Boxing

Loneliness, fear of fighters enters ring

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If you sit close enough to the ring, you can feel the fear and loneliness of the fighters. At least, I always imagined it was their fear and loneliness, and not my own. From ringside, the fighters are fathers, brothers, sons not simply cartoonish scowling faces on casino posters.

They could get their faces beat in, their brains scrambled. They could die. As a sports writer, I'd feel an unease in even being there, watching. I was also riveted.

When Irish featherweight champion Barry McGuigan was asked why he was a boxer, he said, "I can't be a poet. I can't tell stories." I thought of that as I read about Margaret MacGregor, a 36-year-old lightweight who won a four-round decision against a man in Seattle Saturday night.

She was a runaway and drug dealer who spent three years in prison. She wasn't going to be a poet, either.

MacGregor had every right to be in the ring, earning a few bucks with her fists as men have been doing for generations. She made it clear she wasn't carrying her gender's banner when she went toe-to-toe with 33-year-old Loi Chow in the first male vs. female bout ever sanctioned. Asked what she proved by winning, she answered, "Just that I'm a winner."

Yet one can't help but examine MacGregor's quest in terms of gender. Women have been fighting professionally for several years now. Laila Ali, the youngest of Muhammad Ali's seven daughters, won her debut fight last week with a 31-second knockout of a former waitress.

But despite women gaining footholds and respect in virtually every other formerly male sport, there is still a circus-sideshow quality to women's boxing bouts. "Raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women," Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her 1987 book, "On Boxing." "The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous."

What Oates was saying, I think, is that boxing is so peculiarly masculine that female participation is incongruous to the point of seeming ridiculous. As a feminist who has supported women's sports since I could swing a bat, I'm all for women breaking barriers. And yet I can't help feeling vaguely disappointed that women are following in these particular footsteps.

I confess that I have always secretly thought women are just the tiniest bit better than men. Women possess more qualities I personally admire, such as a common-sense instinct toward survival. Women don't seem drawn to activities that involve right hooks to the temple. We have watched with head-shaking confoundment as men have brutalized each other in the name of sport, paying for the privilege with their lives. Laila Ali's famous father can barely move or speak from Parkinson's Syndrome, which doctors believe was caused by so many blows to the head. Just last month a fighter in Kansas City slipped into a coma after a knockdown and died three days later.

I kept thinking this weekend that, well, women are entitled to equal-opportunity, distinctly un-female stupidity. Then I remembered sitting ringside how I'd feel that prickle of excitement, how repulsion almost always gave way to attraction. Maybe boxing taps into some unarticulated brutality in me. Maybe Ali and MacGregor make me uncomfortable because they are giving it form. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to herat her e-mail at joanryan@sfgate.com.)

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