The Rise of Women’s Boxing: From Local Gym to Olympic Arena
Spare Change News
No sooner had the bell rung than Jamie Jacobsen’s fist connected with my nose. Instantly, my eyes welled up with water and a cold chill set in all over my body. By the second round, my nose had swelled up beyond utility, leaving me struggling to learn how to breathe through my mouthpiece.
I staggered through three rounds, eating more punches than I care to remember and wondering what had happened to my two years of training. I bought an ice pop on my way home to soothe my throbbing bottom lip. Clinging to the bit of pride gained from seeing Jacobsen checking out her lip in the mirror after our sparring session, I vowed to myself that I would be back.
That was the first time I climbed into an official ring. More than a year later, Jacobsen and I faced off again, but more on that later.
Jacobsen and I are among a growing number of women who have turned to boxing for exercise and a competitive outlet. Next month, female boxers will contend for Olympic gold medals for the first time ever, at the 2012 summer games in London. Team USA fighters—22-year-old flyweight Marlen Esparza, 27-year-old Quanitta “Queen” Underwood and 17-year-old middleweight Clarissa Shields—will compete in each of the three women’s events.
The road to the Olympics has been paved with lawsuits and controversy even though women have boxed for more than a century. Women participated in a demonstration bout in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, the first modern-day Olympics to include men’s boxing events. It would be another 70 years before women’s boxing took the national stage again.
In the 1970s, Cathy “Cat” Davis became synonymous with women’s boxing. Major networks televised many of her fights, and in 1978 she became the first and only woman to appear on the cover of The Ring magazine. Her career ended after a formal investigation revealed that many of her fights had been fixed.
Through the 1980s the United States Amateur Boxing Federation, now known as USA Boxing, banned women from participating in sanctioned amateur fights until fighters Gail Grandchamp of Massachusetts and Dallas Malloy of Seattle sued for gender discrimination in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
The ‘90s brought Laila Ali and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, daughters of former heavyweight champions Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier into the ring and American living rooms. Both went on to win world championship fights.
Women’s boxing has grown in popularity ever since, but has continued to meet opposition within the boxing world.
John Hazard, former coach of the U.S women’s national team, remembers taking his team to compete in Augusta, Georgia several years ago. He says he arranged for his team to work out at a local boxing gym while they were in town to prepare for the competition. When he showed up, the staff at the gym immediately stopped them. Hazard explained that he had called ahead and had been told that his team could train there, but he was quickly interrupted.
“ ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I was told a boxing team was coming. Nobody said anything about any women!’ ” Hazard remembers him saying while pointing to a sign barring women from the gym.
Today, Hazard and the coaches at his gym in Boston, The Ring Boxing Club, continue to work with female fighters, whether they are looking to compete, spar for fun or just get in shape. Vogue magazine just listed The Ring as one of the top five gyms in the country in which to learn to be an Olympic boxer. Women make up 40 percent of the membership. Many are students from down the street at Boston University; others are doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers, professors, mothers, and, yes, writers.
Jacobsen and I met at Hazard’s club a few days before she bested me in that sparring session. I had trained for two years with boxing coach Teanna Babcock at a local women’s health club chain. Babcock took me under her wing and pushed me to test my limits physically. Soon I had shed 30 pounds and a lot of uncertainty. For the first time, I felt confident, strong, and ready for more competition.
That was how I first found myself on the receiving end of Jacobsen’s jab … and her right cross … and her left hook.
The Lexington native then headed to Chicago for a year, where she joined an amateur boxing team and started training seriously to compete. A typical training day leading up to a fight included 10 minutes on a stationary bicycle, 30 to 45 minutes of running, a strenuous ab workout, and either circuit training or sparring with her team. Her training ultimately paid off. She fought and won three sanctioned fights, including the Chicago Golden Gloves Championship.
This summer, she returned to Boston to be near her friends and family for a few months before moving to San Diego for school. I met up with her at a coffee shop in Allston on a muggy evening in July to talk about her experience as a female fighter.
“I love the adrenaline rush and I love the one-on-one competition.” She pauses, clearly trying to come up with an eloquent way to explain her passion but instead blurts out, “It’s just fun to hit things!”
Not everyone understands her love of the sport, however.
“People say, ‘But you’re gonna mess up your pretty face,’ or people just think it’s beastly. I know men and women are different. Men are naturally more athletic but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it. I don’t think that makes me a crazy feminist.”
Jacobsen has never been injured while boxing, though it is by definition a dangerous sport. (I once broke a rib while sparring shortly before an exhibition fight.) In amateur boxing, fighters wear protective headgear and a mouthpiece. Black eyes and broken noses are rare compared to the norm in professional boxing.
Still, as with any sport in which participants sustain blows to the head, there is a risk of concussion.
My fear of concussions has kept me from pursuing my own sanctioned fights, at least for now. While amateur fighters are taught to fight for points rather than for a knockout, some women are heavy hitters.
Jacobsen is one of those fighters. She says she has almost no defensive skills and instead relies on her long reach, her relentless jab, and a mean right cross.
“I have successfully used defensive measures in sparring maybe 10 times,” she says. “What I do most of the time is just bash people with my right hand.”
I became reacquainted with that right hand a few days later as she and I once again climbed into the ring together.
“Move your head, Noelle!” called one of the coaches from the other side of the gym. I have heard that more times than I can count. I tend to rush in head on, catching jabs with my face.
Her reach is so long that even when I managed to block her jab my follow-up right cross fell inches short. Though we are comparable in weight, at 5’9” she towers five full inches above me.
Remembering her lack of defense, I manage to slip under her jab a few times, delivering rapid-fire uppercuts to her body and driving her into the corner of the ring. Around the gym, this move earned me the nickname “The Piranha.”
But Jacobsen responded like no one else had. Unfazed by the barrage of shots digging into her abdomen, she fired soft and quick uppercuts at my gloves.
I hesitated a split second, and she pounced.
Jacobsen drove herself out of the corner, firing jab, cross, jab, cross, jab, cross and quickly made her way back into the power circle at the center of the ring.
Blocking what punches I could, eating those I could not, I fought back as best I could.
Red-faced and pouring sweat, we locked eyes through our gloves and grinned at each other. “I forgot how much fun this is,” she said before diving back into the fray.
Even with Jacobsen fighting at 60 percent strength (I had made her promise before the fight not to kill me), she easily dominated both rounds. She is a decade younger, five inches taller, and infinitely more disciplined.
But I will be back.
NOELLE “PIRANHA” SWAN is a writer and editor for Spare Change News.