The Real Knockouts of Women’s Boxing

Even the sport’s reigning champions have trouble making a living without turning themselves into sex symbols.

It’s a singular experience, being served blueberry pancakes by a national champion. But for pro boxing middleweight Tori Nelson, ranked #1 in the U.S. and #2 in the world, my order was just another scribble in a long line of notepads she’s filled over the years. Nelson is an extremely busy woman; she’s been known to work three jobs at a time, she’s a single mom of two, and she spends hours each night in the gym. Getting an interview with her was not easy.

But I got lucky, because on the day I came to see her at work, the IHOP in Ashburn, Virginia, was totally dead. A half-dozen bored servers in their trademark blue aprons stood against the wall; the kitchen was being inspected, which had all of them a bit on edge. Because there was nothing else to do at the restaurant, we had plenty of time to chat while Nelson waited for her shift to end.

It wasn’t hard to get her talking; she’s got a contagious, effusive energy and is extremely extroverted. She often loses her train of thought—a symptom, she says, of being hit in the head too many times. (“Punch-drunk,” they call it.) She’ll flit from one subject to another, and then she’ll interrupt herself, asking good-naturedly, “What was the question again?”

As Nelson refilled my coffee mug, I asked how her sponsorships were coming. We’d been in contact for about a month already, so I knew that she’d been desperately searching for sponsors. Nelson has been sponsored before, by an energy drink called Bounce Back and a local law firm, but neither of the sponsorships were enough to support her in any substantial way. She said Under Armour had recently expressed interest but ultimately chosen to go with a male boxer instead. Her dream is to sign with Reebok.

I asked Nelson about the prize winnings, and she said she makes between $5,000 and $10,000 for a fight. She estimated that the winnings for equivalent male fighters start off between $20,000 and $30,000. Then she added, referring to the men, “Maybe I gotta fight them to make that.”

I don’t doubt she’d do it. Nelson, like nearly all female boxers, began training by sparring almost exclusively with men. There are still so few women in the sport that the training gyms pair men and women out of necessity.

Nelson got word from another server that the inspection was over. “We passed!” she said. “Now I can go home.” A few hours later, we’d meet again at the gym.

Sponsorships aren’t easy to come by for any boxer. The sport, once a cultural institution, has seen a sharp decline in popular support since the heydays of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. About a decade ago, female fighters like Laila Ali (Muhammad’s daughter), Mia St. John, and Christy Martin briefly captured the media’s attention, but women’s boxing never quite broke through to the mainstream. The sport’s inclusion in the 2012 Olympic Games didn’t spark as much public interest as many had hoped. As Nelson put it, “We get our two minutes of fame, then it’s over.”

These days, pro women boxers are lucky if they can so much as convince a promoter to put them on the cards—forget about making decent prize money or finding a sponsor. The business of boxing involves a supply chain that’s relatively unique in the world of sports. Promoters gauge audience and premium cable demand and then arrange the fights according to what they believe will generate the most interest (and thus, money). The trainers, in turn, know what the promoters are looking for and are likely to select their fighters with that knowledge in mind.

And sponsorship—well, sponsorship has less to do with ability than it does image and existing fan base, which are rather hard to build if you can’t even get a fight. Because of a perceived lack of interest in women’s boxing, trainers, managers, promoters, and sponsors are all reluctant to work with women.

After I read about a female promoter named Cassandra White, I was eager to hear her impressions. I met her in a sparse three-room basement in the Anacostia neighborhood of D.C., where she was putting together a community boxing gym that would offer free classes to community members. So far, there was just one exercise machine and a desk. White wore a red velour suit and matching red lipstick, with her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail.

“I didn’t even know there were female fighters in the area until 2008,” said White, who has been working as a promoter since 2006. “It’s still a challenge—a lot of people still don’t want to put female boxers on the shows. To be honest, they think females shouldn’t be fighting. And a lot of men don’t look at women like skillful boxers. I like to prove them wrong.”

In White’s experience, the women’s fights usually turn out to be the favorites of live-event crowds—contrary to what most promoters would expect. She speculates that this is because women are much less selective about their opponents, which makes for a better fight. Male boxers who are represented by good gyms have the luxury of declining to fight anyone who might conceivably have the talent to beat them—and they often do, in an effort to preserve their records and their images as champions. White blames the downfall of boxing on this selectiveness; the collective fear of losing is the sport’s tragic flaw. The world’s top male boxers rarely square off against one another anymore, as Ali and Frazier once did, and the result is a largely disenchanted public.

“They like to hand-pick their fighters, but not with the women,” she said. “The women are willing to fight anyone. They refuse no one. ‘Bring ’em on!’”

When I began reporting this story, I signed up for boxing lessons myself to learn more about the sport. Getting in the boxing gym felt like a victorious repossession of my strength—a new, more mature claim to womanhood.

I was a competitive swimmer throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, and I’d delighted in the sheer efficiency of my body—the grace and elegance of a good stroke, the feel of the water moving around me when I’d learned just how to handle it and the contemplative silence it imposed upon my day. The water felt like an alternate universe where the noise of the outside world—crushes and betrayals, worries about my future—reached me garbled and muted, if at all. But that delight was spoiled by my hyperawareness of my muscular physique. My friends joked that I had a classic swimmer’s body: big shoulders, big arms, rounded spine, flat butt. And I laughed along, until I developed the photos from my junior prom. I looked ridiculous, I thought, an ape in a dress. I vowed that once the season was over, I’d never lift another weight in my entire life, so I could be petite and feminine like the dancers I knew.

Women boxers’ bodies are also at odds with conventional ideals of femininity, but in their case, being perceived as unfeminine can actually cost them precious opportunities to compete. Christy Halbert’s 1997 article for the Journal of Sport & Social Issues blames this phenomenon on the “exploitative structure that underlies professional boxing.” (Halbert continues to be outspoken on this issue.) Fighters tend to be found among the most oppressed and disadvantaged minority communities and are vulnerable to the whims of promoters. When fighters are women, this often includes an extraordinary pressure to maintain both powerful musculature and a sexy, crowd-pleasing image, since most promoters figure sex appeal is the only way to market a female boxer.

For many of them, this means growing their hair long, fighting in full makeup, and wearing revealing clothing both in and out of the ring. Halbert’s study suggests that those who don’t conform to these expectations are unlikely to succeed. In fact, one fighter in the study said a promoter had told her he wouldn’t put any women on the cards if they looked “like athletes.”

A few hours after my visit to the IHOP, I met up with Nelson at her gym—a storefront in a Leesburg strip mall with a relaxed, familial vibe. Her 16-year-old daughter was with us, and in between bouts, Nelson showed her how to skip rope the correct way. Nelson explained that her kids sort of grew up in the gym; when they were younger, they always accompanied her to practice after school and often traveled with her to fights. “I feel like I owe them something,” she said.

Nelson wore a black t-shirt, black cropped running tights, and no make-up. As we chatted, she rubbed Vaseline on her face so her skin would be less likely to split if she took a hard punch. I asked whether anyone had ever pushed her to dress sexy. “I’ve had people say it: ‘Tori, you should come out wearing this,’” she said. “No, Lord, I’m a Christian, I’m a mom. I can’t do that. If my talent don’t sell it, I’m sorry.”

I asked her if she thought other female athletes were benefitting from wearing revealing clothing. “Well, don’t you think it help them?” she said. “Nudity sells!” She mentioned another boxer she felt had gained an edge from this approach: “When she come out, everybody waiting ’cause they want to see what she got on.”

As she watched male fighters spar, Nelson stretched and yelled encouragement to both sides. She said this was an important part of her routine; it helped her get in the right mindset for her own fights. I explained the basics of the boxers’ technique to Kate Warren, the photographer I was working with, and Kate outed me to Nelson. “She’s learning to box, too, you know.”

“Get on outta here! You shut your mouth up!” said Nelson as she leaned back to regard me, delighted. “You gonna get in the ring with me, too?” I shook my head in embarrassment, and Nelson finally put on her headgear and climbed into the ring to spar with a male fighter.

While Nelson practiced, I watched another boxer, Tyrieshia Douglas, direct a group of about 20 in a sort of boxing boot camp. Her students, who ranged in age from about 8 to 60, were male and female, black, white, and Hispanic. They sprinted between the rows of hanging bags, did countless burpees, and pummeled their punching bags, all the while cowering from Douglas’ drill-sergeant hollering.

White had already told me about Douglas. She’d competed for the flyweight spot on the 2012 Olympic team and lost to Marlen Esparza, who went on to take home the bronze medal. After Douglas was eliminated from the Olympic trials, she wasted no time in going pro. Currently, she’s the #1 ranked female bantamweight in the world. But she still harbors a lot of anger about the loss against Esparza that brought her amateur career to a close.

White believes Douglas is a stronger fighter than Esparza, but she told me Douglas’s managers couldn’t raise enough money to make her an appealing candidate. (In cases like Douglas’s where there is no knockout, the winner is determined based on the judges’ assessment.) Many of the people I spoke with implied that for the cash-strapped Olympic team, a boxer with financial backing is an asset.

“If Tyrieshia had had some endorsements behind her, I think things would have been different,” White speculated. “But that’s like anything with television: They want that image. Whether she grows her hair out or not, she’s beautiful, but they couldn’t sell them on it. They couldn’t soften her up enough.”

It’s easy to see what White meant. Like Esparza, Douglas has a strong yet petite frame (the upper limit for flyweights is 112 pounds), and she’s attractive, with a lovely face. But her hair is cut close to her scalp and she’s got no shortage of tattoos. Her look isn’t soft. Marlen Esparza, on the other hand, is conventionally pretty. She’s got long, shiny, dark hair and a broad, white smile. When Esparza showed up to the Olympic trials, she already had sponsorship deals with Coca-Cola, CoverGirl, and Nike. She enjoyed relative fame, appearing in commercials, major publications (including The Atlantic), and a CNN documentary entitled In Her Corner: Latino in America 2, of which she was the star.**

The mere fact of this media spotlight on a female boxer seems like something worth celebrating—until you actually read the articles. Most scarcely touch on her boxing skill. People ran an article about her “pre-fight beauty regimen.” Vogue photographed her boxing in a sexy, backless red dress. Even ESPN—you know, the sports magazine—did a feature on what Esparza loves and hates about her body, complete with arty nude photos, and called it “Marlen Esparza Disrobed.”

It’s not just that she’s pretty, and it’s not just that she dresses nicely for the cameras. The media has disarmed Esparza, reducing her from a skilled athlete to just another frivolous female celebrity. The photos and articles send a clear message: Esparza’s value to society lies not in her athletic ability but in her sex appeal—and that’s what we’re rewarding her for.

Female boxers once believed that the only way to be taken seriously was to get on cable TV. If even one network would air some fights, and put some marketing money behind them, viewers could decide whether or not they liked women’s boxing. After all, why would people spend $75 to attend a fight they weren’t sure they’d enjoy?

In April 1987, a Harlem-born boxer named Miriam “Lady Tyger” Trimiar began a month-long hunger strike in an effort to demand higher pay, better promotion, and more television coverage of women’s fights. “Mud wrestling and jello wrestling can get on television, but we can’t,” she told The Chicago Tribune. Her stated target was Don King, the legendary promoter who launched the careers of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson, and was later sued by nearly all his fighters for underpaying them (in one case, by as much as $10 million).

Lady Tyger didn’t win that fight. She may not have chosen the right opponent—though King did possess a good deal of power in the boxing industry, he wasn’t solely responsible for igniting and directing the public’s bloodlust. So, then, should Tyger have appealed to the TV stations? To the public itself? Today’s female fighters face a similar dilemma: They know they have a problem, but locating its source is more complex than you’d think.

The misogyny of the boxing industry is deeply rooted in tradition. For evidence, look no further than Washington, D.C.’s annual “Fight Night” benefit, which this year raised nearly $5 million for the nonprofit Fight for Children. It was a swanky, sloppy affair featuring professional boxing matches along with cigars, steak, and booze. Most of the patrons were men, while the service was primarily provided by women.* Topless women in body paint adorned pedestals, uniformed cheerleaders flirted, and cocktail waitresses perched on men’s laps. The event is extremely successful, year after year, for reasons that clearly go beyond charitable impulses.

Even for the rare sex symbol like Esparza, it’s hard to sustain a lucky streak. Once Esparza leaves the Olympics to go pro, Nelson speculates that her sponsors will drop her. Premium cable dominates boxing these days, and purses for pay-per-view fights are shrinking all the time, even as the purses for main events become larger. As Hamilton Nolan deftly pointed out in a 2012 article for Slate, the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic lineup ultimately means little if the boxers still can’t expect to make a living as professional athletes afterwards.

Back in the golden era of boxing, there was a pure, naive belief that it could be a vehicle of upward mobility for society’s poorest members. There was much talk about “heart”—that je ne sais quoi that turned fighters into legends. But today, “heart” seems to have been replaced by a knack for self-commodifying. As Ben Fowlkes recently wrote in USA Today, UFC fighters, unlike football players, are expected to do their own promotion, and their social media following is crucial for ensuring a high turnout at any given match. Boxers often face this same responsibility—and in some cases, when promotion doesn’t go well, they will even end up paying to fight.

Male fighters are by no means immune from this reality, but it does have an outsized effect on women, who are assumed among industry people to be implicitly unmarketable. That is, unless they’re willing to use every tool available to them—up to and including their sex appeal—to get that robust Twitter following.

Before my first boxing class, I’d never really hit anything, never been taught to throw a punch. So I hadn’t quite expected the satisfying sensation you get from a well-placed jab—it sort of vibrates all the way up through your arm and down your torso. The first time I worked the mitts with a trainer, I could sense my pupils dilating with animal instinct; when she said we’d done enough, I felt resentful and grouchy, wanting more. That over-eagerness can be a pitfall for any fighter; you have to be patient, keep your center of gravity, or you’ll get knocked on your ass.

That’s exactly what today’s women fighters are doing: staying light on their feet, waiting for the perfect opening. They’re struggling to maintain their balance and their sanity. Nelson has found hers in God, and she keeps training, keeps delivering pancakes, with the faith that her dedication will give way to an answer. If she could eat title belts, Nelson wouldn’t have a care in the world. But undefeated or not, there’s no clear strategy for turning her athletic success into financial success just yet.

Meanwhile, Douglas struggles to keep her anger from controlling her. She once thought boxing could help her overcome a past filled with abuse and foster homes, but after she debuted as a pro, a bad experience with a promoter left her jaded. “They told me, ‘You need to change the way you dress, you need to put on makeup, do this, do that,’” she says. “They were trying to change everything about me, and I wasn’t having it.” The promoter also dragged her out to nightclubs, where they’d hang around with wealthy men who frequently propositioned Douglas, implying that they’d take sex in exchange for financial support. “It really used to bother me. I used to cry. Now I’m like, ‘How ’bout I break your jaw?’”

Today, Douglas told me, she’s given up on making a living off her boxing alone. After all, even Claressa Shields, a young middleweight who won an Olympic gold in 2012, hasn’t managed to secure a national sponsor since the games. For now, Douglas is resigned to supporting herself as a personal trainer, not a fighter. But she’s still #1 in her weight class, and she continues to enjoy her reign, becoming a more formidable opponent by the day. “We don’t do this for the money,” she said. “But I know that I’m gonna change the face of women’s boxing.”

* This article originally stated that the 2014 Fight Night benefit featured no bouts by women boxers. There were in fact women on the bill that night, and at other Fight Nights in the past. We regret the error.

** This article originally stated that the documentary In Her Corner: Latino in America 2 aired after Esparza won the Olympic bronze. In fact, it aired in 2011, as part of the flurry of media attention that preceded the Olympic trials. The June 2012 Atlantic article appeared after Esparza joined the Olympic team but just before the games themselves. We regret the error.