was she a fierce competitor in boxing shows across England, France and the United States, but in the mid-1990s she started the Women’s International Boxing Federation to promote professional female boxing and all female boxing shows.
Christy Martin Salters is of paramount important to the sport. She was the first female boxer signed by Don King, and literally put the sport on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine after her bout with Deirdre Gogarty on 16 March 1996. She dominated the sport for years afterwards and inspired a generation of women to enter the ring.
To this day, certainly in the United States, if you ask someone if they can identify a female boxer, they will unequivocally state, “Laila Ali.” As Muhammad Ali’s daughter she had immediate name recognition, but she was able to transcend that through her own brand of charisma, reasonable boxing skills, and willingness to represent the sport. All of that translated into a 'crossover' appeal into the realm of celebrity that endures to this day even though she retired from the ring in 2007.
BM: Do you have an opinion as to who the ‘greatest’ female boxer of all time is?
I won’t touch that one - except to say, each era has its brilliant standard bearers! The greats that come to mind since Christy Martin and Deidre Gogarty’s showing on the Mike Tyson card in 1996 includes - but is definitely not limited to - such fighters as Christy, Deidre, Lucia Rijker, Ann Wolfe, Layla McCarter (who is still fighting and has championed three-minute rounds), Belinda Laracuente, Regina Halmich, and on and on!
BM: Do you think three-minute rounds should become standard in women’s boxing, as opposed to two-minute rounds?
MS: Women have been contesting three-minute rounds since the inception of that standard. That having been said, many jurisdictions, at the time they legalised the sport, but limits on the length of the rounds because they were concerned about women’s stamina, et al. I personally think it’s ridiculous, especially given that women train using the three-minute clock. I mean I do, and I’m 62 years old! Some states are now giving women the option though there is still a lot of backlash against it. The WBC for one refuses to sanction three-minute rounds, and issues have arisen among pros themselves who’ve asked to be paid more for fighting longer.
As far as I’m concerned there’s no reason not to have three-minute rounds and once it is in place, the last of the rationales for why women’s boxing isn't really 'legitimate' will fall.
BM: What changes would you like to see in the future to ensure that women’s boxing continues to thrive and grow?
MS: Among other things a commitment to put professional women’s bouts on fight cards and to feature up and coming fighters, title eliminator bouts and championship contests on television/cable/pay per view, along with prominence as main events or co-main events. This will not only serve to increase the fan base but prove to promoters, sponsors, sanctioning organisations, and importantly advertisers, once and for all, that female boxing is exciting, highly skilled, entertaining, and more often than not, the fight of the night. Attention must also be paid to paying women fairly and providing promotional opportunities that are similar to their male counterparts. A focus on women’s professional tournaments to firmly establish the legitimacy of boxing titles will also go a long way towards helping develop talent within individual divisions.
On the amateur side, support for bringing girls into the gym, along with opportunities to compete locally, regionally, nationally, and ultimately internationally as they raise in age, should be provided. That support not only means financial sponsorship, but also, creating a climate where female athletes are accepted for their prowess in the ring without consideration for what their gender happens to be. This last point is very, very important because that acceptance is what will lead to not only a wider preponderance of the sport, but the development of greater skills and a higher boxing IQ at much younger ages to match the boys.
BM: On Friday, women’s pound for pound number 1 Cecilia Braekhus faces Erica Anabella Farias in an outdoor pay per view event in Norway with around 15,000-plus spectators expected to be in attendance. What’s your view of Braekhus and what effect do you feel events such as this will have on the general perception and profile of women’s boxing?
MS: This is great for women’s boxing and great for Cecilia Braekhus who at 30-0 continues to top out the P4P list in the sport. She has also been dominant in the Welterweight division and, by meeting Erica Anabella Farias (24-1) the WBC super lightweight champion, is taking on a tough competitor who is stepping up in weight to take the fight. Farias’ only loss was to Delfine Persoon three years ago in Belgium who took the WBC lightweight title at that time. If Braekhus has taken criticism for boxing Mia St. John a few years ago, and for her unwillingness to box outside of Europe, her bouts on her home turf with Anne Sophie Mathis and Klara Svensson have left no doubt that she is willing to take on opponents with strong skills and a good pedigree in the sport. As for the fight itself, Farias and Braekhus are similar in style; both are aggressive strong punchers, though Braekhus will grab to tie up her opponents. As the smaller fighter, Farias will have to leverage her size to attack the body and stay out of the way of Braekhus arsenal of looping punches.
These kinds of events with well-matched, skilled opponents are great for the sport. It will be televised which will broaden the audience, and given Farias’ following in Argentina, that will only enhance the visibility of the bout. It would be great if one of the American outlets would pick up the fight as well, which would add more momentum to the increased visibility of female boxing matches. Layla McCarter, herself a constant on the P4P list, is also very hungry to fight Braekhus, and if this fight proves successful, and if Braekhus is willing to fight in the US, a Las Vegas extravaganza could be in the offing, especially since McCarter is now signed with Mayweather Promotions. Time will tell on that one.
BM: What does the future hold for yourself and women’s boxing?
MS: I am currently writing a chapter for inclusion in a scholarly anthology of topics on women’s boxing that should be published some time in 2018. I am also looking to write a new book related to women’s sports and boxing - though a publication date has not been set as yet. Other than that, I will continue to write about the sport and keep up my @girlboxingnow handle on Instagram and Twitter. I’ll also continue to keep up with my own boxing for as long as I possibly can, after all #ageisjustanumber!