Little Ms. Dangerous

Bonnie Canino sure can throw a punch, but can she bring fame to women's boxing?

Canino, whom Rodriguez describes as "the toughest person I've ever trained, male or female," and "a real entrepreneur," has for years taught martial arts and aerobics classes at U.S. 1 Fitness. The entrepreneurial skills come into play in her ownership of two motels and an apartment building in Broward. During the 1980s and '90s, when Canino was concentrating on her own professional competitions, she occasionally trained other female kickboxers and boxers, mainly amateurs. She's currently president of USA Kickboxing Federation, a national amateur sanctioning organization.

But like some cauliflower-eared ex-champ of the 1960s who will never shake the addiction to the thrill and terror of dancing with death before millions, Canino's overriding love these days is getting her fix through her regular fighters, developing them into contenders. "When I retired," Canino says, "I had to keep that joy of boxing, couldn't let it go. I want to live my dream through my boxers. Boxing or kickboxing was why I was able to express myself, maybe because we couldn't do it on a mental or verbal level, so we had to do it physically."

If Canino proves consistently successful as a trainer, she will surely break more ground in women's boxing. That would be fine with her, but she has also learned the limits of her sport, which lacks the money, recognition, and overall quality of the men's version (not to say men's boxing is in any kind of golden age). Canino long ago realized that a golden age in women's boxing is many years down the line. Yet she's incurable when it comes to dreaming of glorious triumphs. So why shouldn't she continue with her passion after hanging up the gloves?

"As a trainer, I know how it feels to be in the ring," Canino begins emphatically. "I know the emotion, I know [what it's like] to be sitting in the corner with a cut and your trainer's pressing against [it with frozen steel] so you can go back in... I know what it's like when you want to give up. In the beginning, it takes cojones for anybody, even a guy, to step in the ring, but because it's your job and it's what you want, you overcome the fear."

She speaks in a low voice with a slightly slangy, East Coast accent and doesn't get worked up, but behind the talk, her passion for the game, the whole ritual of combat, is palpable. "You just had a tough round," Canino continues, "so when you come back to the corner, you want to be pampered; you don't want three or four voices talking at you: You wanna hear one. You want to hear the truth from your corner but also be positive when doing it. Let 'em sit in the corner and take a deep breath; give 'em 15 seconds before you jump down their throat. Let 'em relax a little, but then explain stuff."

Still, training remains one of those professions in which male-dominated really means virtually all-male. Sue Fox, a former pro fighter who now works as a Vancouver, British Columbia, police officer while operating several boxing Websites, says she knows of a few women on the West Coast who have gone into training, but she's hard-pressed to think of others. "The only one I really know is Canino," Fox says.

"Bonnie has the advantage of her own gym," observes Barbara Buttrick, president of the Miami Beach-based WIBF. "She does a good job at training. I think more women don't get into it because maybe they don't have the facilities or they're involved with their own careers. I mean, there haven't been a lot of old-timers retiring who want to get into training and have a gym where they can make a living."

Buttrick qualifies as a rare old-timer; under the nickname "Battling Barbara," she carried on a boxing career in the 1940s and '50s. Buttrick, a native of England, traveled across postwar Europe and the United States, often finding her opponents at "public boxing contests," usually held at circuses or fairs, where she'd take on women (and men) in the audiences. Buttrick wasn't the only woman who competed in obscure tournaments and earned a meager living from boxing during those decades, but she is probably the only one who's still working in the sport after more than a half-century.

"I never got into [training] personally," Buttrick goes on, "although I wouldn't mind trying to train a few girls, because I think there are certain things I would like to bring out that don't seem to get brought out so much anymore -- like, I think a lot of girls would do better if they developed their left hand a bit. But it's a matter of having the time and place."

Canino believes there's another reason for the dearth of women trainers: "Self-respect," she declares. "I think most girl boxers never think about training. They're not confident within themselves to think they could be a trainer."

Women's boxing, even less than the men's sport, has never been strictly regulated or structured. It remains a world apart, though within the past few decades, more women's bouts have been included on men's cards, and thus women have had to comply with licensing requirements set by the various state boxing commissions (a prefight pregnancy test is mandatory almost everywhere). Women fight two-minute rounds as opposed to men's three minutes but once in the ring are subject to the same rules and regulations as men (which vary slightly from state to state). Women's weight classes are comparable to men's; for example, Canino, at 126 pounds, was a featherweight, same as a male fighter would be.

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