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Nearly a full decade ago, on Dec. 6, 2002, Christy Martin and Mia St. John squared off in what felt at the time like a desperate last gasp for two of the three biggest names in female fighting. You could call women's boxing at the time a fad, a sideshow, a novelty. But it was a fad/sideshow/novelty that big-time promoters had been legitimately relying on to help entertain the masses since 1996. A not very hotly anticipated bout between Martin, the pioneer of the sport fading fast at age 34, and St. John, her 35-year-old, style-over-substance counterpart, signaled the beginning of the end of that era, with the rest of the end coming gradually over the next five years until Laila Ali -- daughter of Muhammad and third member of that "three biggest names" triumvirate -- retired in 2007.
Though the era has ended, the careers of Martin and St. John have not. Now 44 and 45, respectively, they will engage in an untelevised rematch on Tuesday in a 1,200-seat event center at Table Mountain Casino in Friant, Calif. It's being billed as the final bout for both. If their first fight was a last gasp, this one is an occasion to hold our collective breath, lest we inhale the stench of a rotting corpse.
This is not meant as an attack on Martin, St. John, promoter Roy Englebrecht, or any of the brave women trying to earn a living as boxers. It's merely an honest indictment of what's become of women's boxing. The sport has gone from sideshow to no-show, at least in the United States, as evidenced by the fact that Martin and St. John remain, in their mid-40s, the two most recognizable active American boxers.
The question is whether the decade-delayed end of this era is truly the end for women's boxing or just a point of demarcation before a new era begins.
As 17-year-old Claressa Shields returns home from London with the United States' only gold medal in boxing, the iron is as hot as it's ever going to be for establishing a new wave of stars in the women's game. And Shields and her fellow 2012 Olympians represent a brand of female pugilist that barely existed in Martin's heyday: one with world-class skills.
"I remember some early pro bouts that I put on, we're talking '95 or '96, I had some girls actually turn their backs in the ring," recalls Englebrecht, who claims to have promoted more female fights than anyone in boxing history. "Now the female fighters are light years ahead -- their technique, their ability, their experience in the ring, just the amateur program, all the girls are very skilled right now. If you're a professional female boxer now, you have some real skills, as opposed to 15 years ago when 50 percent of the girls had hardly any skills -- they were basically waitresses who got into the ring."
Martin was a slugger who thrived at a time when few opponents possessed the technical proficiency to expose her deficiencies. Her crushing fists and gushing nostrils combined to land her on the cover of Sports Illustrated in '96. Relying heavily on two attributes centrally located between her two fists, St. John rode that wave to the cover of Playboy in '99. Ali used her surname and the most impressive boxing skills of the trio to earn begrudging respect from hardcore fight fans and become, in 2001, the first woman to get the cover of KO magazine all to herself. (She later went well beyond that by competing on "Dancing With The Stars" and co-hosting "American Gladiators.")
But Ali's successor as the best was American Holly Holm, who convincingly defeated both Martin and St. John in '05, but never received mainstream recognition. She barely even got any recognition within boxing circles. She's as attractive and talented as any of her predecessors; Holm just came along at the wrong time, a time when major American promoters and network executives no longer cared about women's boxing. The fad had faded.
It's no accident that Holm proceeded to try her hand at MMA (she fought twice in 2011 and won both). That's where the better female fighters have been gravitating since women's boxing stopped being a lucrative career option, and the biggest stars in women's combat sports these days include the likes of Gina Carano, Cristiana "Cyborg" Santos and Ronda Rousey. Those are the household names that have supplanted Martin, St. John and Ali.
Tuesday's rematch between Martin and St. John certainly isn't going to change that. It's not a serious sporting event featuring the best that women's boxing has to offer. It's a nostalgia play featuring, sadly, the two biggest names that women's boxing has to offer. Martin's pursuit of a career-capping 50th win a little bit less than two years after her ex-husband stabbed and shot her makes for a compelling human interest story. But it won't turn back the clock on her ability to fight or on women's boxing's place within American popular culture.
It's up to the likes of gold medalist Shields -- and the promoters and network executives who determine where the opportunities and exposure will go -- to usher in a new era for the sport.
Martin and St. John represent the past and, to a gathering of 1,200 fans in a California casino on Tuesday night, the present. They do not represent the future. Their fight simply serves as the last hurdle the sport must clear before finding out whether it has a future.