Middleweight boxer, Claressa Shields, has it all at such a young age; during the Olympics, the 21-year-old won two back to back gold medals, making her the first for a boxer of either gender division to do so. While Shields is considered a contending boxing great, there is one little detail that her PR consultant warns her about doing if she’s to win the hearts of millions in America: stop expressing how much she wants to beat people up in the press.
“People say the way I talk about boxing is too mean and too tough, but I do enjoy hitting people, or I wouldn’t be a boxer,” Shields tells Jaime Lowe of The New York Times, in a revealing piece just before her legendary Olympic win in Rio. “I’m not gonna pretend that isn’t part of it or part of me.”
“Shields cannot visibly enjoy fighting to succeed financially as a boxer. It’s a violent sport. If she were a man, that bloodlust, that taste for combat, would be courted. It would be used as a selling point to hype fights, as it always has. But for a woman to admit that she likes aggression, relishes controlled rage, thrives on ferocity and enjoys the feeling of gut-punches, well, that is unfathomable, or it seemed so to the Team U.S.A. reps,” explains Lowe. “They had no idea how to sell her, even after she was featured in a multimedia photo essay in The New York Times, profiled by The New Yorker, heard on NPR, or highlighted in any number of other media appearances. They could not figure out how to sell her in spite of her ready-made biopic childhood—a narrative riddled with disadvantage, abuse and sexual violence that ends in winning Olympic gold.”
While gymnasts are marketed as “America’s Sweethearts” to the U.S. public for the Olympics, women boxers remain in uneasy territory. Shields, who was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, experienced a turbulent childhood of sexual and physical abuse. Her background, decidedly more rough than that of other women athletes, left sponsors befuddled as how to market her. Coupled with her interest in being a fighter, Shields was asked to “tone down” her excitement in throwing jabs and punches in the ring.
The Atlantic‘s Kate Jenkins agrees: “Women boxers’ bodies are also at odds with conventional ideals of femininity, but in their case, being perceived as unfeminine can actually cost them precious opportunities to compete […] When fighters are women, this often includes an extraordinary pressure to maintain both powerful musculature and a sexy, crowd-pleasing image, since most promoters figure sex appeal is the only way to market a female boxer.”
“The misogyny of the boxing industry is deeply rooted in tradition. For evidence, look no further than Washington, D.C.’s annual “Fight Night Benefit,” which this year raised nearly $5 million for the nonprofit Fight for Children. It was a swanky, sloppy affair featuring professional boxing matches along with cigars, steak, and booze. Most of the patrons were men, while the service was primarily provided by women,” she continues. “Topless women in body paint adorned pedestals, uniformed cheerleaders flirted, and cocktail waitresses perched on men’s laps. The event is extremely successful, year after year, for reasons that clearly go beyond charitable impulses.”
While Shields is the most prominent woman boxer since the retirement of Laila Ali, women’s boxing has faced resistance since its beginning. In 1722, Elizabeth Wilkinson first challenged Hannah Hyfield to a match through an ad. Later, in the 1800s, Nell Saunders and Rose Harland fought in the first women’s boxing match in America. Despite these early bouts, it wasn’t until 1979 that women were able to obtain professional woman boxing licenses, after a New York state court ruled that the ban on women’s boxing couldn’t be upheld by the constitution.
Laila Ali, who retired undefeated, was one of the first prominent women boxers of her generation, though she too was no stranger to sexism in the sport. “In her first bought, Ali withstood intense scrutiny, knocking out her opponent in 31 seconds of the first round. Ali continued to win in dramatic fashion, and ended her first 13 matches either by a knockout (KO), where her opponent was unable to rise up from the canvas within the specified time, or by technical knockout (TKO), where the bout ended because her opponent appeared too badly injured or overwhelmed to continue the fight. These victories helped to anchor Ali’s credibility as a boxer,” says sports journalist Murry R. Nelson in American Sports. Ali fought hard to distinguish herself from her father, the late Muhammad Ali.
After Ali’s retirement, the interest in women’s boxing became even less publicized. “Women’s boxing just isn’t televised,” says Lou DiBella. “Boxing for generations and centuries has been a man’s sport, and when women popped up, it was treated as a novelty.” With the creation of pay-per-view fights, sponsors became adamant on headlining big names in order to compete in world-wide televised matches.
Curiously, women fighters in M.M.A. (Mixed Martial Arts), have risen to mainstream prominence, garnering respect from a mass audience. While boxing has four control boards, the U.F.C (Ultimate Fighting Championship) only has one. In 2011, the organization also overturned a decision to bar women from entering, led by the president, Dana White.
Despite obstacles, women fighters remain determined to showcase their athletic talents, and their ability to go head-to-head with their opponents, just like men.
“We don’t do this for the money,” says 27-year-old Baltimore native Tyrieshia Douglas. “But I know that I’m gonna change the face of women’s boxing.”