The Complex Calculus of Women's Amateur Boxing
The New Yorker, June 3, 2014
In April, Christina Cruz won the New York Daily News Golden Gloves for the eighth time, more than any other boxer, male or female, in the tournament’s eighty-seven-year history. Setting a record has rarely seemed so easy. Midway into the first round of the championship bout against Jennifer Chieng, Cruz was galloping and feinting around the ring, as if taunting her opponent: Just try and catch me. Chieng had no chance.
Cruz is the most decorated boxer in the city and a powerhouse on the national stage. A few months before the Golden Gloves, she had won her fourth U.S. title. Chieng, by comparison, had fewer than ten amateur bouts. Before the championship, she had yet to actually fight in the tournament: she received a bye in the quarterfinals and then again in the semifinals, after another fighter dropped out with an injury. At the previous meeting between the two women, last year, Cruz knocked Chieng out with a swift body shot in the first round.
This time around, Chieng came out aggressively, throwing punch after punch. But as soon as she began to land them Cruz shot back, dropping down low and hitting Chieng with rapid punches to the torso, then skipping backward, out of the way. They continued like this as the rounds wore on, Chieng doing her best, but simply overpowered. As the clock counted down the final ten seconds of the bout, Cruz pummelled Chieng with several strong pops, cementing what the audience already knew was a win.
This type of mismatched fight is routine in women’s amateur boxing. Many male boxers regard the amateurs as a training ground for professional fighting: learn as much as possible and win enough tournaments to earn an offer from a promoter. But for Cruz, and even more so for the up-and-coming female fighters trying to beat her, getting ahead in boxing requires a far more complex calculus. They are trying to beat a dysfunctional system as much as they are trying to beat one another. And when a woman does rise to the top of the amateurs, there are often more reasons to remain there than to go pro.
“Every four years, you’ll see a new crop of top amateur men come up,” Mike Reno, who trains both male and female boxers, said. “Men usually do the best they can until the Olympics, and they either make the Games, or they don’t and decide to make money in the pros.”
But female fighters can’t depend on a living wage if they turn professional. Keisher McLeod won the Daily News Golden Gloves four times before she decided to turn pro. “My last fight was a world title, and the purse was two thousand dollars,” she said. “I’m a world champion, and that’s what I’ve gotten for ten professional rounds!” The professional women I spoke with all have day jobs—they are secretaries, booksellers, and telemarketers.
So instead of taking the financial risks of going pro, many of the most talented female boxers choose to stay in the amateurs. USA Boxing, the amateur governing body, pays stipends to the twenty women who earn spots on the national team, from five hundred to two thousand dollars per month, based on their performance. Five of the most promising athletes take part in USA Boxing’s resident program, in Colorado Springs, which provides free room and board, free training, and consultations with nutritionists, sports doctors, and other experts. (A spokesperson for USA Boxing notes that, while the International Boxing Association prohibits an amateur fighter from accepting payment to compete, “they can receive travelling stipends and sponsorships to support their training efforts.”)
“The pros won’t benefit me at all,” Cruz, who joined the resident program in May, said. “You fight very little, and for no money. As an amateur, I get to travel the world for free, and I get to represent my country doing what I love.” The addition of women’s boxing to the Olympics, in 2012, has made staying amateur even more appealing.
But for up-and-coming boxers, the low turnover makes everything harder—it’s as if Roger Clemens had kept pitching at the University of Texas forever. It’s not uncommon for a woman to fight her first bout against a competitor fighting for the thirtieth, or hundredth, time. Amateur men’s tournaments decrease the likelihood that matches will be unbalanced by separating competitors into two divisions: novice, for those with fewer than ten fights, and open, for those with ten or more. Twenty years after women were first allowed to register for amateur tournaments, their participation is still too low to split the field this way. (This year, fifty women fought in the Golden Gloves, compared with six hundred men. In the Chicago Gloves, another large regional tournament, there were forty-six women and three hundred men.)
“It’s completely unfair that women don’t have two divisions, that a girl with two fights might be with a girl who has a hundred,” Kristina Naplatarski, an eighteen-year-old amateur from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, said. When a boxer has fifty or a hundred fights, Naplatarski said, “she knows exactly how to win against any type of opponent. She said, ‘O.K., you’re going to do this, this, and this? I’ll do that, that, and that.’ There’s nothing you can do.” Indeed, the results of the hundred-and-twenty-five-pound class in the 2013 Golden Gloves indicate that, in unevenly matched bouts, the more experienced fighter won every time.
This has “an overwhelming effect” on the way women’s competitions play out, said Heather Hardy, a former national champion who now boxes professionally and trains young women. Some women are reluctant to enter tournaments knowing that they might get clobbered. “And a lot of coaches are hesitant,” Hardy said. “They don’t want to put their fighters out there to get completely demolished—to get hurt.” Low participation begets low participation.
In amateur tournaments, matchups are decided by random draw just before a fight. Because boxers don’t know who their opponents will be until they’re about to step into the ring, much of the strategizing beforehand involves looking at the field and deciding what weight class gives them the best chance to win. Many coaches say, on paper, that a healthy fighting weight is within five pounds of the weight a boxer “walks around at” during training. But Hardy says that, in practice, it sometimes makes more sense to fight at a weight other than your natural one. “A lot of girls think, You know, I have a better chance of beating this girl at 132 than that one at 125.”
Sometimes the decision is clear-cut. Reno says that if he had a 125-pound boxer with little experience who wanted to fight in the Gloves, he would recommend that she fight either at 119 or 132 rather than enter Cruz’s division. Better to be the smaller boxer in a heavier but less experienced weight class than to risk being matched with Cruz in the first round.
This gamesmanship has an impact on top fighters, too. “Coaches tend to take their girls out of a weight class when they find out I’m there,” Cruz said, of the Golden Gloves. At national tournaments, Cruz always fights at 119, as dictated by her position on the U.S. team. But at local competitions like the Gloves she boxes at anywhere from 112 to 125. In order to minimize the chance that she’ll end up without an opponent—and win by default, missing the opportunity to fight in the glitzy championships, in front of a hometown crowd—Cruz has begun to keep her weight secret as long as possible. The Golden Gloves registration form asks boxers for the weight class in which they’ll fight. Cruz generally picks several options. By the time the general weigh-in rolls around, a few weeks before the start of the competition, Cruz can see which class has the most participants and inform the Gloves that she intends to fight in that one.
There are, of course, women who want to win badly enough that they’ll risk fighting someone as dominant as Cruz. And upsets do occasionally happen. When McLeod was starting out, one of her first fights was against an opponent who’d had forty. McLeod beat her. “It made me a better fighter,” she said, of being forced to compete against stronger boxers. And when she beat them, she said, “it made my accomplishments seem more worthy than the men’s.”
Many pro fighters share McLeod’s view that the challenges are worth it, even if they’re painful to overcome. But others would rather improve the system than accept it. Cruz says that managers and promoters simply need to “have more confidence in signing female boxers and putting them on TV,” so that audiences “can see that we fight just like the men.” In the ring, a punch is a punch, no matter who throws it.