“WOW—LOOKIE HERE, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN TEXAS,” screamed the bold-faced type on the fight poster.
Above small black and white photos depicting Barbara Buttrick and Phyllis Kugler (whose first name is misspelled as Phyliss), the ballyhoo advertising the October 8, 1957 boxing card at San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium promised that “These dolls can really fight!” Playing up the physical disparity between the two, the poster billed this eight-round Women’s World Championship Fight as pitting “Indiana’s Blonde Bombshell”, the statuesque Kugler from South Bend who admittedly resembled a pinup model more than a pugilist, against “England’s Mighty Atom of the Ring”, the diminutive Buttrick who was born in Cottingham and brought up in Hornsea. Still going strong today at the age of 90, Buttrick stood just under five-foot-tall even in the prime of her career.
The San Antonio bout that October between Kugler and Buttrick, who had recently moved to Dallas, was one of the featured attractions on an event headlined by a pair of Texas-based journeyman light-heavyweights by the name of Eloy Tellez and Santiago Gutierrez, the handbill vowing that the main event would be “The hottest local match since Kid Pancho fought Kid Lencho in the roaring twenties.” It’s impossible to guess which of the dustups between Kids Pancho and Lencho the poster is referencing, as they fought one another no fewer than eight times between 1924 and 1927 with Pancho coming out on top of their rivalry thanks to a five to three advantage. For what it’s worth, Gutierrez floored Tellez twice on his way to an eighth-round knockout victory, though for anyone present that night who may have been old enough to conjure up a point of comparison, I can’t imagine that it came anywhere close to the thrills produced by the prolonged conflict that played out between Pancho and Lencho.
The Buttrick vs. Kugler prelim was a rematch stemming from their first tussle five and a half weeks earlier at the Municipal Baseball Stadium in Pompano Beach, Florida which was declared a four-round draw. Sometime that same evening, Kugler had been presented with the Woman Boxer and Boxing’s Beauty Queen of the Year Award, as determined by the show’s promoter Glenn ‘Shep’ Shepperd, who also served on the Florida State Athletic Commission, as well as the Fraternal Order of Police. Whether this dubious distinction was bestowed upon any prior or future female fighter is not known.
Fighting out of San Antonio, Jimmy Scaramozi had compiled a 12-12-9 career record as a welterweight in the 1930s, finally hanging up the gloves following three consecutive knockout losses, all occurring in less than a seven week span. He subsequently turned his attention to the promotional end of boxing and was putting on the October 8, 1957 show which featured Barbara Buttrick and Phyllis Kugler. Scaramozi not only promoted and prominently advertised the women’s bout (even if the terminology, as pointed out at the beginning, was predictably sensationalist in nature), but helped Buttrick and Kugler obtain boxing licenses which was a first for females in the state of Texas. Although women had been permitted to compete in professional wrestling matches throughout the state with little comparable hassle, female boxers were still scoffed at and ridiculed as though they were somehow blaspheming sacred ground simply by treading upon an almost exclusively male domain.
Furthermore, Scaramozi had arranged for the Texas State Athletic Commission to sanction the confrontation between Buttrick and Kugler to be a dispute over the Women’s World Bantamweight Championship, thus ensuring the winner the honor of becoming boxing’s first officially recognized female titleholder in any weight class. It goes without saying that this was a big deal for women’s boxing, not to mention for the two combatants specifically.
Because female participants were kept from competing in Ireland’s amateur boxing tournaments in the late 1990s, an eleven-year-old Katie Taylor would arrive at the venue with her headgear already fastened on, having tucked her shoulder-length hair up beneath. Peter, her coach and father, would register his daughter inconspicuously as K. Taylor, her gender unbeknownst to both officials and opponents until one time when Katie overenthusiastically removed her protective head covering after yet another victory and the jig was up.
In a similar bit of obfuscation forty years earlier, Phyllis Kugler’s trainer, manager, and matchmaker Johnny Nate would often see to it that she was billed as Phil Kugler on fight cards, hoping not to arouse undesired acrimony relating to the negative public perception of women’s boxing. It wasn’t until she entered the ring that spectators, whatever their reactions might have been to such an unprecedented shock, were clued in to the fact that Phil was actually Phyllis. And the lovely Kugler made for quite a sight. One would best be cautioned, however, against passing judgement on Phyllis based solely on her long legs and platinum locks. Kugler packed a punch and wasn’t shy about uncorking it.
On her manager’s advice, Phyllis did utilize her physical attributes to her best promotional advantage. Outfitted not in boxing gear but a form-fitting dress the length of which left little to the most vivid imagination, and was complimented by a pair of stiletto heels, Kugler would often put in personal appearances at grand openings and car shows and other crowd-gathering functions to display her mastery of the speed bag for a full fifteen minutes while blindfolded. Beauty and the beast, Kugler proved, were not to be taken for granted as being mutually exclusive. She had famously sparred with her friend and fellow trailblazer JoAnn Hagen on The Steve Allen Show in 1956 in anticipation of their fight that December which Kugler won by virtue of a controversial decision, resulting in friction and hurt feelings between the two.
Both Kugler and Barbara Buttrick arrived in San Antonio two days ahead of their scheduled scrap to take part in a public workout at the Downtown Athletic Club. Phyllis presumably left her skirt and heels back home for this occasion. Regardless of how Kugler was dressed, she was upstaged by Buttrick who wowed the fight fans and members of the press alike with her two-round sparring session against a local bantamweight identified in the San Antonio Express as Earnest Ramon, who reportedly was ill-equipped to defend against Barbara’s left jab/right cross combinations. Phyllis Kugler could surely sympathize with Ramon after the fact as, on fight night, she would find herself in a very similar predicament.
Despite being billed as an eight-round bout, both contemporary and modern sources—including Malissa Smith’s comprehensive volume, A History of Women’s Boxing—seem to agree that the match consisted of an abbreviated six stanzas. This was probably just as well for Kugler who was repeatedly bludgeoned by Barbara Buttrick’s left jab which bruised her eye and bloodied her nose well before the tolling of the final bell.
The petite Brit could generate surprising power for someone of her stature. A few years later, Barbara relocated to Florida (and resides there still to this day) where she trained and sparred, often with men, at Miami’s storied 5th Street Gym alongside Willie Pep, Emile Griffith, and a young Cassius Clay. Duly impressed by Buttrick’s strength and stamina, Angelo Dundee remarked that she was “a perfect English lady until she climbed through the ropes. Then she transformed from a duchess into a lioness in the blink of an eye.”
Barbara applied relentless pressure to Kugler throughout the fight, throwing a heavy volume of body shots delivered with the right hand into the mix for good measure. Easily dominating every round, Buttrick was coronated as the inaugural Women’s World Bantamweight Champion by way of unanimous decision.
It is unfortunate to note that this historic event was witnessed by a mere 731 attendees. To put this striking figure into perspective, the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium—a twelve-sided, oval-shaped, domed arena which was constructed in 1926 with Spanish Colonial Revival detail accentuating its unique architecture—held a seating capacity of 5,800. All things considered, you could conceivably have heard the full brunt of Buttrick’s thudding jabs colliding with Kugler’s cheekbone all the way up in the $1.50 balcony seats.
Not to be demoralized by the lackluster turnout, promoter Jimmy Scaramozi hatched a plan whereby he would take Buttrick and Kugler on a mutually beneficial exhibition tour. The women would get to showcase their fistic talents before a rotating group of spectators in different towns, hopefully winning over a number of skeptics in the process, and Scaramozi hoped that the uncommon attraction of female fighters would bring out a decent enough amount of curiosity-seekers to help build the gate for the boxing shows he would stage all across Texas.
The State Athletic Commission, however, did not share Scaramozi’s enthusiasm for what they must have collectively viewed as a traveling sideshow. While we’re on the subject, a 19-year-old, 98-pound Barbara Buttrick cut her teeth in Tommy Wood’s boxing booth at the Epsom Fairground on Derby Day 1949. She crisscrossed England’s West Country later that year with Sam McKeowen’s show, “issuing a challenge to any girl in the crowd and giving three round exhibitions,” Buttrick later recalled. Barbara spent one season in 1950 as a member of Professor Boscoe’s Boxing and Wrestling Show ensemble, conveniently based in her home county of Yorkshire. “During the past few years I have given about 1,000 boxing exhibitions on the fairgrounds of England, France and America and none of my challengers have yet stayed the distance to collect their prize money,” Buttrick boasted in 1954.
To be fair, the Texas State Athletic Commission’s primary concern with Jimmy Scaramozi’s proposition was related to the weight discrepancy between Buttrick and Kugler, said to be approximately twenty-four pounds. Having said that, the commission’s safety-first cynicism comes across as arbitrary at best seeing as though it had sanctioned the women’s San Antonio title fight in the first place, and Scaramozi was quick to point out that it had been the smaller Buttrick who had her way with her more physically imposing adversary that night. His justification did nothing to change their minds, and Scaramozi’s concept died on the vine before it could reach fruition.
In its pages reserved for the Fights of the Month, The Ring magazine’s December 1957 issue ran a brief, backhanded writeup of the match above a picture of Kugler landing a right hook to Buttrick’s temple. “One fad that boxing can do without is female fighters,” begins the condescending little editorial. “Barbara Buttrick of England and Phyliss Kugler (same as on the fight poster, her name is again misspelled) of South Bend, Ind. went through their act at San Antonio, Texas recently with Buttrick winning. Boxing commissions should put a stop to this farce now.”
While unfortunate, these remarks are hardly surprising. But why The Ring felt the need to make them public in a section of its revered magazine meant to spotlight the best and brightest of the fight game seems like an egregious and perplexing slap in the face to the two women. This indignity perfectly illustrates how 1950s pioneers like Barbara Buttrick, Phyllis Kugler, and JoAnn Hagen not only had to concern themselves with fighting one another, but the boxing establishment and worn-out societal standards at the same time.
“I always felt that everyone should have the freedom to get involved with what they wanted to get involved with,” stated Buttrick who had been denied a boxing license by the BBBofC (British Boxing Board of Control) when she endeavored to legitimize her budding career back in her home country. “If I got hurt, it was my choice to take that chance! And I didn’t like the fact that girls really didn’t have the freedom to do whatever they felt like doing without people scowling.”
Phyllis McCormick, formerly Kugler, passed away at the age of 77 on March 6, 2014 after a two-year-long battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), survived by her husband Stephen as well as a large and loving extended family consisting of six children, ten grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. After retiring from boxing, with her loss to Barbara Buttrick accounting for her lone defeat in more than fifty fights by her estimation, Phyllis continued to live for quite some time in South Bend where she owned a consignment boutique, worked as a counselor at the Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, and advocated for rape victims as a volunteer at the S-O-S Crisis Center in St. Joseph County.
Kugler’s personal friend and ring foe JoAnn Hagen handed Barbara Buttrick her only loss in 31 career bouts by way of an eight-round unanimous decision in a 1954 contest held at the Victoria Pavilion in Calgary, Alberta, Canada which was additionally noteworthy for being the first female fight to be broadcast on the radio. Having discovered that she was pregnant in 1960, ‘The Mighty Atom’ called it a day, not too long after outpointing a novice by the name of Gloria Adams in a four-rounder the previous autumn. Buttrick would go on to become the founder and president of the WIBF (Women’s International Boxing Federation) and, just last December, was elected to join the first group of women to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Because this year’s ceremony was postponed, she will be enshrined next June in the company of modern day warriors Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, who share Class of 2020 honors with Barbara, as well as three more female fighters soon to be determined.
Indicative of how profoundly her influence has spanned across the generations, a photo of Buttrick sporting handwraps and a towel draped over her head was once featured in a Nike print ad which was captioned, “In Barbara’s day, you had to fight just to be in the ring! If you believe in something, fight for it!”
About Barbara Buttrick (http://www.caninoskarateandboxingstudio.com/barbara.html)
City of San Antonio Municipal Auditorium National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form (entered September 14, 1981—accessed at https://atlas.thc.state.tx.us/NR/pdfs/81000624/81000624.pdf)
Fights of the Month (The Ring, December 1957)
Sue TL Fox. The Boxer Named “Phil” (WBAN, July 30, 2014—accessed at https://www.womenboxing.com/kugler.htm)
Michelle Genz. Barbara Buttrick: Natives (Miami Herald, April 12, 1998—accessed at https://www.iwbhf.com/buttrick.htm)
Phyllis McCormick Obituary (South Bend Tribune, April 20, 2014—accessed at https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/southbendtribune/obituary.aspx?n=phyllis-mccormick&pid=170720832)
Malissa Smith. A History of Women’s Boxing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
Zing Tsjeng. A Pioneer of Women’s Boxing Looks Back on a Lifetime of Battles (Vice, March 6, 2017—accessed at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5e8wg/barbara-buttrick-womens-boxing-pioneer-interview)
University of Sheffield National Fairground and Circus Archive: Barbara Buttrick Collection (accessed at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/collections/barbarabuttrick
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