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Jackie Tonawanda: The Woman Boxer Who Paved the Way

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

She was known in her prime as ‘The Female Ali’, Jackie Tonawanda was an incredible woman who boxed for years before women were allowed to fight in sanctioned bouts. She was one of the great pioneers of women’s boxing, being one of the first women awarded a boxing licence in New York. She lost her only professional fight but holds an impressive record from her underground bouts. She was even named the No. 1 light heavyweight by Boxing Illustrated in 1979 and 1980. Even after she hung up her gloves, she went on to coach champions and prove that women were just as fierce in the ring as any man.

Rise to Boxing Acclaim:

Tonawanda was born in 1933 in New York though her birth year was often falsified in the media. When she was just 8 years old she became an orphan and by age 13 she had begun boxing in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. She trained hard and relentlessly, sparring against male opponents who she kept up with. Weighing in at 175 pounds Tonwanda was a legitimate heavyweight and struggled to find women in her weight class. She continued to spar with men as she stated women “couldn’t take my power.”

Due to the majority of her fights being unsanctioned as women were not allowed to prize fight her record is hard to determine. Sources claim it anywhere from 23-0 to 36-0. Despite this uncertainty Tonwanada’s achievements go far beyond her boxing record. She was the first woman to box in Madison Square Garden in 1975. Her opponent was kickboxer Larry Rodania whom she knocked out in the second round with a strike that broke his jaw. A man fighting a woman in such a public venue was unheard of, however it pushed female fighters into the spotlight and Tonawanda received many more offers to fight other men for the publicity.

Pioneering Women’s Boxing:

Tonawanda’s greatest achievement however was her resilience in facing the New York State to legalise and license female boxers. In 1974 she began her application for a boxing license, women could already legally be pro-wrestlers and boxing managers in the State so when her application was denied she fought hard to make it right. Ed Dooley, the head of the Athletic commission was outspoken in his beliefs that women would bring down the view of the sport. Rumours began to circulate about the danger of blows to women’s chests causing breast cancer. Tonawanda faced the sexism head on and set out to prove that women were more than capable as pugilists. She sued the state for discrimination and the state supreme court ruled in her favour, urging her to sue once again to have the laws preventing women from boxing to be revoked. Tonwanda did not pursue further legal action, in the coming years she would continue to fight in underground bouts and in 1976 she was invited to attend a training camp for Muhammad Ali. Tonawanda was awestruck and is quoted as saying he made her so nervous she couldn’t eat.

Her movement to recognise women’s boxing as legitimate was taken further by fellow boxer Cathy Davis in 1978 which lead to Davis, Tonawanda and Marian Trimiar to be the first women to receive boxing licenses in the state of New York. After gaining her licence and being allowed to fight professionally Tonawanda was much older than her contemporary opponents. She fought one professional bout against Diane Clark and lost in the 6th round by split decision, making her professional record 0-1. In 1986 she was injured in a car accident which forced her to officially retire, ending her professional career.

Becoming a Boxing Mentor and Activist:

Jackie Tonawanda was not finished paving the way though. She became the first female member of Ring 8, the Veterans Boxing Association which inducted her into its Hall of Fame. She also continued to coach for the military boxing team and trained heavyweight hero Israel Carlos Garcia. She was also an advisor to Jackie Frazier, daughter of heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. She would even mentor many future boxers like Veronica Simmons and Keisha Snow, among others. Outside of boxing she was known for giving motivational speeches to young people and would often lend her voice and efforts to charitable causes like Athletes Against Drunk Driving. Sadly, in 2009 Tonawanda passed away from colon cancer. Like many boxers from her time she had no pension to fund her funeral. However, Ring 8 raised funds for her to have a marked grave in the Bronx, memorialising her story and cementing her place within boxing history.

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