Ronda Rousey is the new hotness when it comes to boxing and mixed martial arts, and with good reason: She’s among the fastest and most brutal fighters the sport has ever seen. But even though Rousey is rising to meteoric fame with her quick punches, she’s not the only woman who’s made it in the boxing ring. In fact, women have been putting up their fists in public since at least the 1700s—but unlike anyone who’s ever stood up to Rousey, they’ve often been subject to ridicule and not taken too seriously. Here are a few once-famous lady boxers of the past who set the stage for today’s boxing women.
1. ELIZABETH WILKINSON
There may have been other hard-fisted females before her, but Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes—a.k.a. “The Cockney Championess”—has gone down in history as the first well-known female boxer. She was reportedly a boxer’s wife and delighted in taking on men in public. In 1722, Wilkinson had the earliest recorded public bout between two women in London, beating Martha Jones.
2. BRUISING PEG
Bruising Peg didn’t just have what is perhaps the best name in the history of boxing—she also packed a mean punch. In a time when women boxers were described as “she-devils” in sensationalistic poses (one observer of a two-woman bout wrote that the contenders’ faces were “entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare, and the clothes nearly torn from their bodies”), Bruising Peg (who is now referred to as Margaret Malloy or Molloy after a popular 19th century fictitious biography) and boxing seemed like a match made in heaven. In 1768, she is said to have “beat her antagonist in a terrible manner” in exchange for a new outfit.
3. AND 4. NELLY SAUNDERS AND ROSE HARLAND
In 1876, the operator of Harry Hill’s gambling resort in New York, Prof. James Campbell, decided to do something a bit different: hold a boxing match for the then-princely sum of $200 and a silver plate. Two variety show dancers, one Irish and one English, took up the challenge. “The match being made, both women at once went into training,” wrote The New York Times. They fought in front of “an appreciative but noisy audience,” and Saunders won by a single point before the women “left the stage arm in arm.”
5. AND 6. BESSIE AND MINNIE GORDON
Thomas Edison, Wikimedia Commons
By the end of the 19th century, the only place women’s boxing could be seen regularly was on the vaudeville stage. In 1901, Thomas Edison captured the pratfalling, pirouetting moves of The Gordon Sisters, an East coast act that sparred on stage, in an early moving picture. They were billed as “champion lady boxers of the world.” In a magazine published that same year, a vaudeville news roundup noted that “Bessie and Minnie Gordon are still punching the bag and doing a burlesque bout, but they don’t get any thinner.”
BONUS: THE UNKNOWN WOMEN OF THE OLYMPICS
The 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri happened concurrently with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a huge World’s Fair that featured everything new and amazing. Accordingly, the Olympics itself had lots of new sports to showcase, including exhibition games. Though women were not allowed to compete in any sport but archery, a few now-unknown women boxed in public at demonstration bouts. It was the last time women would box at the Olympics until 2012.