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Regime Change in Women's Boxing
By Bernie McCoy
May 16, 2003
It seems apparent that the torch has been passed in Women's boxing. For years, the coveted slot for female fighters on the undercard of heavyweight championship bouts featured Christy Martin as the main attraction. It is now being reported that the distaff bout underneath the June 21 Lennox Lewis/Kirk Johnson fight will feature the new, though, as yet, uncrowned "face" of the sport, Laila Ali. It has also been speculated that Mia St John and Lucia Rijker are currently negotiating for an additional undercard spot. However, given that, in the past, St. John has been somewhat difficult to deal with in her pre-fight demands and Rijker has a history of backing out of scheduled fights this second bout may be problematical, at best.

Martin, whose last "major bout" was a ten-round "track meet" in December in which she conspicuously ran out of steam after three rounds of chasing St. John before decisioning the former Playboy centerfold in what was cringingly billed as the "Battle of the Covergirls", has begun the final stages of her career. She recently fought a six-round exhibition bout, in Iowa, with one Ragan Pudwill, stepping in for Tonya Harding (yes that Tonya Harding) who dropped out of the bout due to an injury or lack of training (take your choice). Needless to say, Osceola Lakeside Resort is a long way from Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas and not just in miles.

Martin first came to national attention in March, 1996, on the undercard of a Mike Tyson championship fight in Las Vegas when she defeated, over six rounds, a game Irish fighter named Deirdre Gogarty, who Martin outweighed by upwards of ten pounds. Gogarty managed to hold her own against the more experienced Martin, and over the six rounds Gogarty landed some heavy shots to Martin's countenance. Following the fight, that same countenance, bloody, bruised, but victorious, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. As for Martin the fighter, the resulting publicity vaulted her onto a lengthy series of lucrative championship fight cards.

The Martin "camp" however, learned well from the Gogarty bout and, as a result, were somewhat less than daring when selecting opponents for Martin's national appearances. The likes of Bethany Payne, Sabrina Hall and Dianna Lewis all were "fed" to Martin as erstwhile opposition with the result being easy wins; in the case of Payne and Hall, seemingly effortless first rounds KOs. Even when Martin chose to step in with a fighter with a modicum of talent and experience, the opponent was handpicked with the greatest of care. A primary requisite was that the fighter be a relatively light puncher, thus posing no knockout threat to Martin. Thus, while fighters such as Kathy Collins, Jeanne Martinez, Belinda Lacracuente, and Lisa Holewyne brought substantial experience and at least intermediate talent to the ring, they did not pose a knockout threat for Martin. Martin, who decisioned all these fighters, never experienced "heavy bombardment" in any of these fights. Even Andrea DeShong and Daniella Somers, both of whom Martin TKO'd on championship cards, did not possess the punching power to trade power shots with Martin.

Notably absent from these national events were Lucia Rijker and Sumya Anani. Anani had beaten Martin in December, 1998 and had scored what many considered a knockdown of Martin, although it was ruled a slip by the referee. Rijker, who was considered by most observers to be the hardest puncher in Women's boxing, for several years, played the "Inspector Javert" role to Martin's "Jean Valjean" in a vain attempt to get Martin into the ring in what, undoubtedly, would have been the biggest payday in the history of the sport. A return with Anani and the Rijker "clash of the titans" never happened, in large part, it would seem, because both Anani and Rijker possessed the common trait that worried the Martin camp to distraction, punching power. Gogarty had exposed the fact that Martin had never been the hardest fighter to hit and Anani and Rijker had knockout power and thus both were blatantly bypassed as Martin foes.

Now ascends to the national spotlight, Lalia Ali. She will make her national championship card debut on June 21 on the Lennox Lewis card. While the "face" of Women's boxing has seemingly changed, the matchmaking machinations, so prevalent in the Martin era, seem to remain largely intact. With the June 21 date slightly more than a month away, an opponent for Ali has yet to be named. This does not portend well for the chances of Ali stepping into the ring against a well known or quality fighter. Ali's last three opponents have included a "coaxed out of retirement" Mary Ann Almager, an undersized Valerie Mahfood and an embarrassingly out of shape Suzy Taylor, all of whom Ali dispatched with little trouble. Aside from a ten round win over another "daughter", Jacqui Frazier, the only notable fighter Ali has been in the ring with has been Kendra Lenhart, who Ali defeated over six rounds in November, 2000. Lenhart, a veteran boxer, has fought some of the best fighters in the division, including ten tough rounds with Frazier and Lenhart's career losing record belies her well earned reputation as an "honest" fighter.

Thus, as the torch of national championship card exposure seems to have passed from Christy Martin to Lalia Ali, it appears that the Ali "camp" intends to be just as judicious in choosing opponents as Martin's. There is even a "Lucia Rijker" in the Ali scenario of opponents; that would be Ann Wolfe. Wolfe, currently sporting a 14-1 record including a recent dismantling of a tough Marsh Valley, has, to this point, been summarily ignored by the Ali management team in much the same way Rijker received the "head in the sand" treatment from the Martin contingent. It is fairly safe to assume that come June 21, Ann Wolfe will not be coming out of the other corner against Lalia Ali. Hopefully, in the future, the near future, the Ali/Wolfe matchup will happen, but the control is completely with the new face of Women's boxing, Lalia Ali.

It is further hoped that Laila Ali will provide the sport, the boxing fans and, most importantly, her burgeoning talent in the ring, the respect they deserve and, the opponent for the June 21 bout will be a fighter whose record, talent and experience does not prompt the use of the adjective "mismatch" in the next sentence. Now that Laila Ali is stepping out on the national championship stage, it is time for her to step up in competition.

Bernie McCoy


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