Ladies Boxing: The Future Of The Sport

Beyond the lipstick shows of the pros, a world of deadly serious amateurs slugs it out.

ladiesboxingIt is finals night at the first-ever Women’s National Championship in amateur boxing. In the women’s bathroom, a boy and a girl wrap toilet paper around their fists and flail away at the legs of their harried mother. Ringside, ESPN commentator Al Bernstein sucks down a Coke and pushes popcorn into his mouth. All week, 67 boxers have repeated the words making history over and over like a mantra. But on this historic night for women’s boxing. Bell Auditorium in Augusta, georgia, is nearly empty. Earlier in the day, tournament director Sandy Martinez-Pino reminded the boxers to remove their protective headgear as soon as their bouts are over: “We have some beautiful women in this tournament, and we want you o be seen by all the world.” But now a thin lick of gloom hangs over the proceedings; what if you threw a party and nobody came?

Sparse or not, the crowd wants some action. They get in the 119-pound contest, as Patricia Alcivar of Queens and Leona Brown of New York City stalk each other with determined intensity. Jabs, eight hooks and quick combinations. A head snaps back now and then.

The referee separates the boxers form a clinch, and Jimmy Finn shouts in exasperation. Finn is the general secretary of the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF), and he wants the crowd to see what these fighters can do. “They call it too quickly in the amateurs,” he says. “In the pros, they let them fight.” He passes around an album filled with photographs of WIBF competitors. Mixed in with a slew of cheesecake photographs–lots of bikinis, not many boxing gloves–are gruesome fight images, fists connecting to chins, blood spraying from noses.

“This girl here,” Finn says, thumping a finger down on a pretty blond woman with strong features, “is huge in Germany, second only to Steffi Graf.” He turns back to the fight at hand and watches the lithe Alcivar appreciatively. “I could promote her,” he says. “She’s good, she knows how to box. She has tremendous skill. People would want to see her.”

Alcivar wins over Brown in a 4-1 decision. ESPN moves in for a close-up as the amateur sings out her name. Alcivar begins to cry, covering her face with her hands not unlike a newly crowned Miss America.

Later that night, the first-ever championship team assembles in the ring amidst a deluge of popping flashes. “That’s a fantastic picture, isn’t it?” says Finn, peering through the ropes. But as the boxers smile for photographers–oversize title belts hanging loosely around their waists–a question lingers: What kind of history are we making?

“Before my fights,” says 15-year-old Junior Olympic champion Stephanie Jaramillo, “I go to the chapel. `Let me win,’ I pray, `but let me win by a standing eight-count, so I don’t have to hurt the other girl.'” She shrugs. “But if I have to hurt her to win, I will.”

The day Jaramillo turns 18 is the day she turns pro. Her life revolves around training, home schooling, then more training. “When I was younger, I saw Mike Tyson fight on TV,” Jaramillo says. “I thought `Wow, that’s what I want to do.’ I felt it right here,” she explains, pressing a hand to her chest. “I wished to God I could box, but I thought it was just for men.”

Jaramillo’s father–never imagining that he’d have to make good on the promise–said that the day he saw a woman box on television, he’d help his daughter find a coach.

Enter Christy Martin, Don King’s first female protegee. “I screamed when I saw her on TV,” Jaramillo said. “I was so happy, I wanted to cry.”

One of Jaramillo’s recent fights was called in the second round when she broke her opponent’s nose and cracked two ribs. Not the kind of activity encouraged in any high school sophomore, much less a female.

“But we haven’t been allowed to express that aggressive side of ourselves, in much the same way that men are not allowed to be nurturers,” says Irene Garcia, professional boxer, former world-ranked kickboxer and Jaramillo’s first coach. “Boxing is not for everyone. You have to like to hit. You have to be able to deliver punishment and take punishment. But boxing is boxing. I don’t care who steps in the ring, man or woman.”

In 1995, Garcia opened A Woman’s Place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the only all-women’s boxing gym in the nation. Garcia’s boxers get in the ring for the same reasons men do: to show who is boss in the most crushingly primitive terms. They have no prior arguments with their opponents, no grudges–no reason other than the love of the fight.

The love of the fight. For many, this is the bitter pill.

“My girls get tired of being asked why, as women, they want to box,” Garcia says, with a hint of irritation. “Why not?”

Ah, but the why not comes easy. Try brain damage, blindness, kidney failure and possible death, as a start. Add violence rewarded with prestige, prize money and lucrative endorsements. Remember Mike Tyson spitting chunks of ear out onto the ring floor. And women are abused by the thousands, every minute of every day, why would they want to get in the ring and inflict violence on each other? In boxing the intention is so … extreme.

But extreme intention draws athletes and fans. Boxing is the most serious game we have. A good boxer is not only highly skilled, but highly dangerous. In no other game are the stakes so high, the drama so pure, and the expression of the motivation behind all competition–to win by sheer physical domination–so explicit.

Boxing pushes the limit of what we consider sport Boxing can inspire awe, disgust, uneasiness and revelation, all in a few moments. And when boxing is good, when a fighter’s skill transforms a seemingly senseless activity into an articulate event there is, take it or leave it, nothing else like it.

“Listen to my boobs,” says Trina Ortegon, beating a snappy staccato on the thick plastic breast protector underneath her tank top. She studies the menu, orders the chicken sandwich, substitutes steamed vegetables for the fries, then recommences shadowboxing in her seat Ortegon has a final bout at the Women’s National Championships in a few hours, and she is all business. Her face is devoid of makeup–a “foreign substance. prohibited by amateur rules–and she has removed the gold nail polish that matches her satin shorts.

Ortegon, coached by Garcia, has a reputation for hitting hard. For weeks she has sparred with men in preparation for this tournament, and later that evening, she sits in quiet concentration as Johnny Duke, an elder statesman of boxing with 50 years of experience as a fighter and a trainer behind him, wraps her hands. Duke chats with local media–“I never thought women should fight; I thought they’d get cancer in their boobies. But I think differently now; I’ve been won over”–while Ortegon’s opponent, in an attempt at intimidation, glares at her from across the room.

Around the edges of the gymnasium, women are running in place, receiving last-minute pep talks, making fists and visualizing a face at the other end of the punch. One stands in front of the American flag and crosses herself. Another turns her head to spit–“Oh, sorry, honey, did I get you?”–the glob narrowly missing a woman stretching along the wall.

Garcia and Ortegon go into the locker room for some last-minute shadowboxing. “That’s how you need to hit that woman out there, bam bam bam,” Garcia says. “Left right left.” A few feet away, a boxer steps into a stall and squeals at the sight of a roach. Ortegon doesn’t notice. She is working up a sweat with a look on her face that would make Mike Tyson hesitate.

“Bad intentions, Trina,” Garcia says. “Bad intentions.”

Bad intentions make the boxing world go round. They draw crowds, boost purses, instill fear. Bad intentions, Garcia explains, are the difference between how you practice with sparring partners and how you hit when you step into the ring. They are controlled fury unleashed. But in the ring, bad intentions are allowed and rewarded. That’s part of the deal.

“When you box with bad intentions,” Garcia says, “your face gets ugly, and it should get ugly. It’s like a tiger inside you that is allowed to come out.”

And when it comes to women’s boxing, getting ugly is the part of the deal that not everyone is comfortable with. In a sport that encourages twisting the fist on impact to tear facial skin, there is a strange premium on beauty. Although amateur boxing puts a premium on decorum–a far cry from the hyped frenzy that shellacs the professional side of the sport–there’s no getting away from the sexual element

“Look at her; she’s perfect” says a media photographer hanging out in the Augusta Boxing Club, where Melissa Salamone, a 27-year-old boxer from Miami, is working out on a day between tournament rounds. “She’s gorgeous; she’s got that hair, that outfit.”

Salamone, arguably the best boxer in the tournament, competes at 132 pounds. She is slim and tan, with solid muscle and long curly hair that spirals out wildly when she moves. Members of the press stand around gawking as she gives a 40-ish female Hollywood producer an impromptu lesson. “Hey, now,” Salamone says in mock alarm as the producer throws a wobbly jab. “Don’t hit me in the face.”

Salamone will go on to win the title in her weight class, and do so with a finesse that leaves commentator Bernstein searching for superlatives. Her face, more than any other, will show up in the limited but respectful press coverage of the amateur event. Salamone and Ortegon, who have just turned pro, have entered an arena that wavers between representing female boxers as serious athletes and as pinup girls in a peculiar kind of circus sideshow.

“It’s nice to be recognized for physical beauty, but my goal is to get people to focus on talent and skill,” says Ortegon. “I want people to appreciate women’s boxing as a sport and not a novelty. I want the sport to grow. We need to be in the Olympics. That’s only fair.”

From her women’s boxing gym, Garcia prepares her contenders to walk the line. “To some degree, we’re going to have to play the game until we become a big-money commodity,” she says. “Then we can start pulling the strings. There aren’t many female promoters out there right now. That’s going to have to change. And one thing I can guarantee you,” she adds, “is that you won’t see any promotional photos of Trina Ortegon in a bikini.” Or any other of the growing number of women who find their way to A Woman’s Place.

“Hold your fists up and your feet apart, like this,” Garcia is telling a new self-defense student. “Get used to that stance. Put your feet in this position wherever you go, even if you’re just in fine at the grocery store. It’s good balance practice, and…” She grins. “You never know when you’re going to have to defend yourself.”

The advice might leave you wondering where Garcia shops. Not every woman wants to live in that world. But for those who do, the ring is ready.

3 responses to “Ladies Boxing: The Future Of The Sport”

  1. Philip Bailey

    6th Nov, 15

    Female boxing makes men look weak. Therefore, I’d like to keep this sports exclusive to men.

  2. Norma

    11th Nov, 15

    I believe boxing is too aggressive for women. My husband thinks the same way. I actually asked him if he would allow me to do boxing and he said no. He said he cannot bear seeing his loved one gets beaten up.

  3. Pamela R.

    7th Jan, 16

    On the contrary, I believe that lady boxers are less likely to suffer from severe injuries. This is actually the downside of female boxing because there are people who find intense and more damaging blows more entertaining.

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