When the current (and fourth) Madison Square Garden opened in 1968, the prospect of two women headlining a bill there would have seemed not just remote but ridiculous.
All these years on, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano are carrying the torch but still the debate rages around equality in their sport.
Serrano used the official announcement of the fight to call again for women’s professional contests to be staged over three-minute rounds – an issue which has divided medical professionals, promoters and the boxers themselves.
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A review in July 2020 in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in the USA collated research from a range of 25 different studies and concluded that “female athletes appear to sustain more severe concussions than male athletes, due in part to a lower biomechanical threshold tolerance for head impacts.”
Another paper, dated 2005 and published by Temple University in Philadelphia, reported that “acute and long-term concussions are produced by acceleration or deceleration of the freely moving head” and explored how female competitors “exhibited significantly greater acceleration than males”. Many other studies have highlighted the difference in strength in the head-neck segment, an area so important in the cushioning of punches.
While noting that none of the research to date relates specifically to boxing, it would be irresponsible to ignore the clues.
The Alzheimer’s Society calculates that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from dementia in later life. This is a debate not just about the here and now but about the future well-being of today’s competitors. Are the woes and suffering of so many male ex-boxers not a loud enough alarm bell?
The argument put forward by Claressa Shields and others is centred on entertainment value. Longer rounds offer the opportunity to force more stoppages and produce more excitement, thereby supposedly increasing the boxers’ market value.
Three-minute rounds were in place at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year and the results could be interpreted to suit both sides of the argument: in almost 100 bouts across five weight divisions, only one ended inside the distance.
You could argue that the longer rounds did not create any more drama via stoppages; you could also claim the three-minute duration did not increase the level of danger.
There is a crucial difference: Olympic bouts are contested over only three total rounds and are generally competitive - given the demands of qualifying for the Games in the first place - whereas in the pro game, the gulf between the best and the rest is sometimes immeasurable and occasionally embarrassing. And that is a key issue for the ongoing development of women’s professional boxing.
The American Christy Martin, one of the first stars of women’s boxing and billed as the ‘Coal-Miner’s Daughter’, said recently that “two-minute rounds make women’s fights more entertaining because there’s so much action”.
Why not make a virtue of Martin’s assessment?
In tennis, a typical day on Centre Court at Wimbledon would involve watching men’s and women’s matches – offering different distances, styles and approaches and adding to the overall level of enjoyment. The Wimbledon authorities pay the male and female champions equally but boxing is guided by the economic principle of supply and demand and the most talented are not always the most heavily rewarded, whether male or female.
In simple terms, an increase from 10 rounds of two-minutes’ duration to the men’s championship distance of 12x3 almost would almost double the time spent in the ring. And as fatigue sets in, so the potential for accelerated head movement increases when shipping a punch – and with it the potential for danger, as referenced in those American studies.
Last November, on a DAZN show in the Mexican resort of Puerta Vallarta, Melissa Esquivel suffered what she described as a “small stroke” after being outpointed by Erika Cruz in a fight for the WBA featherweight title. Esquivel was hospitalised and wrote on Facebook from her bed at the Joya Hospital, where she was treated for dehydration: “It turns out that I had a small stroke from the headbutt and the following blows that happened. Right now I'm fine, recovering. The stroke is very small, thank God. I was lucky.
“I wanted to stop the fight in the eighth round, but since there were two to go, I decided to go to the end and maybe it wasn't the best decision.”
Esquivel, like many before her, was hospitalised in part by her own bravery. She returned to the ring last weekend, failing again in a world title challenge, but her plight emphasises the imperative that decisions around any future changes must be taken with the welfare of the boxer as the paramount motive.
In that regard, all boxers are forever equal.