IT'S TIME TO RECOGNISE: UNSUNG HEROES
No matter where you look, the women’s code is at an all-time high. But despite the general acceptance that the likes of Katie Taylor and Claressa Shields have dragged women’s boxing into the contemporary limelight, there are superb women fighters who were laying the foundations well before the superstars of today arrived on the scene. Below, I list a small number of female fighters (who you may never have heard of) who are long overdue an honourable mention as the women’s code is finally hitting the heights it deserves to.
Before I say anything else, just look at those numbers. That’s 60 professional fights, the majority of which were contested over the 10-round championship distance. Her career has taken her to 5 different countries over 3 decades, starting in the late 90’s through to her most recent fight, a points defeat last year. She is a multi-time, unified two-weight world champion who has enjoyed huge success, particularly at super-bantamweight.
She appeared in several inaugural title fights; she won the first ever professional female fight to be staged in Argentina in 2001, before becoming Argentina’s first national female champion at both super bantam and featherweight a year later. She was the first woman to compete for WBC and WBA world titles at featherweight and super bantam respectively, and (at super bantam) would later unify the titles of both governing bodies. She has earned nearly half of her victories by knockout, yet has only ever been stopped once in her 8 losses, by the imperious Lucia Rijker in only her second professional fight. Make no mistake – if Marcela Acuna was a man, you’d have heard of her, and you’d probably be a fan.
Another member of the over-50-fights club, the American enjoyed a career that reminds me a little of Freddie Pendleton’s. An inconsistent beginning, a record peppered with losses and a risk of early obscurity that suddenly gave way to a surprise run of form. She won the inaugural California state women’s featherweight contest after losing 4 fights in a row, then stepped up to world level shortly after where she won the IBA and IFBA titles in 2004 (major governing bodies for the women’s code in the ‘00’s). She started her career in 1999, and added the NABF title to her collection in 2006.
She isn’t a world beater or an all-time great, and there are others who are more deserving of a place on this list. I include her here simply because in the men’s code, you will likely know of whoever you consider to be Jeffries’ equivalent.
Mariana Juarez, by contrast, is a definite world-beater and her titles from flyweight-thru-bantamweight prove it. She won her first in South Korea in 2004 at super flyweight, before losing it in her first defence 4 months later. A second defeat in as many fights cast doubt over her championship career, but Juarez recovered her form and went undefeated for the next four years, during which time she collected flyweight titles at national, and interim and world level for the WBC.
The early 2010’s brought more mixed fortunes; poorly timed losses stalled her dominance and after losing her flyweight title to Ava Knight in 2012, Mariana didn’t see another world title shot for five years. By 2017, she was 37 years old and was supposed to be in the sunset of her career. Ripping up the script for a second time, she moved up to bantamweight, defeated WBC champion Catharine Phiri, then went on another 4-year run of successful title defences to go 10-0 over the period. Mariana Juarez is 42 years old now and is still fighting – she most recently lost to Jackie Nava back in October.
Another 60 plus fight veteran who is into the third decade of her career, McCarter has also won world titles in multiple weight divisions. She began her career as a featherweight where she won the IFBA world title in 2001. Despite this, her early years were stop-start in terms of success; she would win a world title over 10 rounds then lose a 6-rounder in her next appearance, return with a win over 4 rounds then only manage a draw for a state-level belt. A loss in a WBA super-featherweight title eliminator against Jelena Mrdjenovich could have been the ceiling of McCarter’s ambitions.
Well, it wasn’t. Layla had already beaten Mrdjenovich in the professional ranks, and she beat her a second time in her maiden defence of the WBA lightweight title she had won the previous year. She unified the WBA and GBU titles at lightweight, then stepped up three weight divisions to knockout Noni Tenge for the WBA super-welterweight title in South Africa in 2012. McCarter fluctuated between several different weight classes during this period and eventually settled on welterweight, where she unified the IBF and GBU titles in 2018. Undefeated since 2007, she is still fighting today, and still possesses her IBF and GBU titles – and successfully defended them last month with a points win over Hannah Dos Santos.
This list is not supposed to be a who’s-who of female fighters. It is simply to highlight the issue of the relatively limited exposure that good female fighters receive. I made reference to Jackie Nava in the above article. I didn’t include her simply because South America has produced too many excellent female super bantamweights to include them all – there are already two of them on this list. Zulina Munoz, Deborah Dionicius, Yazmin Rivas…
I could have written this list several times over to the exclusion of far too many good fighters which, if nothing else, illustrates the point that there are too many unacknowledged stalwarts of women’s boxing who have spent most of their careers in relative obscurity. We will only solve this issue by rewarding their efforts with our collective interest.