In 1989, a movie came out called “Field of Dreams.” It starred Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones. It was about an Iowa farmer whose love and passion for baseball led him to tear up much of his cornfield and build a baseball stadium in the middle of his farm. That’s because, in his head, he heard a voice telling him to “Build it and they will come.”
At first, Costner’s character—Ray Kinsella—tried to shake off the voice, but it continued to call out to him: “Build it and they will come.”
After awhile, Kinsella finally understood what those words meant. He followed those words. Many, even those close to Kinsella, thought he was crazy. However, he listened to the voice in his head and to what those words meant. He put them into action.
His “Field of Dreams” became reality. He built it, and they came. It was a beautiful Hollywood story, made for the silver screen.
Only a few years before “Field of Dreams” came out, two young men from Canastota, New York, walked into the offices of Ring Magazine with the same dream. Their names were Don Ackerman and Ed Brophy. The two of them heard the same voice as Ray Kinsella.
“Build it and they will come.”
Canastota is a small town in upstate New York which was known for two reasons, if nothing else: its production of onions, and a world champion boxer named Carmen Basilio. There are more residents 290 miles to the south on one block in New York City than there are in all of Canastota. As of the 2019 census Canastota’s population was 5,122. In the mid-1980s, it was considerably smaller.
Wanting to build a lasting tribute to their boyhood idol, Ackerman and Brophy formulated a plan to erect a museum on a few acres in Canastota, directly off the New York Thruway. They listened to the voices in their heads and they went to work to create, not just a Boxing Hall of Fame, but an International Boxing Hall of Fame. Then they took the nearly five-hour drive from Canastota to New York City, to tell their plan to the Editor in Chief of Ring Magazine.
Little did they know they were not alone in their pitch to The Ring’s Editor. Many others had tried. However, all of the others wanted The Ring’s financial support…in a big way. This, despite the fact none of them even could say where their intended Hall of Fame would be. They told the Editor in Chief, “We’re working on it.” They also wanted a feature story written on them in The Ring, when all they had was the thought of building a Hall of Fame. Each of them was the same: except Ackerman and Brophy.
They came armed with, not a scheme, but a realistic dream, blueprints, a site and a plan. When they left the offices of The Ring, they failed to do two things: Ask the Editor in Chief for financial support, as well as the promise of a big story.
“Aren’t you going to ask me for money and a feature story?” questioned the Editor.
“That’s not why we’re here,” said Brophy. “All we ask for is the blessing and good wishes from the ‘Bible of Boxing.’”
The Editor in Chief was more than happy to give that to those two realistic dreamers from Canastota, whose vision, enthusiasm answers and blueprints, convinced him they were for real. All the others were not realistic dreamers like Ackerman and Brophy. The others were schemers.
When Ackerman and Brophy left, it was the first time The Ring’s Editor in Chief felt good after speaking about a future International Boxing Hall of Fame. With all the other schemers and hucksters, he felt like he needed to take a shower the moment they left his office.
I remember the meeting well. You see, I was the Editor in Chief who got to talk to the young men from Canastota. I heard their plan. I saw the elaborate blueprints. It was a no-brainer for me to give my blessing to them for the endeavor and journey which they had already embarked upon.
Shortly after that meeting, I left The Ring to become a boxing analyst for both the USA Network and the Madison Square Garden Network.
In 1988, I put down my headset and microphone to become the Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. The following spring, while in my office at the NYSAC, my secretary told me I had a call from Ed Brophy. Ed explained to her he had met me several years earlier, when I ran The Ring. He told her that he had come to my office to talk about erecting an International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. I remembered his name, and had her put the call through. Brophy was calling to give me some great news.
“The International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) is nearing completion,” Brophy said. “It is everything we talked about in your offices at The Ring several years ago.” I was thrilled to hear the news, but not surprised, as I had seen how real he and Ackerman were.
“On behalf of the Executive Board of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, I would like to invite you to be among a small group of dignitaries to cut the ribbon, officially opening the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”
A few weeks later, I stood proudly on a rain-soaked and muddy field in Canastota, along with several New York politicians and dignitaries. We were there to cut the ribbon to officially open the “Field of Dreams” of those two young men from “Oniontown, USA.” The International Boxing Hall of Fame was seconds away from opening. It was quite an honor to be part of the launching of the IBHOF.
Former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson stood next to me as one of the ribbon-cutters. As we were about to cut the ribbon, Patterson leaned over and whispered to me, “Look at all these politicians. Do you think any of them care about boxing?” He wasn’t looking for an answer. I whispered back, “How many are here strictly for the photo-op?” I wasn’t looking for an answer, either.
After the finishing touches were put on the IBHOF, they opened for business in 1990. That June, I stood proudly at the podium at the IBHOF, as the induction of the Class of 1990—the first class of Hall-of-Famers—was about to begin. I, as Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission and home state of the IBHOF, would officially give my blessing for the event to begin.
In the moment before I began, I turned to look, first over my left shoulder, then over my right shoulder. I needed to view the incredible assemblage of fistic greats seated on both sides of me. While I took a moment to look at each inductee, some of their famous, smiling faces are etched in my mind forever.
Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. Carmen Basilio. Willie Pep. Bob Foster. Sandy Saddler. Jersey Joe Walcott. Emile Griffith. They were all applauding. My eyes locked on Joe Frazier. He gave me a “Go get ‘em” fist pump with his wrecking ball of a left fist.
Ali smiled and me and gave me a thumbs up. I was overwhelmed, and needed the podium to steady myself.
This “Field of Dreams” was no longer a dream. It was real.
The enshrinement of the best of the best was underway.
This June 9-12, the International Boxing Hall of Fame will hold—after a COVID-forced absence of three years—its annual Induction Weekend. Included will be the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022. That weekend will be the busiest Canastota has ever known—even busier than their inaugural event in 1990. In fact, that weekend will be unlike anything boxing has ever seen. Over 100,000 fans—from all over the world—will converge on what Brophy likes to call “Boxing’s Home.”
One of the reasons Canastota will see a tsunami of boxing fans that weekend is because of the mega-stars who will be on hand for the three-year list of inductions. Here’s who they are:
Class of 2020: Bernard Hopkins; Sugar Shane Mosley; Christy Martin; Juan Manuel Marquez; Lucia Rijker; Barbara Buttrick; Kathy Duva; Bernard Fernandez; Dan Goossen; Tom Hauser; Lou DiBella.
Class of 2021: Floyd Mayweather Jr.; Andre Ward; Wladimir Klitschko; Anne Wolfe; Marian Trimiar; Laila Ali; Dr. Margaret Goodman.
Class of 2022: Roy Jones Jr.; James Toney; Miguel Cotto; Holly Holm; Regina Halmich; Bill Caplan; Ron Borges; Bob Yalen.
Two inductees are going into the IBHOF as Trailblazers. One of them is Marian Trimiar. The other is Jackie Tonawanda. Trimiar called herself “Lady Tyger.” Tonawanda billed herself as “The Female Ali.” Trimiar will be present for her induction. Tonawanda is being inducted posthumously, having passed on in 2009.
As described on the official IBHOF website, a “Women’s Trailblazer” is a female whose “Last bout (was) no earlier than 1988.” Got that? Last bout NO EARLIER than 1988. Someone has got to explain this one to me, as the last bout “Lady Tyger” had was in 1985. That’s not what the IBHOF’s description of “Trailblazer” said, is it? The description should read, “Last bout no later than 1988”, rather than “no earlier.” Okay. It was a mistake made by the IBHOF. No big deal. Everyone makes mistakes. They can correct that.
However, they also made a far bigger mistake. It is a mistake involving one of those two previously-mentioned 2021 “Female Trailblazers.” They can correct that, as well.
Hopefully, they do!
The mistake involved Jackie Tonawanda. It was a big mistake. In fact, it was a huge mistake.
We know what the IBHOF meant in their description of a Trailblazer: “Last bout no later than 1988.” For Tonawanda, that description works. Her last bout was in 1979. It was also her first bout. In fact, it was her only bout. While the description fits, nothing else does, especially her inclusion into the IBHOF.
Jackie Tonawanda’s entire story is clouded in secrecy, mystery, distortion, deception, lies, falsehoods and, what Hall-of-Famer Bert Sugar called “Verbal Manure.”
We’ve heard that Tonawanda was born under the name Jackie Garrett in Suffolk County, on Long Island, New York, on September 4, 1933. She told me, in a 1977 interview, she was born outside of Buffalo, N.Y., in a town called Tonawanda, in Erie County, and legally changed her name to Tonawanda. In a separate interview—it was more of a discussion—with me one year later, she said Tonawanda was her mother’s maiden name, and decided to use that name, rather than Garrett, the surname of who she described as “my deadbeat father.”
We’ve also heard that she was in and out of mental institutions for the first 25 years of her life. As I got to know her, I could see how that information was probably true. Other than that—nothing is known about young Jackie Garrett aka Jackie Tonawanda, whose lies, fabrications and fraud that she perpetrated for the last 35 years of her life, actually led to her wrongful induction into boxing’s “Field of Dreams.”
What we do know is that she died on June 9, 2009, at the age of 75, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Harlem, of colon cancer. That’s one of the few things about her that we know for sure.
I first heard of Jackie Tonawanda in the mid-1970’s. At the time, I was an editor for G.C. London Publishing Corp. They published such titles as World & International Boxing Magazines and Big Book of Boxing. They also published The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling and Apartment House Wrestling (which was as made up as Tonawanda’s boxing career!).
One Tuesday afternoon, in the spring of 1975, our staff secretary buzzed into the editorial department, saying a lady was on the phone, calling herself “The Female Ali,” and she wanted to speak with an editor.
As I had just finished writing a story and was on a 15-minute coffee break, the call was given to me.
“Good afternoon, Editorial Department,” I began.
“Hello, I’d like to speak to a boxing writer,” said the woman.
“I’m a boxing writer,” I replied. “My name is Randy Gordon.”
“Oh, hello, Mr. Gordon, I know who you are,” said the woman.
Of course she knew me. She was probably sitting with one of our magazines in front of her, opened to the masthead. There was my name: “Randy Gordon, Assistant Editor.”
“My name is Jackie Tonawanda,” she began. “I am a female boxer. They call me ‘The Female Ali.’ I am undefeated in 25 fights with 24 knockouts.”
“That’s terrific, Jackie,” I began. “How can I help you?”
“Well, I am fighting for the World Female Light Heavyweight Championship tomorrow at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and I was hoping you could do a story on me.”
I gave it a quick thought, and then said, “Okay. Let me get some background on you.” I told her I needed to get some paper, and put the phone down. I ran over to the closest desk, which was occupied by the magazine’s Editor in Chief, Peter King. I said to him, “I think I have a story here.”
I grabbed a pad and a pen and ran back to the phone.
“Okay, Jackie, here we go.”
I began rifling off questions. Where was the fight being held? What title was it for? What was the opponent’s name? I asked her if there would be a photographer present, because I wanted to purchase a few photos from them. She told me she’d be glad to provide photos.
She told me she’d call me the day after the fight. Then she said “My trainer just walked in. I’ve gotta’ go to a press conference. Speak to you after the fight, Mr. Gordon.” She hung up.
“What was that about?” asked my Editor in Chief, Peter King. I told him about the call.
“Did you know there was a Female Light Heavyweight Title Fight tomorrow?” he asked.
“I didn’t even know there was a Female Light Heavyweight Champion,” I answered.
I added, “Her call was kind of strange, kind of weird. I didn’t get any information, other than the fight was in Las Vegas.”
We looked at each other.
“Whadda’ ya’ think?” he asked.
I thought for a moment.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Let me call two of my boxing writer friends in Vegas. They’ll probably be covering the fight.”
“Good idea,” said King. “Go make the calls.”
The first call was to Michael Marley, who wrote for a small newspaper in Las Vegas. Then I called Royce Feour, the veteran boxing writer at the Las Vegas Review Journal. When I did, neither one knew of any fight being held the next day at the Golden Nugget—or anywhere in Las Vegas.
“I’ll call the Nevada Commission,” said Marley. “If anybody knows, it’ll be them.”
A few minutes later, Marley called me back.
“No fights are in Vegas for another week,” Marley told me.
Feour checked, as well. Same story.
Hmm. I swore Tonawanda told me she was fighting “tomorrow at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.”
The next day came and went without me giving “The Female Ali” much thought. But then came Thursday.
Shortly after 9 AM, our secretary informed me I had a phone call. When I answered, I heard, “Say congratulations to the new Female Light Heavyweight Champion of the World.”
“Congratulations!” I said. “How’d you win?”
“First round knockout!” she exclaimed. “It was 1:23 of the round. I caught her with a lead right, followed by a left hook. She fell, face down. She was out even before the hook landed.”
“Okay, let me get this information down,” I said. I began writing.
“What was your opponent’s name?” was my first question. There was silence on the other end.
“Jackie? Are you still there?”
“Uh, yeh, uh,” I heard her mumble.
“What was your opponent’s name?”
“It was, uh…”
“Jackie!” I said laughing. “You fought this girl last night. It was for a world title. Surely you remember her name.
“MARIA PEREZ!” she shouted, finally thinking of the name. “It was Maria Perez.”
“Where is Maria from?” was my next question. Again there was a delay. After a perhaps five seconds and a few “uhs,” she answered.
“Tijuana. She is from Tijuana.”
Do you remember what her record was?” I inquired.
“Yes, she was unbeaten in 18 fights. I believe she had 17 knockouts. Yes, it was 17. Only one opponent lasted the distance. I was told she was quite a puncher, but I never got to find out!”
“And for you, what’s your record now?” I inquired. “I don’t have that in front of me.”
“The victory was my, uh, 24th,” she replied. “I’m now 24-0, with 24 knockouts.”
I actually did have the pad in front of me. Two days earlier, she had told me she was 25-0, with 24 knockouts. She even made it a point to tell me that the one opponent who did last the distance “lost every second of the fight and had probably wished I did knock her out!”
I corrected her.
“Jackie, the other day you said you were 25-0 with 24 KOs,” I said. “Last night would have made you 26-0 with 25 KOs.”
“I never said that!” she replied, sounding angry. “I know what my record is. No opponent has gone the distance with me. No woman can! One woman did make it to the final round, but I stopped her in that round.”
Quite often, you know when somebody is yanking your chain. This was one of those moments. However, I played along.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “You’ve knocked out or stopped every opponent you faced?”
“I have,” Tonawanda told me, adding, “I usually face women much bigger than me, but my speed is too much for them to handle.”
“Where have all these fights been?” I asked her.
“All over,” she said. “Many have been in the islands, like Aruba, St. Thomas, St. Croix. I even had a few in Panama and Venezuela.”
“What belt did you win? Was it a WBC or WBA title (the two recognized sanctioning bodies at the time)?”
“No, Tonawanda answered. “It was the Women’s Boxing Federation belt.
“Where are they based?” I asked her.
“I am embarrassed to say this, but I am not sure where they are based.”
“Who was the referee, last night?” I questioned. “I have to get that into the story.”
“You know, I can’t think of his name,” she answered. “I have been on a merry-go-round and this is all happening so fast.”
I continued to press her.
“You said the fight was at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, right?”
“Uh-huh,” she replied.
“Try to think of who the referee was,” I continued.
“Was the ref Davey Pearl? Was it Ferd Hernandez? Mills Lane? Carlos Padilla?” I pressed harder.
“No, it wasn’t any of them,” she replied.
She was quick to add, “Why don’t you write the story. I will find out who the referee was and get back to you.”
My final question to her was, “You said you would have a photographer there. Can you have him send me a few of his best photos of the fight? We will pay him for them…whatever his fee is.”
Of course, there was no photographer at a fight which didn’t happen. And her excuse was a dandy.
“At fight time, I didn’t see him, and was wondering what happened,” she explained. “It turns out that he was late because of another photo assignment. The traffic was so heavy on The Strip because of fans coming to the fight, that he couldn’t even catch a cab. He had to walk close to two miles with all his camera equipment. He got there just as my fight ended.”
“That’s unbelievable!” I said with feigned surprise.
“I know,” she said, not missing a beat. “But how about I send you some recent photos? There will be a few of me in training and a few more of me and my biggest fan, Muhammad Ali.”
“Send them, Jackie,” I said. “Congratulations on a very big night for both you and for women’s boxing.”
“Thank you. Your story is only going to make it that much sweeter. Oh, when will this be out?” she wanted to know.
“Being that we just put the last magazine to bed, the next one will be out in around five weeks.”
“Five weeks?” she gasped. “I’ll be fighting at least once, maybe twice, in that time!”
“That’s how the magazine business works, Jackie,” I told her. “We’ll just have to make a special section for you.”
“I’d like that a lot,” she replied.
I’ll bet she would have.
The following week came another phone call from Jackie. She said she’d be fighting in Georgia the next night. Naturally, I checked.
There was nothing in the way of a boxing match for Tonawanda. Nothing! There was nothing but a phone call and a result from her two days later.
“KO 2!” she said, in a call to me.
In the weeks and months ahead, the scenarios were the same, only with different venues as the host to her fictitious fights and made-up victories. Tennessee. Maine. New Hampshire. West Virginia. South Dakota. North Dakota. South Carolina. Ohio.
On June 8, 1975, I heard that Tonawanda was going to be part of a martial arts and kickboxing card at Madison Square Garden. I heard she would be fighting a man. Curious, I went to the show. On that night, she did “fight” a man. His name was listed as “Larry Rodania.” Jackie “knocked him out” with a left hook in the second round. The punch didn’t look like it would have knocked me out!
As the 1970s grew closer to the 1980s, Jackie sounded more and more annoyed every time she called, because she hadn’t seen any stories written about her. I was always able to put her off by telling her, “We are planning a special issue on you. You are fighting so often, that it makes it difficult to cover just one fight. What we are considering is doing a cover with both you and Muhammad Ali. Would you like that?”
“That would be my dream,” she replied.
By the time I joined Bert Sugar at Ring Magazine in the summer of 1979, Jackie Tonawanda was in high gear. She, along with Marian Trimiar and Cathy “Cat” Davis had already sued the New York State Athletic Commission and the Commissioner—James J. Farley—for sexism and discrimination for refusing to grant them their requested boxing licenses.
The court ordered the NYSAC to grant the women their licenses. In my opinion, all Commissioner Farley had to do was ask the women what upcoming card they would be on. He should have told them that licenses were not granted—to anybody—unless the boxer is actually a part of an upcoming card and named on an official bout sheet turned in by a licensed promoter.
Tonawanda made it a habit of walking unannounced into our offices at The Ring and announcing, in a loud voice, “I am the undefeated, Women’s Light Heavyweight Champion. I knocked out a man at Madison Square Garden.”
When she entered my private office, she would say, “Randy, you know I knocked a man out. You were there. You know about all of my fights. I really think you should, not only do a big story on me, but put me on the cover of The Ring.”
As I did years earlier, I appeased her, throwing promises her way with as much truth as the lies of her boxing victories and championships. After a few years of being promised the world by Sugar and me—and getting not even one word of publicity—Tonawanda stopped coming into the office.
“Jackie was nothing but a big ole windbag,” Gleason's Gym boss Bruce Silverglade told NYFights. Bruce has been owner of the iconic property since 1985, and was the co-owner with Ira Becker, going back into the 1970s.
“Do you know, that in all the years I have been at Gleason’s, in the many times Jackie came into the gym, I never saw her spar once,” said Silverglade. “Not one time!”
When reminded that Tonawanda was voted into the IBHOF as a Trailblazer, Silverglade said, “What trail did she blaze? She was nothing but hot air!”
That hot air, along with her nickname, convinced many sportswriters, to author feature stories and articles about her.
In the early 1980s, New York Daily News sportswriter and cartoonist Bill Gallo was convinced—and conned—by Jackie to write a feature on her. He put in a photo of Jackie with Muhammad Ali, wrote about her knocking out Larry Rodania in MSG and of her undefeated record. He bought her entire story, hook, line and sinker.
The day the story was published, Sugar and I ran into Gallo at a press conference for an upcoming fight at MSG.
“Nice article today, Bill,” said Sugar.
“Very interesting, Bill,” I followed.
“Thanks, guys,” said Gallo, smiling. “It was a fun story.”
Sugar and I looked at each other.
“It was a fantastic piece of fiction writing, Bill,” I remarked, as easily as I could.
“Fiction? What fiction?” Gallo asked, sounding horrified. “I interviewed her for two hours.
Again, Sugar and I looked at each other.
“Want me to tell him or do you want to, Bert?” I asked the Publisher of The Ring.
Sugar put a hand on Gallo’s shoulder.
“Jackie is a phony, Bill. She hasn’t had any fights that we know of.”
“But…” I put a hand of Gallo’s other shoulder.
“She makes all of this up, Bill,” I said. I explained all I knew about Tonawanda to Gallo. He was horrified. He was embarrassed. He was humiliated.
“I am going to write a follow-up story tomorrow and rip her…”
Sugar held up both palms.
“Don’t, Bill!” said Sugar. “You were tricked. Nobody knows that except us. We know the truth. But 99.9% of your readers don’t. They’ll enjoy it. As Randy said, it was a great piece of fiction writing.”
As the press conference went on, Sugar and I continually glanced at Gallo. He had his head down, continually shaking it. His lips moved as he talked to himself. He was tormented by being fooled by Tonawanda.
Sugar went over to console the legendary sportswriter.
Earlier, it was noted that Tonawanda’s one and only fight took place in 1979. To be exact, it was on February 16. The venue was the Commonwealth Convention Center in Louisville, Kentucky. It was part of the card which featured the pro debut of Greg Page, who would go on to win the WBA Heavyweight Title a little under five years later. Because female boxing wasn’t fully sanctioned in Kentucky, the promoter was able to convince the local commission to let the Jackie Tonawanda-Diane Clark fight happen as an exhibition. He also billed it as for the “Female Light Heavyweight Championship,” and scheduled the bout for six rounds. The bout went to a decision. Clark, listed on BoxRec as being 0-1 overall, was announced as “…the winner and NEW Women’s World Boxing Association Light Heavyweight Champion.”
No belt was presented to Clark. That’s because the title was made up. The fight was real, but the title was phony.
The title was as phony as the rest of Jackie Tonawanda’s fictionalized, fabricated boxing career. Of the 495 men and women who have been enshrined since the IBHOF opened in 1990, there have been a few inductees we can intelligently discuss the merits, qualifications and inclusion of into the IBHOF. Those discussions are purely subjective. With Tonawanda, it’s not subjective. There is no arguing. There is nothing to discuss. Truly nothing! She was NOT a fighter, though one can argue she did have one fight.
She was NOT a Trailblazer, though one can argue that she did get publicity. But for whom did she get publicity? She was a huckster. A shyster. She was a self-promoting liar. If she had fought, if she had won all those fights, if she had all those knockouts and if she had won all those titles, then there should be a special wing built for her in Canastota, complete with hundreds of photographs of her fights and a display of her many championship belts. That’s IF she had fought! None of that happened, however.
She made up her name, she made up her nickname as if she really was the “Female Ali,” and she made up her fights. She lied about it all. She even lied about her birth date, making herself around 12 years younger than she really was.
It gives me no joy, no pleasure, to be writing this. For years—decades—I knew of her fictional stories, her lies and her deception to every person—especially boxing journalists—she met. For decades, I didn’t write about her or talk about her. I gave her not one line of ink in World & International Boxing, Big Book of Boxing or The Ring, and not one word of praise on any of the television networks I announced for. I work to report about real fighters, not the phonies. She didn’t fool me, and she didn’t fool “The Greatest,” either.
During my years as head of the New York State Athletic Commission (1988-1995), I shared many one-on-one breakfasts with Ali whenever he was in New York, which was quite often.
One morning, as I was about to take a sip of my hot coffee, he asked me, “Do you know Jackie Tonawanda?” I lowered the coffee mug from my lips and looked him straight in the eyes.
“Yes, I do, Champ,” I replied. “What makes you ask?”
“Is she real?” he inquired.
“Is she real?” I repeated. “In what way?” I asked.
“Can she fight? Is she really a champion?” he wanted to know.
When I said, “No, she is not real, she makes everything up,” Ali nodded his head.
“I thought so,” he remarked, still nodding his head. “I have thought so for a very long time.”
He told me stories of Tonawanda showing up in his training camp in Deer Lake, PA, in the mid-‘70s wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “The Female Ali.” She was accompanied by a male photographer.
“She told me she was undefeated,” Ali recounted. “I thought it was pretty cool that an undefeated female boxer would call herself the ‘Female Ali’, so I invited her to work out. She’d hit the bags and do some light shadow-boxing. She never would spar with any of the guys, however, even when I told her they would just move around and not throw punches. They would just play defense. Many times, she would tell me she couldn’t spar that day. Then she whispered something to me. Know what she whispered?”
“Tell me, Champ,” I said curiously.
“She told me she couldn’t spar because it was her time of the month.”
He paused a second, then added, “It seems that every time I saw her, she had the same excuse!”
During her moments in Ali’s gym, Tonawanda would take posed photos with Ali. “She put those photos on sweat suits, T-shirts, hats, sweat shirts, everywhere,” he said. “She was ‘The Female Ali,’ but I never saw her spar. Not once!”
Ali laughed when he told me a story of Tonawanda’s appearance in his gym one morning in the summer of 1978, while he was preparing for his rematch with Leon Spinks.
“She walked in carrying a big gym bag. I was on the floor, skipping rope. When I saw her, I yelled ‘The Female Ali’ is in the house!' When the bell rung, she put her gym bag down and walked over to me. She said, ‘I am going to be fighting for the Female Light Heavyweight Championship in two weeks.’”
“I said ‘Great! You’ll need some sparring. Today, you’ll spar with ME!’
“Want to know what she said?” Ali asked with a grin.
I didn’t have to think.
“She said it was her time of the month!” was my reply.
Ali laughed and shook his head.
“Nope!” he responded. “She told me she turned her ankle while doing roadwork yesterday and was taking a day or two to rest it. Then, she turned to get her gym bag. She limped as she walked to the bag. She wasn’t limping when she walked over to me a minute earlier. I wondered why she brought her gym bag if she had no intention of sparring. I found out a moment later. She brought camera equipment and backdrops so she could take photos of the two of us, which, of course, I did!”
“She never won a fight,” said Henry Hascup, one of the most renowned historians in the sport. “Her whole reputation is based on the fact she claimed to have been a world champion with lots of victories. The only thing we can come up with is that she had one fight—and lost it! She also played that nickname of hers to the max. Everyone knew Muhammad Ali, and lots of people knew of ‘The Female Ali.”
Tonawanda piggybacked that nickname—along with a Mt. Everest of lies—to get herself more publicity than many of the male fighters of her day, and all of her female contemporaries.
Yes, Tonawanda’s boxing career was made up. It never happened! Could we be any clearer?
She invented and created a persona of a fighter. She invented fights. She invented sites. She invented a record, which she changed on a regular basis. She invented knockout victories and world championships. She even invented names for her opponents, along with a time and round in which she stopped them. Using another Bert Sugar terminology, Tonawanda bullshat her way into the IBHOF.
Even the IBHOF is vague about Ms. Tonawanda’s validity in their bio on her on their website:
“She spent the majority of her career on the underground female boxing circuit …”The Female Ali” sparred with Muhammad Ali at his training camp and worked as his bodyguard…combined quickness and punching power…many sources credit her with a 35-1 (34 KOs) ledger”
The writer is not aware of any such circuit. Ali told the writer she did not spar him, and never mentioned her working as his bodyguard…etc, you get the point.
Former female boxer/kickboxer/martial artist Sue TL Fox, named by The Ring in 2012 as one of the “10 Most Influential Female Boxers of All Time,” founded the Women’s Boxing Archive Network (WBAN) in 1998. It is the most comprehensive website on past and present female boxers. Little can be found on the “boxing career” of “The Female Ali.”
“I was disappointed to see Jackie Tonawanda on the ballot sheet for the prestigious International Boxing Hall of Fame, but I was self-assured that anyone who knew Tonawanda’s background would not vote her in,” wrote Ms. Fox in a text to this writer.
“When I saw her as one of the listed inductees, I was in disbelief. I was also disappointed, realizing that many (voters) did not know the real story of Tonawanda.”
I know who several of the ballotters who vote for the women. Only two admitted they voted for Tonawanda. Both also admitted that they didn’t bother checking her boxing credentials—of which there are none. No championships. No fastest knockout by a woman. No knockouts at all. In fact, there aren’t any victories.
Both of the IBHOF voters who admitted they voted for her said they did so because they felt they knew of her nickname and her reputation.
“I am horrified I voted for her,” said one of the ballotters to NYFights.
“I thought I knew all about her,” said the other person who admitted he voted for Tonawanda. “I wish I could retract my vote.”
Both ballotters were thrilled when they were told their names would be kept out of this story. That is because they admitted—they “manned up”—their major faux pas before we learned they had been a part of sending Jackie Tonawanda into boxing immortality. All of those balloters who voted for Tonawanda obviously voted for her nickname, nothing else.
“Jackie Tonawanda was a f—–g phony,” said former Middleweight, Super Middleweight and Light Heavyweight champion Iran “The Blade”Barkley. “She was an out-and-out fraud!”
He knows. His sister, Yvonne Barkley, fought from 1976-1979. “Yvonne beat Jackie up in the gym one day,” Barkley told NYFights. “Totally f—-d her up.”
Apparently, the two had words in the women’s locker room in a Bronx gym. According to Barkley, two of his trainers—Connie Bryant and Billy Giles—heard yelling inside the locker room. By their account, Yvonne had entered the room—which could accommodate several people—while Tonawanda was changing.
“Jackie told Yvonne to get out, that the dressing room was hers,” said Iran. “My sister said ‘This ain’t your dressing room…it’s the Women’s Locker Room. I’ll get out after I change.’ Jackie started screaming at Yvonne. She then made the mistake of pushing Yvonne. Yvonne beat the mess out of her. Jackie ran out of the gym crying.”
The fact that Tonawanda was selected for induction into the IBHOF came as a shock to many of the biggest names in the sport.
Longtime Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2010, said, “It’s a joke that Tonawanda is going in. She fought once—and lost. Why is she going in? Because she was called ‘The Female Ali?’ She was not a fighter and she was not a Trailblazer.”
Veteran promoter J. Russell Peltz, himself an inductee in the IBHOF (2004), was animated and angry when he talked of Tonawanda’s induction.
“How could anybody on that panel of voters put her in?” questioned Peltz, sounding quite agitated. “They’re supposed to be experts. What are they experts of? Certainly not of females who belong in the International Boxing Hall of Fame! What did Jackie Tonawanda ever do? Did she bring attention to female boxing? No! She only cared about bringing attention to herself. Those voters who elected her should be ashamed of themselves!”
This writer contacted IBHOF President Don Ackerman on December 30, 2021, informing him of the phoniness of Jackie Tonawanda, and that he, Ed Brophy and the Executive Board of the IBHOF should consider removing her from being enshrined with a genuine Trailblazer like Marian Trimiar and the many legendary fighters whose names will be called on that historic Induction Sunday.
Sounding concerned, Ackerman said, “We will look into this.”
On January 5 came a text from Ackerman. It read:
“I met with Ed and we talked about Jackie. She was inducted in the Trailblazer category. It doesn’t matter what her actual record was. It does matter that she was a voice for women’s boxing and was one of the first to be granted a license. After talking with Ed and some of our voters, we feel comfortable because of her influence on the sport. Some of the bare knuckle boxers had very questionable records but made a mark in our sport.”
It’s hard to believe the IBHOF feels “comfortable” about inducting a total fraud. As for Ms. Tonawanda’s “influence on the sport,” as Ackerman wrote, we ask, “What influence on the sport?” If she influenced anybody, it was the voters, two of whom now wish they could rescind their ballots. She influenced them—and several other voters—with an avalanche of lies.
The decision of the IBHOF is incredibly sad and disturbing. No other sport has inducted such a phony as Jackie Tonawanda. Not football, not basketball, not hockey and not baseball. Baseball, in fact, has even turned down a genuine Hall-of-Famer in Pete Rose, whose credentials are nothing but Hall-of-Fame status. His off-the-field gambling was considered detrimental to baseball, and he has been denied entry into Cooperstown. Known PED users Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire have failed to be voted into Cooperstown because they cheated. It is unclear whether Alex Rodriguez, whose name appeared on the ballot for the first time last year but failed to receive the amount of votes needed for induction, will ever make it to enshrinement in Cooperstown. To the Baseball Hall of Fame, integrity means more than hundreds of tape measure homeruns.
Is gambling and using PEDs any different towards the integrity of a sport than lying, scamming, tricking journalists into writing stories and providing years of false information? Cooperstown stood by its reputation and integrity. They have kept from induction those who have impugned that integrity.
Canastota now knows the story of arguably the greatest scam artist in the history of boxing. Yet, they will, as of this writing, allow Jackie Tonawanda entrance into a Hall of Fame where she certainly doesn’t belong. We can hope that reading this, seeing all the standard bearers who spoke out, will push the IBHOF to reconsider.
At the Boston Marathon in April 1980, a lady named Rosie Ruiz was originally announced as the first female finisher. She joined legendary male marathoner Bill Rodgers on the winners' stand, as both received all the deserved accolades which go with winning a marathon. The following day, when race organizers reviewed video footage, Rosie was nowhere to be found, except in the final mile of the race. It was at that spot where Rosie jumped in and started from. Race organizers quickly did the right thing: They rescinded the victory of Ms Ruiz, and handed the victory to the rightful female finisher, Jacqueline Gareau of Canada. Kudos to the organizers of the Boston Marathon. They showed you can’t cheat and win.
The International Boxing Hall of Fame has become the most revered and sacred shrine to fighters in the world. Their integrity, their reputation, is on the line, all because of an imposter who is soon to be enshrined as a Trailblazer.
“There is absolutely no way she belongs in the IBHOF,” said Don Majeski, a 50-year veteran in boxing as an agent, matchmaker and long-regarded as one of the sports’ leading historians. “She was an out-and-out phony. Jackie took her phony last name, her saleable nickname and a totally fictitious career onto a spot on the ballot for the IBHOF. The Hall-of-Fame is putting her in as a Trailblazer. What trail did she blaze? The only trail she blazed was a pack of lies about fights she claimed she had. She had only one fight, and she lost it. Before that and after that she did nothing. Nothing at all! She became the first female to be given a boxing license in New York. So what! Because of that, they put her in the IBHOF! Hey, I have a driver’s license. Should I be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame because I have a driver’s license?”
The fact is, Tonawanda should not be going into the IBHOF. Back in the 70s, when she began her scam, she did not do so with the thought that one day, there would be an International Boxing Hall of Fame which would induct her. She was doing it strictly to get money from endorsements, advertisers and backers. She had no interest in promoting the growth of female boxing. This woman was only interested in building herself—by any means possible—into becoming rich and famous.
Those on the committee who voted for Tonawanda are now aware of their mistake. So is the executive board of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The reason we notified them on December 30 was to give them plenty of time to reverse the mistake they made by putting a complete fraud on the ballot and to reverse the even-greater mistake made by a majority of the elite panel of voters who were called upon by the IBHOF execs to enshrine Female Trailblazers.
As you have learned here, Jackie Tonawanda was not a fighter, nor was she a trailblazer. She was an imposter who did nothing to enhance the cause of female boxing. Before December 30, neither the IBHOF executives nor the IBHOF ballotters knew of the fraud that Jackie Tonawanda was. They can now do one of two things:
They can remove her name from the list of deserving inductees, in the name of integrity. They can call her name on Induction Sunday and send her—wrongfully—into enshrinement amongst 495 IBHOF’ers who deserve to be there.
If they remove her name, they will be admired for doing the right thing. The integrity, respect and prestige they have built since 1990 will only be enhanced.
To leave her in, however, would shame the IBHOF forever. Many would never view the International Hall of Fame—the come-to-life “Field of Dreams”—the same way again.
To remove her—with what amounts to a press of the “Delete” button—can be done quietly and painlessly. It would bring honor to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
To leave her name in, to allow her memory to co-exist for eternity alongside the greats of our sport, would change the name of the IBHOF—also for eternity—to the IBHOS. The International Boxing Hall of Shame.
The decision is theirs.