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Ninety Minutes in Gleasons Gym
by Bernie McCoy
April 6, 2009

     
   
   
   
   

(APR 6) The location was a natural and one of the women I had come to talk with was busy "working the room" in Gleasons Gym, last week, when I walked up the stone steps from Front Street in Brooklyn. Melissa Hernandez was adorned in a T-shirt that proclaimed "I am womyns boxing" and few would argue that the diminutive fighter/manager/trainer would be a prominent part of any discussion of that particular subject. It was one of the reasons I wanted to hear what Hernandez had to say about the current state of Women's boxing. The second woman arrived "fashionably late," moving across the gym with a stroll probably first honed on the boardwalk in her native Coney Island. Jill Diamond sported a jacket that almost transformed her into a walking billboard for the World Boxing Council, where she is the highest ranking female. In truth, neither of the two women required accouterments reinforcing their connection to boxing, since once they begin talking, their high IQs, on the subject of their sport, become obvious.

While Hernandez and Diamond occupy different roles in the sport of Women's boxing, they share at least one trait: both women care deeply about the sport, the athletes who step into the ring and they particularly care about the future, the successful future, of the sport. Both have the ability, when discoursing on Women's boxing, to go, instantly, "from zero to sixty" with their unequivocal opinions and insights into female boxing. Diamond and Hernandez started by agreeing that boxing, like all sports, is business, but it was the fighter, not surprisingly, who put the point in stark relief, "It's a hurtin' business," Hernandez said, "that's the purpose of this sport, to put a hurtin' on your opponent, early and often, and those who understand that best are the ones who get to the top. It's where the weak get weeded out." Diamond nodded and added, "Some managers and trainers feel it's in the best interest of their boxers to avoid this direction and try bringing their fighters along against overmatched opposition, building up a record that, in reality, is meaningless. The athletes in our sport don't accomplish anything with this strategy, other than acquiring an inevitable reputation for avoiding tough fights while, at the same time, hurting themselves and their sport."

Both women agreed that the issue of competitive bouts in Women's boxing falls directly into the purview of promoters. "There are a number of very good promoters in this sport," Diamond stated, "and by that I mean promoters who have an understanding of the full potential of what female boxers can accomplish. They're in California, New Mexico, Detroit and Indiana to mention just a few examples. These promoters regularly feature skilled female boxers on their cards, in the ring against other quality fighters. One issue, however, is that, in some instances, these strong promotional efforts are limited to one female fighter, possibly two or three, while the full range of available, quality female boxers don't get the benefit of this type of promotional efforts. Believe me, I understand the financial dynamics, but for our sport to benefit from the efforts and expertise of these promoters, they (the promoters) either need to expand the base of female boxers being featured on their cards or other promoters, in other parts of the country, need to emulate what is being done in those markets where Women's boxing is being supported. Because, the fact is, when done the right way, female boxing can be a very compelling sporting event."

Following on that thought, Hernandez cited the existing geographical diversity of the of the popularity of Women's boxing. "I was in Puerto Rico, recently, with Belinda Laracuente and the reception we received in the local boxing community was fantastic. Those people understand and care for boxing, both men and women. And it's the same in a number of other countries: Germany, Japan, Mexico, to name just three. In those countries, a female title bout is a huge happening. Here in the US, a title fight between two very good women boxers can't get 'live" TV or a front page story in the sports section." Diamond agreed, "That's a real problem. The majority of female boxing talent, today, is in the US, while the hard core fans and ongoing support for the sport seems to be overseas. There needs to be more cross pollination of US and foreign fighters, competing in both geographic locales. To date, it's been primarily a one way street, US fighters doing the traveling to other countries and given the fan support and resulting financial benefits of Europe, Asia and South America, who can blame them. But, like good promoters, the foreign countries who do female boxing the right way have to become the example of how the sport needs to be done in the states.

Hernandez and Diamond, likewise, agreed that the sport needs to improve, substantially improve, it's presence on television, Diamond noting, "Television first brought the sport to the mainstream public with Christy and Lucia and, relatively recently, when Laila broke the barrier on HBO, with the telecast of the highlights of her bout at Madison Square Garden. But let's be honest, HBO was more interested in showing Laila's dad at ringside than they were in showing Laila Ali and Shelly Burton inside the ring. Currently, it seems that the 'traditional boxing networks,' Showtime, ESPN and Fox Sports are moving back from the sport and that doesn't bode well for female boxing." Hernandez suggested that one possible alternative might be a return to the "old school" TV approach: "Remember the Saturday afternoon fights, that could work with regularly scheduled female bouts, with the best of the best women fighters matched up against each other, maybe on nontraditional networks such as 'Spike' or the 'Discovery Channel' ." Diamond followed up, "I spent a number of years in television and the one thing our sport needs to do is set itself apart from the "normal" female sports programming on the tube. That's exactly what female beach volleyball did, they carved a niche for themselves. I'm not saying put the boxers in bikinis, but possibly some kind of innovation such as open scoring or, and I know this is 'out there,' maybe some form of team boxing, something that sets the sport apart and has viewer appeal at the same time. The point is we have the talent, we've never had more good female boxers, at any time in the sport, it's just a matter of fitting all the elements together and making the sport attractive to the networks and the viewers they're trying to reach, that's the tough part. And that part has to come from those in our sport, thinking about what can be done to improve the entire sport of Women's boxing, rather than just concentrating on their own small universe."

We were winding down, the ninety minutes had passed like a quick session on a speed bag. Diamond had an appointment in Queens, Hernandez needed to give full attention to training the fighter she had been directing around Gleasons with semaphore hand signals during our talk. Did we solve anything? No, not on this day, but it was an hour and a half well spent, listening to two women who not only know "whereof they speak" when it comes to a sport they care deeply about, but who are, if the sport is to resurrect itself, exactly the type of leadership that is going to head that resurgence. Jill Diamond is right, if the sport has a chance to succeed, it's up to those "movers and shakers" to start thinking well beyond the envelope of their self interests. And they need to begin to share that thinking with others in the sport. There are a lot of smart people in Women's boxing, good boxing people, good business people. I sat for ninety in Gleasons with two of them. And a sign of a turnaround for the sport will start when Melissa Hernandez is in a boxing, regularly, with other fighters of comparable quality; that will mean bouts featuring some of the best fighters the sport has to offer. And that turnaround will continue when Jill Diamond, the person almost every female professional fighter thinks of when "WBC" is used in a sentence, is provided with the authority to put into practice some of the ideas she has for the future of Women's boxing. These are two women, in a sport of women, who can not only make conversational sense for ninety minutes talking about their sport, but they're two women who have the ability to "walk the talk" when it comes to what needs to be done in the sport of Women's boxing.

Bernie McCoy

 

 
     
     
   
 
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