It’s called the “sweet science” though it calls to mind not laboratories and test tubes but two people meeting in the ring and knocking each other senseless. Aficionados of boxing tout the footwork and feints, the strategy that accentuates your strengths and exploits your opponents’ weaknesses. Let’s face it, though. What fan doesn’t relish the perfect knockout punch?
Now women are officially in. Yes, we’ve had women in boxing for a while — with Laila Ali, one of its most famous practitioners, bringing a storied pedigree all her own. But for the first time in the coming summer Olympics, women’s boxing will take its place as a medal event, with female gladiators fighting for dominance.
A 22-year-old from Houston, Marlen Esparza, has become the first American female boxer to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. Women are competing in three weight divisions compared to 10 for the men.
It’s a milestone for sure, but is it progress when women take a step toward equality in a sport known for brutality and its consequences? (See Ali’s dad, Muhammad Ali, for the heights and health risks of the sport.) While I acknowledge that the Olympic variety, with its strict rules and protective equipment, differs from the looser rules of the pro game, people still get hurt.
Can woman celebrate this as a step forward — is it hypocritical if they don’t? Like many Olympians before her, shouldn’t a woman boxer have the same chance to represent her country, come home with a medal and parlay it into endorsement deals and a career?
It’s easy to cheer women in many summer Olympic sports, from Hope Solo’s save on the soccer field to Dot Richardson’s medal-winning home run in softball. Beach volleyball? Men and women have their own reasons for watching.
All these women are tough, strong and feminine; any contact in their sports is occasionally intentional, most often incidental.
In boxing, contact is the point.
The sport is controversial when men do it, its ranks heavy with poor kids who see it as a desperate way out and up and are cheered on by an audience with nothing but money on the line. The most enthusiastic response is reserved for sluggers trading punches in an exciting, queasy spectacle. It’s always been that way, with class an uncomfortable divide between those in and outside the ring.
Put women in the ring, and you add a layer of sexual politics. I’m a little suspicious of guys who love to see two women duke it out — is it admiration, aggression or a kinky thrill that fuels their lusty yells? Yet, no one agonizes about the motives of men watching men fight. Women boxers want spectators; they don’t really care what draws them to the arena.
I’ve watched more televised boxing than I’m comfortable owning up to, mostly because my husband is a fan, though I admit to occasionally getting caught up in the excitement. His response to women’s boxing is more practical than political. “Boring,” he called it. “They don’t have the power, so there’s no payoff.” I was relieved that he wasn’t interested and annoyed that he was so dismissive of skilled athletes doing something few of us would dare.
Pop culture reflects a similar ambivalence. In 2000, “Girlfight” and especially its star Michelle Rodriguez intrigued critics but didn’t rack up much at the box office. Its no-nonsense heroine flattened everyone in her path, including a boxer boyfriend whose ego bruised more easily than his body. Though I liked it, not too many people wanted to see a woman kick butt or a guy get his butt kicked by a girl.
The Oscar-winning big budget “Million Dollar Baby” of 2004 was less about the women’s boxing game than the father and daughter-like relationship between the characters played by Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank. The sport didn’t come off too well, though; she ended up paralyzed and helpless in a hospital bed.
A society still edging its way toward gender equality recycles arguments with each generation, over women in non-traditional roles — in the home, office and on the military battlefield.
What will we feel if an American woman stands on the Olympic medal platform in 2012, with a few bumps and bruises earned along the way? Probably pride. Boxing isn’t for everyone, but it is for those few with the drive, passion and talent. That’s their choice, and ultimately, no one is forced to watch.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3