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‘I Think We’re Starting To See It:’ Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano, and the Fight for the Future of Women’s Boxing

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‘I Think We’re Starting To See It:’ Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano, and the Fight for the Future of Women’s Boxing

He’s quick, strong, and a couple of inches taller, but as Katie Taylor launches a perfectly timed right hook into her sparring partner Troy Anderson’s face, it’s clear she isn’t afraid of a challenge. She never has been before.

With black and gold gloves, a silver “Laila Ali — World Champion” t-shirt, and deliberate purpose behind every punch, Taylor exemplifies the professional nature that she’s become known for as she glides with ease across the ring. On Saturday, April 30th, Katie Taylor will join her opponent Amanda Serrano in making history as the first women to headline a card at Madison Square Garden, but if anticipation of that momentous event is clouding her psyche, she isn’t showing it. While some boxers bring their personality into their style, Taylor’s face is stone-cold, with her mind entirely focused on timing where Anderson’s face will be a second or two in advance and making sure her hook is there to meet it.

Her trainer is shouting from the corner: “Keep timing it, keep timing it, keep timing it.” She’s playing chess and he knows it.

Katie Taylor in Bray, Ireland

Taylor at a rally in her hometown of Bray, Ireland in 2019

Every boxer has a sound when they launch a punch, typically a “tsss” like the rattle of a snare drum. Taylor’s is more of a war cry. Lose Control by Missy Elliot roars from a speaker in the corner: “Work, work, work…throw it girl, throw it girl, throw it girl.”

Serrano has criss-crossed successfully from division to division in her decade as a professional boxer, utilizing her aggressive style, durable chin, and authoritative punch to become the first woman to win world titles in more than four weight classes. Serrano and Katie Taylor have been pursuing a fight against one another for years, each hoping to make their case for being the best pound-for-pound woman boxer of all time. Now, on April 30th, it’s finally set to happen.

Amanda Serrano at a public workout in 2021

Serrano at a public training session before successfully defending one of her world titles last year

Life at Nonantum Boxing Gym in Newton, Mass. is going on as normal for those outside of the ring despite the two-weight world champion and Olympic gold medalist in their midst.

A young boy practices a few drills while his mom watches him proudly, secretly recording. An older man agonizingly works through a set of sit-ups and another wearing a tank-top punches a bag hanging from the rafters.

None of the others have caught on to the masterclass just feet away — except for one. A young woman in a blue tracksuit sits at the edge of the ring, watching closely as the best woman boxer in the world, according to Ring Magazine, demonstrates just why she earned that title.

Katie Taylor finishes one round with a particularly vicious flurry of punches. By the time Anderson has had a chance to regain his bearing, she has already tapped his gloves in respect and moved back to her corner for guidance and a sip of gatorade.

Medals, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from other great boxers — Rocky Marciano, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Joe DeNucci — dot the gym’s whitewashed walls. Nonantum’s owner, Team USA Olympic Boxing Coach Marc Gargaro, has helped countless top-level prospects reach the professionals. None have been women — not due to a lack of effort or will, but because a dearth of opportunities has made remaining in the amateurs and fighting at the Olympic level more promising for elite women boxers. Now, through the efforts of people like Taylor and Serrano, as well as trailblazers in the sport who came before them, that’s rapidly starting to change.

Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano pose for publicity shot in NYC

Taylor and Serrano in London for a promotional event earlier this year

When the next round of sparring begins, Katie Taylor guides Anderson to where she wants him like a rabbit leading a fox. She seems most confident backed up against the ropes, pivoting away from punch after punch while galloping up and down until she finds an opening to strike.

“She baited me – she kept slipping, kept slipping, and then hit me hard right in the face,” says Anderson, an undefeated pro boxer known for his own powerful body shots, when he talks about it later. “She just doesn’t back down from nothing. She acts like she’s holding back, and then she bounces on you, and I’m like…damn.”

As time goes on, the show inside the ring follows the same consistency and rhythm, but things have started to shift outside of it. The mom has stopped watching her son and she now stands with a smile towards Katie Taylor, and occasionally a wince. The tank-top man is behind her, looking on with wide eyes. The younger boy stops his own training soon thereafter — watching makes for a better lesson than anything else he could be doing. The man who was doing situps is now jumping rope, positioned so he can better see the two spar.

Everyone now senses that they’re in the company of a star, even if the mother turns to whisper: “Who is she?”

————

Across the country, Jajaira Gonzalez is just one tournament away from the Olympics — something that wasn’t possible for the first 15 years of her life until women’s boxing was introduced at London 2012. “Before, I would box just to box, just because my dad wanted me to box,” said Gonzalez, pausing to laugh at her dog barking playfully in the background. “And, I ended up loving it. And then I was just fighting and competing just because I wanted to, so when the Olympics came around it was like: Ok, now we have a goal. Now we have something to look for.” Gonzalez’s father, a boxing coach, trained her and her two brothers in their home state of California, a hotbed for American boxing. Still, she said that growing up, “It was kind of hard for me to get fights, because there weren’t a lot of female boxers back in the day.”

Jajaira Gonzalez is an amateur boxer, not sure if she will try to be like Katie Taylor in the pros

Jajaira Gonzalez, age 25, from Glendora, CA, earlier this year

At the beginning of this month, Gonzalez won gold for the United States at the AMBC elite continental championships in Ecuador. She first put on a pair of gloves when she was 8 years old, and in the years since she’s stood at the top of the podium three times at the Junior/Youth World Championships and four times at the USA Boxing Nationals.

When Gonzalez first started boxing at the elite level, there were only five weight classes for women as opposed to the ten there are today. Even so, she recounted that during her first USA Boxing national tournament, “Out of all those five weight classes — because nobody else was in the other ones — I was the only one that competed. All of the other girls got on the team off of being unopposed and not having opponents because nobody showed up. We only had like five or six girls on the junior team at the time, and then now I go to nationals and I’m fighting three times, four times…it’s crazy.” Today, there are around 3000 women registered as amateur boxers according to USA Boxing, up from just 700 at the turn of the century. Officials say they will reach gender equity in Olympic boxing participation for the first time ever at Paris 2024. “This is what a lot of female boxers have been fighting for, and I’m grateful that they’ve helped us a lot,” Gonzalez said.

Since the reign of boxing’s first world champion, John L. Sullivan, women boxers have secured impressive achievements but received little to no recognition for them. History remembers Sullivan and his remarkable career, but few accounts include the details of 18-year-old Hessie Donahue, who in 1892 became the only person to ever knock Sullivan out when she hit him with a powerful right hook to the jaw.

Hessie Donahue helped pave the way for Katie Taylor

Hessie Donahue a bit after she dropped the live ‘n kickin' John L Sullivan

In a historic move, the promoters of the April 30th fight have guaranteed that both Katie Taylor and Serrano will leave Madison Square Garden seven figures richer. According to Gonzalez, “It is a great feeling, because before you wouldn’t ever even hear about women’s boxing, and especially making that much money.”

Organizers of the Taylor vs. Serrano match-up said that the presale was the second biggest in the 140-year history of boxing at Madison Square Garden.

“Katie Taylor vs. Serrano has been years in the making, and it’s not just the biggest fight ever in women’s boxing, but also one of the most anticipated fights of all time,” said Joseph Markowski, executive vice president of the event’s broadcaster, DAZN.

That’s a far cry from the first time women were on an MSG card 25 years ago — in the smaller theater, not the main venue — when Kathy Collins and Andrea DeShong impressed skeptical viewers with an action-packed brawl before walking away with purses of just $1200 each.

The matchup was described by Newsday as the “only redeeming aspect” of an otherwise unsurprising night of boxing, but the historical significance was undercut by a local radio show host who pranced around the ring wearing a bikini emblazoned “ring-card boy” to boos from the crowd.

“I just hope that it keeps getting bigger and bigger and that more female fighters that are talented, they get the same opportunities and they’re able to make the same money that a lot of male boxers are making, because this sport is really dangerous and we risk our lives getting in the ring every single time, and sometimes people — they don’t get the recognition that they deserve,” said Gonzalez, who hasn’t yet decided if she wants to go pro after her Olympic dreams are over. “I used to spar just with boys, and now I go to the gym and I see girls…I’m definitely glad that it’s happening, and I feel like this will kind of make people respect the sport more for females, because male boxing and female boxing? We don’t get treated the same.”

While women couldn’t participate in USA Boxing events until the organization was forced to allow them to do so by a court order in 1993, progress at the professional level began nearly two decades before. Nevada became the first state to issue a boxing license to a woman in 1975, and over the next three years California and New York did so as well. A slow but steady trickle of women entering into the ring followed soon thereafter.

“I used to say to people, ‘Oh my god, if I was just born 20 years later I could’ve been fighting in the 90s,’” said Sue Fox, the best-ranked boxer in the world in 1979 and founder of the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame. “And then it was more like, ‘I wish I was born 40 years later,’ because it really has had a lot of highs and lows.”

Sue Fox, women's boxing lifer, wonders if she'd be enjoying purses like Katie Taylor had she be born later

Sue Fox in the late ‘70s, she was a pioneer in the space when it was ultra small and fringe

Every year, Fox brings together legendary women boxers and industry-members to induct them into the Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame and discuss their time in the sport. She also spent years as a journalist with a focus on women in boxing, on top of her own career as a professional boxer. As a result, she knows intimately the challenges that women boxers face before they even step-foot in the ring. Despite that, though, Fox is more optimistic than ever before.

“I think we're starting to see it,” Fox said cautiously. “I always said before that women’s boxing was not in the mainstream. Even when they thought they might be in it? They weren’t,” she laughed. “But I actually think that they are starting to get into the mainstream. And this is the first time I’ve actually been able to say that, where I’m seeing that it’s really growing…I’m just hoping that it will continue.”

The growth of women’s boxing is rapid, especially in specific pockets around the country. At the 2021 USA Boxing National Championships, eleven boxers from Hawai’i won Gold medals. Nine of them were women. Female participation in the Chicago Golden Gloves more than doubled from 2016 to 2020, and, at the National Silver Gloves Championships this February (for ages 10-15 not yet old enough for the Golden Gloves) 37 percent of all participants were girls.

Jajaira Gonzalez with other athletes at the 2021 USA Boxing Nationals

“It kind of just shows girls that are up and coming that it’s not a guys sport. People aren’t going to look at you weird. If you like boxing — you can box. And, you can be good at it — you don’t have to be a boy to be good at the sport,” said Gonzalez, who went from being the only girl training at her gym throughout most of her childhood to now one of many. “Girls kind of just get a little more motivated, because before you would only see guys and now you see girls, and sometimes the girls are dominating in the sport more — they’re making more noise.”

——

The final bell has rung, a techno beat now floats from the speaker, and Anderson stands with Gargaro, recapping the fight and smiling at each other, both impressed by Taylor’s performance.

The mom and her son have packed up, waved goodbye, and headed home. One of the men is doing the same, and the other is back to work on the punching bag in the corner. Katie Taylor and her coach have moved on to another ring to spar with each other and run through some of the improvements she can make for next time. She darts around, the professional gaze still in her eyes, without a hint of exhaustion from the multiple rounds concluded not fifteen minutes before.

Just feet away, the young woman in light blue remains, seated on the floor, staring intently at Taylor and soaking everything in. Her eyes are focused on the masterclass in front of her, learning what she can in advance of her own fight at the New England Golden Gloves just four days away.

As the sun sets on a long day of work, Katie Taylor calls it a night and packs up. On her way out the door she makes one final stop, heading straight for the starstruck young woman in blue. “I saw you over there, do you box?” Taylor says with a smile. “You’re good on the bag.”

Taylor beams with interest as the young woman tells her about her upcoming fight: “Best of luck…that’s fantastic.”

“Where’s your fight?” Anderson pipes in.

“New York City,” Taylor glows. “Madison Square Garden.”

The young woman boxer in blue smiles back: “That’s the dream.”