Shields Vs Hammer: All Eyes On Women’s Boxing

Written by Gabrielle Burnett *** Photography by Terrell Groggins **

"It's our time to shine" says Christine Hammer, the current undefeated WBC, WBO Unified Middleweight champion. Women’s boxing has traversed a long road to get here and still has a long way yet to go. Christina Hammer, a 23-0,10 KOs, WBO, WBC and WBF champion, is one boxer who understands this long and difficult road well.

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Christina Hammer was born on August 16, 1990 in Novodolinka, Kazakhstan. She relocated to Sontra, Germany, with her parents, in 1991. Hammer showed an affinity, and more importantly a skill in boxing at an early age. Her uncles let her accompany them to boxing gyms when she was a child and it stuck, she became a member of an amateuer boxing club when she was thirteen years old. Her first fight was won by knockout 30 seconds into the match and she then went on to become a junior champion when she was sixteen.

Hammer’s professional debut, and subsequent undefeated streak, was against Melisa Koktar when she was eighteen. Hammer’s record only becomes more impressive. At 20 years old, Hammer won the WBO Middleweight Championship Belt, becoming the youngest all-time World Boxing Organization champion.

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A year later, she won the World Boxing Federation Middleweight championship title against, then champion Diana Kiss. Two years later, in 2013, Hammer went up in weight class to super middleweight becoming the first ever female boxer to be named double world champion in two weight classes. She defeated Zita Zatkyo to obtain this record.

In 2016, she won the WBC Middleweight Title when she defeated Kali Ries. She has since successfully defended both her WBO and WBC Middleweight Championship titles.

In short, her record is phenomenal. She holds multiple titles, in different weight classes from different organizations. So how did this world class athlete rise the top? You could say it was slog, long and hard fought. She has had to work her way through two weight divisions, without the benefit of prime time television, or the spotlight the Olympics brings. Though Hammer is a boxing star with a large following in Germany, she’s not as well known stateside. That’s all going to change very soon as women finally begin to gain the traction and coverage here, with Hammer set to make her debut in the United States in April. Women in boxing have traversed a long way to get to this point in time.

Christina Hammer speaks about the progression of woman's boxing and her potential fight with Claressa Shields

 

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But who are all of these organizations, and why do they matter? The World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Federation (WBF), World Boxing Council (WBC), and the International Boxing Federation (IBF) are the largest, independent governing bodies in boxing.

One of the biggest criticisms in boxing today is the amount of titles available. Has this added more competition in boxing or diluted the water? Each organization, though recognizing one another’s title belts, holds and ranks fighters “in house.” Regardless of whether a boxer is a man or woman, navigating this complex system of belts and titles is laborious, and political.

What may be more important, is the fact that unifying titles (one boxer holding championship titles across all of the organizations), is now the name of the game in boxing. It is the goal of most boxers, male and female, and where Hammer’s, potentially most important fight of the year, is headed. But before going forward, it’s important to look back at the long road women in boxing have traversed.

Boxing goes back much, much farther than the inception of these organizations. Boxing was invented in Africa in 3000 B.C.E, so it doesn’t take much to posit that women have most likely been boxing for thousands of years. However, the first recorded incidents of women’s boxing was in the 1700s.

The first known record of women boxing is from the 1700s. Georgian women were known to fight in “side-act,” carnival-type affairs. However, some of these women were actually considered quite skilled in the sport of prizefighting, making large sums of money, for it was the same then as now, many rise out of poverty this way. An advertisement taken out challenging one woman boxer to another, offered a purse of 10 shillings. The average yearly salary for women at that time was six shillings, so this payout was significant.

Elizabeth Wilkinson enjoyed a six-year career as boxer. For her final bout, she was paid ten pounds, a healthy sum in 1728

Photography Source "Vice"

One of the most well-known boxers of the 1700’s was Elizabeth Wilkins Stokes. What makes her so unique, is not the fact that she fought, as “cat fights” was a very well-known and an oft pursued spectator past-time for men and women of the time, she was well known because of her legitimate skill. Elizabeth was not only an undefeated prizefighter (bare knuckle boxer), but an undefeated MMA fighter, who fought both men and women. A mixed martial arts fighter had a different meaning in the 18th century than now, she was skilled and undefeated in both boxing and weaponry use.

A woman trains with gloves and bags in 1890.

Photography Source Underwood Archives/Getty Images

In fact, during the 1700 and 1800s, women were most likely to engage in no holds barred fighting. Though men boxed at that time, and their fights could be quite brutal, women were more likely to engage in fighting that had no rules. But interestingly enough, women of the time were the first to implement more humane ways to fight. Though James Figg is considered one of the fathers of boxing, since he was the first to start implementing some of the rules of boxing that have survived today, women would be the first to fight in such a manner that limited the brutality of the sport.

Women went from cat-fight, no holds barred fighting, to fighting with two coins in each of their hands. The first to drop a coin lost the fight. In this way, there was a built-in time limit (something that did not exist for men or women) and women’s hands were occupied so the normal scratching, clawing, pulling and grabbing couldn’t take place. Really, this rule allowed for pure fisticuff fighting, well before men instituted similar rules.

Women’s boxing took a turn for the worse in the 1800s, it was a favorite spectator sport in the 1700s, but 19th century sensibility frowned upon the practice, and records of women boxing in 1800s in abundance had most fallen into obscurity. The first “official” women’s boxing match in the United States took place in 1876.

Female boxer Annie Newton poses in a face-off with five men. Fox Photos/Getty Images

It wasn’t until the 20th century that women entered the world of boxing again (at least visibly to the press).

Like so many restrictions and taboos placed on women throughout history, boxing was no different. Beyond boxing not being “ladylike,” there were many, potentially false, medical claims regarding the ill effects of boxing on women’s health that was used to barr women from entering the sport. There are those who wish to ban boxing for both men and women, Great Britain currently being one such country, but the dangers that face women are given much more scrutiny and then restriction.


In the 1930s, the fear was that women would have trouble bearing and breastfeeding children. The 1970s had medical professionals claiming that hits to the chest would contribute to breast cancer.

Christy Martin (right) lands a blow on Deidre Gogarty

Photography Source Al Bello/Allsport/Getty Images

In 1995, the WBC’s medical board was concerned about “internal traumatic hemorrhages in the vagina,” while debating whether women should be allowed to compete. They didn’t sanction women’s fighting for another 9 years. Even now, there are conflicting medical studies regarding concussions in women’s boxing. Several studies have noted that women have a higher incidence of concussions than men, however, what is not clear is the reason. Is it because physiologically, men have stronger necks which protects them better from head trauma? Is there something in the brain of a women that makes them more susceptible to head trauma? Or do women just report these issues to doctors more than men, so the recorded frequency is therefore higher? Medical experts are unsure.

Regardless, because of these and other concerns, women’s fights are shorter than men, two minute rounds versus three minute rounds with a maximum of ten rounds versus twelve for men.

For many, this is no real big surprise, after all, the saying isn’t “This is a woman’s world,” is it? These inequalities go further than just restricting if and how long a woman can fight. Pay, press coverage and sponsorship are just a few of the things that separate womens and mens boxing.

Even with all of these obstacles, women love boxing. Women continued to box throughout the 20th century, making a big comeback in the 1970s. In fact, this era was one where women really pressed for equality in women’s boxing in court. Some big names of this era was Jackie “The Female Ali” Tonawanda and Marian “Lady Tyger” Trimiar. Not only did they have a decent press and fan following; they sued for the right to fight professionally. In fact, during this era, women sued for the fight to participate in boxing on all levels, not just as fighters, but as referees, judges, managers and trainers.

Laila Ali, daughter of professional boxer Muhammad Ali, dances over April Fowler as she lays on the canvas during a fight at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York on Oct. 8, 1999

Throughout the history of “modern” boxing, the world has always had a women boxing superstars. The late 90s and early 2000s were no different. One of the biggest female boxers of all time is Laila Ali. Laila was not only a talented boxer, but had the benefit of broadcast coverage for her fights and meaningful pay. Of course, many would argue these perks were more due to her famous name than anything else, though that assessment is hardly fair.

In today’s boxing world, there are a few women paving the way to bring women’s boxing on an international, highly publicized stage. One is an Olympic champion that has risen to the challenge of being the athlete that brings women boxing to the forefront and potentially changing the sport forever.

Claressa Shields raises her hand to the sky after her unanimous decision win over Hanna Gabriels

Claressa Shields was raised in Flint, Michigan by her grandmother who instilled a “don’t quit, no weakness” attitude in Shields. Her father, Clarence Shields, had a brief career in amatuer boxing and first piqued Claressa’s interest in the sport by regaling her of tales of Mohammed Ali and more importantly, his daughter, Laila. Claressa first took up boxing when she was eleven years old in the basement of Berston Field House and it quickly became apparent that she had talent. Her former coach, Jason Crutchfield took her under his wing and would become like a second father to Claressa, with her even living with him and his family during the summers.

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Flint’s a city who has known its share of struggles. Very similar to the financial decline Detroit experienced as the auto industry withdrew, the loss of auto factory jobs in Flint depressed the local economy, which trickled down to every subset population in the area. At one point in time, Flint was home to the largest Ford auto factory in the world. The closure of this plant in the 1980s was the start of the decline for this area. Flint continued to struggle financially and was taken over by a city money manager in 2011. The Flint water crisis of 2014 was another crisis brought to a city already plagued with blight and poverty.

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Shields in the corner after suffering her first knock down in her career vs Hanna Gabriels

This environment is tough, it’s tough to make a living, to survive and thrive. It’s the environment that Shields comes from. This isn’t unusual in this sport however. Historically, boxing is often the sport for the impoverished. At any given time throughout history, you can look at the boxers of that era to illuminate the depressed population, a worldwide pattern, not just an American phenomenon. When you come from an impoverished environment, when the institutions around you don’t seem to care, and when you’re left to fend for yourself, boxing, a lone person’s sport, let’s you put it all on the line.

Claressa Shields speaks about growing up in Flint, and being an athlete of color

This environment helped create Claressa Shields. She’s tough. She had a near meteoric rise in the amateurs. Her amateur record stands at 77-1. Even more other-wordly is her Olympic record. Being an Olympic champion in any condition and sport is an accomplishment. However, Shields record is beyond phenomenal, she’s the only boxer, male or female, to win back to back gold medals at the Olympics in boxing.

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In 2016, Claressa decided to leave the amateur world of boxing to showcase her talent in the professional world. And debut she did. She faced hard-hitting Franchon Cruz Dezurn in November 2016 winning by unanimous decision. She has continued her with her undefeated record, 5-0, 2 TKOs, with unprecedented speed. All of her profesional wins have either been by unanimous decision or TKO. She is currently the WBC and IBF Super Middleweight Champion. In other words, she’s a supreme athlete.

Claressa is facing a multitude of unique obstacles. It’s well documented the discrepancy in pay for women, blacks and black women outside the world of sports. It is well know that women make 77 cents to the male dollar, black women can expect to make 63 cents to that dollar. However, this disparity is even more extreme in the sporting world. There are more published discrepancies in other professional sports to count. In basketball for instance, the highest paid WNBA female athlete earns approximately one fifth of what the lowest paid NBA player makes. Women’s soccer Team USA had to sue FIFA for equal pay. Though their viewership generates 20 million more than men and their professional record is better, they receive a fifth of the pay of their male counterparts.

It’s difficult to determine average salary in boxing since income is determined by individual purse amounts, which vary from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of millions. However, for women, one can expect their purse is a fraction of that. Most professional women’s boxers can expect a purse of $200-$400 when they are first starting their career. Women, like men, early in their career often must rely on promoting and selling their own tickets to help pad their payout.The differences between the two genders is stark as each works their way up to title fights and then become champions.

Claressa Shields speaking about the state of women’s boxing

When men either become champions or get their shot at taking someone’s title, the purses quickly outpace women. Once male boxers get a shot at televised bouts, which women rarely do, the income disparity becomes astronomical. But that’s just it, it’s what lies at the heart of the issue, it’s a lack of coverage. Without it, pay is diminished as well as sponsorship, which is every athlete'sa bread and butter.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Many sports are working diligently to close the wage gap. One thing that will accelerate the closing gap in pay is viewership. If more people are willing to purchase live tickets to see women box and tune in to cable and pay-per-view to view women’s bouts, the wage gap will decrease. Undefeated super featherweight WBC Silver Belt holder, Alycia Baumbgardner believes that putting a woman’s fight on every card may be the key to closing the inequality gap in boxing and garnering more public interest.

Claressa Shields has already broken down this barrier. The twenty-two year old is the first woman to headline a fight card on premium television. She has now headlined four premium televised fights on Showtime’s ShoBox and her momentum is continuing. It also takes promoters willing to take this risk. Shields is currently on the roster of Salita Promotions (as is Christina Hammer) who has taken a firm stance on increasing, supporting and pushing women’s boxing. This promotion company believes that women are talented boxers and given the right platform, can garner a large fan following in the United States and abroad.

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They’re not far off. One thing to note is that viewership and spectator interest in women’s boxing is much higher outside the United States. Mexico, Latin America, and many European countries have proven that spectators enjoy watching talented women boxers. Undisputed world boxing champion Cecilia Braekhus has a very large following and has sold-out arenas. This type of following can absolutely transfer the United States, given the chance.

But what garners that type of excitement and attention in women’s boxing? An all-star, athletic match-up, that’s what. The boxing world is waiting for, what seems like an inevitable match-up between Christina Hammer and Claressa Shields.

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