Video credited to Thomas Alva Edison in 1901
You probably haven't heard of Polly Burns or Barbara Buttrick. You may not even be familiar with Christy Martin or Laila Ali, but you might want to take note of the names. Come 2012 women will duke it out for an Olympic gold for the first time, and these female fighters are among a long list of pioneers in their sport.The British Burns boxed both men and women in the early 1900s. Buttrick appeared in televised bouts in the 1960s before launching the International Women's Boxing Federation in 1992. Martin rose to stardom as Don King's "female sensation," an undercard to headline fights featuring giants like Mike Tyson. And Laila Ali, well, she is the butterfly and the bee of boxing. The daughter of legendary Muhammad Ali, she brought a famous name and a degree of celebrity to a sport long shunned by promoters and public alike.
But these few by no means mark the end or even the beginning of the public's fascination with women in the ring. A dig through any major newspaper archive will reward you with some colorful anecdotes about the women who fought before fighting was hip, and long before it was officially sanctioned by any boxing authority.
And so we present, from the annals of women's boxing, some dispatches from the pugilist past, a few stories and scraps about the brave, the bold, the beautiful—the lady boxers.
When a boxing match in 1926 featuring "two young girls" prompted a disapproving backlash in London society, the Atlanta Constitution tried to convey something of the sport's historical precedent. The paper ran a brief article which included a report from 1768 about a fierce female fight: "Two women fought for a new shift, valued at half a crown, in the Spaw fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called Bruising Peg, who beat up her antagonist in a terrible manner."
Apr. 12, 1794
England's Sporting Magazine reported "a trial of pugilism at the Queen's Head between Hannah Elliot and a noted bruiser." That bruiser was a man, and after two hours the fight came out in favor of the lady.
June 5, 1795
Another dispatch from Sporting Magazine told of a "severe pugilistic contest" between "two heroic females." The women met in a field and battled over a purse of two guineas, displaying "many maneuvers relating to the art of boxing." One knocked her opponent to the ground "not less than 70 times" in a match lasting an hour and 20 minutes before finally being declared the victor.
Mar. 17, 1876
"A FEMALE BOXING MATCH. A NOVEL AND NONSENSICAL EXHIBITION AT HARRY HILL'S." So went the headline of a New York Times article announcing "a sparring match with boxing-gloves between two women." For a prize of $200, two variety dancers—24-year-old Nelly Saunders, wife of a boxer, and 25-year-old Rose Harland—answered the call of Harry Hill's "establishment in Houston street" for two women brave enough to box before an audience. The theater was reportedly packed for the show, and the costumes colorful. Harland wore blue trunks and white tights, while Saunders wore a white bodice, purple knee-breeches and red stockings. Faces were smashed and hair loosed in disarray, but both women stayed on their feet for four rounds and even walked out arm in arm. The judge called the match in Saunders' favor by a single point, but noted that he would have liked to have called it a draw.
Jan. 29, 1882
This New York Times article about a London fight speaks for itself: "At the Boarded House in Marybone Fields, to Morrow being Thursday, the 8th Day of August, will be perform'd an extraordinary Match at Boxing between Joanna Heyfield, of Newgate Market, Basket-Woman, and the City Championess for Ten pounds Note. There has not been such a battle for these 20 Years past, and as these two Heroines are as brave and as bold as the ancient Amazons, the Spectators may expect abundance of Diversion and Satisfaction from these Female Combatants."
At one time you surely had to go out of your way to catch such bouts. Now you can order one up on your favorite cable sports network.
But before you do, here's one more name for the record books: Elizabeth Wilkinson. The International Female Boxers Association, a professional organization that sanctions women's matches, traces the sport's origin back to the day this British fighter first stepped into the ring.
And that was in 1722.