You’ve come a long way, baby

Female boxers in Japan slug it out for legitimacy

by Mayumi Saito

Their faces may be swollen and their noses might get bloodied, but Japanese female boxers have no intention of stepping out of the ring.

A year after the formation of the Japan Women’s Boxing Association, the sport has grown rapidly in popularity. An increasing number of serious fighters have emerged, and at least 300 boxing gyms nationwide are reported to be training female boxers.

The most recent women’s bouts, held March 23 in Tokyo, proved that the sport is markedly professional and international. Some 400 spectators, including the media, packed Kitazawa Town Hall and roared with enthusiasm as they witnessed not only Japan’s mini-flyweight champion defending her title, but also unprecedented bouts with Russian fighters.

Last year’s champion Natsumi Nakazawa, 22, defeated Yumi Takano, 27, to hold her title. “We need to upgrade our level to reach the world standard,” Nakazawa said in a post-bout interview, and urged fans’ support.

Women like Nakazawa had no opportunities to box officially until Toshihiro Yamaki and Marie Speed formed the Japan Women’s Boxing Association last year. The Japan Boxing Commission, the nation’s official pro-boxing organization, refused to recognize the JWBA, however, citing safety concerns and lack of experience. In response, Yamaki and Speed established special rules for women’s boxing, such as four two-minute rounds per match (instead of the usual three-minute rounds) as well as requiring 250-gram gloves and special chest protection.

The first women’s championship tournament, which ran May 31-Oct. 5, was organized independently by JWBA and featured the largest mini-flyweight (47.61 kg and below) class. The Japan Boxing Commission, however, has continued to trivialize the JWBA and the kickboxing background of many of its boxers.

“Professional boxing is a serious business,” said JBC spokesman Tsuyoshi Yasukochi, stressing that promoting boxers without amateur backgrounds to a professional status threatens the entire boxing tradition by admitting under-qualified participants.

JBC’s stance, however, may already be out of date internationally. Women’s boxing in the U.S. is very much an accepted sporting event. Last year, much media coverage was given to the debuts of the daughters of boxing legends: Muhammad Ali (Laila), Joe Frazier (Jacqui Frazier-Lyde) and George Foreman (Freeda). This coincided with an unprecedented male/female bout between Margaret McGregor and Roy Chow (in which McGregor emerged victorious), triggering a media frenzy.

Whether or not Japanese women boxers can ever gain as much support as their American counterparts, the Russians could attest to the Japanese women’s technical competence.

“They are good boxers,” said Alexander Melnikov, vice president of the Russian Boxing Federation, after watching the two matches March 23. Lila Habibrina, the all-Russian mini-flyweight champion and silver medalist, lost to Japan’s Marvelous Morimoto. The all-Russian and all-European bantamweight champion Elena Karpachova lost to Naoko Kumagaya.

Unlike boxing, women’s kickboxing has found acceptance in Russia as well as Japan over the past 10 years. But just as many Japanese kickboxers have found their true calling in boxing, Habibrina and Karpachova both switched to boxing two years ago and are now determined to succeed.

Female boxing is equally young in Russia. The Amateur International Boxing Association started to accept Russian women in 1997, according to Melnikov. All women boxers in Russia belong to the amateur organization. For the 300 women boxers in Russia, their first national championship took place with 55 participants last year.

The first international bouts between the Japanese and the Russian women came about after Melnikov pitched the idea to former flyweight world champion Yuri Arbachakov, who had just retired in Japan last year, at the World Boxing Council’s annual convention in Moscow. Arbachakov then contacted JWBA’s Yamaki.

Melnikov explained that prevailing sexism and meager funding have hindered the development of women’s boxing in his country. The Russian Boxing Federation still refuses to accept women. Nevertheless, he believes the sport will have a future as more women show interest.

“We’d like to have joint training with the Japanese and come back for a rematch someday,” he said, noting the potential for competing at the Olympics.

“[The JWBA's development] is going well, much better than I first thought,” said Yamaki, noting that the March 23 bouts had attracted more people than last year.

Speed admitted that although she was somewhat nervous before Japan’s first meet with international competitors, she is eager to travel to Europe, Mongolia and the U.S. in hopes of promoting more matches this year.

What has been the biggest change for Japanese women boxers in the past year?

“We have more boxers now, as the general interest in the sport grows,” Speed said. “Aspiring female boxers often call us and ask how to start fighting and get a license.”

Deeming that the time is right for Japanese women boxers to go professional, the JWBA plans to conduct a licensing test (involving a written exam on the rules and a sparring test) for the qualifiers by May 8. The next bouts are slated to be held the same day at Kitazawa Town Hall.