Arts & Culture
Hit like a girl: women boxers in a man's world
Published: February 13, 2013
Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women. (The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously — she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. Had she an ideology, she is likely to be a feminist.) — Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing
"I sometimes say I am in a relationship with boxing," — Marlen Esparza, 2012 Olympic boxing medalist.
Decades before the Marquess of Queensbury rules of sports boxing were published in 1867, bareknuckle fights between women were staged in London in the early 1700s. Centuries later, U.S. women boxers were still hard-pressed to be taken seriously in the testosterone-fueled, male dominated, sport until Christy Martin landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1996. Soon after, Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier, the daughters of two of boxing's most famous champs, fought in 2001.
For the most part, that breakthrough was short-lived, for the dearth of women boxers even today in larger cities and smaller towns often leads young female hopefuls to anxiety — finding a gym that will train them and another woman boxer for a competition match, or even just to spar, isn't easy.
In the past decade, women's boxing has grown rapidly in popularity. Most world boxing organizations now have a woman's division — ditto, the Golden Gloves competition of USA Boxing, and other amateur boxing organizations. The surge can be attributed in part to the successful Oscar-winning film Million Dollar Baby based on short stories by boxing cutman-turned-writer F.X. Toole. The trainer in the film portrayed by Clint Eastwood (who also directed) was loosely based on Toole.
One of the film's more famous lines,"I don't train girls," gave voice to the struggle women boxers face in the heretofore man's sport.
Toole died in 2002, before the film's release. As a reporter for the Express-News, I interviewed Toole when he came to San Antonio to research a never completed novel about a Tex-Mex boxer from Poteet. I asked how he felt about women in boxing after he visited a local Southside gym and briefly trained a professional woman boxer.
"I've trained women who are good fighters," Toole said. "They only fight two minutes and wear chest protectors so it doesn't hurt them up there like it does a man. That's the reason they throw a lot of headshots. My point is the bar has been lowered. That is not to say there aren't any good women fighters. As much as women may be competitive, I don't like to see women fight and get hurt. We best serve ourselves, our family and our culture to whatever gender we're born."
Fast forward: The 2012 Summer Olympics in London. For aficionados of the sweet science, and for those who have tired of women boxing matches as sideshows or opening events in professional boxing, this summer Olympics in London provided a first. Women's boxing is now considered a medal sport.