BY CARLO ROTELLA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY WAYNE GILBERT
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
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
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
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
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.