Lady Ali: How Jackie Tonawanda Changed Women's Boxing

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iStock

As photographers and newspaper reporters looked on, Jackie Tonawanda allowed herself to be fingerprinted. It was October 7, 1974, and Tonawanda—who was dwarfed by the burly professional wrestlers waiting their turn—was taking the necessary steps to become a licensed professional boxer by the New York State Athletic Commission. The fingerprints would be sent off to Albany make sure she wasn't a felon; a physical would determine her fitness for competition.

Tonawanda didn't anticipate either one becoming a hurdle. Her main concern was that the state of New York had long prohibited women from prizefighting.

The gregarious Tonawanda told the assembled press in the commission's offices that she was the “female Cassius Clay,” referring to boxing icon Muhammad Ali. (Like Ali, she was known for boasting to the media and offering impromptu demonstrations of her hand speed.) Women could already be licensed as pro wrestlers and boxing managers in the state. Why, Tonawanda argued, should female boxers be exempt from officially participating in the sport?

Commissioners brushed off her complaints, fretting about being deemed negligent if women suffered injuries. Rumors circulated in the boxing community that blows to the chest could cause breast cancer. Ed Dooley, the head of the state's athletic commission, thought women fighting in a ring would bring “disrepute” to the venerable sport.

In time, Jackie Tonawanda would be hailed as a boxing pioneer, someone who stood up to the rampant sexism from promoters and the sport's sanctioning bodies. But in 1975, Tonawanda's license application was denied. Dooley refused to back off from his insistence that boxing was strictly a “manly art.” Tonawanda was incredulous. If that was what he believed, she thought, she would show him otherwise.

To prove her point, she would even agree to an extreme demonstration of her worth as a fighter: an unlicensed fight against a man, in full view of spectators at Madison Square Garden.

Although Tonawanda was the first woman to ever lace up her gloves at the famed New York arena, women’s boxing had been a ring attraction for decades. In 1876, two women took wild swings at one another in what may have been the first spectator women's match in the country. (The prize was a silver butter dish.) In 1954, women competed on television for the first time. But with so few participants in the sport, it was difficult for any real momentum to develop. And without endorsement from state athletic commissions, official records and rankings were nearly impossible to come by.

Such was the state of female fighting when Tonawanda decided to compete. Born on Long Island and orphaned by age 8, she started boxing at age 13, eventually migrating to the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. As an adult, Tonawanda occupied a unique space in the art: At 175 pounds, she was larger than many of the other women who fought, making matchmaking difficult. She once stated she sparred exclusively with men because women “don't show me anything and they can’t take my power.”

With only scattered women’s bouts available, Tonawanda often fought in unsanctioned matches around the country. She managed to compile a 23-0 record (although this number would sometimes change in interviews, as would her birth year and even her height) before petitioning her home state of New York to sanction her bouts. Commission members like Dooley and former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson were wary, fearing the seeming fragility of women might give a proverbial black eye to the sport. They turned down both Tonawanda and Marian "Tyger" Trimiar, another female boxer, citing, among other things, concerns over the possible trauma the women might suffer to their breasts.

“I don't think a blow to the breast would cause breast cancer," Irwin Weiner, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University, told The New York Times when the women first applied for licenses in 1974. "On the other hand, it's a rather tender area that can be easily bruised. It might take longer to recover from bruises there.” Dooley remained insistent, saying a fight "could endanger a female's reproductive organs and breasts."

Tonawanda didn’t accept the decision in stride. She sued the state for discrimination, arguing that women had every right to compete. In June of 1975, while the lawsuit was still being contested, she agreed to compete at a martial arts tournament at Madison Square Garden that fell outside the purview of the commission. Her original opponent was to be a Thai fighter in a mixed-rules striking contest, but that fighter ended up being replaced by an unheralded kickboxer named Larry Rodania. In the opening moments of the fight, Rodania hit her with a shot that left her unable to sleep on her left side for weeks. For much of the first round, though, Tonawanda parried his strikes, getting a sense of his timing. In the second, she landed a left that cracked his jaw and sent him to the canvas.

The referee announced that Rodania was out, unable to answer basic questions like “Where are you?” But some observers expressed doubt that the bout was legitimate. Recapping the event, Black Belt magazine questioned Rodania’s judgment in taking the fight at all. From the outside, it appeared to be a lose-lose proposition: Beating a woman in the ring would impress few, and losing to one could be ruinous in the eyes of fans who wouldn't expect a woman to be competitive with a man. It's not clear whether Rodania ever competed again.

For Tonawanda, the spectacle of her squaring off against Rodania made headlines and led to more offers, some outside of the ring. Later that year, she not only received a boxing license from the state of Maine, but also filmed a small role for the Dustin Hoffman film Marathon Man. In 1976, she was invited to spend time at a training camp with Muhammad Ali as he prepared for a bout against Ken Norton. Being around Ali, Tonawanda said, made her so nervous that she could barely eat.

If the bout was intended to elicit a response from the New York commission, however, it didn’t work. Tonawanda continued to compete in bouts outside of the state, and the commission steadfastly refused to acknowledge the rights of female prizefighters until 1978 brought a development they couldn’t ignore.

Three years prior, Tonawanda’s lawsuit had made it to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Tonawanda’s favor and suggested she sue once again in order to have the law in New York overturned. When Tonawanda failed to follow up on their advice, another boxer, Cathy “Cat” Davis, picked up the baton and initiated a suit. When Davis’s legal action forced the commission to throw out the ban, Davis, Tonawanda, and Tremiar became the first three women to receive licenses in the state.

For the first time, Tonawanda would be able to claim a legitimate, professional fight on her record.

Despite setting a legal precedent, the court’s decision didn't guarantee that the fighters would necessarily be able to compete in New York. With so few female fighters to match up with one another, the women who were granted licenses often sought fights out of the area. The following year, Tonawanda fought Diane “Dynamite” Clark in a six-round bout in Louisville, Kentucky, in what would be her first and only professional contest. She lost in a split decision.

While it was a crucial moment for the fighters, women’s boxing continued to endure the perception that it was a sideshow. From the Rodania fight onward, Tonawanda received offers to fight men, including noted light heavyweight Mike Quarry. Quarry, Tonawanda claimed, backed out when he realized he had nothing to gain by fighting a woman.

By the mid-1980s, Tonawanda's career was winding down. She fought a man a second time, scoring another knockout at the Nassau Coliseum in 1984. It would be one of her last competitions before being injured in a 1986 car accident that ended any consideration of returning to the ring. From that point on, she became something of a mentor in various boxing gyms in the state. At Fort Apache Youth Center in the Bronx, she advised aspiring fighters on technique. Later, she trained future heavyweight contender Israel Garcia, who she met after Garcia discovered that she lived in the apartment building where he worked.

Lalia Ali faces off against Gwendolyn O'Neil of Guyana during the 2007 WBC/WIBA Super Middleweight World Title in Johannesburg, South Africa.Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images

In the meantime, fighters like Laila Ali, Christy Martin, and other women began gaining notoriety and respect for being capable pugilists. While they undoubtedly faced sexism, none had been forced to insist on their right to compete. That road had been paved by Tonawanda, who demanded equal footing with her male counterparts.

Tonawanda died from colon cancer in 2009. Like many boxers, she had no pension or retirement fund to fall back on, and her remains were initially destined for a mass grave on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field. She was saved from that fate thanks to Ring 8, the nonprofit consortium of former prizefighters that she belonged to. The group, which provides financial assistance to veteran boxers, raised enough money for a marked grave for her in the Bronx. It was proof that boxing had ultimately accepted Tonawanda, long considered an outsider, as one of their own.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

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Amazon

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Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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Beats/Amazon

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Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

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Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Ganni/Amazon

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10 Amazing Facts About Bruce Lee On His 80th Birthday

Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive
Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee is one of pop culture's most multifaceted icons. Legions of fans admire him for his movies, his martial arts prowess, his incomprehensible physical fitness, his championing of Chinese culture, and even his philosophies on life. Yet for all the new ground Lee broke, most of his recognition only came after his death at the age of 32. Read on to learn more about the life of this profound, if enigmatic, superstar.

1. Bruce Lee’s first starring role in a movie came when he was just 10 years old.

In 1950’s The Kid, a pre-teen Bruce Lee played the role of Kid Cheung, a streetwise orphan and wry troublemaker, based on a comic strip from the time. Starring opposite Lee, playing a kindly factory owner, was his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, who also happened to be a famous opera singer. (Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco while his father was there on tour; Lee would move back to the U.S. in 1959).

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the movie was a big enough success in China to earn sequel consideration. There was just one problem: A young Bruce Lee was getting into fights at school and out on the streets, so his father forbid him from acting again until he straightened up—which, of course, didn’t wind up happening.

2. Bruce Lee was deemed physically unfit for the U.S. Army.

While he may have walked around with body fat in the single digits and could do push-ups using only two fingers, Lee still managed to fail a military physical for the U.S. draft board back in 1963. Despite being an adherent to physical fitness all his adult life, it was an undescended testicle that kept him from fighting for Uncle Sam in Vietnam.

3. Bruce Lee was an exquisite cha-cha dancer.

Long before he was known for breakneck fight choreography, Bruce Lee’s physical skills were focused on the dance floor. More specifically, the cha-cha. In Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: A Life, the author explains that the dance trend made its way from Cuba through the Philippines and soon landed in China. And once the cha-cha settled into the Hong Kong social scene, it didn’t take long for youth dance competitions to spring up. Lee had been taking part in cha-cha dancing since the age of 14, and in 1958, he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. Foreshadowing his later dedication to martial arts, Lee would keep crib notes of all 108 different cha-cha steps in his wallet so that he could obsessively memorize them.

4. Bruce Lee refused to lose a fight to Robin.

The Green Hornet aired its first episode in September 1966, with Bruce Lee as the Hornet's (Van Williams) lightning-quick sidekick, Kato. The series would immediately be compared to Batman, ABC's other costumed crime-fighting show, and it wouldn't be long before a two-part crossover episode was in the works. And as heroes do, before they teamed up, they first had to fight each other. According to Newsweek, since Batman was by far the more popular show, the script featured a fight between Burt Ward's Robin and Bruce Lee's Kato that was set to end with the Boy Wonder getting the upper hand. But who would really buy that?

Well, Lee certainly didn't—and he knew no one else would, either. Williams later recalled that Lee read the script and simply said, "I'm not going to do that," and walked off. Common sense soon prevailed ... sort of. The script was rewritten to change the ending—not to a Kato K.O., but to a more diplomatic draw. Though The Green Hornet was Lee's first big break in the United States, the series itself lasted only 26 episodes.

5. Bruce Lee trained numerous Hollywood stars.

As Bruce Lee worked to become a big-screen heavyweight, he made a living as a martial arts trainer to the stars. Among Lee’s students were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate. For his services, Lee was known to charge about $275 per hour or $1000 for 10 courses. McQueen and Coburn grew so enamored with Lee over the years that they remained close friends until his death in 1973, with both men serving as pallbearers at Lee's funeral (alongside Chuck Norris).

6. Roman Polanski may have (briefly) thought Bruce Lee murdered Sharon Tate.

In addition to providing Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate with kung fu lessons, Bruce Lee also lived near the couple in Los Angeles when Tate and four others, including Lee’s close friend Jay Sebring, were murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. It would be months before the Manson Family was arrested for the murders, but in the meantime, according to an article from Esquire, Polanski had grown obsessed with finding a suspect, looking for potential perpetrators even amongst his own inner circle.

During one kung fu lesson in the months after the murders, Lee had mentioned to Polanski how he had recently lost his glasses, which immediately piqued the director’s interest. A mysterious pair of horn-rimmed glasses had been found at the murder scene near his wife’s body, after all. Polanski had even purchased a gauge to measure the lenses and find out the exact prescription so that he could do his own detective work, according to The New York Post.

The director, without giving himself away, offered to bring Lee to his optician to get a new pair—this would allow him to hear Lee’s prescription firsthand and determine if the specs discovered at the crime scene belonged to him. It turned out Lee’s prescription didn’t match, and Polanski never told his friend about his suspicions.

7. Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).Warner Home Video

Bruce Lee brought an impeccable physique to the screen that was decades ahead of its time. But because his roles required so much physicality, he would be drenched with sweat while filming. And apparently, the martial arts pioneer loathed the sweat stains that would show up on his clothing as a result. His solution? In 1973, Lee actually underwent a procedure to surgically remove the sweat glands from his armpits to avoid the fashion faux pas from showing up on camera.

8. Bruce Lee’s cause of death still raises questions.

Bruce Lee’s death at the age of 32 on July 20, 1973, was officially ruled the result of a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. Lee had complained about headaches on the day of his death, and was given a painkiller by Betty Ting Pei—an actress who claimed to be Lee's mistress—before lying down for a nap. He never woke up.

Though many reports at the time suggested Lee had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the painkiller, Polly points to a mystery that began on May 10, 1973, when the star previously collapsed in a hot recording studio while dubbing new dialogue for Enter the Dragon.

In Polly’s opinion, Lee’s collapse had to do with heatstroke, since his stint in an overheated recording studio was compounded by a lack of sweat glands that prevented his body from cooling off naturally. Heatstroke can also cause swelling in the brain, much like was found during Lee’s autopsy. And Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Polly, “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another" and that there may be long-term complications after the initial incident.

9. Footage from Bruce Lee’s Funeral was used in 1978’s Game of Death.

At the time of his death, Bruce Lee was involved in numerous projects, including the movie that would become Game of Death, his next directorial effort. According to Vice, there wasn’t much completed on the film by the time of Lee’s passing—there were some notes, a story outline (which simply read “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”), and 40 minutes of footage, including Lee’s now-iconic fight against NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Usually, a project in that situation would just be a lost cause, but production company Golden Harvest wanted to salvage what they could, so they hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to put together ... something. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, comprised of 11 minutes of existing footage Lee shot, overdubbed clips from his previous movies, and stand-ins to fill out certain scenes. The director even resorted to using an unfortunate Bruce Lee cardboard cutout to complete one shot.

That’s not even the top rung on the ladder of poor taste: When the movie called for Lee’s character to fake his death, they used footage from his actual funeral to realize the scene, complete with waves of mourners, pallbearers, and closeups of Lee’s open casket.

10. Bruce Lee’s posthumous success resulted in its own sub-genre.

Lee’s career was exploding in China and gaining momentum in the United States by 1973, but he passed away just a month before his biggest hit was released: Enter the Dragon. The movie, which grossed more than $200 million at the worldwide box office, catapulted the late Lee to icon status. But with the star himself no longer around to capitalize, there would soon be a wave of knockoff films and wannabes looking to take advantage of the martial arts craze.

Both affectionately and derisively known as “Bruceploitation” films, this strange sub-genre of martial arts cinema gave life to z-movie oddities like Re-Enter the Dragon and Enter the Game of Death, starring the likes of—and we’re not kidding—Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Jackie Chan was even roped into a few of these movies, like 1976's New Fist of Fury. In 1980, Bruceploitation even went meta with The Clones of Bruce Lee, starring Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, who play genetic reconstructions of the late actor after scientists harvest his DNA.