Women's boxing - in a New Yorker state of mind

 

ATHLETICS:While some of the generalisations that follow the sport are surely not true, at least one thing is certain – women’s boxing is not for the faint-hearted

YOU DON’T need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You just need a subscription to the New Yorker. When this literary colossus of a magazine runs a 6,000-word feature on the Olympics you know it’s time to batten down the hatches, cancel all other plans, because the five-ringed storm is about to hit.

The New Yorker only seems to do proper sporting features about once every four years anyway, perfectly in time with the Olympics. I remember before Beijing they ran a similarly wordy feature on China’s emergence as a sporting superpower, with some uncannily accurate predictions, right down to China’s table-topping 51 gold medals.

This time they’ve gone more salient, the May 7th issue delving with typical deftness into the world of women’s boxing, naturally focusing on its Olympic debut in London.

It could be dismissed as flawed or even biased given it fails to even once mention our own golden hopeful Katie Taylor, or it could also be the most fascinating insight into the sport you’ll ever read. Either way it’s another reminder that Taylor and all other women boxers have already come a long way, that even qualifying for London won’t necessarily be half their battle.

A Ring of One’s Own (in case you want to Google it) follows the rise of American teenage boxer Claressa Shields – complete with one astonishing photo, close-up, her large, pink Everlast gloves boldly contrasting with her black face and red head guard. Shields only recently turned 17, just old enough for Olympic competition, and like her two American team mates – Quantita “Queen” Underwood and Marlen Esparza – is on her way to Qinhuangdao in China next week, looking to secure her London qualification at the 7th AIBA World Women’s Championships.

Born and raised in Flint, Michigan – a place still known as “Vehicle City”, even if the auto industry has long since vanished – Shields has never lost a fight, and she’s been boxing since age 11.

Her coach Jason Crutchfield, formerly a Flint City lightweight champion, is predictably brash about her boxing potential.

“I always knew I’d have a champion,” he says. “I just never thought it would be a girl.”

Indeed, Crutchfield likes to rile his women boxers these days by telling them: “You’re not a boy, or a girl. You’re an athlete.”

The good news, at least for Katie Taylor supporters, is that Shields fights as a middleweight (75kg), while Taylor is seeking a fourth successive world title as a lightweight (60kg).

At the US Olympics Trials last February, staged in Spokane, Washington, Shields surprised

no one with her unstoppable progress. “I’ve never seen a girl box like me,” she said afterwards, and no one there disagreed.

But A Ring of One’s Own is more than an Olympic preview: Ariel Levy, who as a New Yorker staff writer has the best gig in the business, is more interested in the culture and socioeconomics of women’s boxing, as if she herself can’t quite figure it all out.

In an obvious effort to provide some balance to the feature, Levy also quotes Tommy Gallagher, a trainer at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn – the former sweatshop of Mike Tyson and Roberto Duran, amongst others.

“It’s an abomination,” Gallagher says, one of the last coaches who refuses to work with women, believing, “in my heart and soul”, that women in boxing is unnatural, and wrong.

Levy describes American amateur boxing as “chronically underfunded”: they won a single bronze medal in Beijing, and their women boxers get precious little support at all, and have to pay their own coaches expenses to Qinhuangdao, and then the Olympics, if they get that far.

At the same time, American boxing has done much to help pioneer women into the sport, starting in 1993. That was when Christy Martin became the first and still only woman boxer to make the cover of Sports Illustrated (and more about her in a minute), and soon several other prominent names emerged – including Laila Ali, Jaqui Frazier, and Freeda Foreman, no doubt all helped by being daughters of legendary fighters.

What sets this feature apart, however, is the way Levy goes beyond the ring, into the backdrop of these young women.

She talks with Hal Adonis, president of USA Boxing since 2009, who has no problem whatsoever with women’s boxers, as long as they appear to fit into his absurdly personal boxing philosophy.

“When kids call me up, I say, ‘Let me ask you one honest question: have your parents ever hit you?’ If they say no, I say ‘I don’t think you belong in boxing.’”

Adonis goes on to claim his father “invented child abuse”, which was why he got into boxing in the first place – and why he says so many boxers, men and women, like to emphasise the hard-luck part of their lives.

Then, out of nowhere, he is quoted: “Half of our girls have been molested, and half of our girls are gay.”

Needless to say Adonis has no proof whatsoever to back up this way of thinking, although Levy does add the incredible story of what happened to Christy Martin since her Sports Illustrated cover shoot: Martin used to taunt her opponents as being “dykes”,

and bragged about doing her husband’s cooking and cleaning.

She then came out in 2010, and her husband, Jim Martin, who doubled as her trainer and manager, responded by stabbing her repeatedly, then shooting her in the chest.

She survived, miraculously, and only last Friday her husband was convicted of attempted murder and is now facing life in prison. Amazingly, Martin, now aged 42, has been back in the ring since.

What is certain here is that women’s boxing is not for the faint-hearted, and no one knows that better than Katie Taylor.

Queen Underwood, quite likely her main rival in Qinhuangdao next week and indeed London, has already luridly detailed, in the New York Times, her childhood molestation by her father, and Clarence Shields, father of Claressa, spent seven years in jail, where boxing became way more than just a sport.

In the end, Levy quotes Marlen Esparza, the six-time American champion, who’ll fight as a flyweight (51kg) in Qinhuangdao, on why boxers like Claressa Shields will appear to some as having come out of nowhere, in more ways than one: “Everyone’s going to be like, ‘where did you get her – she is a monster.’”

None of this will come as any surprise to Taylor, who has been coolly adamant all long that qualification in Qinhuangdao next week is far from assured – it may be she’ll have to make her lightweight final to be sure of a place in London, given only four of the eight qualifying places can go to Europeans anyway, and one of those will be by invitation. But if it does come down to who wants it more then only Taylor will be in a ring of her own.

It’s all a timely reminder too that Linda Byrne, Maria McCambridge, Caitriona Jennings and Ava Hutchinson need to be told ASAP which three of them will get to run the Olympic marathon in London, and which one of them misses out.

Even if a fifth Irish woman does qualify at this late stage, it’s extremely unlikely she’ll surpass what these have already achieved – and there is nothing to be gained by any further delay.

It’s bad enough that Katie Taylor still can’t relax yet, and here we are needlessly prolonging the agony for some women who have qualified, even as the five-ringed storm is about to hit.