Women’s boxing is experiencing a new dawn, a renaissance.
Culminating on Saturday when Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano clash at the Madison Square Garden in New York for the undisputed lightweight crown.
“You think of Madison Square Garden, and you think the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier these kinds of fights,” said Katie Taylor. “It’s years and years later we’re still talking Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier kind of fights. I think years and years later from this fight people are still going to be talking about Katie Taylor versus Amanda Serrano.”
MSG has hosted thousands of fights through its prominent years, beginning on July 17, 1882; now, 140 years later, Taylor vs Serrano, the pound-for-pound #1 and #2 fighters of the world finally marks the very first time two female fighters are headlining a combat sports event at one of the cathedrals of boxing.
Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano are capturing the fan’s attention because of their fighting skills, entertaining bouts, and warrior spirit. Many others, like Claressa Shields and Savanah Marshall, can be mentioned and honoured for elevating the sport, not only for women but in general.
Trailblazers from the 1990s have paved the way for the wave seen today, fighters such as Christy Martin, Jane Couch, Laila Ali, and Mia St. John helped legimatising women’s boxing and became household names through their performances in the ring.
Read our exclusive interview with Christy Salters Martin here
Throughout boxing’s history, female fights have been effectively outlawed, with athletic commissioners refusing to sanction or issue licenses to female boxers, and most nations officially banning the sport.
Here, we present three fighters who helped pave the way for the ones who paved the way.
Women’s boxing goes back at least to the early 18th century, when Elizabeth Wilkinson, considered by many to be the first female boxer, fought in London, England. Billing herself as the European Championess, Wilkinson fought both men and women.
What is possibly the earliest recorded women’s boxing bout in London came about in 1722 between Elizabeth Wilkinson and Hannah Hyfield.
Wilkinson was famous for her entertaining trash-talk. In a published acceptance of a challenge from Ann Field, an ass-driver from Stoke Newington, she told readers that “the blows which I shall present her with will be more difficult for her to digest than any she ever gave her asses”.
According to the book, She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports Wilkinson was celebrated and not condemned by English society, although she defied eighteenth-century gender roles.
Source: She’s a Knockout!: A History of Women in Fighting Sports By L.A. Jennings
Annie Newton claimed during her time to be ‘the greatest woman boxer in the world’. As a novelty act on professional bills, Annie sometimes boxed three-round exhibitions with male opponents. There was no public outcry when Annie sparred with men, but a fight between two women proved a step too far for 1920s sensibilities.
In early 1926, Shoreditch Borough Council banned an arranged exhibition bout between Annie Newton and Madge Baker. An attempt to hold the fight in nearby Hackney instead was defeated by a campaign led by the Mayor of Hackney, who wrote “I regard this proposed exhibition of women boxers as a gratification of the sensual ideals of a crowd of vulgar men.”
Newton came with a prediction: “While I may not see it, or you either, the day will come, like it or not, when the world will see women in the ring.”
Source: Born to Box: The Extraordinary Story of Nipper Pat Daly By Alex Daley
‘Battling Barbara’ or ‘The Mighty Atom’ from Hull, England was a world champion in women’s boxing in the 1940s and 1950s. A 4’11” fighter with a powerful jab, she took up the sport accidentally having read about the exploits of Polly Burns – a mythical fairground boxer from the beginning of the 20th century.
On September 9, 1954, Buttrick faced Jo-Ann Hagen in Calgary, Canada in a battle broadcast on radio – a first for women’s boxing anywhere in the world. She lost the fight – her only career loss – by a decision, but won the night along with her counterpart. The reporter stated that “without exception, the bout provided plenty of action and the crowd in its entirety ate it up.”
In the mid-1990s, Buttrick founded and became the president of the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF).
Buttrick told Vice in a 2017 interview: “I’m happy with the fact that I did what I wanted to do and I did as much as I could. And now it’s accepted. I feel very happy about that.”
Barbara Buttrick, now a 92-year-old Miami Beach resident, became the first woman inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame along with Lucia Rijker and Christy Martin (Class of 2020).
Other merits include:
Source: A History of Women’s Boxing By Malissa Smith