Little Ms. Dangerous

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


Canino was born in Miami-Dade, at Baptist Hospital, to a Puerto Rican father and a "gringa" mother, as she puts it. Growing up, Canino split her time between Rio Piedras and Broward County. Her paternal grandfather had done some boxing, and she remembers watching fights on TV from an early age and being infatuated with the sport. Since she was a girl, though, her grandfather discouraged her interest. The black eye at age four came from her determined attempts to carry on bouts with her brother.

"I always loved boxing, especially in the early '70s, when Ali was fighting," Canino recalls. "I couldn't believe all those people were cheering for him and he had the courage to go out there. I couldn't believe so many people could love one man.

"As a little girl of about 12, I beat up a guy who later became Golden Gloves champion," she goes on. "Three years later, I ran into him in high school. I challenged him, and he ended up taking me to school. So after that episode, I went to karate classes at the YMCA. They didn't take girls very seriously."

In ninth grade, she discovered basketball; her Coral Springs Senior High team won the state championship in 1979, her senior year. "Sports were really good, because they made me finish high school," Canino offers. But women's sports in that era were sideshows, on both collegiate and professional levels, so upon graduation, Canino entered a traditionally female job market, becoming a licensed hairdresser. "Around 1981," she recalls, "I finally heard about kickboxing. I learned with Bert Rodriguez -- he had a gym in Miami. He didn't accept women fighters, but I changed his mind."

"I really didn't take the public then," Rodriguez confirms. "I trained kickboxers and ultimate fighters, and I didn't like women in the ring because they disrupted things. But when Bonnie got in there, she was really tough, and I thought, Well I'll give it a shot. She's not just tough; she's committed to workouts, to suffering to get titles. I've had nine world champions, men, but Bonnie's the most dedicated. If you want to be able to kick somebody's butt in a world title fight, first you gotta kick your own butt. She proved it wasn't about size; it's about skill. I trained her through four world titles in kickboxing and boxing. We fought around the world -- in France and Holland, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, HBO, ESPN. She started training some girls because a lot of girls admired her for what she'd done." Even her grandfather softened up after a while. "I think before my grandfather died, he changed his ways," she muses. "I think he loved me for the desire I had, and also he saw a lot of him in me."

Canino started out as a professional kickboxer in 1987 (she competed as an amateur for three years before) because she had more opportunities to compete than she would have had as a boxer; she won two world championships before dropping everything to begin her professional boxing career in 1995. That was the year, Canino says, that Las Vegas first sanctioned women's boxing, and WIBF's Buttrick spent her life's savings to bring in top women kickboxers from all over the world for a gala, all-woman card at the Aladdin Hotel. All the winners automatically became WIBF world champs. Canino thus won her first world title -- the WIBF featherweight belt -- in her first pro fight.

She wasn't the only woman switching sports. In the mid-1990s, it was suddenly chic for women to take up boxing, whether for aerobics or to earn some pretty good money. This newfound popularity was fueled largely by the press's discovery of Christy Martin, a hardworking but not brilliant fighter hyped by Don King. Women's boxing advocates saw the rise of Martin and a few other competent fighters as the dawn of an exciting moneymaking era for their sport and a confirmation of legitimacy. But public acceptance, almost nonexistent to begin with, would build slowly; women boxers would continue to be seen (and marketed) as voyeur material, in the same class as exotic dancers or mud wrestlers. Indeed, for every trained athlete such as Canino entering the ring, matchmakers signed up two or three nice-looking girls with zero boxing experience, often straight out of a strip club or bar, but with the ability to provide either a dead body to pad another fighter's record or a soft-porn thrill for fans who dig seeing women in a clinch. Such losers are often referred to as "Kemp girls" after Mezaughn Kemp of Atlanta, an ex-boxer and ex-con who trains and manages a stable of ex-strippers and ex-prostitutes.

"When we first started," remembers Bert Rodriguez, "this whole women's-boxing thing was just brand new. You couldn't get anybody to fight [Canino]. It's not like now, where you have the luxury of picking your fights, setting up a couple of easy ones to get your confidence up. We had to take challenges from all over, no matter who it was." Canino defended her WIBF featherweight championship four times before "losing it" to Gogarty in 1997. The next year, contending for the vacant WIBF super-featherweight crown on her home turf, at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium, Canino was upset by an unsung newcomer, Chevelle Hallback. Two cuts from accidental head butts forced Canino to quit after the sixth round with Hallback leading. Hallback has since become one of the best in the business.

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