Women's Boxing: Increasing Popularity and Assessing Risk

In 2009, women finally joined men in Olympic boxing. It has been a long time coming. Although women have been documented as boxing for over 100 years, professional bodies have only recognized women’s boxing in the last fifteen years. Fights before that time were outside the fence of regulation. But are things really that different now?

Boxing as sport has been around since time began, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. However, boxing for fitness has really taken off in the past ten to fifteen years. Its integration into gyms and the modification for cardio classes has made it accessible to more people than ever before.

I discovered boxing through a gym coupon. I was 200 lbs in my early 20s, at university, and living with an abusive landlord. My self-esteem was low and at that point in my life I was just trying to make it. I was aware my body was struggling, and I knew something needed to be done because I couldn't run 50 feet without feeling like my heart would explode out of my chest.

When a friend presented me with a coupon to a "bitch boxing" class I took it as a laugh. Once there, I was greeted by Cathy Brown, then a European flyweight champ. Fit, charming, and attractive, by the end of the class she had me in my own puddle of sweat. The class was basic technique and although I felt like the heaviest one there and a bit of a fool, seeing Cathy and her strength as a women boxer made me determined to get fit.

Boxing has become a big hit for inner city girls who deal with the realities of surviving day-to-day life. The level of focus, commitment, discipline, and structured training of boxing provide people with the ability to gain some control over various aspects of their life. As a sport, it builds character as well as strength and fitness, and you feel better about your life as a result.

However, the more time I spent in the sport the more I began to wonder if boxing can be as detrimental as it can be constructive. The very nature and history of boxing shows it as a male-dominated, male-marketed sport with many instances of male aggression toward women in the gym still remaining vastly underreported. The rules of fighting might be clear on paper, but there is often just not enough regulation within daily routine.

Babyface Boxing in Pacifica, California provides training for girls as young as eight years old. I went to one fight and while protective headware was worn I could clearly see their head's flipping back. The young girls were mainly Latina and Black females of poorer socioeconomic groups, and many of the parents thought their daughters had the chance to make it big. Unfortunately, not even five percent of male boxers make it to a professional level where they are earning a decent salery. Female boxers often have to rely on other outlets to help market their sport and most don't have the big name like Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, or the model-like looks of Cathy Brown. Finally, placing girls in a combative environment around the age of puberty could be sending them the message that they can fight their way through life's problems rather than teaching girls how effective conflict resolution can be achieved using clear communication.

While I was attending a lecture by the Nobel Prize winner Dr. Stanley Prusiner, I was also struck by the lack of research surrounding female-specific injuries in boxing. Dr. Prusiner showed a direct link between time spent boxing, head injury resulting in brain trauma, and often degenerative disease in the brain. Many boxing advocates claim the damage to women is no different than in men, but I question this. Hardly any research has been conducted on the possible difference in physical damage that women can incur from boxing. Research has shown that repeated physical trauma to the breast can cause excessive cell proliferation preceding cancer. Also, enforcing the no punches below the belt rule remains a challenge, making women's uteruses potentially more at risk. We do know for a fact the internal organs of boxers get damaged in this sport, but without further research how much this affects females is unknown.

Even with potential risks, the reality is that boxing has caught on for women due to the fact it is an incredibly empowering way of getting in excellent shape. All sports come with built-in risks, yet as the rise of professional women's boxers continue along with popularity of the sport within gyms, health professionals need to research the risk of serious and detrimental injury to women boxers. Without more research and with a continued lack of support for tighter regulation in the daily boxing environment, women's boxing will remain a fast-growing sport with speculative, rather than well-documented health risks.