“Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” (Virgil, Aeneid5.363–364)
Anyone who has trained at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn sees this sign while jumping rope and shadow boxing. And for the longest time, thousands of men have heeded this call, lacing their gloves, putting up their hands and became warriors in the ring. But over the years, the number of women who box has been slowly rising, producing some of the most skilled boxers in the amateur and professional boxing circuit. Yet most women boxers remain under the radar in the US. Women’s bouts are pre-broadcast, and many fights go unnoticed in US sports media coverage. Because of the lack of exposure, the women’s purse is typically just a fraction of what men get paid in a professional fight.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
But on March 9, 21-year-old Claressa Shields headlined Showtime’s boxing event in Detroit. Shields, from Flint, Michigan, had been a two-time Olympic gold medalist and went pro last year. As the main event, Shields and Szabados delivered a fight worthy of a headliner. “T-Rex” won by throwing power shots, 49% of which connected (according to CompuBox), and led to a TKO victory in the 4th round. Szabados was all heart, taking the beating and trying to counter but to no avail. Like Laila Ali and Lucia Rijker, Shields was pure intensity and dominance, it was difficult to imagine her losing.
I’m sure many boxing fans saw in Shields a Mike Tyson in the making, fast, strong, powerful. A star was born that night, not only in the ring, but also in the male-dominated boxing business. Tickets for the event were sold out, showing what has become an undeniable trend in combat sports: that women can headline an event and make money for everybody in the business. Shields did what Ronda Rousey accomplished in the MMA. Of course, these bouts were made possible by promoters and networks that took the chance of putting women fighters in the main draw.
#ShieldsSzabados broke a big barrier to women in US pro boxing, and it came at just the right time. Boxing has seen better days due to a number of reasons including the absence of quality matchups. Meanwhile, mixed martial arts’ (MMA) popularity continues to rise, due in part to women fighters who have delivered high-quality bouts to the UFC fans, but at the expense of boxing viewership.
Women could be the shot of adrenalin for pro boxing. Many of today’s fighters come from solid amateur boxing backgrounds and showcase skills comparable to those of men’s. Gone are the days of women boxers throwing wild punches and brawling their way to victory. I caught #TaylorGentili on youtube and saw Katie Taylor’s superb combinations. Boxers like Alicia Ashley, Amanda Serrano, Layla McCarter, Heather Hardy to name a famous few, have skill and fitness levels that are worth showcasing to a wider audience, but should get paid what they are worth regardless of gender.
Women fight two-minute rounds, a minute less than men. But women train for three anyway, and are able to fight three-minute rounds if they need to. Certainly, all pro boxers train the same way, women boxers do not get a pass because they are mothers, sisters, aunts, or wives. It is ironic that there is equality in training and sacrifice, but inequality in pay and opportunity.
This year, things are looking bright for women boxers as big name promoters have started adding them to their rosters. Golden Boy Promotions just signed up former Olympic gold medalist Marlen Esparza who will have her pro debut this month, and Mayweather Promotions signed up Layla McCarter. Let’s see if Top Rank will follow suit. On March 25th, Katie Taylor fights in Manchester and if all goes well, will be the undercard to #KlitchkoJoshua in April.
If boxing wants to regain its popularity, it needs a lifeline. The lifeline is here and it is a woman.