Women's week: brave new world for female pugilists

Luke G. Williams
05/06/2017 7:42am

After far too long in the shadows, women’s boxing is finally beginning to receive some of the recognition and coverage it deserves argues Luke G. Williams, as Boxing Monthly begins a series of features devoted to female pugilism…

The rapid growth in prominence of women’s boxing is heartening, albeit long overdue.

Women boxers have been a part of the sport since the glory days of bare-knuckle pugilism in England in the early 18th century, when Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes made her name as "the famous Championess of England".

Ironically, though, throughout the 20th century boxing - a sport which has often led the way by providing myriad opportunities for members of disadvantaged male ethnic and religious groups - lamentably failed to keep pace with the fundamental social and cultural changes that saw female citizens achieve legal equality and strive for the moral principles of parity of opportunity, pay and employment rights.

Although women's boxing was a demonstration event at the 1908 Olympics, male-dominated governing bodies across the world frequently blocked the progress and careers of amateur female boxers for decades - only in 1997 did the amateur boxing authorities in the UK allow a competition for female boxers, while the first amateur world championships for women did not take place until 2001. Finally, in 2012, women's boxing made it into the Olympics proper - tardiness that beggars belief.

Professional female pugilists throughout the 20th century were also forced to endure numerous obstacles.

In the United States there was a fleeting women's boxing boom in the late 1970s which saw Marian 'Lady Tyger' Trimiar, Jackie Tonawanda, and Cathy 'The Cat' Davis become the first female boxers to be licenced in New York state after a tense legal tussle, while Davis became The Ring magazine's first female cover star in 1978.

However, despite some national interest and attention, by the mid-80s women's boxing was relegated once again to the margins of public consciousness. In 1987, in frustration, Trimiar went on a month-long hunger strike to draw attention to the poor pay and conditions being offered to female boxers, winning publicity but little fundamental change within the boxing establishment.

In the 1990s, with the rise of the Don King promoted Christy Martin, female boxing enjoyed arguably its longest ever period of sustained popularity and public interest. Martin's thrilling bout with Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of Tyson vs Bruno 2 in Las Vegas in March 1996 helped propel the 'Coal-Miner's Daughter' on to the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Back in the UK, though, there was yet to be a single professionally licenced female boxer, a situation that only changed in 1998 when the 'Fleetwood Assassin' Jane Couch convinced a tribunal that the British Boxing Board of Control's previous refusal to grant her a licence had been an act of sexual discrimination.

The much hyped 'Ali vs Frazier IV' scrap in 2001 between Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde won huge media attention worldwide and was arguably the high watermark of the female boxing boom years in the United States.

In the years since, the balance of power in female boxing has shifted to the UK and Europe, fuelled by the success and high profile of amateur stars such as Great Britain's Nicola Adams and Ireland's Katie Taylor, as well as the stunning professional achievements of a succession of highly skilled and successful female pugilists from Holland's Lucia Rijker to Norway's current pound-for-pound queen Cecilia Braekhus.

The 35-year-old Braekhus is now a pay-per-view headliner in her home country, capable of consistently attracting huge television viewing figures and live crowds of above 10,000.

In the United States, meanwhile, the double gold medal success of Claressa Shields, who has also now turned professional, has helped reinvigorate the sport's profile, and the future for female pugilism worldwide now looks brighter than ever.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol that the current women's boxing boom will last, rather than prove fleeting, is that some of the previously sceptical male figures within the sport, for example Barry McGuigan and Frank Warren, have now finally been won around.

As McGuigan recently wrote in his regular column in The Mirror newspaper: "In the past I have expressed unease at the idea of women fighting. I was wrong. I hold my hands up. Sometimes it’s difficult to escape ways of seeing the world passed on through the generations.

"I can’t apologise for my upbringing. I am a product of time and place. But times change and so do attitudes. Watching the likes of Clarissa Shields at the Olympics, Katie Taylor, Nicola Adams, Natasha Jonas proved how wrong I was.

"And not just them. Norway’s Cecelia Braekhus, a former kick boxer, and Amanda Serrano from Puerto Rico are both terrific, exciting talents. Women’s boxing has come on leaps and bounds."

McGuigan is correct and long may the current interest in women's boxing continue to grow, thus ensuring pugilists of both genders are given the opportunity to shine.