Little Ms. Dangerous

She wanted to be like Ali. Wrong sex. Too early.

By the time Canino retired in January 2000, she was already training Ada Velez and other amateurs. "I retired," Canino explains, "because how many more miles do I have to run; how much more do I have to spar and take abuse? I'm tired. I still train, though." She leans back in her chair behind a desk that looks shoved into her little office at the corner of the upstairs gym at U.S.1. Outside the glass door, her students are punching bags and shadowboxing. Canino sighs and then sits up straight, as though she's about to stand, walk out of the office, and bound into the ring. "I could probably go ten rounds."

The only problem is, the way things have been lately, she might have to wait a long time before finding someone, anyone, to fight. Those familiar with women's boxing are acutely aware that the girls with the highest profiles -- the most TV exposure and highest earnings -- are almost never the best. They tend to be charismatic sex symbols like Mia St. John and Regina Halmich; the ones like Christy Martin who've made the most of good promotional contracts; or famous names -- Leila Ali, Jacqui Frazier, Freeda Foreman. (The female Ali-Frazier match last June, which the much younger Ali won, was a big success, and for months now Foreman has been a constant presence on Fox Sports.) None of these stars are bad fighters, and some are quite good, but there are probably a few dozen lesser-knowns who could whip their butts given the chance. It's just that the really talented girls are rarely given a break. Why would any self-respecting promoter or TV producer want to jeopardize his cash cows?

It's definitely a Catch-22 for any potential contender: If she doesn't develop her skills against top fighters, she won't be good enough to win the big titles and earn the (relatively) big money. And only a small number are able to get the competition they need. Plenty of good fighters sit for months while lesser ones get work. The work comes because they have good connections. Ada Velez is a prime example of a boxer not fighting enough, Canino asserts, because Velez hasn't been lucky enough to sign with a promoter. "Laura Serrano [a veteran and among the top fighters today] sat for five years," Canino adds, "while Don King only pushed Christy Martin." Serrano has made up for some of that lost time, having recorded five victories during the past two years and one controversial draw. That was against Miami's Melissa Salamone, another highly regarded boxer who recently has defeated several unskilled opponents. In comparison to Serrano's 14 professional fights in seven years, Martin has fought 48 times in eight years (44 wins) and continues her busy schedule.

When a program like the Texas Shoot Out comes along, a lot of people get hopeful about women's boxing. The last all-woman card of this caliber was in February 2000. Some are even predicting a "comeback" for the sport after months of lethargy. "The years 1998 and '99 were really good for all women boxers," Canino believes. "But in 2000 it dropped off. Then -- ding, ding, ding! -- this card in Texas, you got top girls." Canino claps her hands zestfully, but she isn't smiling. Her mouth is set with determination. "This is the first hopeful sign in two years. There's a lot of girls [fighting] but not a lot of productions allowing 'em to fight."

Some observers say the major TV sports networks are showing fewer women's fights than in the salad days of the Nineties. Others dispute the assertion of lower quantity, but almost everyone agrees the real problem is the qualityof the fights, which often confirm the already negative image of the women's sport held by many experts. One of those experts is Enrique Encinosa of Miami, who has worked as a boxer, trainer, manager, matchmaker, and boxing historian, and who currently contributes articles to boxing publications. "Female boxing is basically bullshit," Encinosa opines, echoing comments made by many observers and participants in the men's boxing industry. "I have nothing against female boxing per se, but the whole thing is, most of them fight like girls. If you're a woman and have beaten three crack whores, you can get big money on TV, so you have inept female fighters getting TV time and decent-size paychecks instead of real male fighters who can't get a break."

Sue Fox responds that that criticism makes sense if the critic hasn't seen an outstanding women's match, which he likely hasn't if he's watching TV. "Women are still segregated in the back of the bus on these televised shows," Fox asserts. "They're doing better now, but it's usually only if there's an early knockout on another bout [that] they'll put the women on. Nothing's more discouraging than to go to a match and see all the cameras turn off and then see the women come out."

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for ESPN in New York, concedes the women's fights on mostly male cards aren't always high priority, but that's because they're not always the best matches. "A year or so ago we did one full women's card," Quinn says. "On other cards if the main events go ten or twelve rounds, we may not get another fight in [the program]. The women's sport is so new; as it becomes more popular, it will get better and there will be more fights. That's what the feeling is."

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