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Bonnie Canino, the Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF) featherweight (126-pound) champion out of South Florida, flew to New Orleans in March 1997 to defend her title against a young Irish puncher named Dierdre Gogarty. This was at the beginning of a huge crest of popular interest in women's pro boxing, and the 36-year-old Canino, who had competed in kickboxing and boxing for more than a decade by then, figured it was about time for her to start reaping the recognition and earnings due a world champion.
But that bout in New Orleans would mark what Canino now considers the low point in her career. She knew she was in trouble even before the first bell, when the event promoter's wife, waving an Irish flag, accompanied Gogarty to the ring. Gogarty, whose boxing career began in 1991, remained formidable and had been defeated only once at the time, a year earlier, by the famous Don King protégé Christy Martin.
Still, as Canino and her corner saw it, the ten-round bout went well; she was sure she dominated the first half and stood her ground the last five rounds. Besides, it was the challenger's responsibility to take the title away from the champion forcibly. So Canino was outraged when the judges scored the match unanimously against her.
Then later that night, in case she might have harbored some hope that women's boxing could be less sleazy or political than men's, Canino learned from the promoter, Robert Walshak, that she would not receive the $9000 paycheck that she had been guaranteed by contract. It seemed the Louisiana Boxing Commission had not required Walshak to put up a pre-event bond (most state athletic commissions mandate a bond of at least $50,000, depending upon purse size.) Canino believes that the other two women fighters on the card were also shorted but that Gogarty got paid. "The promoter claimed he didn't make any money," Canino recounts, "and I didn't get a red cent."
A few days after the fight, Gogarty signed a promotional contract with Don King -- a major coup, because the vast majority of women fighters can't get backing. It virtually guaranteed more title fights and better paydays for Gogarty, as long as she continued "winning."
It should be noted that at least some knowledgeable viewers of the bout either gave Gogarty a slight edge or called it a draw. But Canino isn't interested anymore in who won, because she considers the experience part of her initiation into the professional "boxing club" -- the world that had been closed to her for most of her life. "I wanted to be in this atmosphere," Canino said a few years later, right before she hung up her gloves and started her career as a boxing trainer. "I wanted to eat it, I wanted to breathe it, and I got there."
Canino's ring nickname was "The Cobra," an apt description of her swift, swarming style. And after that New Orleans debacle, the Cobra struck back at the promoter (no longer active), the WIBF, and those industry operatives whom she held responsible for the loss of her title and purse. (She eventually got a court judgment against Walshak but has never collected.) By now, Canino doesn't even care if she sees the money; the venom's out of her system. Five months after her loss in New Orleans, she clinched a unanimous decision over the well-regarded Beverly Szymanski to earn the International Female Boxers Association (IFBA) featherweight belt. Now, she says, "I've gotta live with these people every day. I learned a lot off it."
One thing she learned was how to do a better rope-a-dope around the treacherous ring of boxing politics. She retired as a fighter last year, and now she must call on double skills -- political as well as physical -- in her capacity as one of the few women in the world working as a boxing trainer. She's the only one in South Florida as far as anyone knows (the venerable Cuban boxer, wrestler, and trainer Silvia Torres, now pushing 90, continues to work corners but no longer trains).
Canino was a pioneer back in 1987, when she became a professional kickboxer, but even more so in 1995, the year she turned pro. She is among a vanguard of athletes, television executives, and sportswriters who, during the 1990s, advanced the status of women's boxing from joke to largely legitimate -- an attraction that, as in many women's sports these days, is gradually developing higher levels of competition and compensation.
Canino estimates she has received at least a hundred black eyes in her life, the first coming at the hands of her older brother when she was four years old. Today, the fine scars around her deep-set brown eyes aren't readily noticeable, and her nose shows only slight evidence of breakage. The tousled blond hair of her fighting days is now a platinum crewcut. ("I kept it long 'cause I didn't want to hear people saying, "Oh, she thinks she's a man,'" jokes Canino, a former hairdresser, "but now that I'm retired, I don't care.")
Since 1988, Canino has been co-owner of U.S. 1 Fitness in Dania Beach, along with Norberto "Bert" Rodriguez, the man who introduced her to martial arts in 1981 and who trained her throughout her career. (U.S. 1 received its 15 minutes of fame recently when the FBI discovered that Rodriguez had, earlier this year, unwittingly taken on Ziad Samir Jarrah, one of the September 11 hijackers, as a student in close-quarter combat.)