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Women's Boxing: "No Country for Old Boys"
by Bernie McCoy
June 2, 2010
Photo: Generic


(JUNE 2)  I was press-side, at a Bronx boxing show recently as the female bout came on. It was the fifth fight on a six fight card and featured a well publicized Bronx fighter making her return to the ring after an eight month hiatus. The bout had been selected as the "swing" bout on the national Spanish TV network, televising the card "live" and the Bronx fighter had a sizable, vocal, local following making as much noise as any of the previous bouts. On press row, the attention was a bit less focused. One writer spent the three rounds the female bout lasted, interviewing a male fighter from a previous bout. Another writer was insistent, at the end of the fight, that the bout had gone two rounds. Both these reporters are good "boxing guys," they know and deeply care for the sport. They paid close attention to the previous bouts on the card, but they viewed the female bout almost with a sense of benign neglect. It was an "old boy" attitude I hadn't expected with a bout featuring a female fighter as well known as Maureen Shea, and, to me, it was disappointing. Maybe it shouldn't have been.

Last December 4, in Albuquerque, NM, Holly Holm, possibly the best professional female boxer in the sport, was scheduled to step into the ring with Melissa Hernandez, with WIBA and NABF titles at stake. Prior to the bout, a controversy erupted over Holm's hand wrap; escalated from a minor disagreement into a standoff between the two fighters' management and eventually resulted in the cancellation of the fight. Present at the bout was an official from each of the sanctioning bodies, along with representatives from the Isleta Boxing Commission. None of these male officials were capable of stepping forward with a concerted effort to mediate the hand wrap issue and bring resolution to what, in retrospect, seemed to be a simply solved problem. It is not hard to speculate that such a dispute required, no, cried out for, an arbiter who spoke the language of the two boxers, an arbiter whose gender and professional experience in the ring matched Holly Holm and Melissa Hernandez; an arbiter who could have convinced the two female boxers that much more than twenty minutes of boxing was at stake for both them and their sport. It didn't happen. On the occasion of one of the most talked about bouts of the year in the sport of Women's boxing, there was not one female boxing official available, just male officials who stood by while the dispute escalated. Like the two guys on press row in the Bronx, these are "good boxing guys," but, on this night, they could not seem to be able to solve a very solvable problem between two female boxers.

Earlier in 2009, promoter Bob Arum appeared ready to give the sport of Women's boxing "another chance." He sought a female fighter for a spot on a Madison Square Garden card promoted by Arum's prestigious Top Rank boxing organization. He chose Maureen Shea, who, at the time, had an eye catching 13-0 record. Arum, as smart a boxing guy as there is in the sport (he will affirm this, if asked), matched Shea with one Kina Malpartida, a Peruvian fighter who came to the Arum under-card bout following two losses. Maureen Shea was, clearly, Arum's "house" fighter. The WBA eagerly added their imprimatur and sanctioned the ten rounder as a super featherweight title bout. Arum has earned his reputation as a "good boxing guy," but, in this case, he was operating on a landscape, female boxing, in which he has had scant experience. And it showed. At the time of the bout, Maureen Shea had fought one round in 14 months, scoring a quick TKO over an overmatched opponent five months before the Madison Square Garden bout. While the Garden bout was competitive, two middle-of-the-pack female fighters going ten rounds before Malpartida won on a TKO shortly before the final bell, what the bout wasn't was a match-up of two elite female fighters, in a showcase spotlight. Not surprisingly, following the bout, Arum, once more, beat a hasty retreat from Women's boxing. Again, it is fair to speculate the spotlight of Madison Square Garden could have been put to much better use, for the sport of Women's boxing, had Arum done just a bit more research within the sport; a bit more research with those who "work" the sport on a daily basis; a bit more research with people like Sue Fox or Jill Diamond. Had that happened, it's likely Bob Arum might have probed just a bit deeper into the ranks of female fighters and come to names like Ann Marie Saccurato or Melissa Hernandez or Alicia Ashley, to mention just three New York fighters. I, obviously, don't know this for a fact, but I'll wager that Bob Arum got much of his advice on the female match-up he made that night in Madison Square Garden from much the same type of guys who sat ringside with me in the Bronx.

As I have said, the people who direct the major boxing sanctioning bodies in this country, WBC, WBA, WBO, to mention just three, are, in the main, good, "boxing guys." Like most people who have devoted a large part of their adult life to the sport, they care deeply and have invested considerable time and effort in striving to assure the continued existence and success of boxing in an ever more complex and crowded sports environment. All these officials purport that their organizations are "involved" in the sport of Women's boxing. This is, literally, true. But what is also true is that none of these organizations has, in their hierarchy, a woman, imbued with the full power of that sanctioning body; a woman who can, solely, make the decisions on Women's boxing in the name of the organization. I don't mean a name on an organization chart, I mean a woman with full power to make female boxing bouts and all other decisions regarding the sport of Women's boxing on behalf of the organization. That absence, at the top of the major organizations in the sport, may have been one of the contributing factors that, recently, led to the sanctioning of a bout in Denmark between an unbeaten welterweight champion, Cecilia Braekhus, and a challenger with a 5-8 record; a bout, incredibly, sanctioned, as a title fight, by the WBC, WBA and WBO.

A cursory glance at the female sports of professional tennis, golf and basketball indicate that the success achieved by each of these professional sports was, and is, a direct result of female leadership. The undeniable fact is women are measurably better at running female sports and interacting with female athletes. And yet, no such position and no such woman exists in an individual sport exclusively populated by women athletes. And without such direction, the sport of Women's boxing appears consigned to continue along the meandering path it has traversed over the past two decades; two decades in which the sanctioning bodies in the sport have exhibited far too little interest and support in a sport and a group of athletes who still, in this day, face archaic resistance to the very existence of their sport.

If the major sanctioning bodies in the sport are, indeed, willing to commence pro active support of the sport of Women's boxing (and that's, very much, still an open question) their first move should come in the form of installing a woman with both prior boxing experience and name recognition and invest her with the authority to do what is necessary to insure that the sport of female boxing is no longer limited to regional success in certain parts of the US; to insure that it is not necessary for US fighters to travel thousands of miles across several continents to find "good" fights; to insure that everything possible is being done to encourage television networks (conventional webs such as ESPN, Showtime and Fox Sports and unconventional such as Spike and Versus) to take one more look at putting female boxing on their airwaves (the "love affair" with female MMA may be heading the way of televised poker). Big tasks? No, those are huge tasks and that's why they require the granting of unconditional support of boxing organizations such as the WBC, WBO, WBA to the right person, the right female person, for the job.

Lucia Rijker comes to mind, immediately. Christy Martin, still more closely identified with the sport than any female boxer past or present, is, likewise, ideal, when she retires. Laura Serrano has an iconic reputation in Mexico, a hotbed for the sport. Jane Couch, still involved in the sport in England, is another choice candidate. Deirdre Gogarty and Trina Ortegon have both had local boxing organization experience in Louisiana and New Mexico, respectively. All these women have had distinguished careers in the professional ring, all have experienced, from the inside, the highs and lows of the sport, in and out of the ring, all still command respect within today's boxing community. There are others, but these are the ones who, immediately, come to mind.

Similar to the current crop of female boxers, the list of possible candidates for the major boxing organizations to choose from is deep and talent laden. But, the choice, if one of these boxing organizations has the fortitude to make such a move, has to be a full throated endorsement. It has to come with a complete portfolio of support within the organization. Will it work? I don't know, no one does. But, this I do know: the sport of Women's boxing will improve. It will improve for the boxers currently languishing in the malaise that has masqueraded as progress for Women's boxing for far too long. It will improve simply because the influence of a prominent female personality in a leadership position in the sport will upgrade the interaction between major boxing organizations and the most important element in the sport, the fighters. It will improve because the landscape of Women's boxing will have at least one female voice who speaks from authority and experience in a sport that needs a multitude of such voices. It will improve because, as we've already seen, the landscape of Women's boxing is "No Country for (just) Old Boys."

Bernie McCoy

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