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Barbara Butterick an icon for womens boxing

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Barbra Butterick (left) beats Phyllis Kugler in 1957 for the world title.

In the 50’s boxing produced some stellar fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano. But among these champions a new star was rising, Barbara Butterick. Known as the ‘Mighty Atom of the Ring’, she paved the way for women to take their place among the men. Sociology professor Kath Woodward says of 1950’s women’s boxing that it was “on a par with getting drunk and with gambling", but Butterick would change that. Accumulating a near perfect record, establishing the Women's International Boxing Federation and even having a play inspired by her life, let's take a look at the incredible story of Barbara Butterick.

Beginning in the Booths

Born in 1929 in Cottingham, East Yorkshire, Butterick slipped on her first pair of boxing gloves rather late. As astounding as Buttericks career is, she actually came into boxing by mere chance. She read about prize boxer Polly Burns in the newspaper and decided to try it herself. At 4”11 and weighing 98 pounds she boxed as a flyweight and had to take on opponents much bigger than her. In the 40’s she gave up her job as a typist and began boxing at fairground booths, portable rings set up for entertainment as shows passed through towns. She would challenge attending women to three round exhibitions. She travelled the country with different shows to improve her skills and became rather well known in the boxing scene.

She moved to London hoping to find a trainer and other female boxers to spar with. She began training with Leonard Smith, the man whom she would marry years later. But moving to the city faced Butterick with a problem, the widespread notion that boxing was a sport for men exclusively. Though female boxers were celebrated in travelling carnivals they were a circus spectacle that were not to be taken seriously and many wished them to stay that way. Despite praise from sport writers who thought she was highly skilled and daunting in the ring, Butterick struggled to even get into other gyms and was refused when she asked to work out with the men. She was frustrated and has since said “I was just interested in it and I figured I should be able to do what I wanted to do.” And that she did.

Boxing in the USA

Butterick took all the prejudice in stride and moved to the US in 1952 to take on some of the emerging female boxers there. The attitudes were much more relaxed and women were not just confined to boxing in booths. Butterick won 8 bouts in a row and defeated the US bantam weight champion. She travelled around the states for years, accumulating over 1000 exhibition fights in her career. In 1957, she was awarded one of the first boxing licences for a woman in the state of Texas alongside fellow boxer Phyllis Kugler. The two then faced off in San Antonio for the first ever women’s world championship title. Butterick emerged victorious becoming the first women’s boxing world champion. She retired in 1960 with a record of 30-1-1, having lost to Jo Ann Hagen in 1954 who was much taller than Butterick and outweighed her by 33 pounds. She stayed within the sport even after retirement. She had 2 children and became a ringside photographer. Yet, even after leaving the sport she still revolutionised it.

Beyond Boxing

In 1990 she was the first ever woman to be inducted into the International Wrestling and Boxing Hall of Fame an achievement that will be remembered for generations. Butterick also founded and became the president of the Women’ International Boxing Federation in 1993, opening the way for more female boxers. Her influence on the sport is even felt outside of boxing as in 2017 a play called ‘The Mighty Atoms’ based on her life was performed in Hull and achieved critical acclaim. Finally, when women’s boxing debut at the London 2012 Olympics, Butterick was there to watch Nicola Adams take the gold as if passing on the proverbial baton.


In her life Barbara Butterick proved that she was, in her own words, “the same as any boy.” She challenged ideas of femininity and was undeterred by the bias of her critics. She was even the first female boxer to have her fight broadcast on national television. Though small in stature, she left a mighty impression on boxing and spearheaded the progression of the sport. Now a grandmother of 4, her story is sure to inspire others for years to come.

About Unorthodoxx and our womens boxing gloves

Unorthodoxx is the UK’s first Women’s Boxing brand that has been created purely for women and has exclusively designed women’s boxing gloves and women’s boxing clothing. Our products and equipment are designed to offer the ultimate fit, protection and durability for female boxers and combat sports fighters. From novice beginners to elite competition Unorthodoxx fight gear offers the best women’s boxing gloves, clothing and equipment.

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