Little Ms. Dangerous

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

Sanctioning bodies for women's boxing have existed at least since the 1970s. Sue Fox, who retired in 1979, won at least two world titles in bouts sanctioned by now-dead associations. Today, there are five main organizations: the Women's International Boxing Association (WIBA), Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF), International Female Boxers Association (IFBA), International Boxing Association (IBA), and International Women's Boxing Federation (IWBF). All rate and endorse pro women fighters and events.

Women boxers have fought men in exhibition matches for about as long as the sport has existed. A 1999 four-rounder in Seattle received more attention than it deserved: Margaret McGregor easily decisioned fellow licensed pro Loi Chow at 130 pounds. Many baby boomers fondly remember the 1975 exhibition at Madison Square Garden in which Jackie Tonawanda ("The Female Ali") knocked out kickboxer Larry Rodania in the second round. Bonnie Canino has tested her fighting skills against men for decades. In 1992, she defeated boxer Jorge Chavez in an exhibition kickboxing match at the James L. Knight Center in Miami.

Ada "Ace" Velez, a spirited 30-year-old southpaw with spiky black hair, is currently Canino's only professional fighter. Velez turned pro last year after compiling a 7-0 amateur record and winning the 1999 national amateur title; she's currently 9-0 and holds the IBA 119-pound (bantamweight) and the WIBA 122-pound (junior featherweight) belts, and is the WIBF America's Champion. Like her mentor, Canino, Velez is Puerto Rican but has lived most of her life in South Florida.

Canino (right) set to receive a Velez hook
Steve Satterwhite
Canino (right) set to receive a Velez hook
"Gimme five!" Canino (top) calls for crunches; exchanging leather (center); and Norberto Rodriguez at U.S. 1 Fitness
Steve Satterwhite
"Gimme five!" Canino (top) calls for crunches; exchanging leather (center); and Norberto Rodriguez at U.S. 1 Fitness

Velez captured the WIBA title this past November 16 on an all-women's card in Austin, Texas. The promoter, businessman Brian Pardo, had just this past August incorporated his RPM Boxing Promotions for the sole purpose of promoting women's pugilism. Billed as "The Texas Shoot Out," the event drew a decent crowd despite tornadoes and heavy flooding that weekend. Five of the six bouts on the card were title fights featuring several of the top names in women's boxing -- Chevelle Hallback and Snodene Blakeney, Trina Ortegon and Valerie Mahfood, Sumya Anani and Fredia Gibbs. The purses awarded in the ten-round main event -- Pardo's fighter Ann Wolfe against Gina Nicholas for the vacant WIBA junior middleweight (155 pounds) crown -- illustrate the vast pay disparity between men and women when it comes to title fights: Wolfe, who knocked out Nicholas early in the third round, earned $4000, while her more experienced opponent received $6500. Contenders for a comparable men's world middleweight championship would usually earn at least $100,000 each, and of course the elite -- the Oscar de la Hoyas and Felix Trinidads -- earn millions. (In nontitle bouts, though, fortunes are reversed: Because they're a novelty, women will make around $200 per round starting out, compared with $50 per round for a man.)

Velez, fighting ten rounds that night in black lace trunks and top (and, since we're talking Texas, without the Puerto Rican flag she always unfurls in towns with Caribbean-friendly audiences), handed Mary Ortega of Missouri her first loss in 20 fights, in a unanimous decision. Velez also was featured in the Women Boxing Archive Network Website's "Hot Photo of the Week." Shot after the Austin bout, Velez is shining with sweat and raising her still-wrapped hands in victory, the oversized, ornate WIBA belt lopsided around her hips.

Back at the upstairs gym at U.S. 1 Fitness, Ada Velez skips and prances around the big bag, dance music blaring, then turns serious and smashes a right and a left into the hard leather, exhaling emphatically. Velez grins and grunts as she goes about her routine. Canino trains her fighters in a sunny room upstairs from the jungle of weight machines on the ground floor. On the north side of the room is a boxing ring; Canino's cluttered office is on the southeast side, along with a line of punching bags suspended from the ceiling. In the ring, Yvonne Reis, a promising amateur, is sparring with a man, a Dania Beach firefighter who boxes for conditioning. Reis did so well in a recent national amateur tournament that she was invited to a pre-Olympics training camp in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the last two weeks of November. Canino was one of the trainers. (It wasn't until 1997 that USA Boxing, the nation's major amateur federation, began sanctioning girls' and women's matches.) Reis is bobbing and weaving but still catching flurries of jabs in the face. She nevertheless opens a cut on the firefighter's mouth. The buzzer sounds the end of the fifth round.

Reis and the fire guy jump out of the ring, and another of Canino's amateurs, Kara Lucas, climbs in. She crouches, ducking back and forth under a rope strung diagonally over the ring, throwing shadow-punches (this does two things: teaches balance and creates a dangerous moving target). On the floor, Canino, holding a heavy rectangular cushion in front of her body, comes at Velez, while the fighter, moving backward, throws hard combinations to the solar plexus. When Velez dances out of Canino's way, Canino forces her way back in, pushing and crowding. Several times, she maneuvers Velez into a corner, and Velez punches her way out with varying degrees of speed and grace. "Here, look," urges Canino at one point, as she reverses position with Velez so she's trapped. "You can go around..." and Canino, cushion at her midsection, pivots instantly to her left and then even more quickly right, and in a flash, she's out of reach.

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