The Cyber Boxing Zone Newswire

More Gender War: Chuck R. Bogle

On October 9, in Seattle's Mercer Arena, Margaret McGregor, a former kick-boxer who had rung up three quick victories since turning professional in the ring in April of this year, boxed her way to an easy four-round unanimous decision against Loi Chow, an apparently hypertensive and relatively unskilled martial-arts expert who, with the loss, sunk to three defeats in only three professional fights.

In terms of international rankings and the hoary "pound for pound" debates that regularly provide cannon fodder for the boxing press, McGregor-Chow was a virtually nonexistant bout. Neither fighter is or ever will be even close to championship caliber. Similar fights are standard fare on the undercards of regional shows -- the promising but limited local prospect gets matched up with an obviously inferior opponent for an easy victory as filler before the main event. And make no mistake, it WAS an easy victory for McGregor, who by all accounts handily won every round and was the superior boxer even if she never really opened up and hurt Chow.

The bout was on the undercard of a regional club show, not under the klieg lights of a Vegas or Atlantic City casino, and was not televised nationally. Yet both the regular "boxing" press and more mainstream outlets such as "Entertainment Tonight" and Leno's "The Tonight Show," had featured numerous articles, pieces, or monologue bits about the fight. Post-fight, McGregor was interviewed on CNN. The reason for the extensive coverage was obvious: Margaret McGregor was a thirty-six year old woman while Chow was a man.

Much of the commentary, particularly from the "serious" boxing community, was particularly angry and hostile. While the mainstream media spun the bout as an amusing human-interest story, boxing types, including journalists, fighters, trainers, promoters, ranking organization officials and even representatives of the fledgling women's boxing movement, spoke with a single emphatic voice. The bout was decried as a "sideshow" and a "disgrace," something that would be a "black eye" both for boxing in general and women's boxing in particular, and that would detract from the "dignity" of "real" boxing.

Of course, the fight WAS a sideshow in a sense. It was an undercard bout to a fight that was of regional interest at best. But if that's the criteria for objecting to a bout, half of the boxing cards in the Midwest, as well as any fight featuring Alex Stewart, Razor Ruddock or Freddie Pendleton, would have to be canceled immediately. Further, a sport that tolerates and even rewards Butterbean, Naseem Hamed and the 90s-era Mike Tyson has lost the right to object to a fight because its appeal derives at least as much from its entertainment or human interest value as from the pure drama of athletic competition. Entertainment value, even prurient interest, is part of any contact sport, particularly for the casual fan, and no reason to object to a cross-gender fight.

Representatives of female boxing ranking organizations, such as the IWBF, wrung their hands over the fact that the bout would detract from "legitimate" women's boxing. But such objections no doubt are better explained in terms of the organizations' own bottom line; if the best female boxers could compete with men in the ring, the obvious lure would be to do so under the aegis of the older, more established and more lucrative male sanctioning organizations, siphoning off talent, marketability and ultimately dollars from the strictly women's racket.

The most thought-out objections to the McGregor-Chow fight centered on two arguments. The first was that women simply were incapable of safely competing with men on ANY level. For instance, a Vice-President of the IBF stated baldly that "no woman is physically suited to step into a ring and take body punches," while Benny Georgino, a veteran promoter based in Riverside, Calif., stated in an interview that "a man has superior strength. I think a man can overcome anything a woman can give." The Association of Boxing Commissions, citing "health concerns" refused to recognize the bout as anything more than an exhibition.

The health/safety argument is based on the idea that in general, the average man has more strength, particularly upper-body strength, than the average woman, and that any fight between an average man and woman would be unfair based on that fact alone. The obvious response is that some women are exceptionally strong, and that women, just as men, are capable of changing their bodies, of developing areas that are weaker. In any event, boxing isn't entirely about strength -- quickness, balance and handspeed count as well. Given that women tend to have a slightly higher tolerance for pain than men (a biological gift that aids in the childbirth process), it's not clear that women don't even have the physical advantage over men in certain respects.

To be sure, matching men and women would involve slightly different variables than matching two men, and the process of ensuring that a cross-gender bout was fair could involve some trial and error in the initial stages. Clearly, the promoters and commission erred on the side of caution in Seattle; McGregor could have handled someone significantly bigger and stronger than Chow. But there's a fairly wide margin for trial and error in the process of matching two MEN, and it's hard to believe that whatever additional difficulties there are in matching across the genders couldn't be overcome in time.

Ultimately, the real objection to cross-gender fights seems to be grounded in a Victorian notion of propriety, which itself hides an equally old-fashioned conception of the place of women in society. Opponents of such fights feel on some basic level that it's just not "right" for men and women to fight each other. The feeling was aptly expressed by Georgino, who mournfully intoned "A guy goes to jail when you hit a girl. Now, they make it legal." Faux horror was expressed at the idea that a woman could actually be HURT by a man in the ring. This sort of objection presents itself as chivalry or excessive respect for women -- "we're just lookin' out for you, darlin'," etc.

But beneath the simulated respect lies a certain amount of contempt, even fear, as well as a particular conception of women's "nature". Women, we are drilled to believe from birth, are supposed to be nurturers, more sensitive and less aggressive than men. The idea that some women might in fact harbor aggressive, even violent impulses, that they might express those impulses in the ring, that they might actually ENJOY knocking someone senseless, contrasts jarringly with what men have been trained to expect from the "gentler sex."

When that agression is trained against other women, of course, men can look at it as something of a spectacle with semi-erotic undertones, similar to mud wrestling. When women decide to fight men, however, the stakes becomes much more serious. Men risk the possibility, not of being "ungentlemanly" and beating up women, but of being unmanned and getting beaten up BY them. In a sport that until recently was one of the last completely male bastions at the pro level (football is the only other), and that served as a touchstone of what it means to be a man in this society, such a possibility evokes some of the deepest fears and prejudices of both participants and fans alike.

I'm generally not in favor of using sports, particularly violent ones, as vehicles to overcome the kinds of prejudice and stereotype that are at the heart of objections to a cross-gender bout. Even if it were a good idea generally, permitting (mostly minority, mostly lower-class) women to beat each other silly the way we permit (mostly minority, mostly lower-class) men to do the same is a questionable way of promoting gender equality. However, as a fan of the sport, I am in favor of good, quality fights, and increasing the pool of poential fighters and matchups by allowing cross-gender bouts is one way to achieve that. One common objection to female and cross-gender boxing is that female boxers, not having had access to the extensive international amateur scene and generally coming to the sport later in life, are not as skilled as their male counterparts. They typically lack defensive and other pure boxing skills, their punches are wide and amateurish, it's no different than watching a "toughman" competition, etc., etc. Accordingly, so the argument goes, while there may be no technical reason not to allow women to fight, there's no reason that anyone should pay to see it, either.

My response would be that in the absence of an extensive amateur program, women are only going to become better boxers by fighting people who are better, and more experienced, than they are. In the current state of affairs, that means fighting men. In fact, because there are so few female boxers nationwide, virtually all women already do most of their ring work with men. Margaret McGregor is a case in point -- she trains and spars almost exclusively with men, many of whom are bigger and stronger than she is. To then insist that these women enter the ring only with other women at or below their level of experience is like permitting a high school basketball player to train with a pro team, but then only permitting him or her to play with the local squad. Cross-gender bouts, more than anything else, will allow women to raise the caliber of their game to the point that it truly will be worth paying money to see.

Boxing is in a unique position at this stage of its history. Few other sports permit direct cross-gender matchups at the pro level; in fact, most sports have a long history of segregation in competition that would be difficult to break. Boxing, by contrast, because so few women ever participated in it, has no history of a "separate but equal" women's version to overcome. While it is likely that women will never dominate at the highest levels of competition (though at the extreme light end of the weight classes, I wouldn't necessarily bet on it), there IS a place for women in the "male" boxing world. And make no mistake, they're going to take that place. There already have been reports that Lucia Rijker plans to fight a man next year, and there are more women where right behind her who are even now hitting the heavy and speed bags in gyms across the country, right next to their male counterparts.

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