Women Boxers Are About to Become Huge Stars. Can That Last After the Olympics?

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 3 2012 2:47 PM

Is There a Future for Women’s Boxing?

The sport will make a huge splash in its Olympic debut, but where will the stars of the London Games go from there?

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Claressa Shields
Team USA's Claressa Shields (in blue) fights against Pooja Rani of India in a tournament in China in May 2012.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images.

What women boxers do have in common is their struggle to make a living. Instead of being developed as prospects, they are asked to pay their own way. “Promoters are still reluctant,” says McLeod-Wells. “I had to prove to [my promoter] that I could sell a lot of tickets.” For serious female fighters unwilling (with good reason) to rely on their sex appeal to broaden their fan base, economically justifying themselves to promoters can amount to a full-time job itself.

The fact that Olympian Marlen Esparza has a Cover Girl modeling contract is great—for Marlen Esparza. It may even help some old-school types get over their stereotypes of women boxers, who knows. But the unavoidable big picture, for the Olympic women’s stars and the struggling no-name female amateurs and pros alike is this: Unless women’s boxing can be built into a viable spectator sport, our quadrennial national orgy of athletic feel-good self-congratulation will be for naught. Olympic boxing is nice. But it is and always has been a mere prelude to a professional career. It’s rather patronizing of us to pat female boxers on the head, compliment their medals, and then shrug and tell them that their fighting days are over, because the general public has gotten over the novelty factor. Prizefighting is what every boxer, male and female alike, aspires to. And in order for there to be female prizefighting, there must be money for a prize.

Need it be tens of millions of dollars in pay-per-view riches? No. But it should be a living wage. To expect female—but not male—fighters to rely on product endorsement money tied, implicitly, to sex appeal smacks of the despicable. Boxers, generally speaking, carry an extra measure of pride and fierce self-determination. It’s why we admire them, and why they’re able to persist in a sport that weeds out weakness in a brutal fashion. It is this that boxers get paid for. To the extent that we require fighters to become spokespersons and models and coaches and all-around hustlers to cobble together a living, we detract from the quality and safety of the sport. Male pro fighters make, at least, a living. That’s not too much for their female counterparts to ask. Yes, boxing’s riches are a pie unequally divided. But as it stands, women are still trying to get a fork.

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Considering how downright dangerous boxing is, the very least we can give the women coming back from the Olympics is a decent set of paying fans. Fortunately, there may be a simple path to building a viable audience for women’s boxing: women, boxing. Though the link between female participation in a sport and the success of a pro version of that sport is muddy, something about being punched in the face tends to inspire a romantic lifelong affinity. And there is a broadening group of women who’ve given boxing a try. Darius Forde, a trainer at New York’s famous Gleason’s Gym, says more women than men have come into the gym as new students in the past six months. “Most come in to get in shape,” he says, “and then stay to fight, once they see the competitive drive.”

If America doesn’t find a way to build a viable support system, it may soon find that poorer countries have used women’s boxing as a good arbitrage opportunity for Olympic glory. In India, for example, “the government has been spending money on a year-round boxing program for more than a decade,” says Anna Sarkisian, a Canadian filmmaker who has been following women’s boxing in India for years for the upcoming documentary With This Ring. “Forty boxers train, with at least five coaches, six days a week, 2-3 times a day. They travel many times a year, all expenses paid, for training and competitions.”

In America, of course, earning power rules. Government support for boxing is paltry. America’s professional male boxing ranks are full of former Olympians, like Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and Roy Jones Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya, who stepped off the medal platform and into the primetime world of pay-per-view violence. There’s no real pathway for women boxers to do the same thing—and little indication that there will be the kind of sustained public enthusiasm that would entice tight-fisted promoters to gamble on the less-flashy female game. So perhaps a little bit of priming the pump is in order: a minimum of one female fight (assuming fighters are available) on all major fight cards, as a condition of the license. There's no shame in a bit of affirmative action to build a fan base. Otherwise, opportunities are sure to remain scarce.

Professional boxing, with all of its flaws, may be a dubious reward to hold out to female Olympians. But it’s all we’ve got. And until pro boxing fans open their minds and wallets enough to give women’s boxing true viability as a business, even our ballyhooed and empowering Olympic women will remain prizefighters without a prize.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.

Hamilton Nolan writes for Gawker and covers boxing in his spare time.