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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

Women with fists of fury

Staff writer

"We're in uncharted territory," was how ABC sports commentator Dan Dierdorf began his announcement of the first women's professional boxing match on U.S. network television. That was in 1997.

In Japan four years later, the territory is still largely uncharted in terms of public awareness, although interest is steadily growing, with 500 enthusiastic spectators packing Kitazawa Town Hall in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward for an Oct. 10 title bout.

Naoko Tsuchida lands a right in the flyweight title match with Yumi Yashima Oct. 10.

Then, over the full distance of 10 punishing rounds of two minutes each, Naoko Tsuchida tied with Yumi Yashima for what would have been Japan's first national flyweight championship title.

Speaking two days later, 21-year-old Tsuchida, who trains at Kokusai Gym in the city's Taito Ward and is one of only 50 women pro boxers in Japan, said, "Women who come into the gym are often surprised to find such a thing even exists." She herself only stumbled on the sport two years ago. "I'd wanted to become fitter, stronger, but the usual gyms didn't appeal to me. One day I happened to see this gym and thought, 'that looks interesting,' " she said.

Toshihiro Yamaki, manager of the Japan Women's Boxing Association, says accidental introductions to boxing are common here. Media coverage is minimal and the association does not pay to advertise any of its matches held every three months at Kitazawa Town Hall -- the only venue in the country. "We rely on magazines to spread the word and we're hoping that when television coverage increases, interest will grow." Prize money as well is still technically nonexistent. Boxers must sell their own allocation of tickets, 20 at 5,000 yen each, to earn their money.

Yamaki has six pro female boxers in his gym, though with 400 boxing gyms around the country, he puts the number of women boxing in the amateur ranks or for health and fitness in the hundreds.

Tsuchida later at Kokusai Gym in Tokyo's Taito Ward

Lots of women come to the gym out of curiosity, he says. Few, however, stay on, and even fewer are interested enough to take the test for a pro license. "A lot lose confidence and a lot were never that interested to start with," he says. "They quit for any number of reasons."

Tsuchida, whose training includes weekly sparring, often fights men for want of women boxers. "We will call in women boxers from other gyms, but as there are a lot more women in kickboxing, I often have a kickboxer as a partner. She doesn't kick then, of course," she said with a laugh.

Another factor working against the sport is the pressure to quit many women are subject to from family, friends and boyfriends. Indeed, the mere mention of boxing, let alone women's boxing, is likely to open the proverbial can of worms.

Though many take the lofty view of the late famed U.S. journalist A.J. Liebling, who described boxing as "the sweet science" -- a display of skill, discipline, inner toughness and self-control -- many others consider it nothing more than sanctioned brawling.

Lovers of boxing, however, are not put off. To them it's all about the challenge of getting your fist in the other's face while keeping your opponent's out of yours. It is the challenge of anticipating the other's moves, and also having the stamina to go round after round. Many people become very philosophical about the sport, and U.S. Nobel-nominee writer and Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates has gone so far as to declare: "Life is a metaphor for boxing." "It really hurts getting hit," said Tsuchida, who was hooked after she began sparring. "But," she said, opening herself up for attack, "I started thinking, I'd like to be able to do the same thing."

However, women who take up the sport face an even greater challenge, as the idea of them duking it out in the ring is to many repulsive, and grates on deeply ingrained prejudices.

Though some fighters may set out to intentionally defy the status quo, all female boxers can expect to encounter animosity along the way. "There's a lot of people who say women shouldn't be fighting," Tsuchida said. "I don't think that's right. A lot of women are going to want to get into boxing, and I don't think they should be stopped. I feel we boxers now can be the foundation for others coming later." Further countering that view of boxing as mere brawling in padded gloves, she added, "It's not just a fistfight. To me, it's not so much about being physically strong as it is about skill, about technique. I want people to see that technique and I want to be able to show that to people. My goal right now is to constantly improve my skills," said Tsuchida, who is still undefeated after four pro bouts.

The Tokyo native also says it's important that other boxers feel the same way. "It's boxing, not pounding on each other. No matter how excited you get during a bout, you can't just start flailing around, striking out every which way. You can't let it become like a bunch of schoolkids beating up on each other."

Actually, those who turn away in disgust at the sight of blood or poorly matched contestants may be the best thing that could happen to women's boxing, since there are those who would promote it not as a sport, but as a spectacle. Poor skills, namely poor defense, result in unnecessary injury, and pushing unprepared fighters into the ring simply to feed ticket-buying thrill-seekers is not good for boxing. Nagano Prefecture native Tsubaki Honda, 29, who trains at Yamaki Gym, agrees on the need for skill. Though she lost the first match of her three-bout career Oct. 10, she says that has motivated her to improve her skills. "I realized how weak I was," she admits, adding that for her, maintaining confidence is the hardest thing about boxing. "When you realize how much better someone is than you, you realize how much harder you have to work. Not quitting, but keeping at it, that's the hard part."

A sense of showmanship is also important for the professional boxer, Tsuchida said. "The biggest difference between the amateurs and the pros is that, as a pro, you feel you have to give the fans something. The fans are paying to watch. As an amateur you're doing it more for yourself."

But for her, the professional attitude goes beyond the ring. She feels she also has an obligation to the sport. "Enjoying women's boxing as a sport is well and good, but I also want to see women's boxing grow. Women's boxing needs women who are truly interested in having the sport develop and expand."

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