What difference can a minute make?
In the world of boxing, divided by cornermen and referees and round breaks that chop up the action, a minute can be phenomenally important. Consider the nature of boxing itself: This is a sport in which the goal is the knockout, and having an additional 60 seconds to achieve that knockout — or withstand an onslaught in the buildup to one — can change the outcome of a fight. It certainly changes the style.
Ask professional fighter and Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, a 28-year-old flyweight with the round cheeks and wide smile of someone much younger. Esparza hails from a fight-obsessed family who pushed her two brothers into boxing from a young age, yet it was Marlen’s skill and enthusiasm that shined through. Her father, David, was initially reluctant to let her participate; considering the sport was the only thing that kept an adolescent Marlen out of trouble, however, he signed her up at Silva’s Boxing Gym in Pasadena, Texas. In 2012 — the first year women were allowed to compete in Olympic boxing — a then-23-year-old Esparza won bronze while training under longtime women’s boxing coach and advocate Christy Halbert. In April of this year, she dominated her fifth professional fight, earning a victory by knockout over Laetizia Campana.
Now Esparza is seeking a different kind of win: She is determined to see the round length in women’s boxing change from two minutes to the men’s standard of three. Beyond the strategic advantages that additional minute affords, she says it’s a matter of equality. Esparza’s experience growing up was colored by her “thinking about what I’m wearing, not talking to people in the gym because I didn’t want anyone to think I was flirting. … I’ve been through everything. Sexual harassment, you name it. Been there, done that.” She believes the round-length restriction is representative of the way the sport has different standards for women. “I think I feel so strongly about it because this is something I dealt with from when I started boxing,” she says. “From the moment I walked into a gym at 11 years old, that’s when I realized I was a girl in a boy’s world.”
Casual fans may be surprised to learn that there are different round lengths for men and women. The three-minute round has been a mainstay of men’s boxing for more than a century, but as women have increasingly joined the ranks of professional pugilists, that tradition has become the subject of hotly contested debate. Two-minute rounds have been something of an arbitrary standard for women, both in the amateur and professional divisions. The round lengths were instated largely as a concession — as an improvement over the industry preventing women from fighting at all. It wasn’t until 1995 that women were deemed eligible to compete for international Golden Gloves tournaments, and not until 2005 that the World Boxing Council agreed to sanction major title fights for women professionals.
As International Boxing Federation publicist Jeanette Salazar explains of the period when the IBF was determining whether it should sanction women’s bouts, “Our principal focus was on whether or not we should get involved with female professional boxing or not, not changing how the championship fights were formatted.” And the focus hasn’t changed since: The sport’s major governing bodies want women to take their two minutes and shut up.
Esparza and many others will not. “If you want me to fight like a pro, sit down on things and take my time, you need to give me time to do it,” she says. Esparza also wants to change the landscape for the next generation of women fighters. “And I think it’s about the greater good, for girls later on. For example, when I was younger, I had to do a lot of things for free, I had to sacrifice a lot, and spend money I didn’t have to try to get sponsors, to try to get my name out there. … It has to start somewhere. If we don’t do it, we’ll never make the money. Or it will stay the exact same, and we’ll be put in our place.”
The sport’s powers that be have repeatedly argued that this one-minute difference has no tangible impact. But that third minute per round means legitimacy to many female fighters — and one less excuse to be underpaid. “I could be 45 and be like, ‘Oh man, there’s somebody headlining 12 rounds for three minutes each and making tons of money,’” Esparza says. “[I don’t want to be] thinking, ‘That could’ve been me, but I kept quiet because I was too scared.’”
The World Boxing Council, one of the sport’s four major governing bodies, released a statement on women’s health in October 2014. It declared the WBC would not sanction any bout that did not confine women’s fights to 10 championship rounds at two minutes per round. It also made a number of claims about the risks that three-minute, 12-round bouts posed to women’s health, specifically regarding women’s increased likelihood of concussion and the “radical changes” menstrual hormones have on the female body.
The WBC was founded in 1963 and helmed for many years by the influential Jose Sulaiman. His son Mauricio took over after his death in 2014. The nonprofit body’s rulings often become industry standards, and this has extended to its stance on women’s round lengths. The IBF, World Boxing Organization, and World Boxing Association have each followed the WBC’s lead without resistance. I reached out to all three for comment, and they unanimously expressed approval of the two-minute ruling.
Esparza is skeptical of the logic behind the ruling. “[The WBC] told me that they did research, that [women] are more likely to get concussed. So I asked for the research, and I got no response,” she says. “I think everyone is still tiptoeing around this idea that really doesn’t exist.” She’s not the only one who feels this way. ESPN boxing correspondent Claudia Trejos is also dubious of the decision, and finds the two-minute limitation frustrating from a strategic perspective. “You cannot develop any type of fight plan in two minutes,” Trejos says. “Because in the first minute, you’re just there warming up. And you go round after round, and it doesn’t give you enough time. For all intents and purposes, it just pushes the competitor back.”
British Olympic gold medalist turned pro Nicola Adams has battled against the restriction since her second professional fight last year. She says that it impedes her ability to perfect her craft. “It just doesn’t feel like professional boxing with only two,” Adams says. “They want you to box and perform like a pro, but you can’t do that in two-minute rounds.”
Those who support the WBC’s ruling say that strategy has no place in the discussion; they contend that the limited round length exists solely as a safety precaution. “We want equal rights to get brain damage?” asks Lucia Rijker, a Dutch boxing champion turned coach. Or take Lou DiBella, the famed New York promoter behind heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, who’s been critical of those lobbying for a change. “What gets me is they’ve turned it into an example of inequality,” DiBella says. “If they did a little research, it’s sort of stupidity. … That’s just empirical medical fact.”
However, the two-minute round-length ruling is not based on empirical medical fact. At the least, it’s not based on any facts that have been made public. Dr. Mike Loosemore, the lead sports physician at the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health and a medical adviser to Great Britain’s Olympic committee, says, “When the rounds are longer rather than shorter, boxingwise, you tend to throw fewer punches. And pace the rounds differently. So it does change the style of the boxing, the length of the round. But I don’t think it has any effect on safety.”
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, head of the Sports Neurology Clinic and a concussion expert, says that rather than maintaining a gender-specific restriction, boxing would be better served mandating annual brain health monitoring among its fighters. “I would say there’s not enough evidence to restrict [round lengths], with the caveat being, I’d want to know what the bigger picture was overall regarding exposure to force,” Kutcher says. “As far as three minutes versus two minutes, there’s not a real good way of saying what the magic number is.”
In 2017, perhaps in response to growing concerns from women fighters about round lengths, Mauricio Sulaiman and WBC women’s committee chair Jill Diamond released a second statement about the ruling on the organization’s Facebook page, reiterating its position and expanding on what the WBC said was the medical rationale behind its decision. The WBC has been a long-term friend and benefactor of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, and the statement cites the university as one of the WBC’s main research partners in the field. “Nobody’s saying that women can’t fight three-minute rounds — of course they can,” Diamond says. “There’s no physical reason they can’t do it. Our information, that was given to us not only by UCLA but by others, is that based on the physiology, women are more likely to concuss and take a longer time to heal. If that information changes, we’ll change.”
Yet none of the doctors interviewed for this story say that this information exists — including one who sits on the WBC’s medical advisory board. Dr. Meeryo Choe, a neurologist at the UCLA Brain Research Institute who specializes in women’s brain health, says, “I can understand the thoughts behind making that [round-length] adjustment, but to determine if that’s the right thing to do or not, you’d have to do a study.”
Choe’s comments are surprising given that the 2017 statement from Sulaiman mentions her by name, and references a presentation on concussions she gave at the WBC women’s boxing convention in Tijuana from the year prior. When I read her the part of the statement that alludes to her presentation, Choe contradicts it at several points. Beyond that, she notes that she didn’t say some of what was included, and says that the WBC’s post is riddled with inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the science underlying the medical conversation around concussion.
According to Choe, there is no way to statistically determine that women “have almost 80 percent more concussion probability than men,” as the statement has her saying at the convention. Contrary to the claim that women take longer to recover from concussion, Choe says, “When I presented, I said — oh, and I have it underlined — recovery and return to play appears to be similar between gender. [Women] do have elevated symptom scores at the acute sign period, so right at the beginning. … But they won’t necessarily take longer to recover.”
When asked whether she backs the industry standard to restrict women’s round lengths, Choe pauses. “It’s not an easy call,” she says. “Arguably, if it’s women fighting women, I don’t think that they’re at a greater risk. They’re not getting hit harder. They’re facing an equal opponent. So I think it would take some investigation to see. … We don’t actually know if there are more concussions in women boxers than in men boxers.”
“In boxing, there isn’t any good evidence that women get more concussed than men,” Loosemore says. It all raises the question: If the WBC ruling isn’t based on hard data, why is the organization doubling down on it so adamantly?
During my reporting for this story, I asked the WBC to supply its rationale for keeping women’s round lengths at two minutes. The organization referred me to Dr. Paul Wallace, a veteran ringside physician and WBC medical adviser, who has yet to provide any data. This doesn’t appear to be an isolated experience. In a sport with evident health risks, the WBC routinely refuses to make this material available to coaches, trainers, and fighters who should be privy to it.
Nicola Adams refers to this unwillingness to share information as the “wall of silence.” Another industry veteran, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of negative employment consequences, says, “You can try talking to the WBC about it, but they’re just a stronghold. They do things mafia-style.” And Irish former super flyweight champion Christina McMahon finds the stance emblematic of the organization at large and of what she perceives as its history of silencing women. In 2016 she publicly criticized the WBC and alleged that it failed to conduct proper drug tests before her fight against Zulina Munoz. She was suspended for breaching the WBC code of ethics, which she says was punishment for speaking out. “It’s bully tactics. They think they have the right to break their own rules and for me not to speak about it,” McMahon says. “And to suspend [me] for speaking about it.”
Women fighters seem to share a sense that their careers are precarious; their victories short-lived. “No matter how hard you work, they can still take [your career] away from you,” Esparza says. “You can win a fight, and then lose it, and it’s not in your control.”
The lack of clarity surrounding women’s round lengths also has potentially massive financial ramifications. The WBC is a nonprofit sanctioning body, and is paid a flat sanctioning fee by promoters for a fight. Promoters are also responsible for paying boxers, and therefore set to profit or lose out depending on whether a fighter is successful. Several fighters who were interviewed for this story mentioned that they’d heard of promoters using two-minute round lengths as a justification to pay women less. Others said promoters had cited round lengths as a means of subtracting from their payment. Former WBC super bantamweight champ Alicia Ashley, who has been pro since 1999, says this is part of a sportwide culture that perpetually holds women back.
“[Women are] already not getting a fight, but now they can be blacklisted,” Ashley says. “[The WBC will just say], ‘We don’t want to deal with you.’ I’m at the end of my career, so I can talk about it. But a lot of the ones starting out, it’s hard for them. We’re already not making any money in this sport.”
The WBC denies that its round-length ruling has anything to do with payment. “A lot of women think that is what’s preventing them from getting the salaries that men do,” Diamond says. “It’s not. It absolutely is not the reason. And even if it was the reason, we still have to err on the side of safety.” DiBella — who has promoted a handful of women fighters over recent years, the most famous of whom is super bantamweight champion Heather Hardy — also rejects this notion. “It’s complete and utter bullshit,” he says. “Anyone who told you that really is either a moron or completely pulling at straws.”
Yet Hardy begs to differ. “Someone in [Lou’s] office — of course, it wasn’t Lou — someone I negotiate my contracts with, said to me, ‘Well, of course you’re not making as much as the guys, they fight three minutes and you fight two,’” Hardy says. “I shot that right down. That’s not my fucking choice.
“Lou DiBella is one of the top advocates of female boxers, but he is a businessman,” Hardy continues. “Boxing is a business and everybody’s in it to make money. So if [something proves] beneficial for everyone — the promoters, the managers, the sanctioning bodies, for them all to be on the same side — that kind of makes sense when it comes to money.”
A change to women’s round lengths wouldn’t solve all of the pay inequality problems plaguing the sport. While installing three-minute rounds would speak to a newfound emphasis on gender equality, it would be unlikely to boost the poor television revenues that are fighters’ bread and butter. “It’s just an excuse,” Hardy says. “We weren’t going to make as much money anyway. … They’re not using the two-minute rounds to justify paying us less because they’ve been paying us less forever.”
DiBella agrees on that much. “It’s hard for a woman to earn above the poverty line, even if she’s a good fighter and a world-champion female,” he says. “She can still be limited to 30, 40, 50 thousand [dollars] in a year. That’s not OK.” DiBella cites another reason for the discrepancy: Networks have been slow to get onboard, presuming that women’s fights won’t sell.
Professional women boxers are still a relative novelty on television screens, where they take up small sections of undercards even during championship bouts. An exception is Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, a WBC middleweight world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is undefeated in her six professional fights. Shields may be the closest thing women’s boxing has to a Ronda Rousey figure, a commercial star who could change the overall standing of women in combat sports. In 2016 she signed a multifight deal with Showtime, becoming the first woman to ink such an agreement with a major network.
The trickle of pro women boxers on television has gradually begun to increase, with Showtime airing the Amanda Serrano vs. Yazmin Rivas bout in January 2017 — the first women’s match to be nationally televised in a decade. In June of this year, Shields defeated Hanna Gabriels in a televised fight that generated the highest viewership of any Showtime Boxing: Special Edition since 2014.
But these boxing baby steps have been regularly eclipsed by MMA, which seems to be doing a much better job at promoting its women. “I went over to MMA, and my MMA company promoted me, and I ended up with five times the following on social media,” says Hardy, who started cultivating an MMA career along with her boxing last year. “By my third fight, I was the main event on the main card for Bellator, which is the second-largest MMA company in the world. I made more money in my first MMA fight than I was making in my 21st boxing fight.”
Interest in women’s combat sports clearly exists, and MMA has proved to be a superior model. In November 2015, Rousey fought Holly Holm in front of almost 60,000 fans — a record number for UFC attendance. For a while, Rousey was one of the highest-paid athletes in combat sports, bringing in a reported flat fee of $3 million for her appearance in UFC 207 alone. While pay inequality remains an issue in MMA, far more women are earning top dollar than in boxing: Cris Cyborg regularly brings in $500,000 per fight, and Holm takes home between $300,000 and $500,000. When it comes to highly ranked women boxers, the numbers are not equivalent.
Boxing hasn’t found a way to tap into the popularity of MMA, or else hasn’t put forth the resources to do so. Even Shields, arguably the most prominent woman in her field, doesn’t make a fraction of the money a man in her position would. “Right now, I get paid, what … 50K [per fight]?” she says. “If a man had [my] same résumé, he’d have got a signing bonus for a million or 2 million dollars. And then, he’d have probably fought on TV in his first professional fight.”
It’s a chicken-or-egg scenario as far as pay inequality is concerned. Many women believe that round-length restrictions are part of an excuse to pay them less, but not the lone factor. This thinking has bred a lack of consensus about how to best counteract the two-minute ruling, a fracture that angers Esparza. “We don’t have to agree on everything,” she says. “I think everybody — all the girls, the men, the promoters, the fans — will see we have a voice if we want to have one.”
Shields, for her part, prefers two-minute rounds to three. Some of her peers feel similarly, citing their experience, expertise, and comfort level in the current setup. Every boxer interviewed for this story agrees on one thing, though: When it comes to setting industry round-length standards, women should have the right to choose.
“[The WBC] included us, but now is really time to make sure they put equal opportunities and equal rights, and make us equal to the men,” Shields says. “We’re still working toward that. Women’s boxing has taken some jumps, but we’re not equal to the men yet. Nowhere near.”
Women can circumvent the two-minute ruling so long as a fight isn’t for a title belt from one of the sport’s major governing bodies. Esparza wrangled the Nevada State Athletic Commission into letting her participate in a three-minute-round bout against Samantha Salazar in 2017, which Esparza won by unanimous decision. Esparza follows in the footsteps of an older generation of fighters, like Layla McCarter, who have long been proponents of three-minute, 12-round bouts for women. In Nevada, McCarter helped change the policy to allow 12-x-3 fights to take place on a waiver system — if both women agree to it and it’s approvable by commission standards.
Nevada isn’t the only state whose athletic commission has voiced dissent with the WBC’s stance. Three-minute rounds are optional in dozens of others, including New York and New Jersey, as long as they’re used in non-title fights. In Great Britain, where the boxing commission is a sole national organization, women can fight with either two- or three-minute rounds. And in early 2017, the Amateur International Boxing Association changed its rules to permit women to use three-minute rounds as well.
“The British Boxing Board of Control Medical Panel have considered all medical aspects for boxers, both male and female, and have not seen any specific evidence to support the WBC’s stance,” says Robert Smith, general secretary for the BBBofC. “I have requested their data but as yet not received any. At present the board are happy to continue with its medical requirements for all boxers.”
While there’s some hope these organizations will pressure the WBC into adopting a more progressive stance, reasons to be encouraged are sparse. As McCarter writes via email: “Their minds are made up as indicated by their statements on never sanctioning women to fight three-minute rounds. Their stance on this matter is one reason why I’ve never felt compelled to fight for a WBC belt.”
Until things change, this minute difference will continue to represent the gender discrimination endemic to the boxing world. The WBA, for instance, not only endorses the WBC views on concussions, it also employs a medical adviser who publicly subscribes to theories that support long-debunked notions about women’s need for breast and groin protection. The myth of female physical inadequacy seems to inform proceedings across the board for boxing’s governing bodies.
Esparza is adamant that there must be a way forward, even if the path isn’t clear. “If I ever fight for a WBC belt, then I would have to fight [with rounds that are] two minutes,” she says. “But I’m at a point where I’d almost just rather beat the person who has the belt and they can keep their belt.” She goes on to add: “[The change] is something that needs to be done. I don’t think it’s fair. And I’ll never retract that statement.”
Christina Newland is a writer on film, culture, and boxing who has written for The Guardian, Sight & Sound Magazine, Hazlitt, and Vice.