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BY CARLO ROTELLA

PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY WAYNE GILBERT

Shortly before the first undercard bout of the evening, when the audience was still arriving and the houselights had not all been turned on yet, Mitzi Jeter made her prefight visit to the ring. Wrapped in crisp black and red sweats, she climbed through the ropes and moved deliberately around their inside perimeter, leaning into them to feel how they gave, shuffling and bouncing as well to test the footing. Having com- pleted the circuit, she stood in one corner for a few minutes, still and watchful in the gloom, then crossed to the opposite corner and stood there for a while. "I always do that before a fight," she explained a few hours later, after her bout. "I'm visualizing the fight, how it will go, my opponent. I'm getting used to the surroundings, the room, the lights, everything. There was a soft spot out there in the floor tonight; you need to know that. I don't want anything to catch me off-guard or surprise me, even something like seeing some seats out of the corner of my eye in a place I don't expect them. And I'm a Christian; I don't want to step in there without God's protection and blessing on me, so there's praying going on, too."

"Smokin'" Mitzi Jeter, a 38-year-old elementary school gym teacher from Chatsworth, Georgia, was in Boston to defend her International Women's Boxing Federation (IWBF) welterweight title against Dawne "The Devastator" George, a 42-year-old prison guard from Gardner, Massachusetts. Their bout headlined a modest Friday night fight card at the Teachers Union Hall, a waterfront blockhouse in Dorchester that squeezed the ring, the fighters, and a couple of hundred spectators between a low drop-ceiling and industrial-strength office carpeting. The promoter had come up with an action-movie tag line to advertise the event--"Fully Loaded"--and had arranged an undercard of bouts between men in which local fighters defeated undistinguished opponents. The mismatches were predictable, but not egregious enough to qualify as criminal. The keyed-up local guys furiously assailed the out-of-staters, who, depending on mood and ability, covered up or fought back. Nobody got killed, and everybody except the losers and their seconds had a good time.

When Jeter and her cornermen made their entrance into the ring, two young women and one man preceded them down the aisle, holding high the belts representing Jeter's titles: The IWBF and International Female Boxing Association recognized her as welterweight champion of the world, and she also held the intercontinental title (one step short of the world title) of a third sanctioning body, the Women's International Boxing Federation. Dawne George was already in the ring, the challenger's faction having entered first in accordance with fistic tradition. It was time for the main event.

The promoter of the Jeter-George bout might have believed he was making history by presenting a women's title bout as the headliner, a first in Massachusetts, but the evening's historical significance more properly resided in its business-as-usual quality. The two fighters weighed in under the welterweight limit, the commission's mandatory prefight examinations determined that neither fighter was injured or HIV-positive or pregnant, an impartial referee enforced the rules, three licensed judges (two of them from out of state, as Jeter's manager-husband and the IWBF had insisted) rendered an unbiased decision despite the fact that the challenger was local and the champion was not, and everybody got paid--not much, but what they expected. The fight was just another day at the office, and that, in the long view, is news.

Women bent on mixing it up have always found their way into the fights, even when the sport or their participation in it was illegal. Women fought on the illicit margins of the legitimate boxing world for most of the 20th century. Bareknuckle bouts between women were common in the 18th and 19th centuries. And (to follow the line all the way back) the recent discovery of the remains of a young woman buried with gladiatorial honors in a Roman cemetery in London seems to confirm archaeologists' belief that fighting women carved out a place for themselves in the ancient world's bloodsport demimonde.

The current boom in women's boxing, which began almost a decade ago, may be just the latest episode in this long history, but it also has occasioned major changes in the fight world. The increasingly institutionalized character of women's boxing is a new development: title-granting organizations (multiple, competing, and variably shady, just like those in men's boxing) award belts and rank contenders, state commissions regulate women and men alike, and a formal amateur network undergirds the profession. For the first time since the rise of boxing to state-regulated legitimacy a century ago, it is now common practice to include a women's bout among men's bouts, or to stage all-women's cards. To the extent that any boxing is legitimate, women's boxing has become increasingly legitimate, and sometimes it can even be the main event.

To handicap the Jeter-George matchup, one needed to know that Jeter had been winning fights of one kind or another for most of her life, ever since taking up karate in childhood; that her record after three-plus years of professional boxing was 15󕿛; that she usually went the distance, seeming to gain strength as her opponent tired, and won by decision; and that among her victories were two previous decisions over George, who, at 4󗎋, usually knocked out her opponent when she won but had never gone 10 rounds. Both were in sound fighting shape. George, the bigger-framed of the two welterweights, had trained down to a lean but broad-shouldered 145 pounds. Jeter's body, at 146 pounds, was smoother, its strength concentrated in the legs.

The challenger landed some hard punches, especially when she switched to a southpaw stance in the middle rounds, but the champion put on the evening's only exhibition of accomplished technical boxing. Jeter jabbed and double-jabbed to set up combinations, circling to create advantageous angles of attack. She made George's punches miss, then made her pay for missing. She drove with her legs and shifted her weight in the clinches, encouraging George to spend her upper-body strength in pushing back with inferior leverage. The only blow that caught Jeter by surprise was an illegal one, an accidental headbutt in the third round that staggered her. The referee, a smiling gent with flowing white hair, gave Jeter a few seconds to recover. After the unscheduled break she went back to work with a burst of punching that won the round for her. An uneasy male voice called out from George's corner, "Get busy, girlfriend."

Both boxers' trainers had the limber, straightbacked carriage of fighting men in advanced middle age. Squatting in front of George's stool between rounds, her trainer shouted, "You got to hit her! Let your hands go! Boom-boom-boom-BOOM!" He threw an illustrative sequence of punches alarmingly close to her face. Jeter's corner was quieter, almost peaceful. While her husband knelt on the canvas in front of her, silently giving her water and applying ice and then Vaseline to her face, her trainer stood on the ring apron and craned through the ropes to murmur in her ear. When George began to tire in the seventh round, grabbing Jeter more often and leaning heavily on her, Jeter's trainer called out "Can you feel her weight?" just loudly enough to cut through the crowd noise. Jeter accepted even more of George's weight in the clinch, then turned her and stepped away suddenly to one side, causing George to stumble forward off-balance. Jeter nailed her with a jab, a cross, and a hook--left, right, left--before George could get back into position.

Jeter scored well the rest of the way with this sidestepping tactic out of the clinches, sweeping the late rounds and winning the fight by a wide margin on every judge's card. Holding her wrist, the referee raised Jeter's ungloved but still-wrapped hand in victory after the ring announcer intoned the traditional formula: "The winner, and still welterweight champion of the world. . . ."

The individual and ad hoc character of boxing, with a core of serious practitioners and many more who are semiserious or just in it for the workout, makes it difficult to determine how many women box. Frank Globuschutz, founder of an all-women's gym on Long Island and guiding force of the IWBF (in which capacity he gave Mitzi Jeter a big postfight hug), has estimated that there are more than 2,000 female professionals in the United States and perhaps half as many amateurs, each group constituting less than a third of the worldwide total. A woman arriving in the gym these days with an inchoate urge to box finds that, unlike women in previous eras, she can give form to that aspiration by plugging herself into the fight world's standard routine. First, she becomes a regular at the gym, finds a trainer, spars with peers and more experienced stablemates. Then she enters the Golden Gloves amateur tournament in her state; if that goes well, she can fight for national amateur titles and try to qualify for international tournaments. Eventually, if she turns pro, she signs with a manager who can line up plausible competition and pursues the attention of promoters, sponsors, and television executives; as her career progresses, she angles for higher-profile fights, title belts, bigger paydays.

Among the several social and cultural frames one might place around this phenomenon--and its high visibility in a recent round of movies, books, news features, and advertisements--is the larger movement of women into traditional proving grounds of American manhood. The generation of women currently integrating boxing, contact sports, hunting, and the military combat arms (not to mention action movies) has grown up in a time of remarkable fluidity in the sexual division of work and play. In particular, the assumption of a male monopoly on skilled, socially valued aggression has been seriously undermined, and not only by the feminist impulse. The Title IX legislation of 1972 that enabled the late 20th-century boom in women's sports was a symptom as much as a cause of the movement of women into previously off-limits areas. Beneath and behind the transformation of play lies the transformation of work: the final collapse of the family wage system that theoretically allowed a working man's salary to support his wife and children, together with the complementary movement of men into service jobs that resemble what used to be called "women's work." Deindustrialization, the mechanization of farming, and the expansion of service work, especially, have helped to undermine the traditional calculus of masculinity based on body work and associated rough play, on being good with one's hands.

A variety of enterprising women have undertaken to explore the evocative ruins of that partially collapsed tradition and to salvage usable parts for their own purposes. Women pushing for access to the fight world have been part of a larger push in the realms of work and play (which overlap at the fights) to claim once "manly" virtues that boxing is known to nurture and embody: autonomy, physical competence, and discipline, all wrapped up with productive aggression.

Women who want to fight, driven by an appetite for hitting as incompletely explicable as that which urges men into the ring, come to boxing from a variety of directions. A few come from fighting families; they grow up trading punches with brothers, or learn the ropes from fathers. More women, for the most part educated and middle-class, are recruited through the boxing-themed aerobic exercise regimes currently popular in health clubs. They grow tired of punching air to the beat and begin to wonder what it feels like to hit somebody who hits back. Others, the multi-sport athletes, come to boxing after playing organized sports in high school or college. Most of those sports offer little in the way of a professional future, and boxing is so individualistic that an extraordinarily motivated woman can take it up in earnest while still earning a living at day jobs or even pursuing a full-fledged career.

The majority of female boxers come to boxing through martial arts, which tend to emphasize technique over brute strength and which have been relatively integrated in the United States since the late 1960s and 1970s, when feminism and a spike in crime statistics inspired widespread interest in women's self-defense. Dawne George, who began training as a boxer in part to lose weight, has a black belt in tae kwon do. Mitzi Jeter won a national championship in sport karate and tried amateur kickboxing before moving on to boxing. Jeter switched to boxing three-and-a-half years ago, she said, "in part because of the popularity of women's boxing, but also because of the natural progression of intensity. Sport karate was more like a tag game, kickboxing was more intense, boxing is even more intense. Some things are the same--the fact that it's fighting, the way you stay balanced and centered. But probably the biggest difference is distance, and intensity." Jeter was talking to reporters at Slade's, a nightclub in Roxbury, at a press event the day before the fight. She got up to demonstrate how the distance between combatants shrinks and the decisive violence of their encounter escalates as one moves from sport karate to kickboxing to boxing. Everybody gave her plenty of room.

Jeter's and George's biographies also suggest the range of class trajectories that deliver women into the ring. Jeter, like many of her female peers and unlike most men in the business, has solid middle-class credentials: a degree in health and physical education from Barry College in Georgia, a teaching career, options. She never faced the classic choice between fighting and factory work, nor did she take up boxing to protect herself on the street. George's trajectory, by contrast, resembles the classic portrait of the male boxer in at least two respects: She grew strong doing hard manual labor in furniture factories, and she found boxing in prison, albeit as a guard rather than an inmate.

The two women have in common their entry into boxing at an extremely advanced age. Neither grew up in boxing, and it is certainly not a sport that they could have learned in school. Both had to make their way to it as adults through a changing social and cultural landscape. One might think of them as part of a backlog of women who have only begun to act on their fighting potential in the past few years. If the sport continues to grow, and if in time at least a prominent handful of women can make a decent living as boxers, this cohort of older pioneers (including most of the middle-class fighters) will be squeezed out by younger women who will come straight to boxing in their teens--hungry, committed fighters, most of them working-class, who will choose boxing over other life options and other sports. (Women's boxing may actually have a recruiting advantage over men's boxing in that respect, because football siphons off many of the boys with an appetite for hitting.)

Now, for all their seriousness about boxing, neither Jeter nor George can make a living in the ring. Bear in mind that Jeter holds two world welterweight titles but made "less than $10,000," according to her manager-husband, in her fight with George; male welterweight champion Sugar Shane Mosley can make $3 million-plus for an ordinary title defense, much more for a big bout against a marketable opponent. Female boxers, even more than men, do it primarily for the challenge, the feeling of accomplishment, the momentary glory, the potency, the hitting. These mostly intangible rewards matter a great deal, but steady income must derive from elsewhere, which usually entails a working life beyond the ring that eats up significant amounts of time and energy. On the Sunday after their Friday-night fight, George, a single mother of four and a grandmother, would be back at her part-time job as a short-order cook, and on Tuesday she would be back at work at the North Central Correctional Institute. Jeter would be back at the Spring Place Elementary School. "The kids are done for the year," she said, "but Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at school we have post-planning, then I have to take some classes this summer." And both fighters, of course, would soon be back in the gym, training.

No matter how hard women work in the gym, though, they face long odds in fighting their way out of the bind that the boxing business, forever suspended between craft and entertainment, puts them in. The novelty of women's boxing, an institutional fledgling, makes it especially susceptible to the eclipse of skillful fighting by the priorities of showbiz.

That helps explain the less-than-acceptable current state of women's boxing. A fighter can only improve by facing competent opponents in the gym and in bouts, and there are not enough good female boxers to go around. Dawne George, for example, was game and strong, but her losing record made her a less-than-ideal challenger for a world title, and she did not offer Jeter, who had already beaten her twice, much of a test.

Many women who fight for titles and on television are just not good enough boxers to merit such exposure, but they are game enough to wade in swinging, which always sells. Managerial skullduggery and incompetence produce far too many mismatches (a major problem in men's boxing, also), but even fair matches between women too often turn into flailing sessions that do not belong on major fight cards. Euphemistic talk about women's boxing as "more honest" than men's boxing--"more action-packed," "tougher," and "fresher"--draws a veil of marketing-speak over the plain fact that green female scrappers, fighting short, two-minute rounds that encourage bell-to-bell punching (men fight three-minute rounds), often beat the hell out of one another with less regard for defense and technique than more seasoned men display.

Consider the contrast with women's basketball, which some see as more aesthetically and technically pleasing than men's basketball. Female basketball players, the argument goes, work harder on passing, shooting, and team play because they cannot rely so heavily on the sheer strength and athleticism that often turns the men's game into a Hobbesian bricklaying contest punctuated by improbable dunks. But proper basketball skills may be learned in school, where fisticuffs are always discouraged, and a major part of the entertainment value of women's boxing seems to reside in its unsoundness: wild punching, no blocking or slipping of blows, action to the exclusion of craft.

Women's boxing often pleases crowds because it looks, paradoxically, both conventionally manlier than men's boxing and more womanly. It looks more like the way men pretend to fight in movies, dishing out and taking outsize blows by the double handful. Yet at the same time the women's bouts that collapse into unskilled pummeling call to mind certain forms of pornography premised on the principle of the catfight.

Those bouts anger fighters who pride themselves on their skill. "I have some strong issues on gender discrimination and sport," Mitzi Jeter said at Slade's, her soft Georgia voice hardening a touch. "More people would enjoy women's fighting if there were better women fighters. But they want to put on a T and A show--pardon my language. It seems like they find the worst women fighters they can. They're all like this:" She did a perfect imitation of a novice, head back, eyes shut tight, throwing weak rapidfire blows with both hands. "It's like they want the women to look bad. You see what women can do in other sports, like Flo Jo [the Olympic sprinter], what women have done in basketball, and soccer. And then you look at the women who fight on TV, and you know they aren't the best."

Jeter half-jokingly used the word "conspiracy" to describe the primitive state of women's boxing, and one can see why she might suspect the fight world's male authorities of colluding to defend the fistic and cultural status quo. Do the best female boxers remain obscure precisely because they are threatening? Why should Mia St. John--not much of a boxer, but easy enough on the eyes to appear on the cover of Playboy wearing boxing gloves and not much else--get bigger bouts than Jeter could ever dream of? Was promoter Bob Arum acting on purely economic motives when he dumped the incomparable Lucia Rijker, the best female boxer on earth, and signed St. John instead? Why should women fight shorter rounds? Perhaps, like the injunction that once barred women from running marathons, the rule protects an embattled orthodoxy rather than women's health.

Then again, conspiracy might be too strong a word. Powerful mixed motives drive boxing promoters and their associates in television, the casino business, and the sport's public and private governing bodies. Sensing a demand for women's boxing, they want to cultivate an audience for it (and build a bigger female audience for all boxing). Part of cultivating that audience could well be to develop a large cohort of skilled female boxers, but to achieve that end promoters would have to patiently invest in upgrading the quality of women's boxing over the long run. As notoriously sharkish purveyors of violent entertainment, though, promoters are oriented toward short-term profit and not toward effecting long-run change in the business or the surrounding culture. They know they can cash in right now on the appeal of the catfight--premised on the combatants' ineptitude--and the darkly timeless attraction of women getting beat up in public. So promoters go for what they regard as the sure thing, showcasing inexperienced female brawlers and comely incompetents rather than sound boxers. The resulting messy slugfests between women play not only to fans who value action over craft but also to those who regard a match between women as a palate-cleansing freaky sex show inserted among real fights.

One might argue that the same mix of fascinations with athletic skill, nakedness, and sexually inflected pain draws fans to men's boxing, but the proportions tend to be reversed. Some spectators may see a pornographic subtext in the spectacle of men boxing, but many spectators see any conjunction of women and violence as primarily a sex show.

The tangle of contradictions remains in evidence as women's boxing works into the fight world's collective psyche. Take, for example, the fight magazine Boxing Digest. Its editors, who pine in print for the lost golden age of "the nocturnal urban male subculture," have made clear their preferred understanding of women's place at the fights: They discontinued a new section devoted to women's boxing after only a few issues, while continuing to prominently feature a near-naked "Round Card Beauty of the Month" in every issue. But Boxing Digest also offers backhanded respect to women's bouts, which it includes in its small-type capsule reports on fight cards around the world. One typical recent report contrasted a "tame" main event between men to a slugfest between women on the undercard that served as "the real headliner" because, "as usual, the women's [bout] produced the most action." The mating of "action" to "as usual" implies praise for women's courage and fortitude (by which many men still affect to be surprised), but also distaste for yet another amateurish fight between female professionals.

The staff writers at Boxing Digest exemplify the ringside point of view of most boxing literature--the noncombatant expert's perspective, with authority derived from experience in watching rather than doing. But some of the educated women who were pioneers in legitimate boxing in the 1990s have been writing and making movies about boxing from a commanding new in-the-ring perspective: books like Rene Denfeld's Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall (1997), Kate Sekules's The Boxer's Heart (2000), and Lynn Snowden Picket's Looking for a Fight (2000); movies like Katya Bankowsky's Shadow Boxers (1999) and Karyn Kusama's Girlfight (2000). Firsthand ring experience translates into powerful leverage when these women's books and movies urge a reconsideration of received ideas about gender and aggression, sex and violence. The manly art of self-defense having become esoteric in our age, most partisans of those received ideas have not given or taken a good one to the chops since grade school, which can put them on the defensive when women with bloody knuckles enter the cultural battle royal over the meaning of women's boxing.

Two weeks after the Jeter-George fight, a 39-year-old lawyer and ex-college basketball player named Jacqui Frazier-Lyde fought a 23-year-old celebrity-in-training named Laila Ali in the main event of a card at the Turning Stone casino in upstate New York, an event that was broadcast on pay-per-view television. The bout--which the promoters insisted on calling Ali-Frazier IV, placing it in the company of three great fights between the protagonists' illustrious fathers, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali--exemplified most of what was wrong with women's boxing, and also some of its promise.

Begin with the promise. Two female novices fighting an eight-round, nontitle bout divided a total purse (including a piece of the TV revenue) amounting to perhaps a quarter-million dollars, probably the biggest payday in the history of women's boxing. Not only did women headline a card that included a number of good male fighters, but the 6,500 or so people in attendance--including hundreds of reporters from all over the world--seemed to accept the notion that two daughters had charged themselves with upholding the family honor the old way, dukes up. A number of fearsome-looking female professionals in street clothes took the opportunity presented by the massive gathering of reporters to lobby for their own shot at the big time. There was a sense of possibility in the air.

On the other hand, the fight itself belonged deep on the undercard at a local club, or in a Golden Gloves tournament. The combatants, who showed plenty of heart and little ability, had no business in a much-publicized main event. Frazier-Lyde could barely box at all, and Ali was only beginning to develop a style. Both had skipped amateur careers and assembled brief but undefeated professional records by dispatching sacrificial patsies, so neither had much experience against competent opposition. Frazier-Lyde, the shorter and thicker aggressor, rushed in at the start of every round, taking punches and windmilling her own until she was gasping for breath. Her left-handed blows sort of resembled her father's definitive Philadelphia left hook, but when she threw her right the punch collapsed into a pushing motion known on the street as a moosh, more of a provocation than an effective form of assault. Ali, taller and leaner, knew how to move her feet, jab with her long left arm, and follow up with a straight right, but she forgot about all that and settled for throwing both hands indiscriminately when Frazier-Lyde charged her. If any blows were blocked by either fighter, it happened by accident as an incoming glove ran afoul of an outgoing one. Increasingly winded, the two traded swings like drunken sailors, landing scores of punches without leverage that had little effect other than to generate "action."

The crowd, which had been inattentive during the undercard fights, came to life during the main event. This was more like it: a close, fast-paced bout with lots of hitting, celebrities, everything. People shouted out the fighters' names, taking special pleasure in chanting "A-li, A-li" again after all these years. They howled when the women went toe-to-toe, which was most of the time. Some of their enthusiasm was about boxing, some about women, some about women boxing--three different things--and some of it sprang from their memories of Ali and Frazier p弐es. They went home satisfied by the result, a close victory for Laila Ali by majority decision.

Mitzi Jeter, who was home in Georgia and refused to watch the bout on TV, was not satisfied. Even giving away 15 pounds and a giant reach advantage, she was confident that she could have outboxed Ali and Frazier-Lyde, perhaps even in succession on the same night. She dismissed their bout as "a publicity stunt" and worried that it had "hurt women's boxing." Frazier, she said, "is a joke. Ali, she's better than average, but still not a good fighter. Five years from now, after she's continued to work and train, she could be a good fighter. I'm surprised she let it be so close. That doesn't say much for her."

Five years from now, the statuesque Ali will probably be making action movies and hawking her celebrity workout video; Frazier-Lyde will be lawyering again, happily retired from her brief ring career. Jeter, at 43, will be fighting or training others to fight, because fighting is her craft, her gift, her calling.

Carlo Rotella, an assistant professor of English at Boston College, is the author of October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature (1998) and the forthcoming Good with Their Hands, from which portions of this article are adapted. His essay "Cut Time," part of another book-in-progress entitled The Distance, appeared in Best American Essays 2001.

Photo: "Smokin" Mitzi Jeter (left) and Dawne "The Devastator" George (right) at the IWBF welterweight championship in Boston.


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