The scandalous tale of female boxing’s early pioneers

The extraordinary stories of Marian Trimiar, Jackie Tonawanda and Cathy Davis are a few degrees of separation and a world removed from today’s stars of female boxing. Steve Bunce tells the tale as only he can

RICKY HATTON is only about nine moves from “Two
Ton” Tony Galento, which is a decent fight and an even better night out. You
know the game – Ricky fights somebody, who fights somebody and then it gets to
crazy Tony. It’s not a bad game.

It’s about the same amount of boxers between today’s
top female fighters and the pioneers from 1978, the year the New York State
Athletic Commission handed out the first three licences to women; ground zero
for the women’s game. 

The first woman was known as “The Cat”, Cathy Davis, and she is the forgotten fighter, a lightweight with big hair, surrounded by a crazy gang. Even in a sport where most things are hard to invent, the Davis business is wonderful.

A New Yorker called Sal Algieri discovered her in
1975 after taking out an advert in a local paper: “Recruiting Women – ages 17
and 22.” When Davis walked through his gym door near Poughkeepsie, it was love
at first punch for the star-crossed pair, the fencer and the fixer. Sal threw a
fight in Australia a decade earlier and was ducking and diving and surviving on
the boxing beat in New York. Davis was a champion fencer.

Sal created a governing body to validate the
fights. He formed a fun committee: the great Willie Pep, Al Braverman, Paddy
Flood and a woman from California, Dee Knuckles. It was called the Woman’s
Boxing Federation. It is hard to invent, but invent they did, starting with
Cathy’s record.

The exotic excursion by Flood and Braverman into
the brave new world of female boxing was a nice diversion for the pair,
different to organising Don King’s fights and bloody days mopping up after
their fighter Chuck Wepner. “We love that bum,” Flood said after Wepner lost to
Muhammad Ali in 1975. It was probably the truth.

In 1978 Davis and two other women were given a
licence to fight in New York State. It had been a struggle, many had been
refused before Davis initiated legal action against the Commission. Davis was
joined by Jackie Tonawanda and Marian Trimiar, they formed the original three.

Tonawanda, known as the Female Ali, and Trimiar,
known as “Lady Tyger” and “Kojak” – she copied the TV cop and shaved her head.
The shaved head was a decent gimmick, caught Algieri’s eye and prompted him to
put the ad in the paper after seeing her fight. Tonawanda and Trimiar had been
refused licences in New York, they resented Davis and on the day the licences
came through, Trimiar and Davis had to be separated by officials and media. No
sisterly love lost there.

In 1978 Davis appeared on the front cover of The
Ring
, the first woman on magazine’s cover; the only one until Ronda
Rousey’s bizarre appearance in 2016. Davis was big, trust me.

Also, in 1978 Davis went to Atlanta for a fight
against either Ernestine Jones or Connie Smith; she either won or lost. Take your
pick. It was a wonderful time to do whatever you wanted in American boxing,
where commissions were formed, folded and operated at the flimsy whim of any
travelling salesman with a ring, a few fighters and a knack for publicity. This
is the fertile land of Bruce Strauss. 
Incidentally, Smith and Jones were the same woman, a lightweight from
Chicago with a fair bit of attitude.

Now, if Davis had won there was a world title
fight in Monaco, deals with American television and six-figure paydays. It was
exactly what Algieri had predicted, hoped for and planned for. Sadly,
Smith/Jones never got the memo. Even Lou Duva was involved with the Atlanta
fight.

It finished in the third, maybe the fourth. Davis
was knocked down in rounds one, two and three. She was badly hurt. According to
Smith/Jones the fight was a farce: “The ref was counting – ‘One… get up…. two …
get up … three … come on now, get up’. 
And he took even longer in the second round.” However, Algieri
complained that Smith/Jones had used “illegal tactics”, had repeatedly stepped
on Davis’s feet. The end, which was probably a knockout, was changed to a No
Decision. That, my friend, is my kind of commission.

 A few
weeks later she was on the cover, her record: 10 comic knockout wins – all
against women who had never won a single fight – and the Atlanta scandal.

A year later, her career back on track and
Atlanta a distant memory, Davis stopped a truly hapless German woman called
Ursula Doering. Poor Ursula suffered before the first bell. She spent the night
sleeping rough at Kennedy airport when she landed, then she had a tooth removed
in an emergency procedure at 3am and was then refused a licence because she looked
too old. The fight was bad and Pep, who was the referee, called it off in the
sixth round. It was Doering’s debut – what a business. Davis would fight just
once more, a win in 1981. And then she vanished. Flood and Braverman went about
their boxing business, their job done.

Jones/Smith was stopped by Kojak and Cora Weber beat Kojak and she fought Belinda Laracuente, who beat Christy Martin one night in Las Vegas and never got the decision; Laracuente lost to Anne Sophie Mathis, who beat Jane Couch, and Mathis lost to Cecilia Breakhus in 2012; Breakhus beat Victoria Bustos and Bustos lost to Katie Taylor. Not quite Two Ton to Hatton, but not bad.

In February little Terri Harper, now training in a field in Yorkshire, beat Eva Wahlstrom to win the WBC title and Wahlstrom had lost to Taylor in 2018. I make that eight women between Cathy Davis and Terri Harper. Braverman and Flood would love that logic.

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