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Women's Boxing: "The Future Lies Ahead"
by Bernie McCoy
January 19, 2009


(JAN 19) As the sport of Women's boxing staggered back to it's corner after the 2008 round, I thought of Mort Sahl's long ago, ingenuous line. The future of the sport does lie ahead. That may be the best thing that can be said about Women's boxing and it's future. Whether that future will bring an improvement in the fortune of the sport and it's athletes or whether Women's boxing will continue on the meandering path that has characterized the last several years seems to be an issue of interest and concern with the turn into a new year.

Two currently active boxers, Nicole Woods and Kaliesha West, proffered passionate, inside the "belt way assessments of what needs to be done if their sport is to take it's proper place in the lineup of women's professional athletics. And anytime a thinking athlete, from inside a sport, speaks earnestly about what needs to be done to improve their sport, it is usually with the authority of a "been there, done that" perspective and makes it well worth listening to. Woods and West are proof positive of that; both women, speaking with great earnestness and passion, reiterated the long standing problems that have plagued the sport and impeded it's progress. Yes, female boxers are treated much too casually by promoters, matchmakers and a too large percentage of the boxing community, certainly relative to their male counterparts. This, in spite of the fact that female boxers work and train at their sport at least as hard as any professional boxer, regardless of the gender. Yes, there are far too many female fighters who simply will not take a step towards a competitive bout, opting instead to compile a synthetic record against overmatched opposition. Yes, there are far too many "title" bouts that hardly deserve ring time. Both Woods and West articulated, well, the ongoing shortcomings of the sport, but they stopped short of offering solutions, other than noting that for the sport and the athletes to succeed, many elements have to change. A subsequent contributor to the discussion put it best: "wishin' and hopin' don't make things better....You have to have a plan."

And Arnie Rosenthal, the creator of "A Ring of Their Own," perhaps the most innovative concept in the relatively brief history of modern Women's boxing, is a man with a plan. The articulation of Rosenthal's plan, like that of the two boxers, is cogently presented and the points range from the debatable: all-women's cards are the best venue for female fighters, to the obvious: it's better for the sport if the bouts are on television, to the astute: there exists an almost comic proliferation of titles in Women's boxing and this has essentially made championships, in the sport, largely irrelevant. Like Woods and West, Rosenthal speaks from experience. While the AROTO programs did not achieve planned-for success, the program consistently provided a well- spring of competitive bouts, featuring some of the best boxers in the sport fighting not walkover opponents but other good fighters. And, if only for that reason, Rosenthal deserves to be included in any discussion of Women's boxing, it's future and the improvement of the sport.

But here's the problem with all three dissertations. Despite coming from individuals whose knowledge is irrefutable and who, with their words, exhibit an unquestioned passion to make the sport better, neither West, nor Woods, nor Rosenthal make a direct reference to what is missing in the sport of Women's boxing. Nowhere, do any of the three mention the word or the concept of leadership. And the reason is simple: currently, in the sport of Women's boxing, there is no leadership. There are leaders, in the area of management, promotion, matchmaking, but, frankly, those leaders, in those areas, exhibit leadership that is largely parochial in both geography and interest. Those individuals are concerned, primarily, with a given fighter or fighters, a given boxing card or a given match-up between two fighters. No one in the sport of Women's boxing, no one, as the sport is currently structured, is concerned with the overall direction and improvement of the entire sport and every boxer competing in that sport. There is no leadership in the sport of Women's boxing and the sport and its athletes have largely been directionless because of that fact. If not the promoters, managers or matchmakers who will, who should, take the leadership point in the sport?

Sanctioning is defined as "authoritative approval that makes a course of action valid via support and encouragement." The sport of Women's boxing has a number of sanctioning bodies, but it is questionable whether any of the existing organizations qualify under the above definition. In the main, instead of guiding and governing the sport, most sanctioning bodies, in Women's boxing, seem content to merely observe. All too often, sanctioning bodies permit their titles to be contested by fights that do not approach championship quality or competitiveness. This lack of competitive quality, in what should be "crown jewel" bouts, make these so-called "title" fights significantly less attractive to mainstream media outlets, notably television. If sanctioning bodies are not going to respect the value of their own titles, by presenting the best possible match-up of female fighters, certainly the outside media elements cannot be expected to take notice. Additionally, all too often, faced with controversial decisions, sanctioning bodies employ the tactic of "let it go, we'lll fix it next time," straining the perception that the sanctioning body is in control of their own title belt.

Believe me, this is not a knock on any specific organization, and it's certainly true that these sanctioning groups are run by individuals who seek, and will ultimately benefit from, improvement in the sport of Women's boxing. But, it is, likewise, true, that as structured today, the sanctioning bodies operating within the sport of Women's boxing are largely reactive organizations. It is imperative that these groups become significantly more proactive, that they take the lead in the sport of Women's boxing rather than simply noting problems and "cursing the darkness."

How? Begin by eliminating all minor championship titles, those largely innocuous, irrelevant "international," "junior" and other minor classifications of "a belt for everyone" mentality. Then and only then will a sanctioning body's title belt return to singular prominence. Follow up by being much more selective in granting sanctions for championship bouts. One good fighter doesn't make a title fight, it takes two quality boxers, (one directional suggestion might be that a challenger competing for a title must come into the title bout having won her last two fights, against fighters with winning records). In other words, sanctioning bodies must begin to take pride in their belts, to place those belts on a hard-to-reach plateau and stop auctioning them off to the highest bidder. Will this cut down on the number of title fights? Absolutely, but it will also make those title fights that pass these heightened qualifications much better bouts, much more compelling to the fans and the media and, hopefully, to TV. The point is that the sport has to improve it's product and the good news is that the current depth of talent in the sport, deeper than ever before in it's history, can accommodate that goal.

It is simply no longer enough that two boxers in the ring happen to be female. In today's marketplace, those two females must possess boxing skills that leave no doubt that they deserve the title "professional." In point of fact there are too many female bouts where that is simply not the case and no one should be surprised that the media has turned a jaundiced eye toward the sport. There are, of course, several other quality control issues that need to be implemented in the sport. And it would be a wonderful starting point if a sanctioning body led the discussion of identifying these issues and how they can be solved.

Which brings up one other critical point: More women. Almost two years ago I wrote a piece that premised that there were not enough women in the sport of Women's boxing, outside the ring: [Link]  It was true then and it's true now. Thus, if the sanctioning bodies in this sport are going to truly make a difference, there simply has to be more females in positions of power within those organizations. I'm not talking about ambassadors in some foreign country, but women in a decision making position at the "home office." It's simple, the most valuable element of the sport of Women's boxing is the fighters, and they're all female. Why then do the vast majority of sanctioning bodies in this sport have a distinct lack of females at the top of their hierarchy? Here's the answer......a boy's club mentality!

There are a number of women, in the boxing community, waiting for the opportunity to take a shot at improving the sport. In 2008, Women's boxing achieved it's most successful venture in "big fight" television exposure as a result of the involvement of the lone sanctioning body that has a woman in a position of authority. And, from a matchmaking standpoint, both the past AROTO program and fight cards in the capital district of New York have benefited from the ability of women well schooled in what it takes to put together a quality, competitive female bout."

The future, indeed, lies ahead for Women's boxing. The missing ingredient for a successful future is leadership. The sanctioning bodies in the sport are well positioned to fulfill that role. In point of fact, those organizations may be the only ones capable of assuming independent, proactive leadership in the sport. Are they capable of the task? That's something only the WBC, WBA, WIBA, IFBA and others can answer. They're all charged with sanctioning the sport in the real sense of the term and, in large part, they're people who care about and are dedicated to the sport. It's time they stepped up and assumed the mantle of leadership in their sport. The future lies ahead.

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