Boxing is boxing.
Whether the fighters are male or female, the blood is one color, the bruises look the same, and the same skills apply to winning a bout. The only difference in equipment is that women wear breast protectors and men wear protective cups.
"Eight years ago, I had my son Daniel Lee and I gained too much weight," recalls Del "La Rose" Pettis, 27, talking about her introduction to the sport. "I was 50 pounds overweight and I met a guy who was a fighter and I started working out to get back in shape."
After slimming down, Pettis decided she'd like to try the sport for real. Daniel Lee's father was killed in 1981 and Pettis had financial decisions to make about raising her child alone. She decided that a tough childhood in San Diego and her new physique might translate into some ring success.
"I hoped boxing would get me somewhere," Pettis says.
Initially, all it gave Pettis was grief. She was banished from the local gym by men who said she was awkward and a distraction. But she worked out where she could and "started to get something together." Eventually, the men at the gym realized she was serious about boxing and let her back in.
"It's a struggle trying to get in there and prove that we can box," says Pettis.
Laurie Ann Holt, 24, from Waterville, Maine, grew up in a family of ten sisters and five brothers, a family of fighters. She started boxing in the barn with her brothers when she was a teenager; she asked one of her brothers-in-law to train her and he laughed.
Holt has been on a mission ever since. Late in 1983, at the age of 19, Holt had her first professional fight (there are no amateur programs in women's boxing). It was a disaster; in fact Holt lost her first two professional fights before she found manager/trainer Bob Sylvia.
"He got me in shape and taught me the art of boxing," Holt recalls. "The biggest problem I had in the first fight was inexperience. My opponent was ranked number four in the country and I didn't know what a jab was."
After a year under the tutelage of Sylvia, Holt won a rematch with her conqueror and hasn't lost since. She has captured a Maine state title, a North American title, and a Women's Boxing Board world title, and she came to Chicago to battle Del "La Rose" Pettis for the world Women's Boxing Association's super featherweight title.
Women have been involved in sanctioned boxing since 1975. California was the first state to regularly promote women on boxing shows, and they have been searching for acceptance ever since.
"There's a lot of promoters that are against women in boxing," says Pettis.
Many of those same promoters might be willing to attract curiosity seekers to their male-dominated cards. But not by booking mismatches, say Holt and Pettis, and the lack of a women's amateur program and the paucity of woman fighters make mismatches hard to avoid.
As a result, fights for women are few and far between. Pettis, a professional for four years, has a record of 4-0-1, and Holt has only nine fights (7-2) to show for five years of leather pushing.
"People don't know what's happening yet and we have to show them proof," says Pettis.
"People come in expecting to see a freak show with hair pulling and scratching," Holt says, "and they come out surprised and real impressed."
Holt says she's had phone calls from promoters who wanted to put on topless boxing shows, but she's realized the financial rewards would come at the expense of her credibility. Credibility is what the boxing women are desperately searching for.
Fight promoters Marshall Christopher and Kristin Newman have brought women's boxing to Chicago. They're paying Pettis and Holt $1,000 apiece, plus $200 in expense money. Pettis, who has never made more than $200 for a fight, acknowledges the fight is a big chance for her to make a mark.
The match takes place at the Lakeshore Athletic Club on Fullerton Avenue. The ring is set up on the club's tennis courts and two ceiling fans suck the dead air up away from a crowd of some 300 people.
Pettis, black, petite, and wearing a blue-and-white robe, enters the ring first. Her long black hair is braided in corn rows and tied in a ponytail. When she takes off her robe a rose is revealed on the back of her white jersey. She smiles as she waits for her opponent.
Holt, who's white, climbs into the ring in a green-and-white robe. She is wearing one of her championship belts and a serious fight face as she loosens up during the announcer's introductions.
As the fighters gather for referee Stanley Berg's instructions, there is a major physical disparity. Holt is a good three or four inches taller and at 129 pounds outweighs Pettis by at least six pounds--a big difference in the lower weight divisions.
When the bell rings, Pettis, as advertised, is right on top of Holt throwing punches from all angles, trying to pin Holt to the ropes. Holt, momentarily confused by the assault, gathers herself and tries to counter.
Holt finally finds her rhythm late in the first round and exhibits some excellent boxing skills in fending off the relentless rush of Pettis. In the second round, Pettis continues to press the action. It's hard to tell if she is left- or right-handed. Her style is formless, with little head or body movement, bad balance, leaky defense, and bunches of hard, unorthodox punches.
Pettis's nose is bloodied in the second round by a series of nasty uppercuts and good right counters that Holt gets off. Holt punctuates the round with a wicked left hook to the head. Back in her corner, Pettis has a nasty mouse under her left eye and a bloody nose to contend with.
Cut man Laury Meyer works quickly, trying to reduce the swelling around the eye while cleaning the blood from Pettis's nostrils with his custom-rolled Q-tips. Pettis's manager ties her fighter's hair back up. Holt sits pensively on her stool while Sylvia administers advice, Vaseline, and water.
Holt lands a big right hand early in round three, but Pettis punches back and continues trying to rough up Holt on the inside. Battling frustration and a bit of fatigue, Holt takes a deep breath in the middle of the round, wondering if it's going to take the roof caving in to stop her opponent.
Much to the crowd's excitement, Holt displays many of the very boxing skills they'd found lacking in the five men's fights that preceded this bout. Holt jabs, punches in combinations, counterpunches to the head as well as the body, and exhibits a wealth of defensive skills in dodging Pettis's nonstop punches.
Berg and the ring doctor, Glen Bynum, spend the entire minute between rounds three and four hovering in Pettis's corner, watching Meyer work. Pettis comes out for round four with blood spattered all over her white jersey and white trunks, but resumes her reckless rushes toward Holt.
The fourth round is a replay of the first three, Holt landing the cleaner, harder punches but doing little to discourage Pettis, who fights back even harder when hurt.
By the fifth round the crowd has started chanting for Holt. In the middle of the round, Berg halts the contest and asks the ring doctor to examine Pettis's badly swollen eye. Much to Holt's chagrin, Pettis says she wants to continue, and the doctor decides to let the bout resume.
Holt picks up where she left off, landing powerful right hands that Pettis can't seem to anticipate through her slitted left eye.
In her corner following round five, Holt breathes heavily as Sylvia douses her with water, loosens her trunks to give her some air, and dabs at her determined face with Vaseline.
Across the ring, Meyer works on Pettis as Bynum, the doctor, perches on the apron. He makes his decision and passes it on to the referee--the fight is over. It goes into the books as a TKO, and Holt, who's just won her fourth title, rushes over to hug her game opponent.
Both fighters are presented with flowers now, and as Berg holds Holt's arm aloft, a smile of relief spreads over her face. Pettis, bloodied but unbowed, gets a big hand from the audience.
"She spoiled my game plan right off the bat," Holt says. "She set the pace from the opening round and I didn't know if I could keep it up."
Holt, who had been ten rounds before (Pettis had never gone more than four), says that she felt like telling Pettis to slow down, that she wasn't going to be able to keep up the full-throttle attack for the entire bout.
"I don't think I've ever hit somebody that hard so many times," Holt admits, shaking her sore left hand. She says she didn't have time to think about what she was doing in the ring; she just did it, as Pettis came on.
"I hit her with everything and she just stood there--I think I'm very fortunate," sighs Holt. "I don't know if it would have ended that way if they hadn't stopped the fight."
The Illinois State Boxing Commission paramedic is taking Pettis's blood pressure as Pettis holds an ice pack to her bruised eye.
Pettis says the bloody nose never bothered her. She was just trying to get in there, but "the right hand kept coming in."
"She was better than all the other girls I've been in with," Pettis acknowledges, moving the ice away from her puffy, discolored eye. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me."
Pettis says she'll be back. She wants to be a world champion, and she plans to return to the gym and train even harder. "It would be good if I could live in the gym, but I have to work to support myself and my son."
The two fighters met only days ago, but now they admire each other. When Holt encounters Pettis, still holding the ice pack, in the club's lounge, she embraces Pettis, and jokes that Pettis should stay in her own weight class so she won't have to fight her again.
Downstairs, waiting to get paid, Holt again encounters Pettis, who's dabbing at her nose. "Damn," she says, "I wish you wouldn't bleed so much."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nuccio Di Nuzzo.