(Fights like this unnecessary ESPN2 televised rematch between Chantel Cordova and Unity Young from back when the network showcased women’s boxing is partly to blame for why the women are not given any credit.)
Tuesday night in Friant, Calif., a lightly populated central California town, two of the most recognizable names in women’s boxing squared off in a rematch ten years removed from an initial battle that took place on pay-per-view.
Now both in their mid 40s, Mia St. John exacted her revenge on Christy Martin in a non-televised clash that, according to the two combatants, signaled the end of their respective professional boxing careers. It also could perhaps signal the end of an era in which women’s boxing was treated as a sideshow or an appetizer rather than legitimate competition.
Both Martin and St. John graced the covers of two major publications in their heyday. Martin, who was nicknamed “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” was on the cover of the April 15, 1996 edition of Sports Illustrated. St. John was featured on the cover of the November, 1999 cover of Playboy, showcasing a different set of assets.
When the two first battled in 2002 after a long-running public feud, Martin was clearly the more skilled fighter but St. John definitely held her own more than what was expected in a one-sided decision that didn’t particularly represent the toughness that St. John brought with her in the ring that night.
In the 10 years since, St. John has more or less been the only active fighter between the two, and although she picked up a number of losses along the way, she proved herself to be a well-studied boxer. Those skills came in great assistance Tuesday night as she was able to reverse that loss from 10 years ago as she outpointed Martin in the rematch by a fairly clear margin. The two both announced their respective retirements from the ring following the contest, opening the door for women’s boxing to go in a different direction, in large part thanks to the inclusion of women in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Women’s boxing has proven to be at least decent business all over the world, but the United States is seemingly the last to embrace it despite the country really deserving some credit for showcasing it in its infancy in the mid 90s to early 2000s. St. John, Martin, and Lucia Rijker all were showcased on major TV and PPV cards. St John wasn’t presented as a serious fighter by promoter Top Rank, who put her in 4-round fights alongside Eric “Butterbean” Esch fights, which probably didn’t help her in terms of being taken seriously.
Still, St. John likely pulled in as much money as any American female boxer to date that isn’t named Laila Ali.
Daughter of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, Laila ran up a 24-0 record in her career as a fighter, and her fights even headlined ESPN2 Friday Night Fights telecasts here and there. Though her record was impressive, she failed to really fight the fights the few followers of women’s boxing at the time hoped to see. After her retirement from the ring in 2007, women’s boxing on television was fewer and further between with successor Holly Holm fighting on ESPN2 or Fox Sports Net once or twice before all of a sudden women’s boxing was nowhere to be found on American television.
It is quite a sad thought, really, as in the five years since Ali’s retirement, the level of competition in women’s boxing has only gotten better, particularly outside the United States. In Mexico, Mariana Juarez often headlines cards featuring decent names and also recently graced the cover of the Mexican version of Playboy to a great response.
Junior lightweight champion Kina Malpartida went from being underappreciated and just ignored in southern California to becoming a huge name in her native Peru following an upset of Bronx, N.Y.-based Maureen Shea in 2009.
California boasts some of the best fighters in women’s boxing yet those fighters somehow have the most difficult time getting fights and staying active.
Female flyweight champion Ava Knight scored one of the most devastating knockouts regardless of gender against Arely Mucino last October yet still hasn’t scored herself a more than four figure purse as a world champion.
Kaliesha West, the former two-time adversary of Knight, fought Knight for what amounted to no financial gain in their rematch last June which ended in a 10-round split draw.
London 2012 can represent the turning point if utilized correctly. The women’s side of the Olympics was well received and often featured much better action than some of the male fights as well as a bit less controversy.
One of the standout moments of the entire Olympics was an early bout between Great Britain’s Natasha Jonas and eventual gold medalist Katie Taylor of Ireland. Of all the fights to take place, it would be hard to find one that matched that one in terms of excitement as well as atmosphere.
It would be a fair bet to make that a handful of the non-American Olympians from women’s boxing will make an impact on the sport. Stateside, it is up to 17-year old Claressa Shields, who was the lone gold medalist from the 12-member men’s and women’s team.
Shields, from a rough neighborhood in Flint, Mich., has the charisma to make a difference. It has yet to be discovered if she intends on turning pro or going for another gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. It is unclear what would be the smarter move at this time with women’s boxers in the States making less than $10,000 for top level fights. There could be more in endorsements for being a returning gold medalist than to take on a pro career.
Bronze medalist Marlen Esparza was earmarked as the poster kid for the 2012 Olympic boxing team, but after suffering a disappointing loss in the medal rounds, announced her intention to retire from boxing, which no doubt dealt a sizable blow to the sport no matter how you slice it. Esparza earned a deal with Covergirl and was featured prominently in McDonald’s promotional materials for London, and choosing to bow out from boxing will definitely limit the potential growth the sport could have seen from her choosing to give it another go.
Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer was in London for the Games and had his eye on a number of Olympians for a CBS televised debut show that has now been slated for Sunday, Oct. 14 but not quite confirmed. Given Golden Boy’s previous track record with women’s boxing, which basically can be summed up as one non-televised West fight on the untelevised undercard of the awful Shane Mosley-Sergio Mora undercard, it would be hard to guess that any of that very valuable airtime will be used on the women’s side of things.
The sport of women’s boxing has come a long way in a short amount of time. The skill level has risen to a point that the sport should start getting legitimate coverage rather than completely ignored by American media outlets. For the sport to have a chance, a few barriers need to be overcome.
Promoter Roy Englebrecht organized and put on the St. John-Martin rematch this past Tuesday. At a press conference to hype the fight, Englebrecht, who proclaimed himself to have promoted more women’s fights than any promoter, shared with TQBR that his own matchmaker won’t have anything to do with matching women’s fights and Englebrecht himself has to make those fights happen.
That mindset of not matching women’s fights is not singular to Englebrecht’s matchmaker. It is actually quite an epidemic in the States, something you hear about often if you ask about it. No doubt when the subject of women’s boxing comes about, some of these important figures in matchmaking draw recollections of glorified toughwoman fights where neither girl possesses much skill but an ability to deal and withstand a fair amount of punishment.
That perception needs to fade, and the only way for that to happen is for the legitimate athletes that have emerged to be given some spotlight, a chance to shut people up.
Whether or not women’s boxing will be given the slightest chance to succeed in the United States remains to be seen. But if ever there was a time to strike while the iron was hot, the summer of 2012 birthed a number of avenues worth exploring in that regard. Now it just is a matter of whether or not anyone with weight in the sport answers the call.
[ADDENDUM] Writer’s note: Admittedly, this is the first time as a boxing writer I have written a feature on women’s boxing, and that is definitely part of the problem. Many of the sport’s most respected writers don’t have any positive things to say about women’s boxing and there are only a select few that champion it, notably The Sweet Science’s Michael Woods and David Avila. Boxing writers collectively need to give women’s boxing more coverage rather than ignoring it altogether. Many of the sport’s most trafficked websites act as though women’s boxing does not exist and that way of thinking needs to be reversed if it is going to have any chance to flourish.
Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com and followed via Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarkEOrtega. Mark also contributes to renowned boxing publications RING Magazine and Boxing Monthly, and is a member of the Boxing Writer’s Association of America and RING Ratings Advisory Panel.