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An all-women’s championship brings female boxers to the ring

 Two young boxers face off in a ring. They wear t-shirts, shorts, boxing gloves and protective head gear.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Sophia Billman (right) faces an opponent in the ring. Since she returned to boxing three years ago, she mostly practices with boys.

More than 200 boxers are headed to Toledo next week for USA Boxing’s inaugural women’s championship.

It’s 5 o’ clock on a summer week night, and the boxing gym at Toledo’s Believe Center is packed with kids doing a series of warm-up exercises: squats, sit-ups, slow motion mountain climbers, a hundred push-ups.

In the sea of sweaty boys, 16-year-old Sophia Billman is the only girl.

For her, that’s pretty typical.

“Honestly, this is more of a male sport,” she said. “You don't really see a lot of girls.”

Billman comes from a family of boxers. Her dad is a coach. Her brother is training with her.

Like them, she has big dreams. She wants to be ranked first in the nation for her weight class.

But unlike them, there aren’t many chances for her to compete.

That’s because, according to the USA Boxing rulebook, she has to face a female opponent around her age and in her weight class…and there aren’t many to come by.

“I'll go to all the teammates’ fights, but there's not one fight for me to fight,” she said.

 A coach talks with a boxer as she's about to step into the ring.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Martin Tucker coaches Sophia Billman before she faces an opponent in the ring.

Finding female competitors 

Billman has been boxing since before she can remember. She took a break around the time she turned seven, then returned to the sport three years ago.

Since then, she’s practiced with boys nearly every day.

But rarely has she been able to step in the ring during a tournament.

“It was April 2020 when I started boxing again,” she said. “And not until February this year was my first fight and we went to Missouri for it. It was our national tournament for a week long, and I fought twice there.”

She won the first fight, lost the second. Since then, she’s fought one other time.

“But now I'm ranked number eight in the United States,” she said. “That with three fights and that's it.”

Billman’s story is familiar to female boxers across the country.

“Say you have two twins that come into the gym at the same time — 10 years old, male and female,” said Mike Campbell, USA Boxing’s manager of events and operations. “After two years, the female boxer will be lucky to have five bouts, whereas the male boxer will have 15 to 20 bouts.”

This is why USA Boxing decided to host the inaugural women’s championship.

“The idea of having a women's only event is there's no waiting around,” Campbell said. “Most women's events only have one ring. At this event, we're going to have three rings set up. So, there's opportunities to box every day.”

While there have been women’s-only boxing competitions before, Campbell says they’ve mostly been standalone events. The hope is for this women’s championship to become an annual event.

He says this tournament is also unique because of its size. He anticipates the first day of competition alone will have more than 100 contested matches, more than previous all-female boxing events.

The tournament is bringing more than 200 female boxers of all ages together, along with 170 coaches. They’re coming from all over the state, the country and the world.

“We have some deep brackets,” Campbell said. “We've got some experienced international boxers, and we've got boxers that you should expect to see in our Olympic trials and then probably on some of our Team USA moving forward.”

 A pink boxing glove rests on a black shelf.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Women's boxing has grown in popularity in recent years, with boxers like Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano headlining at national arenas and earning seven figures a fight.

The rise of women’s boxing

USA Boxing’s inaugural women’s championship comes at a time when women’s boxing is growing in popularity.

Women like Claressa Shields, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano have headlined at national arenas and for the first time, are earning seven figures a fight.

“It used to be very difficult to even find a women's match on television,” Campbell said. “But now almost every card has got at least one women's bout.”

But the road to success was a long one.

USA Boxing didn’t recognize female boxers until 1993, when it settled a lawsuit with the ACLU.

“That took a long time, much longer than it probably should have,” Campbell said. “And it set back the growth.”

Women’s boxing didn’t debut as an Olympic event until nearly two decades later, in 2012 — more than 100 years after men’s boxing was introduced.

“Now every time women can compete in the Olympics and little girls see that, it's recruiting,” Campbell said. “It's sending more girls to the gym.”

He says female membership in USA Boxing has risen to about 12%, and the organization’s goal is to continue that growth.

Tom Urbina, one of Sophia Billman’s coaches and founder of the Toledo Boxing Association, predicts this women’s championship will help.

“You can believe after this tournament, that gym is going to go crazy with girls,” he said.

 A female boxer in a black outfit, with red protective head gear, throws a punch at her opponent. He's blocking his face with light blue boxing gloves.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Sophia Billman throws a punch at her competition in the boxing ring.

For now though, when Billman steps into the ring to spar, there are no girls for her to practice with.

Instead, a coach pairs her with a boy.

“Ready, here we go, Soph and Blaze,” he calls out. “Set. Box.”

Billman throws a punch, then another.

From the sidelines, a five-year-old girl watches with her father. She’s wearing boxing gloves too.

When she gets older, maybe she won’t be the only girl in the ring.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.