Diamonds In The Ring

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Joe Frazier is--thwack!--training a boxer on the heavy bag at his North Philadelphia gym. "Don't reach," Frazier admonishes. Louder thwacks. Suddenly the former heavyweight champion stops, squints his eyes, then gently wipes the boxer's runny nose with his gloved hand. "What?" the younger athlete says, momentarily self-conscious. "Do I have snot there?"

Such intimate moments between the legend and his charges are rare, but the boxer Smokin' Joe is coaching today is his daughter Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, 39, who turned pro in January. Since Muhammad Ali's fierce 22-year-old daughter Laila made a splash in her pro debut last October, Frazier-Lyde has ratcheted the hype up a notch. Sounding more like her father's greatest rival, the lawyer and mother of three has vowed to carry on the Frazier legacy and "whip Laila's butt"--preferably in September, on the 25th anniversary of the Thrilla in Manila. Ali's response? "That's cute. But first let's see if she can win some fights." She can. In her third win in three bouts earlier this month, she scored a first-round knockout. Explains Joe: "The bloodline's good." The bloodline's not bad for Ali either. Last week she faced her sixth pro challenge in China. In her TV debut (the bout was broadcast on Showtime), Ali stopped a bloodied Kristina King on a TKO in the fourth round.

The entry of Ali (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) and Frazier-Lyde (Sister Smoke) into the pros--followed by declarations from progeny of other famed pugilists, including the daughters of Roberto Duran and George Foreman--has brought a wave of visibility, and renewed heat, to women's boxing. This week in Kenner, La., J'Marie Moore, 39, the daughter of former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore, will box on the first all-women's card to be shown live over the Internet. Next up will be Freeda Foreman, George's 23-year-old daughter. While a virus forced Foreman to postpone her pro debut three weeks ago, she has vowed to quickly resume her career.

But how good are these daughters of legends really? And is women's boxing truly a sport or merely what Fight Game editor Bert Sugar dismisses as "Baywatch with gloves on"? The women's game has the same 18 weight classes as men's boxing, but rounds last two minutes instead of three, and many fighters are relative novices who have turned pro after few if any amateur matches, as compared with the 20-plus bouts that male fighters tend to have.

Still, the 400 female pros and more than 1,400 amateurs worldwide represent a fivefold increase over the numbers three years ago and have brought a corresponding increase in the game's popularity and skill. Women garner better ratings than men on ESPN and sell out casinos. Even Hollywood has taken notice. At the Sundance film festival in January, Girlfight, about a woman who finds fulfillment through boxing, won a prize for drama. On the Ropes, a documentary featuring Tyrene Manson, an aspiring pro fighter training for the Golden Gloves, was nominated for an Oscar. "Especially with the growth of the amateur program, it's here to stay," says former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. "The women can fight."

By all accounts, the woman among the sport's famed newcomers who can really fight is the undefeated Ali, who sold her nail salon last year to devote herself full time to boxing. It doesn't hurt that she's a jab off the old block. In Detroit two weeks ago, Ali was knocked down in the second round for the first time in her career by Karen Bill. With her dad at ringside and buoyed by chants from the 14,000-strong crowd--"Al-ee! Al-ee! Al-ee!"--she struggled up at the count of eight, then beat on Bill until the referee stopped the fight for a third-round TKO.

Ali embodies the zeal of the sport's athletes, a quality that has struck a chord with both jaded fans and high-profile trainers. Former heavyweight champion Greg Page says women are more fun to watch and more rewarding to coach because "they work harder." Hannah Fox, a married mother of one and a former junior-welterweight champion, owns two Subway restaurants in Las Vegas and trains with Page. She rises at 5 a.m., runs four miles, goes to the gym for strength training, manages the eateries from 10 to 3, spars in the afternoon, then goes home and makes dinner. "I'd do it full time if I could survive financially," she says. For the rare title fight, Fox makes between $5,000 and $10,000. Most women boxers make $200 a round.

And yet, why box, and subject one's busty female self to the brutality of the sweet science? Anne Vitiello, a former amateur and a commentator for HBO's boxing website, calls boxing an "archetypal experience" that transformed her life. With sharpened clarity and a less combative nature ("It's easier to get your boss coffee when you both know you can break his nose"), Vitiello says in the course of her years of boxing she found a successful freelance career, marriage and motherhood--a pretty good return for getting punched repeatedly.

Another draw is boxing's promise, however distant, of a full-time career. Manson, now on a work-release program related to a drug charge, remains driven to turn pro to show inner-city neighbors "I made something of myself." Vitiello last month launched Girls First, a New York-based nonprofit foundation to train and sponsor would-be Smokes and Butterflies.

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