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Women Should Not Be Boxing?

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

It was meant to be a historic first for Africa and women’s professional boxing – it was a flop. On February 3 2007, Gwendolyn O’Neil of Guyana challenged Laila Ali, the daughter of legendary professional boxer Muhammad Ali, for a WBC super-middleweight world title at Emperors Palace, in Johannesburg. To the chagrin of 2,800 spectators, who paid at least $50 a head, with the late Nelson Mandela ringside, Ali pulverized O’Neil in the first round to win with a knockout. The then 30-year-old Ali earned a $522,000 purse and quit the sport.

Many boxing enthusiasts saw the fight as a breakthrough for struggling professional female boxing in South Africa, which started in 2001. But Rodney Berman, the man who put it together, had other thoughts. Berman, the leading promoter in Africa, wanted to fulfil Ali’s wish for his daughter to fight on the continent, like he did in Kinshasa in 1974 in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman. But this was the first and the last female bout under Berman’s Golden Gloves Promotions.

“I won’t do it again; I don’t want to think about seeing two women in the ring bleeding. For me it’s not a sport for women, it is something I think is unfeminine. In my opinion women shouldn’t be boxing. It doesn’t interest me. I can’t watch women taking punishment. They have been trying to encourage it in South Africa but I don’t know why? Laila Ali was different; she was accepted worldwide as something special. She was the only one I was interested in because of her family pedigree,” says Berman.

Top trainer Nick Durandt, of Durandt’s Boxing World, is also not keen on female boxing. Durandt, who trained one woman boxer, says women’s boxing doesn’t make business sense and there’s no big money in it. In 30 years as a trainer, Durandt guided 38 world champions and 97 South African champions.

Eight years after Ali’s bout, South Africa has not even come close to staging another high profile women’s bout.

“It’s not only a South Africa problem, but worldwide. Have you seen a female bout headline a big event?” asks Durandt.

“In general, boxing is in a bad state in South Africa, so women’s boxing is even worse. The unfortunate passing of Phindile Mwelase didn’t do them any favors. If the tragedy of that nature happens early in the existence of sport, many people will surely keep away from it. Women’s boxing is almost non-existent to be honest. Nick Durant would know better,” says Peter Leopeng, a senior boxing analyst.

It is not merely an African story. Female boxers in the United States are migrating in droves to Mexico where the sport is lucrative and growing. New York-based Alicia Ashley was one of the Americans to take her chances in Mexico. In September, Ashley lost her WBC super bantamweight title to the Mexican Jackie Nava. She is still boxing at the age of 48.

In Africa there is a dearth of fights and sponsorship. Many women have quit the sport but those who remain earn peanuts. According to Boxing South Africa, there are fewer than 40 licensed women boxers in the country, with a majority coming from the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng. Few of these boxers have challenged for world titles – none have won. The names are little known: Sandra Almeida, the country’s first professional boxer; Noni Tenge; Julie Tshabalala; Gabisile Tshabalala and Unathi Myekeni.

It is a dangerous game of risk in the ring. Mwelase, a fairly inexperienced boxer with five professional fights, was knocked unconscious in the sixth of eight rounds in October last year in Pretoria. She died at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital after two weeks in a coma – the first African female boxer to die. The 31-year-old was fighting for $400.

Kenyan Conjestina Achieng was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Mathare Mental Hospital, but couldn’t pay the bill. The government had to intervene. She was a former middleweight champion and the first Kenyan to fight internationally. In 2004, Achieng beat Uganda’s Fiona Tugume for the vacant WIBF middleweight world title. She would go on to win four world titles under different categories, registering 17 wins and four draws, earning the nickname Hands of Stone.

Despite these difficulties, women’s boxing is not dead, merely struggling.

Stanley Ndlovu, owner of Sir Stan’s Athletics, is a struggling trainer who has not given up on female boxers. Ndlovu became a trainer in the 1970s to keep youth off the streets of Soweto. He trains three professional female boxers in his stable. Among several male champions, Ndlovu guided his own son, Takalani, to the junior IBF featherweight title.

“While there were riots in 1976, we were busy training the youngsters in our gyms. After the hard practise, we sent them home to protect them from the brutality of police in the streets. We saved them from crossfire. The passion I had for boxing from those days I still have this day. Boxing is the same as any other institution. If you are not disciplined, you will face the consequences alone. But I don’t tolerate that with my boxers,” says Ndlovu. Sir Stan’s Athletics is hidden in the heart of a tourist trap in the Maboneng Precinct, in Johannesburg.  Every weekday, Ndlovu nurtures the talent of his students. The late and unfortunate Mwelase turned professional in 2012 under his eye. All Ndlovu’s female students hail from rural areas and are unemployed. They all hope boxing will one day change their lives for the better.

“The mentality of promoters towards lady boxers must change, we won’t despair. Look at the [South African women’s football team], Banyana Banyana, today. No one gave them a chance of making it when they started. Here, I will produce Commonwealth champions,” says Ndlovu.

Still they come, female and proud with gloves on. It is a Friday morning in the gym at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, three young women are punching bags like they hate them. One of them is Cebile Mlotsa, who weighs less than 50 kilograms and has a quick jab.

“I don’t really pay attention to money, but I just want to turn professional and follow my passion. Just because there are two men who decided that it’s not going to work, it doesn’t mean that women should stop boxing. I started with a coach that told me you are getting there. There was no discrimination that I am a girl, they will help you. They were all very supportive,” says Mlotsa, an amateur boxer and engineering graduate.

In 2013, Mlotsa joined the Wits boxing gym because she saw people running around campus looking fit and followed them. After a few days in the gym, she was introduced to boxing. Mlotsa has only two fights in two years.

“I liked the intensity involved in it. You have to prepare and it takes a lot out of you. There are no girls or boys in our gym, we run with the boys, we are sparring with the boys, everyone is a boxer. My mother raised concerns about violence in boxing, but I told her Mandela was a boxer too,” she chuckles.

Hedda Wolmarans is a young promising boxer and sports management student who is turning professional this year. She is unfazed by the penury of the sport she took up in 2012 just to keep fit. Wolmarans is currently the Gauteng amateur champion in the under 69 kilogram division. She fought 13 times under different trainers around Johannesburg but late last year joined reputable trainer Colin Nathan.

“I have what it takes to be a professional. Colin Nathan has warned me it is not going to be easy to get fights because Rodney Berman is not interested in female boxers. It’s going to be hard but that’s a risk I am willing to take. I am not driven by money, I just want to fight and get a South African title. Look at other male South Africa boxers, they still keep their jobs. I fell in love with the sport, it is very difficult, yet addictive. You have to constantly push yourself,” says Wolmarans.  And constantly push the boundaries of the sport for women.

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Related Topics: #April 2015, #Boxing, #Gwendolyn O’Neil, #Muhammad Ali, #Nick Durandt, #Women.