All press is good press, and so I was happy to see the Atlantic paying attention to my grimy, girly corner of the sporting world. Kate Jenkins's sympathetic piece looks at the pressure on women fighters to market themselves as sex symbols, yet there is an odd way in which the piece is itself evidence of the problem it decries. If we want people to take our sport seriously, we need to get the details right. Here's a list of the errors I saw, beginning with the two most obvious, the rankings.
"Tori Nelson, ranked #1 in the US and #2 in the world"
WBAN has Nelson #2 in the US and #4 in the world; Boxrec has her #1 in the US and #3 in the world
On Tyreishia Douglas: "Currently, she’s the #1 ranked female bantamweight in the world"
Douglas is a flyweight not a bantamweight. WBAN does not rank her, and Boxrec has her at #18 in the world.
The rest of these points are debatable, but I still see them as inaccurate:
"She estimated that the winnings for equivalent male fighters start off between $20,000 and $30,000."
Tori is a 13-0 welterweight. It's hard to find "equivalent male fighters," because at 13-0 most male welterweights won't yet be fighting for titles, but this figure seems too high as a starting point. Local promoter Felipe Gomez of New Legends Boxing estimates that a man with that record could pull $4,000 for an 8-rounder on the cheap end, $6,000-$12,000 if TV is involved. Al Haymon guys, Olympians would be pulling much more.
"Then she added, referring to the men, “Maybe I gotta fight them to make that.” I don’t doubt she’d do it. Nelson, like nearly all female boxers, began training by sparring almost exclusively with men. There are still so few women in the sport that the training gyms pair men and women out of necessity."
Boxing is one of the most strength-intensive sports. Pee wee boxers might spar members of the opposite sex but competitive adult women are generally paired with men for technical sparring only. When elite women are paired with men for open sparring, there will be a weight advantage accorded the woman. Women don't need to be able to beat men to be serious athletes.
"The trainers, in turn, know what the promoters are looking for and are likely to select their fighters with that knowledge in mind...Because of a perceived lack of interest in women’s boxing, trainers, managers, promoters, and sponsors are all reluctant to work with women."
True of the business-side people, not of the trainers. All the trainers I know (including myself) love training women. Most trainers these days make their money off white collar clients anyway, and women are good for business. I called Gleason's Gym, where pro Kiesher "Fire" McLeod-Wells told me they have approximately 80 trainers, nearly all of whom have female clients. Church Street Gym reported eight trainers on staff, plus independent contractors, none of whom discriminate against women.
On Douglas's loss to Esparza at the 2012 Olympic Trials: "White believes Douglas is a stronger fighter than Esparza, but she told me Douglas’s managers couldn’t raise enough money to make her an appealing candidate. (In cases like Douglas’s where there is no knockout, the winner is determined based on the judges' assessment.) Many of the people I spoke with implied that for the cash-strapped Olympic team, a boxer with financial backing is an asset."
Esparza beat Douglas 32-17 in the Olympic Trials. As I reported from ringside, the lopsided score did not reflect the strength of Douglas's performance, but Esparza was still the clear victor. This decision had nothing to do with sponsorships and everything to do with Esparza's superior ring generalship and conditioning. This was a double-elimination tournament, and Douglas's first loss had come earlier to Christina Cruz of New York, a fighter who moonlighted as a waitress to make ends meet. The winners of the other two divisions, Queen Underwood and Claressa Shields, were also cash-strapped.
"The media has disarmed Esparza, reducing her from a skilled athlete to just another frivolous female celebrity."
Jenkins does to Esparza precisely what she criticizes others for. There is no mention of Esparza's recent gold at the Women's World Championships in Korea, nor is Esparza interviewed in this piece, despite being the most thoughtful and quotable of boxers. Moreover, not all media have taken the reductive approach: Sue Jaye Johnson at WNYC, independent journalist Raquel Ruiz, and Girlboxing's Malissa Smith have all written about Esparza's achievements from a pure boxing perspective.
"Even for the rare sex symbol like Esparza, it’s hard to sustain a lucky streak. Once Esparza leaves the Olympics to go pro, Nelson speculates that her sponsors will drop her."
Esparza's bone structure may be due to luck, but nothing else about her career is, and why should we believe Nelson's mildly embittered speculations about Esparza's sponsors? As Mikaela Mayer - a technically excellent and physically beautiful boxer sponsored by Dr. Pepper - once told me, it's hard work to close these deals and to maintain your performance under the added pressure of corporate patronage. Dealing with suits takes a certain decorum and reliability in short supply in boxing gyms. Why didn't Jenkins interview some of the A-siders who could have spoken from the inside about the devil's bargain of sexing up yourself to sell?
"The addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic lineup ultimately means little if the boxers still can’t expect to make a living as professional athletes afterwards."
The addition of women's boxing to the Olympic lineup means everything in the world to those of us who care about the sport. Christy Halbert, whose advocacy helped secure the Olympic inclusion, told me, "Not every woman boxer wants to turn pro. The fact that women can now be Olympic boxers has changed their lives. There are women in other countries who have money they wouldn't have if they hadn't won a medal. It can be a life-changer, not only for the boxer but for her whole family."