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Barbara Buttrick – the original trailblazer

Barbara Buttrick, a 98lbs fighting machine, was confronted with astonishing discrimination. Ben Dirs caught up with Buttrick 57 years after she last punched for pay

HOW might a teenage Nicola Adams have reacted if she’d been described as repugnant and monstrous? Hung ‘em up and done something more ladylike? Baked a cake? Knitted a tea cosy? Pushed the feminine boundaries and turned her hand to croquet? Because of Barbara Buttrick, Adams never had to choose.

On narrow shoulders, Adams’ world was built. In her 1950s pomp, Buttrick stood 4ft 11ins and weighed 98lb. But the blows she struck for women’s boxing – and women in general – can be felt to this day. Almost 70 years on, some men are still red in the face and complaining that Buttrick’s blows were below the belt.

Staring down the lens in a Pathé newsreel from 1949, a 19-year-old Buttrick bristles with defiance. “I think all this talk about girls not boxing is old-fashioned,” says Buttrick, in a Yorkshire accent so thick you could spread it on a slab of Hovis. “Girls aren’t the delicate flowers they used to be.”

You would have thought people already knew, British women having done so much back-breaking work during World War II. But war won, convention demanded that women reapplied their makeup, tied on the aprons and climbed back into their boxes.

In 1948, BBC boxing commentator Peter Wilson described the idea of women boxing as “degrading and disgusting”. Added Wilson: “A new vicious cult might start among those who would enjoy seeing two girls, stripped to their brasserie and a pair of flimsy knickers, digging each other violently in their breasts or smashing soggy leather gloves against each other’s bleeding lips.” Wilson’s vision is so lurid, you suspect he secretly wanted to be the cult’s leader.

This was the society that Buttrick was born into and the attitudes she had to contend with. Luckily for Adams and all women boxers since, Buttrick’s tiny frame was covered with the hide of a rhino and contained the heart of a lion.

Born in the village of Cottingham, near Hull, in 1930, Buttrick was scrapping with boys on the cobbles from an early age. She wanted to play football but a lack of interest from her female friends meant she was unable to raise a team. “There weren’t a lot of girls that wanted to play,” says the 87-year-old, who spoke to Boxing News in Hull, where she was talking at the Women of the World Festival. “They just weren’t encouraged. The attitude was: ‘Oh no, girls don’t play soccer.’ But after playing one day with the boys, my friend’s mother said ‘you can’t come in the house with those muddy shoes’, and threw down a newspaper. And staring up at me was an article with the headline ‘Polly the Champ’, about Polly Burns, who used to fight in the boxing booths.

“I said to my friend: ‘Don’t clean your shoes on that!’ I read the article and thought: ‘If Polly Burns can do it, so can I. I’ll switch to boxing and I won’t need 10 others.’ I used to like soccer but I’d always had posters of boxers on my bedroom wall as a teenager – Bruce Woodcock, a French featherweight called Ray Famechon, a little French bantamweight called Theo Medina. So I got hold of some boxing gloves and a punchbag and started sparring with the boys in the back yard.” And so ‘The Mighty Atom of the Ring’ came into being.

But having decided that she wanted to box, Buttrick struggled to gain access to local gyms. So at the age of 18, and to the dismay of her parents, Buttrick accepted an invitation to train at Mickey Woods’ Mayfair Gym in London. During the week Buttrick was a shorthand typist in London’s West End. At the weekend she fought in fairground booths. When no women dared to challenge her, as was often the case, she boxed exhibitions against men instead.

“It was a tough existence,” says Buttrick, who appeared at country fairs as far afield as Cornwall and France. “You were boxing 15 or 20 times in one day sometimes. If you didn’t do your roadwork, you were in trouble.”

But what went down a bomb with rustic folk swilling cider and licking ice creams was anathema to people back in London, who thought themselves more civilised. Before a proposed exhibition against middleweight Bert Sanders, scheduled for the Kilburn Empire Theatre, there was an outcry.

The Variety Artists’ Federation called Buttrick “degrading to womanhood” and although she did appear on the Kilburn stage, it was just to skip, and hit a punchbag. She was more of a freak show in London than she had been at the fair.

“I just shrugged my shoulders,” says Buttrick, who retains her Yorkshire accent despite her 65 years away. “Although I do remember a Boxing News article that said women were welcome at boxing, but only in the audience. I wrote them a letter, which they printed, telling them they were wrong.”

Frustrated by her lack of opportunities in England, Buttrick sailed for America in 1952, under the wing of trainer and future husband Len Smith. “I thought we’d never get the British Boxing Board of Control to put us on any shows in England so I went to the States,” she says. “In America it was a case of ‘if anyone wants to do something, let’s see how we can make it happen’.”

Buttrick obtained a licence to box in Texas, where Mickey Riley, a veteran Dallas fight manager, put her on a diet of steak and beer. “He wanted to put some weight on me,” says Buttrick. “I really needed to gain about 10lbs but I couldn’t put any weight on. Working out in the Texas heat didn’t help much.” Riley called Buttrick “the neatest fighting machine” he’d seen, but she had to take a job as a book-keeper to pay the bills.

In 1954, Buttrick was one half of the first women’s boxing match to be televised. Three years later, she and Phyliss Kugler took part in the first women’s boxing world title bout. The poster declared: ‘Wow – These Dolls can really fight!’ For one publicity shot, Buttrick and Kugler were fully made up and dressed in bikinis. On the undercard of a light-heavyweight contest between Eloy Tellez and Santiago Gutierrez, at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, Buttrick won via a unanimous decision.

Buttrick’s victory over Kugler brought her to the attention of the Mob, whose tentacles were everywhere in boxing in the 1950s. Buttrick was signed up for an exhibition tour with Frankie Carbo’s boxers, but the tour fell through.

Buttrick and Smith moved to Miami Beach, where she trained at the legendary 5th Street Gym. “I saw all the champions there,” she says. “Beau Jack, Vince Martinez, Kid Gavilan, who I knew well. Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then, would come in just as I was leaving, we’d pass on the stairs. He was already making a lot of noise, we used to call him ‘that loud-mouthed kid.’” Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee said of Buttrick: “She was the perfect English lady outside of the ring but a lioness when she climbed through the ropes.”

Buttrick boxed for the last time in 1960, after discovering she was pregnant. She had won 30 and drawn one of her 32 paid fights. Her one defeat was against Joann Hagen, who was significantly taller and more than two stone heavier. She also took part in more than 1000 exhibition bouts, as well as 50 wrestling matches. But she did not retire rich. Buttrick’s biggest purse was $500, at a time when elite male boxers were making hundreds of thousands.

Buttrick settled into family life in Miami, where she raised two children, worked as a book-keeper and had a stint as a ringside photographer. But over the following few decades, not much changed for women’s boxing. As late as the 1990s, many people equated female pugilism with ‘Foxy Boxing’, which involved large-breasted women ‘fighting’ for the benefit of leering men in nightclubs and bars, stripped to their brasserie and a pair of flimsy knickers… Peter Wilson’s lurid vision of a “vicious cult” had come true.

An editorial in The Sun newspaper in 1993 declared: “There’s something sick about paying to watch two women scrap.” When the first all-female boxing tournament was staged at London’s York Hall in 1994, 200 potential sponsors were approached and all declined, including Sure, which used the image of a female boxer to advertise its deodorant.

But women boxers were gaining victories. In 1993, Buttrick formed the Women’s International Boxing Federation. The following year, a teenage boxer in Seattle issued a lawsuit which forced USA Boxing to allow women to compete as amateurs. Three years later, the ABAE followed suit. In 1998, the British Boxing Board of Control finally caved in and sanctioned professional women’s boxing, after a legal challenge by Jane Couch. The British Medical Association called the decision “a demented extension of equal opportunities”.

Couch’s debut in a British ring (she had already fought for four years in America) should have been a triumphant moment for women’s boxing. But her one-sided shellacking of a hapless Simone Lukic was declared a disaster by sections of the British media. Even Buttrick was disappointed, telling The Independent that the match had “made a mockery of women’s boxing”.

Many believe the six-round ding-dong between Christy Martin and Deirdre Gogarty, on the undercard of Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno II, was the breakthrough moment. Martin wound up on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the cover of Sports Illustrated.

There followed Ali-Frazier IV, a match between Muhammad’s daughter Laila and Joe’s daughter Jacqui, which was the first pay-per-view show to be headlined by women. But it was at London 2012 that women’s boxing finally found mainstream acceptance, with Adams becoming the first female Olympic boxing champion, Ireland’s Katie Taylor thrilling packed crowds at the ExCeL Arena and Claressa Shields winning America’s only boxing gold medal. And sitting ringside throughout the tournament was a little old lady looking proud.

“It was a great competition, those girls were just as good as the men, and I felt incredibly proud to see them fight,” says Buttrick, who founded the Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014, was its first inductee and is now the subject of two new British plays, one of them called Delicate Flowers.

“I never thought I’d see the day and it said a lot about how far women had come in society, not just in boxing. What girls do now is what they want to do, not what people tell them to do. We’ve come such a long way. I wish my parents were around to see all these girls boxing, they’d be amazed. Somebody had to get it started. But if I was a kid now, I’d be a happy one.”

Nicola Adams

That smile permanently affixed to Adams’ face proves Buttrick right. Adams was a happy kid who became a happy woman, doing what she wanted. Because of Battling Barbara, “The Mighty Atom of the Ring”, it was never in doubt.

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