Monday, June 06, 2005

Girl Fight

The older i get, the less of humanity i understand. Recently i've found that many people are of the opinion that women should not participate in or even be exposed to violent sports, even though they don't necessarily oppose fighting sports for men. I can understand that a man might not want his wife to fight, or a mother might not want her daughter to fight, out of concern for her well being. But i'm perplexed as to why the same person would therefore decide that it is inappropriate for women in general to fight. To be fair, some of the people who oppose women's boxing oppose boxing in general (though without exception more vociferously for women because apparently the brutality of boxing is magnified when practiced among women).

My wife boxes, which is to say that she does the training that a boxer would, she spars, and occasionally she fights in the ring (obviously, as an amateur, which means that she wears head protection). When discussing this with male friends or colleagues she often hears comments like "I would never let my wife box". A cursory search of the web will show you far more idiotic pronouncements, such as the idea that women get into boxing only because they have been culturally conditioned by feminists to believe that they need to match men in all endeavors, or even that the desire of a woman to participate in fighting is somehow pathological. Another common complaint about women's fights is that they are inelegant; that the women display less skill than their male counterparts so that the only interest to the audience can be that of a bloody spectacle (which is true in some cases, e.g., Tonya Harding). But fights are frequently pretty damned ugly, whether between men or women. Like auto racing, there are always going to be fans who are there to see skill and fans who are there to see wrecks.

I train with numerous women in the martial arts, and i understand their motivation to be the same as mine: self defense, physical conditioning, the desire to participate in something with an interesting history and culture, the beauty of the art aspect of martial arts. They, like my wife, don't seem less feminine, or determined to challenge my masculinity. The desire to learn how to fight is, i think, an entirely human urge; even if it's shared by only a small percentage of the population. In a sense, fighting is the original extreme sport: it's about athleticism, discipline, grace and beauty, but it's also about adrenaline and risk. Fighters are the best all-around athletes in the world.

In some ways fighting, particularly boxing, seems like an ideal sport for women. In most sports, women are compared unfavorably with men because of perceived differences in strength, size, or speed. But sport fighting has long been designed to match opponents with similar physical stature, so in principle the reasonable comparison would be between women in the same weight class just as male boxers are compared middleweight to middleweight or bantamweight to bantamweight. But even though women's boxing has gained popularity in recent years, media reports on the subject are frequently about the most negative aspects.

For example, CNN Headline News recently ran a report on Katie Dallam, a female boxer who suffered severe head injuries in her first professional bout. The tone of the CNN report was that of a cautionary tale, as if Dallam's injuries were the predictable outcome of a woman fighting. Some, including apparently Dallam herself, believe that her story might have been the inspiration for the equally bleak movie Million Dollar Baby. Except that there's one major difference. The character in Million Dollar Baby was a good boxer, who was injured by a cheap shot that lead to a freak accident. Katie Dallam was not a good boxer. The video of her match against Sumya Anani shows that she was not ready for the fight, and that it should have been stopped in the first round. That the fight went on as long as it did required insanely bad judgment on the part of several people at ringside. Dallam's story is tragic, but it's not evidence that boxing leads inevitably and immediately to brain damage, any more than having a car accident while not wearing a seatbelt proves that driving is inevitably fatal.

Significant coverage was given also to the story of Becky Zerlentes, a college professor who is believed to be the first woman ever to die in a boxing match. Supposedly, she died of blunt force trauma from a jab thrown by her opponent. An autopsy revealed no aneurysm or other conditions that might have caused the bleeding in her brain. There's really nothing that can be said to minimize the tragedy. Had this been a case of a man dying in the ring, a subset of sportswriters would have used it as an opportunity to call for an end to all violent sports, but most would have taken the approach: "He knew the risks, it's a dangerous sport, but he died doing what he loved, yada yada". But because it was a woman, many writers opined that it is a shame, in general, that women are being drawn into boxing despite the thousands of fights that conclude with no injury. I think Becky Zerlentes would have hated that.

There's a more general trend toward protecting women from violence that also mystifies me. Duncan Hunter (who is the congressman from my district) recently introduced a bill to congress that would have eliminated numerous jobs in the military for women, motivated by the fact that it's hard to differentiate between combat and non-combat situations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm not clear why women are excluded from combat situations in the first place, but to attempt to remove them completely from harm's way seems contrary to the spirit that caused them to join the military. On the other hand, the most recent cause celebre of the Fox News crowd is how youth sports have become wimpified by liberals who are too worried about the participants' self esteem. I assume though, that they're only worried about the wimpification of boys sports (what's worse is that the people complaining about said wimpification look like the sort of folks who regard getting off the couch to find the remote a form of exercise). Personally, i believe these are all symptoms of the same disease. The people who want women to be more like June Cleaver and little boys to be more like Huckeberry Finn are quite simply people who are afraid of the potential of women.

I doubt that boxing will ever become a popular sport among women, if only because it's not that popular among the general population. Despite the recent spate of boxing movies, The Contender on TV, and a surprising number of good high profile prize fights; boxing is not going to challenge golf or tennis in terms of participation. Even if you eliminate the hitting part, training to fight is hard work. I believe that women's professional boxing will thrive, though for the foreseeable future its popularity will be driven by talented fighters who also happen to be attractive women, such as Laila Ali or Elena "Baby Doll" Reid (who, incidentally, is one of my wife's cousins).

Do i get concerned when my wife fights? Yup. I also get concerned when she drives on the California freeway or flies in a commercial jet (But i also admit that i'm comforted by the fact that unless you're in reasonably good condition, she could probably beat the crap out of you). Fighting is something that you choose to do, it doesn't have anything to do with self defense. It's a conscious decision to assume the risk of being hurt and to assume the responsibility of hurting somebody else. You might think it's stupid or insane, you might think it's immoral, you might not want to watch it, you almost certainly can't comprehend the desire to do it. None of that translates into a right to disallow the choice.


sjakkmatt said...

I want to see my girlfriend fight some day. she is strong and can kick some ass I think.

Unsane said...

Very nicely written!

Nifer said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I look forward to reading more.