Women's boxing turns a corner with first fights in London

Women boxers hope Olympics exposure will boost their cause

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As a recent storm pounded Downtown Pittsburgh, 26-year-old Jennifer Dugwen Chieng danced around a punching bag at the Third Avenue Gym, a boisterous place crammed with exercise equipment and sweaty, muscled young men.

She ducked and weaved against her phantom opponent before letting fly a torrent of punches, three and four jabs at a time.

Ms. Chieng -- who works in finance at BNY Mellon by day and trains several nights a week -- has been chasing an Olympic goal since 2009, when the International Olympic Committee announced that, for the first time, women's boxing would be included in the Summer Games.

"That's the dream," she said.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, at London's ExCeL Exhibition Centre, three pairs of women will step into the ring today to fight for the gold, the capstone of the sport's Olympic debut for women.

In the middleweight (165 pound) category, Claressa Shields, a 17-year-old phenom from Flint, Mich., is a strong contender for the top prize after handily beating her opponent Wednesday. Marlen Esparza, a 23-year-old flyweight from Houston, clinched a bronze medal the same day.

By some measures, this moment has been more than a century in the making. It's been 108 years since the nascence of boxing at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, when women boxed in exhibition bouts but only men won medals.

Then, and for decades after, women had to battle their way into boxing gyms and against the notion that it was unnatural or improper for them to box. And each hard-won victory has been marred by frustrating setbacks.

"The girls have to fight harder," said Jeaneene Hildebrandt, the women's director of USA Boxing and a longtime advocate of women boxers. "There are coaches who still won't coach women."

The debut of boxing for women in the Olympics marks a major milestone for a sport that sometimes seems stubbornly stuck in another era, where even coaches who have overseen the best female fighters are conflicted about the women who walk through their gym doors.

"Even after all these years, I feel reservations about women ... it's just not the same," said Jimmy Cvetic, a retired police officer and longtime boxing coach who owns Third Avenue Gym.

At the amateur level in Pennsylvania, male athletes outnumber female athletes more than 10 to 1.

In the professional realm, the chasm between prize money for men and women is widening, said Christy Martin, one of the sport's most successful women. Ms. Martin, who was discovered in West Virginia and is affectionately known as the Coal Miner's Daughter, was picked up by legendary promoter Don King in the mid-1990s and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But since her heyday, she said, the professional opportunities have been in decline.

"Where women's boxing is today? It's hurting," she said last week, sitting in a Las Vegas gym not far from the Strip, where she became one of the highest paid female fighters in history.

But women like Ms. Chieng aren't terribly concerned with the setbacks, or the naysayers.

"My job is to train and to fight and to win," she said. "It took us over 100 years, but look where we are."

"To be an Olympian, I think is every athletes' dream in the amateur world, to be considered the best in the world."

Ms. Chieng's coach, Darren Dolby, who trained national champion Tika Hemingway from Pittsburgh's Hill District, said he believes she "has what it takes to be an Olympian."

"I see in Jen a lot of will, determination," he said. Ms. Chieng made an impression on him when she came to the gym three years ago determined to train, even though she was six months' pregnant. "She got heart."

Late to the game

As young women across the country were enjoying newfound opportunities in sports thanks to the passage of Title IX in 1972, boxing saw no such boon.

Women who fought were a rarity and were often relegated to sideshows meant to be more spectacle than sport. There was a limited professional circuit, which Ms. Martin found her way onto after she clobbered three female opponents in an informal competition.

USA Boxing prohibited women from boxing until 1993, when teenager Dallas Malloy of Washington successfully sued in federal court to be able to fight in sanctioned bouts. The International Amateur Boxing Association, or AIBA, accepted women in 1994.

USA Boxing hosted its first national women's championship in 1997. The first international championship, organized by AIBA, was held in Pennsylvania in 2001, at Scranton High School.

AIBA put forth a proposal after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to the International Olympic Committee to include women, noting that roughly a half-million females are registered to box worldwide. The committee voted in 2009 to include the sport, but limited the weight classes to three for women, instead of the customary 10 in other international competitions.

This meant that Ms. Hemingway, whose pedigree made her a favorite to make the Olympic squad, had to drop weight from 178 -- the weight class where she won a national title -- to the middleweight category of 165. Mr. Dolby believes it helped derail her chances of going to London.

Despite the gains, men still vastly outnumber women. Bernard Bruni, the executive director of Pennsylvania Golden Gloves, host of the largest amateur competition in the state, estimated there are only about 50 female fighters statewide, compared to about 800 males.

The problem is compounded when females go looking for suitable opponents. Per USA Boxing rules, women cannot fight men and also must find someone in their weight category, age category and with roughly their level of experience.

"They come every week expecting to box" at tournaments, said Mr. Bruni, but often get turned away or given "walkover" victories when there's no one for them to fight. At some point, Mr. Bruni said, women get tired of being turned away and stop showing up altogether.

Young women who are serious about the sport, he said, have to leave the state to find suitable competition.

In the gym

In the Third Avenue Gym, Ms. Chieng worked a bag, ducking, bobbing and weaving, narrowing her gaze before unleashing a fury of punches.

Perhaps because she's Mr. Dolby's best hope for an Olympian, Ms. Chieng is treated with reverence here. Rejoyce Mudd, a shy, lanky 17-year-old who prefers bubblegum pink boxing gloves, says she's treated just like the boys here, too.

"We all do the same work," she said. "I don't feel any different."

After Ms. Malloy prevailed in federal court, young women began trickling into gyms in greater numbers, including a pair who came to the Evansville Boxing Gym in Indiana, owned by Ms. Hildebrandt's husband, Richard. Mr. Hildebrandt said he discovered he sometimes preferred training women, who listened better both in the gym and in the corner.

But not every gym is so welcoming. Some women still encounter stiff resistance from old-school coaches.

That was the case for Ms. Hemingway, who was initially rebuffed when she approached a boxing coach on a street corner in the Hill District, until he saw her throw her first punch.

At Third Avenue Gym, there are signs that things might be different. The mural of great fighters adorning the cinderblock walls includes Ms. Martin. The door of the gym's sole locker room indicates it is unisex, with two signs with boxing glove icons that read "Men" and "Women."

But the coaches here admit they're often skeptical of the women who come into the gym. Even Ms. Martin said the gym she ran in Florida was about 90 percent male, and she was leery of women who expressed a desire to train because she did not want the men and women to mix romantically.

"I always tell them 'You're too pretty. Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to get your nose broken?' " said Mr. Cvetic, the Third Avenue Gym owner. He readily admits that "I give women a harder time."

But he says women are often easier to train. And when it comes to footwork, they excel.

"I think women are easier to train because they have the grace and beauty ... and women aren't afraid to try," he said. "The men are klutzy."

Press him on why he discourages women, and he says it's just boxing's way.

"Boxing is definitely old school. It's a man's world to this day," he said.

Ms. Chieng, who started boxing in New York City in gyms where women were not uncommon, said she's heard those things. She ignores them.

"I have faced that. But, you know, boxing, it's a tough sport. It's not for everyone," she said. "If you don't have the guts to do it, if you don't have the mental agility, you know, the mental stronghold to do it, it's not your sport."

Don't sweat it

Tough-skinned women like Ms. Chieng and Ms. Martin don't fret the lack of parity in the sport.

When she went pro 23 years ago, Ms. Martin said she wasn't trying to be a pioneer. Mostly, she wanted to be treated roughly the same.

"I didn't want to make waves. I just wanted to fit in," she said. "That'll be the best, when women are recognized as just fighters, not women fighters ... just fighters."

Ms. Martin is staking her hopes on Marlen Esparza to re-energize professional boxing for women. Ms. Esparza, the 23-year-old with olive skin and model-like features who won bronze in the flyweight category (112 pounds), has contracts with Cover Girl cosmetics and McDonald's. She appeared in Vogue in a dress, throwing punches.

"I think she's got it. I think she's got it," Mr. Martin says. "She's got the charisma for outside of the ring. She's got the skill for inside of it."

For promoters and trainers in the professional world, fighters are not so much athletes as they are investments.

"It's kind of the catch-22," Ms. Martin said. "Somebody's got to give them that chance to train and get better. But who's going to do that if they haven't already proven themselves. And how can you prove yourself if you don't have the opportunity?"

Ms. Chieng, too, hopes the Olympics exposure will translate to more success for professional women fighters. But mostly, she's hoping for a little respect.

"You might think that female fighting is bogus, or it's just a cat fight, but it's really far from that," she said. "I think it would help bring more attention to women fighters as really skillful fighters."

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published August 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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