Scoring the bout

What do you want your daughter to be: a boxer or a ring-girl?

LAST WEEKEND, female boxers were big news. Friday night, Leila Ali (daughter of Muhammad) made her pro debut with a first-round knockout. Saturday night, the first sanctioned professional boxing match between a man and a woman took place at Mercer Arena, and unless you’ve been keeping house under a rock, you know the results: Bremerton landscaper Margaret MacGregor beat Canadian Loi Chow in four rounds by unanimous decision.

This wasn’t the first public match between a man and a woman; aside from Andy Kaufman’s infamous challenge to female wrestlers, there have been intergender boxing exhibitions before. But the MacGregor-Chow fight was the first to be state-sanctioned, though it was not recognized by the Association of Boxing Commissions.

This technicality mattered little to the fight’s promoters, Jim Rupp and Bob Jarvis, who cast the match in Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King-style controversy. Yet, as an athletic battle of the sexes, the fight proved anti-climactic. MacGregor’s victory proved nothing, really, except that in a fight between two lightweights, one a pro with a height and weight advantage who’s never lost a fight, the other a part-timer who hasn’t fought a pro match in three years, gender is a minor consideration.

The response to the MacGregor-Chow bout indicates how far women have come in the sports world – and how far they still have to go. The boxing establishment – including big-name promoters and the athletic commissioners of Nevada, California, and New Jersey – pulled no punches in its disapproval of the bout. The term “freak show” was often employed. Promoter Rock Newman offered $5,000 to Jarvis and $3,000 each to MacGregor and Chow (double their pay) if they would call off the fight. One mullet-headed Seattle sports columnist suggested a few items “really worth fighting over” for a man and a woman, including “the TV clicker” and “chore management.”

More understandable were the complaints of female boxing pros, angered by MacGregor’s claim that she’d run out of women to fight. If this were 5’10”, 165-lb. Leila Ali, the lack of female competitors would make sense. But MacGregor is 5’3″, with a fighting weight of 129. Ali herself, appearing Monday morning on The Today Show, dismissed the fight with a shrug. “It’s not a good thing. It’s not a bad thing,” she said. “I don’t want to fight a man.”

The public, on the other hand, seemed overwhelmingly on MacGregor’s side. She was the hometown favorite. At one Ticketmaster outlet on Saturday afternoon, a male clerk who was going to the fight said, “I gotta decide who to root for. Because everybody’s rooting for her, so I don’t know . . .”

“She’s gonna whup him,” enthused another guy in a baseball cap. “She’s gonna get him.”

That night, the ring girls gave MacGregor a standing ovation when she entered the arena to the strains of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.” After the first bell and 10 seconds of mutual avoidance between MacGregor and Chow, the fight was hers. Chow spent most of the next four rounds cradling his skull, occasionally head-butting or throwing wildly ineffective punches. By the middle of the final round, the crowd was chanting, “Margaret! Margaret! Margaret!”

As soon as the bell rang to end the match, MacGregor and Chow hugged, just like they had at their media weigh-in on Friday (held separately from the rest of the night’s fighters, and early enough to make the six o’clock news). “Obviously, I’m blazing some kind of trail,” MacGregor had said then. “I’m a part of boxing history. As far as negative stuff, I’m ignoring it. It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

THE SPORT OF BOXING doesn’t exactly have reputation. Women’s boxing, only a recognized competitive event for six years, remains something of a novelty. Despite claiming surprise at the widespread media interest in the bout, Rupp and Jarvis are hardly publicity-shy; they once tried to organize a bout between hard-scrabble figure skater Tonya Harding and Dallas Malloy (the female boxer who won the suit against the US Amateur Boxing Federation for women’s right to compete).

The fight’s glossy program described how Rupp and Jarvis initially thought up an intergender bout as a publicity opportunity for Washington lightweight Martin O’Malley. Their plan was to promote a fight between O’Malley and then-undefeated female boxer Christy Martin. Jarvis, O’Malley’s manager, didn’t think he could persuade O’Malley to get in the ring with a woman, but he sent a challenge to the female fighter’s handler, notorious promoter Don King, anyway. They never heard back. Then Rupp and Jarvis realized they could get the same publicity for O’Malley just by putting an intergender bout on the undercard of one of his fights.

Of course, intergender competition isn’t the norm in any sport. It was actually women themselves who first promoted gender-specific rules, history professor Susan K. Cahn explains in Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th-Century Women’s Sport. These “reformers” hoped to eke out a niche for women athletes – at the same time allowing some men to save face. National fencing champ Helene Mayer was stripped of her 1938 title when, for “chivalry’s sake,” the US fencing organization imposed a retroactive ban on intergender competition.

Another sporting organization, the International Rifle Association, decided to separate male and female competitions after women won the mixed competitions too often.

Women have made inroads in sports journalism, but American sports culture remains – alongside its problems of race, class, and sexual preference – a sexist enterprise. Sports marketing employs cadres of scantily clad women; almost every sports events includes decorative females as cheerleaders or ring girls. Sports – particularly contact sports like boxing – appear to be the last stronghold of conventional masculinity; a weak pitcher still “throws like a girl.” At the same time, sports is one of the backbones of American society. Box scores are the country’s most popular soap opera. In a survey of Harvard Business School graduates by former ESPN producer Jean McCormick, 88 percent of the respondents said that knowing about sports mattered in the business world.

At the Mercer on Saturday night, the lackluster punches of light heavyweights Jeff Simmons and Rodney Moore led one male spectator to heckling. What were his insults? “C’mon, girls!” he yelled. “Get his phone number and call him at home!”

When the bikini-clad ring girl appeared, his shouts changed to, “Give me your phone number, and I’ll call you at home.”

The fact that there are ring girls at all-male bouts is expected, if warped (what exactly is the link between a blood sport and a girl in a swimsuit?) but having ring girls for an all-female or intergender fight is downright surreal. Imagine the female boxer in her corner, wiping the sweat from her eyes and spitting into a bucket, listening to the crowd cheering another woman for walking around the ring in a thong.

The fact that a male-female boxing match was staged at all highlights the fact that women have to “earn” equality; if they want to succeed, they play by male rules. Boxing is, after all, the same sport that welcomed back a heavyweight champion imprisoned for rape, until he bit off an opponent’s ear – then the commentators discovered he had some anger-management issues. Professional boxing may not be as blatantly circus-like as pro wrestling, but it’s not all about grace and dexterity. There’s a fair share of brutality involved, too. The question isn’t can women be as violent as men, but is violence a worthwhile aim for any human being, male or female? The answer won’t be found in a boxing match, that’s for sure.