Lady Tyger’s Tale: How Marian Trimiar Mauled the Boxing Establishment of the 1970s and 80s

Lady Tyger!

To Feed the Ambition in Your Heart is Like Carrying a Tiger Under Your Arm

“They will love you and hate you for being black, white, fat, thin, a boxer. Can’t worry about what people say,” Marian Trimiar reflected more than twenty years after embarking on a life-altering journey as a female prizefighter who adopted the alter ego of Lady Tyger. “I was world lightweight champion in 1979. It was the legal stuff that wore me down, but I did love the one on one. I just wanted to box, not go to court.” As a means to an end, however, to do one she was required to do the other.

A black woman competing in a sport dominated and regulated by predominately white males, Tyger had two imposing obstacles to leap over in her quest for respect and legitimacy. “I slept, ate, ran boxing. It didn’t give me nothing back,” Trimiar lamented retrospectively. “You don’t realize the prejudice out there. Of all the isms, and I know them all, sexism is the worst.”

Growing up in Harlem, ten-year-old Marian was already keenly aware of at least some of those isms. She would watch Muhammad Ali fight on TV and dream that maybe boxing could be her “vehicle out of the ghetto.” She would hang around the local gyms to sit quietly by and revel in the sights and sounds of the sparring sessions. When she mustered up the courage to tell everyone about her ambition to become a fighter one day, they all laughed at her. The Tyger had been pulled by the tail, and not for the last time. Far from it.

Fittingly for the future women’s boxing pioneer, Trimiar attended Julia Richmond High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan which was named after New York’s first female District Superintendent of Schools. Not long after graduation, Marian threw caution to the wind at the age of eighteen and began training when she wasn’t engaged with social work or singing spirituals. To the wonder and dismay of all, she returned to the gym without hesitation after having gotten pummeled by her male sparring partner on her first day. Being deliberately worked over in the ring became standard operating procedure, and Marian knew she had no choice but to adapt or perish in this unforgiving environment. So serious was Trimiar’s dedication to this endeavor that she made known her preference to being referred to not by her birth name of Marian but by her ring moniker of Tyger, which is a wish we shall respectfully grant from this point forward.

“My folks were really nervous,” Tyger remembers. “I’d come home all bruised and lumpy. But I was kind of proud of those lumps.” On one occasion, a sparring mate cracked one of Trimiar’s teeth. She nonchalantly spits it out on the canvas and, without missing a beat, picked right up where she left off. Black eyes, broken teeth, personal hang-ups, and mean-spirited mockery notwithstanding, there was no doubt that this girl with the pretty smile and wide expressive eyes was for real and would do whatever was necessary to silence the doubters and critics. And they were legion.   

 

When I Was In My Prime

This is not to suggest that Tyger was without supporters or had to go it alone. In preparation for her amateur debut, Trimiar had begun a serious training regimen at the Wagner Housing Authority Center in East Harlem under the tutelage of Mickey Rosario who, with his wife Negra, coached aspiring youngsters from all over East Harlem. What must have looked like an inspirational scene being filmed for a feel-good boxing movie transpired in real life when a large group of neighborhood kids shadowed Trimiar from her apartment to the subway which would convey her to the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights where the AAU was sponsoring a show on the evening of May 1, 1974. The children followed behind, throwing punches at mailboxes and parking meters while chanting the name of their twenty-one-year-old hero who cut quite a figure in a maroon crushed velvet outfit, with hat to match, and white platform shoes. Exuberant cries of “Good luck, Tyger!” were expelled from passing cars.

The historic venue that hosted Trimiar’s first fight had attracted attention on a nationwide scale for all the wrong reasons nine years earlier. It was while addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity from the stage of the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 that Malcolm X was assassinated by rival members of the Nation of Islam. Nevertheless, Tyger exclaimed, “I have been dreaming of this day for two years. It’s something I really want to do. I’m serious about boxing, but people can’t believe it.”

One of those unbelievers was Metropolitan AAU Boxing Chairman Matt Cusack who disrupted the proceedings after Trimiar and her opponent—nineteen-year-old Diane Corum, a friend of Tyger’s who outweighed her by forty-nine pounds—were already situated in their respective corners. Cusack demanded that they vacate the ring until all other scheduled bouts had been contested, and it wasn’t until damn near the stroke of midnight that Trimiar and Corum were permitted to finally exchange leather for three rounds in front of 300 appreciative spectators, among them members of Tyger’s family who collectively comprised a gospel group they called the Singing Trimiars. If a verdict was indeed rendered that night, it was not recorded for posterity. More than likely, the unsanctioned fight was declared a draw or no-contest. If so, it mattered little if at all to Tyger. “I’m going to do it again,” she enthused afterwards. “I’ll go to court if I have to.”

Boasting a record of 24-1-1, Vito Antuofermo was fast ascending the middleweight rankings and gearing up for his stiffest test to date against battle-tested veteran Denny Moyer at Madison Square Garden on September 9, 1974. The Saturday prior, Garden promoter John F.X. Condon arranged for a boxing exhibition to take place during the annual San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy with an eye toward bringing attention to Antuofermo, who was born in ‘Bel Paese’ and resided in Brooklyn.

To cap off the afternoon festivities, Condon invited Lady Tyger Trimiar to compete in a two-round exhibition against fourteen-year-old Junior Olympic lightweight champion Miles Ruane in a makeshift ring erected outside the La Bella Ferrara cafe on Mulberry Street. Since making her debut, Trimiar had significantly stepped up her training thanks to Mack Williams, who worked with her at the world famous Gleason’s Gym. Before Tyger boxed Ruane, she was given the opportunity to spar one round with Antuofermo. The New York Times writeup of the proceedings stated that Vito, who, unlike Trimiar, was wearing headgear, “only feigned at fighting, doing little more than fending off Tiger’s[sic] flurries.” The photo accompanying the article depicts a determined Tyger, “wearing her black trunks long and loose in the manner of Archie Moore,” sticking a left jab in Antuofermo’s face.

Trimiar then engaged with “freckle-faced, red-haired” Miles Ruane in the featured attraction, the two having agreed to eschew body-punching, busily traded jabs before a standing room only assembly of onlookers. “Right now I’m the only woman boxer and I’m trying to convince the American Olympics officials that there ought to be a girl’s boxing team,” Tyger told the sports reporter dispatched to cover the event.

Tyger was not the only woman boxer, of course. In fact, there were plans to match her opposite a notable fistic peer twenty years her senior, not to mention with a forty-pound weight advantage and questionable reputation, by the name of Jackie Tonawanda. At least that was one of the names by which she was known. Born Jean Jamison in 1933, Tonawanda also went by Jackie Garrett and, once she had undertaken boxing as a vocation, referred to herself as ‘The Female Ali.’ Tonawanda claimed to have been shown the ropes, so to speak, by Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and, in turn, mentored a young Marian Trimiar. 

Her associations with the former heavyweight champions reported in the New York papers could not be substantiated, and Tyger never made mention of having had a relationship, personal or professional, with Tonawanda prior to their pairing in the local press. Jackie did get to pay a visit to her legendary namesake during Muhammad Ali’s training camp at the Concord Hotel in upstate Kiamesha Lake, New York. She was given access to the champion’s gymnasium and even got to spar with Ali, who was readying himself for his third fight against Ken Norton. “Ali’s hands are faster than ever,” raved Tonawanda. “His combinations were beautiful—a jet plane would do second to him.”

The bout between Tonawanda and Tyger was being proposed for November 1974, to be held at Madison Square Garden. This would have established a historic precedent for the world-renowned venue, and Trimiar even went to the trouble of having custom chest protectors made for both of them. To make the fight happen, however, Trimiar and Tonawanda would first have to go through the formality of securing licenses from the New York State Athletic Commission. Easier said than done, as it would turn out.

The two women appeared at the NYSAC offices at 270 Broadway on the morning of October 7 where they each filled out an application, paid a $5 fee, had their fingerprints taken, were sworn in by Commissioner Ralph Giordano, and underwent medical exams. It was expected that, after the Commission conducted their standard review process, a verdict would be rendered by early November which would allow for their Garden bout to take place, albeit on short notice. “One of my reasons for applying,” asserted Trimiar, “is to open the doors for others.”

With the NYSAC dragging its heels for more than two months and no anticipated response forthcoming, Tonawanda filed a sex discrimination complaint in January 1975. This forced the Commission to move from procrastination to a proactive measure, and a letter of unanimous denial was sent by Chairman Edwin B. Dooley to both Tonawanda and Tyger. Dooley justified his official refusal by insisting that he was duty-bound to enforce Rule 205.15 of Part 205 which had been on the books since 1928 and stated, “No woman may be licensed as a boxer or second or licensed to compete in wrestling with men.” 

When faced with a “showcase order” to defend his stance before the New York State Supreme Court, Dooley doubled down on his resolution to keep Trimiar and Tonawanda out of the prize ring. “The licensing of women as professional boxers would at once destroy the image that attracts serious boxing fans and brings professional boxing into disrepute among them,” he declared. Dooley further expressed concerns with regard to “endangering their reproductive organs and breasts,” in addition to proclaiming that “the Commission is not satisfied that there are a sufficient number of qualified women available as professional competition.”

With her prizefighting prospects dead in the water as far as New York was concerned, Tonawanda instead signed on for a mixed gender exhibition at Madison Square Garden on June 7, 1975. In the second of five scheduled rounds, with what was coincidentally compared to Ali’s “phantom punch” which toppled Sonny Liston in their infamous rematch, Jackie scored something of a dubious knockout of kickboxer Larry Rodania, who himself seemed to have an indistinct status among aficionados of mixed martial arts. “It didn’t seem to be a very competitive match,” said Tyger Trimiar who attended the event with her mother and father. “He wasn’t very aggressive. Also, the fight was not a boxing match, so she can’t count it as if it is boxing. Just like the times I went to Japan and boxed a wrestler.” If only I had more insight to offer into Tyger’s excursions to Japan but, other than a few surviving photos, these fights remain enigmatic in their own right.

Around this same time, Tonawanda allegedly filmed a scene for the Dustin Hoffman thriller Marathon Man. Like much of her life story and boxing resume, this cannot be verified. The exploits she bragged about so often, such as having as many as 34 knockouts in 36 career victories, and being offered a fight with Mike Quarry in 1976, were dismissed as a “figment of her imagination.” Trimiar clearly wasn’t buying into the hype. “When we tried to work together, we couldn’t work together because it was either her way or no way. I did try very hard with her,” offered Tyger. “I don’t recall her ever talking about who she had fought, and anytime you try to start probing about it, she would shut you down.”

A few years before dying of colon cancer in 2009, Tonawanda claimed that the majority of bouts she had spoken of were exhibitions or non-sanctioned fights of the “underground” variety, although even this admission is generously open to interpretation. The only legitimate result on her professional boxing record is a February 1979 six-round split decision loss to Diane ‘Dynamite’ Clark in Louisville, Kentucky. Clark, a last-minute substitute for Lillian Wells, played the role of spoiler in defeating Tonawanda for the vacant WWBA (World Women’s Boxing Association) light-heavyweight championship on the undercard of Greg Page’s pro debut. Jackie and Tyger would never stand in opposite corners of a boxing ring, but their shared struggle to get licensed in New York State would make their names synonymous nonetheless. More on that soon to follow.

 

Sit Atop the Mountain and Watch the Tigers Fight

Trimiar would have to wait until December 22, 1975 to see the dawn of her professional boxing career, and travel across the border to Canada for the purpose of scoring a four-round points win over Debra Babin in Gatineau, Quebec. Tyger took on twenty-three-year-old Gwen Gemini at the Waterbury Armory three weeks later in Connecticut’s first ever women’s bout. Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama, Gemini, not unlike Lady Tyger, was a relative newcomer to the prize ring. But she was no stranger to fisticuffs, having learned to defend herself at an early age against two rambunctious older sisters and less than enlightened classmates in her recently desegregated school.

Trimiar and Gemini’s no-decision contest in Connecticut was controversially given the go-ahead by Boxing Commissioner Mary Heslin. “If we had it to do again, we probably wouldn’t sanction such a match,” remarked Joseph McDonough, Deputy Commissioner of the State Consumer Protection Department. “But there was nothing in our rules and regulations which forbade women from boxing, so Commissioner Heslin approved the fight.” 

Former featherweight great Willie Pep had been under consideration to serve as the third man in the ring, but was denied a referee’s license after a police investigation found that “he had links with persons of questionable character.” Newspaper accounts differ as to the attendance, ranging from a dismal turnout of 700 to a 3,000-capacity sellout, as well as audience reaction, be it an enthusiastic response or a shower of boos reflective of the female fight “driving the final nails into the coffin” on the possibility of any such future female endeavors in the state of Connecticut.

Wasting little time in between, Tyger and Gemini would square off again that same month, this time at the Philadelphia Arena as a preliminary attraction to the main event between hometown middleweight sensation Willie ‘The Worm’ Monroe and Carlos Marks of Trinidad, who were likewise resuming hostilities. Trimiar and Gemini appeared together on the Mike Douglas Show alongside Rocky Marciano to promote the four-round exhibition, a first for women in Pennsylvania, and Tyger put in a good deal of face time with the local press leading up to fight night.

Meeting with sportswriters at Joe Frazier’s Gym, where she conducted public workouts prior to the bout, Trimiar addressed the fascination over her newly clean-shaven head. “Because it’s me,” she casually explained to the inquisitive Bob Wright of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. “Clean, unique. And, it’s very convenient.”

Regardless of whether she is pictured sporting a fashionable afro, a mohawk, or a clean-shorn skull, Trimiar bears a striking resemblance to Nina Simone, the singer-songwriter referred to as The High Priestess of Soul. Described as “articulate and pleasant,” it was suggested that Tyger was “too pretty for the ring.” One of her intended male sparring partners was overheard saying, “Man, I can’t hit her in the face.” As to her motivation behind setting out on a journey that so many others found simply unfathomable, Trimiar commented, “I am a pioneer, you see. Those who come after me will get a lot more out of this.” How true these sentiments would turn out to be. 

“As far as money goes,” she continued, “I don’t think I get what I deserve. I don’t even know how much I’ll get from this fight. I won’t get what I deserve until society takes us seriously.” By her subsequent calculation, Tyger estimated that she earned as little as $300, and only as much as $1,200 per fight throughout the course of her career. It wasn’t uncommon for her to travel without a trainer to save on expenses and simply borrow one from another boxer on the night of the fight. Trimiar remembered one such occasion in Baltimore when, out of sheer necessity, she was forced to rely on “an old man with shaky hands” who proceeded to misplace her $60 mouthpiece.  

“One day I just got fed up with being passive. Women have been passive for too long,” she told Jim Dent of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They will take anything. They will accept anything. I don’t think people take us seriously enough. In my first bout, a couple of guys were yelling, ‘Why don’t you get back in the kitchen?’ You see, I don’t really hear that. And I want to be taken seriously.”

Unlike Gwen Gemini, Trimiar refused to comply with the State Athletic Commission’s insistence upon both competitors wearing aluminum bras under their shirts. Of course, she didn’t make this known until after the fact in an article that ran in the Philadelphia Daily News beneath the headline “It’s Ladies Day and The Worm’s Night.” It seems that Daily News sports writer Gary Smith’s primary takeaway from the evening was his disparaging observation that “The Tyger doesn’t shave under her arms.” 

Entering the arena blowing kisses to the spectators, Tyger boogied backwards to the center of the ring for the formal introductions, and celebrated what would have been a clear victory, had an official verdict been given, with an Ali shuffle. Although this wasn’t Trimiar’s intention, her antics did not exactly go over very well with her opponent. “She moves around too much,” Gemini complained. “These people paid to see a fight, not somebody running around.” Trimiar responded by scoffing, “She’s just jealous. That’s my personality. When I do that stuff, I’m introducing me to you.”

One exceptional person to whom Tyger introduced herself around this time was the man who had inspired her to want to become a boxer when she was just ten. You would think that she must have made quite an impression by brazenly walking up to Muhammad Ali at a recent event in New York and handing him an autographed picture of herself, but Tyger wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t ask for his (autograph),” she recalled with a self-assured modesty. “I just said, ‘Hey, this is me.’ I think he was too busy looking pretty to really notice me.”

The next town on Trimiar’s itinerary was Portland, Maine where she would tangle with Margie ‘KO’ Dunson on February 26. Dunson’s ring moniker was accurate although, in hindsight, misguided by wishful thinking. Rather than Dunson putting her opponents away inside the distance, it was she who was the knockout victim in five of her six professional bouts, all losses. But, that was still to be determined in the next nineteen months to come. 

The twenty-five-year-old Dunson, making her pugilistic debut that night in Portland, remarked, “I’m not in this bout for the money, but to have fun.” It’s doubtful that pulling a muscle in her shoulder during the third round was much fun. In fact, the injury was severe enough for her to stay on her stool at the commencement of the fourth stanza, and Tyger was awarded the victory by technical knockout. “People think I’m taking my aggression out in the ring,” said Trimiar, who was referred to as ‘Black Kojak’ in the Newport Daily News writeup of the fight. “But I don’t think I am. I look at boxing as an art form.” 

Lady Tyger and Margie Dunson were not the lone females on the card at the Portland Exposition Building. Trimiar’s two-time and future rival Gwen Gemini was on hand to fight to a three-round draw with a novice known as Cathy Davis, which is a name you need to remember seeing as though she will re-enter this story a little later in quite an impactful manner. 

After competing against one another in two no-decision matches, Trimiar and Gwen Gemini became reacquainted on March 13 in Providence, Rhode Island. Tyger this time officially gained the upper hand courtesy of a four-round verdict in her favor. Her winning ways would be unceremoniously halted eleven days later by Yvonne Barkley, who was awarded the five-round decision in Philadelphia. In case you’re wondering, Yvonne is indeed the older sister of future three-division world champion Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley. 

I had previously believed Yvonne and Iran Barkley to be the first brother and sister to compete professionally in the boxing ring, but that distinction actually belongs to Dave and Theresa Kibby, Native American members of the Sioux tribe in their home state of Oregon. Fighting under the name ‘Princess Red Star’ bestowed upon her by Sioux Chief White Buffalo Man, it was Kibby who dealt Trimiar her third consecutive defeat in a four-rounder held at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds in Crescent City, California on July 24. 

Dave Kibby “rallied savagely in the final three rounds,” according to Don Terbush of The Times Standard to eke out a unanimous decision over Bonnie Necessario in the main event after Trimiar, dressed in a two-piece velvet outfit, had been reportedly given “a thorough lesson” by Theresa earlier that evening. The card, sponsored by the River’s End Boxing Club, was supposed to have taken place in the open air but had to be relocated indoors due to inclement weather. Nevertheless, another women’s bout preceded Tyger’s defeat at the hands of Kibby which saw Darlene ‘Bluebird’ Buckskin make her pro debut a successful one by easily outpointing Marsha Cruz from Stockton.

In between the losses to Kibby and Barkley, Tyger had also wound up on the wrong end of a four-round decision to Diane Syverson at the storied Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Three weeks after the Kibby fight, Trimiar returned to the Olympic where she avenged her prior loss to Syverson courtesy of a four-round verdict. The Olympic welcomed Tyger back on three consecutive subsequent occasions, the first being on September 30 when she forced first-time fighter Masako ‘Taka-Chan’ Takatsuki to take a mandatory eight-count in the first round en route to a unanimous decision. 

Trimiar closed out 1976 by outpointing Lilly Rodriguez in front of her hometown fans, then turning in a repeat performance the following February back at the Olympic. This was no mean feat. Rodriguez did sufficient damage to visibly compromise one of Tyger’s eyes and the typically partisan Olympic crowd, in a collective state of bloodlust, yelled for more carnage. “They were all Mexican, see. They kept telling her to close my other eye, shut it up for me,” recounted Trimiar. “I’d never been in a fight with that much, uh, emotional impact before.” 

Shortly afterward, Gwen Gemini reentered Tyger’s orbit for a pair of bouts on the west coast, San Diego and Santa Rosa respectively, both of which were won by Trimiar who continued to display her dominance over her four-time adversary. There was no doubt that Kim Maybee was definitely not in Tyger’s league when Trimiar eased her way to a four-round decision on September 26 in Stockton for her seventh consecutive victory. It would be very nearly one year to the day before she would step between the ring ropes once more. Trimiar’s battles in the meantime were confined to the courtroom, as she had unfinished business with the New York State Athletic Commission to deal with. 

 

I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free

One of the unimpressed spectators at the 1976 bout between Lady Tyger Trimiar and Gwen Gemini at the Waterbury Armory had been Sal Algieri, who didn’t let his unkind assessment that they “didn’t know what they were doing” stop him from being tantalized by the possibilities that the burgeoning women’s boxing scene had to offer. His motives were purely self-involved and his methods suspect at best. Then again, that was Algieri in a nutshell. 

Competing at bantamweight in the early to mid-60s, Algieri managed to win only one of seven career fights and had his lights turned out four times in six of those defeats. Desperate to somehow weasel his way into relevance, he took out a want ad in the Evening News out of Beacon, New York looking for an aspiring female prizefighter whose career he could guide or, more to the point, manipulate. 

Enter Cathy ‘Cat’ Davis, a pretty drama student and fencer who answered Algieri’s call to arms, soon becoming the shady entrepreneur’s recruit, girlfriend, and meal ticket. With Davis’ pleasing appearance, Farah Fawcett hairdo, and white complexion coupled with Algieri’s shortage of scruples and limitless capacity for embellishment or outright fabrication, they quickly became women’s boxing’s power couple. Cathy gained increasing visibility in the public eye thanks to dubious public relations rather than legitimate ring skills. Which is not to suggest that she lacked the ability to box competently, it was just a shame that her earnest efforts were hamstrung by Algieri’s shenanigans such as fronting a fraudulent regulatory commission, attempting to fix Davis’ fights, and having a knockout loss to Ernestine Jones somehow switched to a no-contest (to Cathy’s dismay, it’s worth pointing out). The structure of her popularity was built upon an unstable foundation. But, for the time being anyway, it stood up to negligible scrutiny. 

Having twice applied for and been denied a boxing license by the NYSAC, first in March 1976 and then in June 1977, Davis brought a discrimination suit against the Commission which ultimately succeeded where the previous efforts of Marian Trimiar and Jackie Tonawanda had failed. New York Supreme Court Justice Nathaniel T. Helman invalidated Rule 205.15, which had been originally cited against Trimiar and Tonawanda in 1974, and ruled in favor of Cathy Davis. The NYSAC made a motion to appeal the decision, but dropped the matter three months later. 

Davis was summoned to the offices of the New York State Athletic Commission alongside Tyger Trimiar and Jackie Tonawanda on September 19, 1978 for the purpose of being granted licenses to finally be able to box in the Empire State. It was a momentous day, albeit tarnished for Trimiar and Tonawanda when Davis’ license was the first to be issued despite the fact that they had both applied four years prior. Although all three women were pictured together holding up their new wallet-sized photo ID cards, the press made only cursory reference to Tyger and Tonawanda, instead gushing over Cathy Davis and her supposed record of 16-0 with 15 knockouts. Not only that, but it would be Davis and not either of her African American peers who was the subject of a photo spread in People magazine and featured on the cover of The Ring’s August 1978 issue, the first time a woman had been pictured on the front of boxing’s Bible which had, to that point, been openly hostile toward the very idea of female fighters.

“I challenge the Cat to fight right here and now,” Tyger shouted in the Commission’s offices with cameras flashing and beat writers scribbling. Davis spat back that Trimiar would have to learn how to box first, prompting Tyger to reply, “The Cat’s been ducking me for a long time—Meow! Meow! I’m going to get her soon.” Sal Algieri couldn’t help but impose himself upon the proceedings, stepping between Davis and Trimiar before ushering his fiancée off the premises while vowing, “She’ll never fight her. She’s no fighter.” 

While the members of the press were operating under the assumption that they were being treated to a bit of pantomime for their benefit, they were later assured that there was genuine animosity between Trimiar and Davis, the fuse for which had been ignited by the day’s events having played out as they did. True to Algieri’s word, Davis and Trimiar never did face off inside the squared circle. In fact, for all the hard-fought effort to get licensed in New York, Tyger would curiously go her entire career without ever once competing professionally there. This was evidently just as well in the opinion of Floyd Patterson, who appears bemused at best in the photo accompanying the article in the New York News World that shows Trimiar by his side, smiling in apparent admiration. 

“I’m still against it. I think women should be involved in boxing, but not in the ring,” maintained Patterson, the two-time heavyweight champion and then-NYSAC Commissioner who had appointed Eva Shain to be the first female to judge a heavyweight title fight, the 1977 showdown between Muhammad Ali and Earnie Shavers at Madison Square Garden. “I just can’t see a woman lying on the floor, bleeding from the nose or mouth or a big gash over her eye. I hold women on a pedestal because they’re feminine.”  

It goes without saying that Lady Tyger Trimiar held a dissenting point of view which stood in bold defiance to that of Floyd Patterson. “I don’t fight, I box. I’m an athlete and this is my sport. You can be a lady and an athlete too,” Tyger proclaimed. She had been supplementing her meager boxing earnings with part-time modeling jobs and continued to assist underprivileged kids from low-income families. “Mostly I’m for equal rights for people. I think anybody should be able to do anything they’re able to do. As a girl, I haven’t been able to get all the exposure and experience guys get boxing (in the) amateurs. But I think when it comes to where we can get the same background, you’ll find a lady can do the job just as well as a man.”

 

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Open Your Heart to What I Mean

A mere three days after walking out of the NYSAC offices with her newly-minted license and a potential high-profile ring rivalry with Cat Davis that would go unrealized, Tyger found herself in the Virgin Islands. Not for a celebratory vacation, but a fight against a rookie by the name of Anna Pascal at Lionel Roberts Stadium in Charlotte Amalie. Trimiar’s six-round unanimous decision win was her eighth in a row and would be her only fight of 1978 after already having gone almost a full calendar year since her last. With so much downtime on her hands, I like to think that maybe Tyger did extend her stay in the Virgin Islands to enjoy some well-deserved sun and surf. 

Following a five-month layoff, Trimiar had to switch gears and get ring-ready for her next bout which would be the featured attraction on a history-making evening in California. The first ever all women’s boxing card was staged at the Hawthorne Memorial Center on February 11, 1979 with Lady Tyger stepping beneath the spotlight in the main event to duke it out with Carlotta Lee, a graduate from the University of Houston and registered nurse who had been inspired to take up boxing after attending one of Trimiar’s fights at the Olympic Auditorium. “I think that it’s nice for females to get out and do different things.  They have the abilities just like men,” Carlotta said. “To me, boxing is a sport.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. You have to use your mind just like a lawyer or a secretary on a job. A secretary uses her typewriter, I use my hands.” 

Sponsored by Sammy Saunders’ Western Promotions, the event drew a handful of noteworthy attendees. Among those sitting ringside were Las Vegas-based WWBA (Women’s World Boxing Association) bantamweight champion Karen Bennett, Sonny Liston’s former trainer Paul Kurlytis, organizer and women’s boxing advocate Johnny Dubliss, fight promoter Eric Westlake, and Boxing News correspondent George Luckman.  

One person who unfortunately did not get to witness this significant happening was Tyger’s beloved manager Paul Mitrano, the car dealership owner and boxing promoter from North Easton, Massachusetts who had been instrumental to helping Rocky Marciano getting his career off the ground. Trimiar penned this poetic tribute to Mitrano, who passed away at the age of seventy-one the previous November, which was published in the May 1979 issue of Boxing Illustrated.   

 

I remember Paul as a plump and jolly guy

But if you stepped upon his toes, you’d best apologize

Money was no object, if hungry you were fed

And if you had no place to sleep, he’d probably give up his bed

Whenever he was in my corner, he’d say, ‘Tyger, do the shuffle.’

Since Paul liked it very much, it’s called the ‘Pauly Hustle’

Sometimes the cheap promoters wouldn’t pay what we were worth

So Paul would make up the difference with ‘Good Will and Peace on Earth.’

Paul did not see a person by the color of his skin

The cover was not important, his interest was within

I’ll always remember Paul as a plump and jolly guy

The best manager a boxer could have, I bid, farewell, goodbye.

Love, Tyger

 

In the Hawthorne curtain raiser, ‘Zebra Girl’ Shirley Tucker, who had taken on the California State Athletic Commission—with an assist from the ACLU—in a winning battle to become the first woman licensed to fight in the state, was likewise successful in her encounter with Toni Rodriguez in a five-rounder. Wearing her trademark zebra-striped trunks, Tucker coasted to a unanimous decision. Dulcie Lucas, a welterweight fighting out of Puerto Rico, stopped Valerie Ganther in the second of five scheduled rounds, after which Cora Webber and Lily ‘Squeaky’ Bayardo dueled to a five-round stalemate in an action-packed super-featherweight scrap. Lady Tyger closed the show by going the full distance with Carlotta Lee in a give and take confrontation which ended with Trimiar’s arm raised in victory after grinding it out for six rounds. 

“I accomplished what I set out to do, to prove that ladies do not need the support of men on the same card,” boasted Sammy Saunders, the Hawthorne show’s promoter who had fought as a middleweight from 1952-53, going 11-7-3 over the course of twenty bouts. “The so-called weaker sex can stand on their own.” The event, which was supposedly recorded for a television broadcast which evidently never happened (and no film footage has surfaced in the decades since that I am aware of), was advertised as a set of elimination matches to determine contenders for WBB (Women’s Boxing Board) championships.  Sure enough, Trimiar would invite Sue ‘KO’ Carlson into the Tyger’s lair the very next month to go toe-to-toe for the chance to become the world’s lightweight titleholder.  

Born in Brainerd, Minnesota, twenty-one-year-old Sue Carlson stood five-foot-nine, a three-inch advantage on Trimiar, and had worked as a waitress while majoring in journalism at the University of Minnesota when she was approached by former Air Force heavyweight champion Bill Paul to take up prizefighting. She entered into her March 31 contest against Lady Tyger Trimiar at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio having apparently already won the WWBA version of the lightweight championship. Although it’s not at all entirely clear, I am left little choice but to assume that the WBB and WWBA were consolidating their titles in a good-faith effort to formally recognize one champion per weight class. 

Whatever the case may have been, it was Tyger who emerged victorious with a clean sweep of the judges’ scorecards after ten rounds and declared the Women’s World Lightweight Champion. She happily exited the ring to a triumphant chorus of “Tyger! Tyger! Tyger!” being chanted by the enchanted spectators.   

The nation’s capital would be the next stop on Tyger’s travels in what was turning out to be a busy and fruitful year. Appearing on a boxing card organized to benefit D.C. public school athletic programs, Trimiar scored a second-round TKO of Toni Harris at the Starplex Armory. “I’m not a weirdo or anything. I’m just a woman who likes boxing. What’s the big deal?” she asked Lynn Darling of the Washington Post. “It’s more than just boxing. It’s learning about money and managers, and promoters who rip you off. It’s making me more feminine. It’s making me mature,” elaborated Trimiar. “I’m just a woman into her own thing. All my life I’ve wanted to be different, unique, one of a kind.”

On July 16, the first sanctioned women’s bout in New York State finally occurred, nearly ten months after Cathy Davis, Tyger Trimiar, and Jackie Tonawanda were all legally cleared to fight by the Commission. Ironically, none of the three were involved. Instead, a twenty-one-year-old mother of two from Newark, New Jersey named Gladys ‘Bam’ Smith outlasted Toni ‘Leatherneck’ Tucker, a native of Brooklyn who practiced martial arts and headed up a subway patrol group called the Magnificent 13, to capture a unanimous decision in their six-round middleweight fight and take home a small trophy as a keepsake to commemorate the occasion. 

Tyger, meanwhile, had been back on the west coast three days earlier where she notched her second straight stoppage on another all-female fight card in California, this time at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Geared up in tiger-striped shorts and a black mouthpiece, Trimiar floored Ernestine Jones in the second round and her fallen adversary had apparently had enough, surrendering with no further effort to fight back. Trimiar extended her knockout streak to three in a row when she returned to the Virgin Islands on October 19 to put newcomer Margo Walls away in the closing stanza of their eight-round tussle. 

 

Backlash Blues

Remarkable as 1979 was for Tyger, it remains a mystery to me why she would not reappear in a boxing ring until 1981, which would hardly be a banner year. In her lone outing, Trimiar went down to defeat for the first time in five years, dropping a six-round decision to Cora Webber on May 15 at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, California. Cora and her sister Dora were the only set of identical twins to both box professionally until the Charlo brothers came along in recent years. Webber beat Tyger on one other occasion and would later square off against several notables from the new generation of female fighters of the 1990s like Belinda Laracuente, Bonnie Canino, and Melissa Del Vale. 

Evidently having neglected to put her lightweight championship on the line in the two years since she had won it from Sue Carlson, Tyger was relieved of her crown by the WWBA in June 1981. The organization’s official statement read, “The WWBA has of this date stripped lightweight champion Marian Lady Tyger Trimiar of her title due to the fact that she has not defended her title within the WWBA stipulated deadline.” As a result, Trimiar was slotted at number two in the rankings, replaced at the top spot by Yvonne Barkley who, by this time, had defeated Tyger twice. “Tyger will be required to compete in an elimination tournament if she wishes to regain her title,” the letter stipulated in conclusion.  

Whether or not the matter ended there is not readily apparent, unfortunately. Trimiar’s “official” ring record shows only two subsequent bouts, yet another win over her familiar foe Gwen Gemini in November 1982, and a second-round TKO of Diane Clark (not to be confused with the Diane ‘Dynamite’ Clark who had defeated Jackie Tonawanda) on March 13, 1985. Other than that, the rest is all guesswork and speculation. With regard to women’s boxing specifically, fight results and record-keeping are spotty and often contradictory if not absent altogether. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Tyger had other fights, although she did gripe in an interview about having to endure long gaps of inactivity. Reference is made in various sources to bouts that can be neither confirmed nor denied, and it stands to reason that they may well have taken place but were undocumented or have been otherwise allowed to slip through the cracks of time. 

 

I Sing Just to Know I’m Alive

The next time Lady Tyger turns up in the papers, it is January 1987 and she has relocated to South Los Angeles where she is working with the Lynwood Sheriff’s Department to establish a youth athletic league in the hopes of curtailing gang activity. Trimiar was brought aboard to organize a boxercise program for six-to-eighteen year-olds. “The kids will be given a combination of physical training and self-defense including jumping rope, general exercise, punching both the speed bag and the heavy bag,” Tyger told the Los Angeles Times. “The girls will also be allowed to box competitively if they want to. Kids who learn self-defense gain self-confidence and don’t go out and fight in gangs.”

In a continuation of her commitment to mix boxing with a selfless desire to act in the service of others, Tyger was back in the news three months later. Having formed FOLT (Friends of Lady Tyger) with pugilistic contemporaries Del Pettis and Joanne Metallo, Trimiar was determined to open up an enlightening dialogue concerning the systemic misogyny present in boxing. 

“Professional women boxers are exposing the myth of their nonexistence and proclaiming the facts of years of devoted training, the sacrifices they have made for boxing careers and the daily economic hardships they must face despite boasting world championship trophies,” said Tyger. “Mud wrestling and jello wrestling can get on television, but boxing can’t,” she illustrated ruefully. “Unless women can get more recognition, we will be fighting just as a novelty for the rest of our lives. There will be no future.”

For a few months prior, Trimiar had deliberately gained excess weight in anticipation of a hunger strike designed to further up the ante in gaining nationwide exposure for her movement. “We’ve tried being nice,” she attested. “But nice doesn’t work.” In a demonstration specifically meant to target rival promoters Bob Arum and Don King, Tyger and her companions ambushed the Hagler vs. Leonard Super Fight at Caesars Palace on April 6. Their mission involved unfurling a seven-part list of demands which consisted of calls for major network coverage, compensation from networks and promoters, equal sponsorship, promotion of boxing for women and girls as a means of self-defense, economic parity, promotion of amateur and professional boxing for women, and licensing of all qualified applicants.   

Interestingly, Bob Arum had sent a letter of intent to Theresa Kibby in March 1977, offering Trimiar’s former adversary a two-fight deal worth $11,000 plus “reasonable” expenses, plus a request for rights to first refusal for a subsequent one-year contract, after Top Rank had already arranged for her to compete against LaVonne Ludian at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Kibby’s bout against Ludian at the Aladdin, the third between the pair and a four-round unanimous decision in Theresa’s favor, would be the last one of her career. Her father and trainer, Dave Sr., died soon after and her broken heart was simply no longer in the fight game. In the ten years that elapsed since, Arum had lost his taste for promoting a female boxer. 

Having lost nearly thirty pounds by late April, Trimiar alone remained resolute to the hunger strike while planning to picket the New York City offices of Don King on the 28th. “I don’t know how far I will go with this. I really don’t know,” confessed Tyger whose brother, a Pentecostal minister, died four years earlier while conducting his own fast as a protest. “I might just take it all the way. There are so many women with talent going to waste. They’re naïve the way I was, thinking something is going to happen. It’s hard for me to say it’s not going to.” 

Regardless of their ring records or celebrity status, whether it be 1990s standouts such as Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker, and Laila Ali, or today’s current crop of superstars like Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields, and Cecilia Braekhus, every female boxer of the modern era surely acknowledges the tremendous debt of gratitude owed to the women, Tyger Trimiar being among the most esteemed, who blazed the trails that they have been given the opportunity to tread down. 

“Women should not be treated as weirdos to box,” insisted Marian Trimiar, the Tyger who took the boxing establishment by the tail. “People say women have to be lesbian or crazy to box. That’s not true and it’s very unfair. They don’t say that about men.”   

Trimiar was inducted into the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2016 along with Sumya Anani, Jane Couch, Elena Reid, Ann-Marie Saccurato, Giselle Salandy, Britt Van Buskirk, and Jackie Kallen. Now in her late sixties, Tyger resides in New York once again, presumably content to live a private life of quiet dignity.  

As we all do, Tyger will one day shed her skin. Hopefully not until long after she has been enshrined in Canastota’s International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Women’s Pioneer category, a distinction that is well-deserved and long-overdue. Her stripes, after all, will forever remain. 

 

Sources:

Leigh Behrens. Boxer Hungry for Recognition (Chicago Tribune, April 19, 1987)

Herb Boyd. Ring Great Jackie Tonawanda, The Female Ali (New York Amsterdam News, May 7, 2020) 

DeNeen L. Brown. Women’s Boxing Pioneer Fights for a Way Out of Prince George’s Homeless Shelter (Washington Post, October 19, 2013) 

Peg Byron. A Woman Boxer Has Waged a Hunger Strike (UPI Archives, April 26, 1987) 

John Cavanaugh. Boxing’s Fight for a Comeback (New York Times, April 10, 1977) 

Peter Coutros. Missticuffs on Mulberry St. (New York Daily News, September 3, 1974) 

Lynn Darling. The Lady is a Champ (Washington Post, May 24, 1979) 

Jim Dent. Female Fists to Fly (Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 1976) 

Valerie Eads. All Martial Arts Tournament—Second Edition (Black Belt, December 1975) 

Gerald Eskenazi. 2 Women Boxers Ask Licenses (New York Times, October 8, 1974) 

Sue Fox. There Was A Lot of Hoopla When Bridgett Riley Was Stripped of Her Bantamweight Belt…But Was She the Only One? (WBAN, 1999) 

Lee Harris. Youths to Duke It Out in Bout Against Gangs (Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1987) 

L.A. Jennings. The Women Boxers Who Fought For Their Right to Be Pro (Vice Fightland, June 13, 2016) 

Robert Lipsyte. Boxing, For These Women, a Heavy Right Is More Powerful Than Sisterhood (New York Times, April 21, 1995) 

Susan McCarver. 1976: First Ever Female Boxing Bout in Connecticut: Trimiar vs. Gemini (WBAN Historical Database, January 10, 1976) 

Susan McCarver. Boxing Match: Lady Tyger Trimiar vs. Margie Dunson (WBAN Historical Database, February 26, 1976) 

Susan McCarver. Carlotta Lee: Pioneer Female Boxer (WBAN Historical Database, January 30, 2013)

Dan Moffett. Give Her a Ring and She’ll Fight Like a Gentleman (Palm Beach Post, May 6, 1987) 

Mary-Ann Noble. Shirley (Zebra Girl) Tucker, The Girl Who Kayoed a Commission (Boxing Illustrated, April 1979—excerpted on WBAN)

Mary-Ann Noble. Lady Tyger On Title Prowl (Boxing Illustrated, May 1979, with special thanks to Gary Luscombe) 

Jay Searcy. Lady Tyger, 135 Pounds, Launches a Ring Career (New York Times, May 5, 1974) 

Alastair Segerdal. The Acceptable Face of Women’s Boxing (archived at WBAN, 1979) 

Gary Smith. It’s Ladies Day and The Worm’s Night (Philadelphia Daily News, January 29, 1976) 

Malissa Smith. A History of Women’s Boxing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) 

Don Terbush. Kibby Rallies For Ring Win in Pro Boxing Card (Eureka Times Standard, July 25, 1976) 

Bill Verigan. Fem Boxing May Bloom in Garden (New York Daily News, October 6, 1974) 

A Lady Boxer Makes Debut in L’il Italy (New York Daily News, September 2, 1974) 

Two Women Apply for Pro Boxing Licenses (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 8, 1974) 

Women Seeking Boxing Careers (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, October 8, 1974) 

Jet (November 13, 1975)

Women Slug It Out in Maine, and Crowd Loves It (Newport Daily News, February 27, 1976) 

The Female Muhammad Ali Meets Idol (New York Times, September 26, 1976) 

Top Rank Letter to Theresa Kibby (March 16, 1977)

Knuckle Sandwiches Are Their Specialty (The Vancouver Province, September 20, 1978) 

Woman Given License (Casper Star-Tribune, September 20, 1978) 

Females Enter Boxing (Tyler Morning Telegraph, September 20, 1978) 

Clark Dispatches Tonawanda (Louisville Courier-Journal, February 17, 1979)

Lady Boxers Debut in NY, ‘Bam’ Smith Wins Decision (Jet, August 23, 1979)

Lady Tyger Profile and Interview with Sue Fox (WBAN)

Sue ‘KO’ Carlson Profile (WBAN)

Theresa Kibby Profile (WBAN) 

Boxing News From the U.S.A. (WBAN)

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