Little Ms. Dangerous

Steve Satterwhite

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

By the time Canino retired in January 2000, she was already training Ada Velez and other amateurs. "I retired," Canino explains, "because how many more miles do I have to run, how much more do I have to spar and take abuse? I'm tired. I still train, though." She leans back in her chair behind a desk that looks shoved into her little office at the corner of the upstairs gym at U.S. 1 Fitness. Outside the glass door, her students are punching bags and shadowboxing. Canino sighs, then sits up straight, as though she's about to stand, walk out of the office, and bound into the ring. "I could probably go ten rounds."

The only problem is, the way things have been lately, she might have to wait a long time before finding someone, anyone, to fight. Those familiar with women's boxing are acutely aware that the girls with the highest profiles -- the most TV exposure and highest earnings -- are almost never the best. They tend to be charismatic sex symbols like Mia St. John and Regina Halmich; the ones like Christy Martin who've made the most of good promotional contracts; or famous names: Leila Ali, Jacqui Frazier, Freeda Foreman. (The female Ali-Frazier match this past June, which the much younger Ali won, was a big success; and for months now, Foreman has been a constant presence on Fox Sports.) None of these stars is a bad fighter, and some are quite good, but there are probably a few dozen lesser-knowns who could whip their butts, given the chance. It's just that the really talented women are rarely given a break. Why would any self-respecting promoter or TV producer want to jeopardize his cash cows?  

It's definitely a Catch-22 for any potential contender: If she doesn't develop her skills against top fighters, she won't be good enough to win the big titles and earn the (relatively) big money. And only a small number are able to get the competition they need. Plenty of good fighters sit for months while lesser ones get work. The work comes because they have good connections. Ada Velez is a prime example of a boxer not fighting enough, Canino asserts, because Velez hasn't been lucky enough to sign with a promoter. "Laura Serrano [a veteran and among the top fighters today] sat for five years," Canino adds, "while Don King only pushed Christy Martin." Serrano has made up for some of that lost time, having recorded five victories during the past two years and one controversial draw. That was against Miami's Melissa Salamone, another highly regarded boxer who has recently defeated several unskilled opponents. In comparison to Serrano's 14 professional fights in seven years, Martin has fought 48 times in eight years (44 wins) and continues her busy schedule.

When a program like "The Texas Shoot Out" comes along, a lot of people get hopeful about women's boxing. The last all-woman card of this caliber was in February 2000. Some are even predicting a "comeback" for the sport after months of lethargy. "The years 1998 and '99 were really good for all women boxers," Canino believes. "But in 2000, it dropped off. Then -- ding, ding, ding! -- this card in Texas, you got top girls." Canino claps her hands zestfully, but she isn't smiling. Her mouth is set with determination. "This is the first hopeful sign in two years. There's a lot of girls [fighting] but not a lot of productions allowing 'em to fight."

Some observers say the major TV sports networks are showing fewer women's fights than in the salad days of the 1990s. Others dispute the assertion of lower quantity, but almost everyone agrees the real problem is the quality of the fights, which often confirm the already-negative image of the women's sport held by many experts. One of those experts is Enrique Encinosa of Miami, who has worked as a boxer, trainer, manager, matchmaker, and boxing historian and who currently contributes articles to boxing publications. "Female boxing is basically bullshit," Encinosa opines, echoing comments made by many observers and participants in the men's boxing industry. "I have nothing against female boxing per se, but the whole thing is, most of them fight like girls. If you're a woman and have beaten three crack whores, you can get big money on TV, so you have inept female fighters getting TV time and decent size paychecks instead of real male fighters who can't get a break."

Sue Fox responds that that criticism makes sense if the critic hasn't seen an outstanding women's match, which he likely hasn't if he's watching TV. "Women are still segregated in the back of the bus on these televised shows," Fox asserts. "They're doing better now, but it's usually only if there's an early knockout on another bout [that] they'll put the women on. Nothing's more discouraging than to go to a match and see all the cameras turn off and then see the women come out."

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for ESPN in New York, concedes that the women's fights on mostly male cards aren't always high-priority, but that's because they're not always the best matches. "A year or so ago, we did one full women's card," Quinn says. "On other cards, if the main events go ten or twelve rounds, we may not get another fight in [the program]. The women's sport is so new; as it becomes more popular, it will get better and there will be more fights. That's what the feeling is."

One hopeful sign women's boxing insiders point to is new blood: Liza Mueller, Jamie Clampit, Veronica Simmons, Leaticia Robinson, to name a few. "There is a large influx of fighters who are now coming into the sport with extensive amateur backgrounds," says Fox, "and the sport's changing because of that. Those women are coming into the pro ranks with their skills honed, and they're beating some of the more established fighters."

Fox publishes on one of her Websites the fight results for every professional women's match that takes place in North America and Europe. In 1999, she recalls, two or three months' worth of bouts fit on one page. Now, she can't fit a month on a single page. "I think women's boxing is getting more in demand," Fox concludes. "It's gaining momentum at a nice pace and slowly growing into a better sport."  

Bonnie Canino, taking a break from classes at U.S. 1 Fitness, reaches over to her computer keyboard and tapes up on the monitor some grainy, 60-year-old, black-and-white photographs. A lone woman is standing at the edge of a stage or scaffold, stretching out an arm to a sea of people gazing up at her with those stiff, old-timey expressions. "Look at Barbara Buttrick in the '40s," Canino says, a hint of awe in her voice. "She went around with the circus and stood out on a platform and challenged any woman in the audience to box. That's how they used to do it. Now, I think women's boxing is on a roll. My dreams were to box in the ring and to be like Ali, but that dream never came true. I did win world titles, but it didn't come with fame and all that. Too bad I was born a little too early."

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