As #TeamSouthpawJab’s Hannah Rankin looks to become a player on the world stage this evening, with all at Southpaw Jab vociferously supporting her, it feels like the right time to look at the history of the women’s code. Female fighters are rightly growing in the public interest, but it has taken a while. Gladly, their code now gets exposure (Hannah is a promoter’s dream just by the by) so let’s have a look at the story of the evolution of the brilliant women’s game.
A fight still fresh in the memory is Katie Taylor’s lightweight unification bout against Victoria Bustos in April this year. A thrilling, back-and-forth affair that earned a standing ovation from Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Centre, the fight was not only a value for money barnstormer (eclipsing all the male bouts on the same card), but was further proof that women’s boxing is not only surviving on the main stage, but well and truly thriving on it.
The girls are more than holding their own in the ring and at the Box Office, and to celebrate this, let’s go through some of the milestones in female boxing history that not only reveal a very colourful past, but hopefully are part of a growing movement that leads to an increasingly bright future.
The Early Years
Women’s prizefighting has been around nearly as long as men’s. Indeed, during the bareknuckle years of the 17th and 18th centuries, women would often be found settling personal scores in the boxing booths of London. One would regularly read challenges issued, and acceptances by response, in local newspapers, such as this example from 1722:
– (Challenge) I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman to drop the money to lose the battle.
– (Acceptance) I, Hannah Hyfield of Newgate-Market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words – desiring home blows, and from her no favour; she may expect a good thumping
These all-female fights were brutal affairs, horrifying many foreign visitors to the city. British society, however, saw these women as great sources of national pride, and they became the muses of several patriotic folklore tales and paintings of the time. One of which, in 1766, involves a woman, Sal Dab, soundly beating a helpless Frenchman outside a London pub, aptly named ‘The Good Woman’.
To limit the excesses of the frequent gambling (and brawling) at fights, bareknuckle champion John Broughton published the first written rules of the prize ring in 1743, which would later form some of the Queensberry Rules; still practised today. They were enforced in the fights at his Amphitheatre in Marylebone Fields, and at a sparring school he founded in Haymarket. At the Amphitheatre, rules included (amongst others) that no man was to be hit whilst down, and that a man was beaten if he could not return to the centre of the ring within 30 seconds of being floored. At the school, he insisted that gloves were worn while sparring, and there was a blanket ban on betting, on police intervention and on women taking part.
This coincided with a new belief system in Britain in the 1700’s – Evangelicalism and Methodism. Conservative in their values, followers condemned boxing and branded female participation as an abomination, insisting that women assume a more conventional, family orientated role in society instead. Women became further excluded from boxing, a sport which was only barely tolerated by the new religious intelligentsia in the first place. (Note; it wasn’t just boxing that was discouraged. Also on the list were things like racing horses, playing cards, gambling, attending the theatre, dancing, drinking liquor and cockfighting – basically everything society had considered fun up until that point).
The Middle Years
It was a full century before women saw any real action in a boxing ring again, and when they did it was altogether different from the highly publicised men’s events. The first women’s title fight for example, between eventual winner Hattie Leslie and Alice Leary, took place in 1888 in a modest barn outside Buffalo, New York. For a purse of $250. By contrast, the men’s title fights were taking place at renowned athletics clubs and theatres in front of several thousand spectators.
Boxing first appeared as an Olympic sport in 1904 in St. Louis. It was a rather prototype affair; only one country, the USA, submitted any boxers to compete, and as a result they whitewashed the medals table without challenge from any other nation. Two interesting footnotes arose from this Olympic Games; 1) A bizarre disqualification awarded America a 19th medal despite there only being 18 medal places, and 2) women’s boxing re-appeared in an exhibition bout. Women’s amateur boxing, however, was still illegal the world over.
The mid-1900s saw a spate of female firsts – 1940: the first female referee (Belle Martell); 1954: the first televised female boxing match (Barbara Buttrick vs Joann Hagen); 1975: the first female judge (Eva Shain)… slowly the frosty opinions were thawing, and in 1988, Sweden legalised amateur boxing for women, the first country in the world to do so.
The cause was progressing, but still had its struggles. In 1991, while campaigning to gain the legal right to box as an amateur, Massachusetts-native Gail Grandchamp passed the age of 36 (the maximum age an individual can compete as an amateur). She returned to the professional ranks, where she already had a win on her record. It proved an ill-advised move: she had 6 fights and lost every one of them, all by knockout. Her last was against future world title challenger Belinda Laracuente in 1998, who knocked her out in the first round. She retired soon after, aged 43.
Nevertheless, other countries followed Sweden’s example – America legalised women’s amateur boxing in 1993, the UK in 1997, Australia in 2000. A huge step was taken in 2001, when women first competed at the World Championships, a huge platform for the amateur code. Thirty countries entered female boxers and sixteen countries won medals (Britain not among them): Russia (7 total, 4 gold), Sweden (4 total, 2 gold) and Hungary (5 total, 1 gold) topped the table. This inaugural competition featured a host of future champions, including gold medallist Frida Wallberg (WBC super-featherweight), gold medallist Julia Sahin (IBF light flyweight), silver medallist Myriam Lamare (IBF and WBA super lightweight), bronze medallist Jeannine Garside (unified WBC, IBF and WBO featherweight) and silver medallist Mary Kom (Indian superstar and poster girl of women’s boxing).
The Later Years
By the mid 2000’s, the major governing bodies had introduced women’s versions of their world titles; the WBC and WBA introduced theirs in 2005, the WBO followed soon after in 2009, as did the IBF in 2010. The first woman to be crowned champion of the world by any one of these four bodies was the aforementioned Myriam Lamare, who defeated Eliza Olson to become the WBA super lightweight champion on the 8th November 2004.
With such progression across the sport, it was only a matter of time before the biggest amateur platform of them all followed suit: the Olympics. The ban on female Olympic boxing was lifted in 2009, meaning that for the first time, women would box at London 2012.
The first Olympic medal for a female boxer was won by Great Britain’s own Nicola Adams, who won gold in the women’s flyweight class by defeating Chinese finalist Ren Cancan on the 9th August 2012, at 4:44pm.
She was followed very shortly after by Irish superstar Katie Taylor, who won her own Olympic lightweight gold medal on the same day, 19 minutes later at 5:03pm.
Since then, things have grown exponentially. Female participation in the sport across all levels doubled after the successes at London 2012, and some reports indicate that there has been a 21% increase in the last 6 months alone.
‘Firsts’ are still being recorded. Last month on the Golovkin-Martirosyan card, on the 5th May 2018, HBO (the first cable channel to show a boxing fight, and the first to show a boxing pay-per-view event) aired their first female boxing match, between Cecilia Braekhus and Kali Reis for all 4 female world welterweight titles, plus that of the IBO. Braekhus, down for the first time in her career in the 7th round, nevertheless retained her belts via unanimous decision in an excellent bout.
Women’s boxing is now a permanent addition of the boxing map. It will need performances like Braekhus’ to encourage it to grow further. But if these pioneers of women in the sport continue to deliver, pretty soon even the remaining naysayers will have little choice but to stand and watch. And, like they did for Katie Taylor and Victoria Bustos, they will applaud.