The Female Ali

Jackie Tonawanda led the fight for women in pro boxing

One of the very first issues of Sports Stories we put out was about Irma Gonzalez, a groundbreaking lucha libre wrestler in Mexico who was briefly known as La Novia del Santo -- a title that carried with it the endorsement of El Santo himself, the greatest icon in the history of lucha libre. 

I was thinking about Irma as I began to write notes about Jackie Tonawanda. Tonawanda, a boxer, was known as the Female Ali, or sometimes Lady Ali. It was a nickname she gave to herself -- and it served her well, even bringing her together as a friend, sparring partner, and bodyguard to Muhammad Ali toward the end of his career in the ring.

But just as thinking of Irma Gonzalez as merely La Novia del Santo did a disservice to her actual record as a wrestler, thinking about Jackie Tonawanda only in the context of Ali does a disservice to her abilities in the ring, and to her status as a pioneer for women’s rights in the sport of boxing. 

Tonawanda’s real name was Jacqueline Garrett. She was born in Long Island and grew up in Queens. She was orphaned young, but she found a home at New York’s famous Gleason’s Gym. For a woman born in 1933, boxing was not exactly a proven career choice. It was one of the most popular sports in the world, but only for men. There simply weren’t female pro fighters. But Jackie bided her time. She later said that some of the male fighters, including the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, took her under their wings.

Tonawanda was tall and strong and charismatic. She dabbled in pro wrestling. The only real boxing available to her was in amateur fights, where she tended to overwhelm her opponents, claiming a record of 24-0 at one point. But those records were not exactly carefully documented. She may have fought even more, but Tonawanda had a hard time finding opponents. 

At 5-11 and 175 pounds, there weren’t many women boxers who could stand toe- to-toe with her in the ring. She wasn’t the fastest on her feet, but she didn’t need to be: she had quick hands and real power, and like the man she took her nickname from, Towanda had some moves. She could roll around punches and throw strong counters. 

It all added up to something serious. A disciplined, well-trained fighter. But the world was not ready for Jackie Tonawanda. And finally, she got tired of waiting for the world. In the 1970s, Tonawanda began a concerted effort to convince the powerful New York State Athletic Commission to allow her to fight as a professional. She was taking on not just the general sexism of America, but the particular sexism of the vain, self-important men who ran the sport.

Her main antagonist was Edwin Dooley, the chairman of the commission. Dooley, a former Republican congressman, had previously generated controversy as the first boxing official to deny Muhammad Ali a license to fight due to his opposition to the Vietnam War. He argued that women boxing would destroy the sport’s reputation and that women’s bodies were not physically capable of withstanding the blows of boxing.

“I think it’s terrible,” said Floyd Patterson, the former champ who sat on the Athletic Commission. “I always respected women and have been a supporter of women’s lib. But in the boxing ring, no. I can’t stand to see women cutting each other up and spilling blood in the ring.” 

Compared to his colleagues, Patterson was a gentleman. Commission members and other men in the boxing community went so far as to openly speculate about the possibility that women could get breast cancer from boxing. But Jackie Tonawanda didn’t have time for Floyd Patterson’s enlightened sexism or any other kind. She was already in her 40s. Sanctioned or not, boxing careers don’t last forever. 

In 1975, Tonawanda fought at Madison Square Garden in an exhibition kickboxing match against a man. The match didn’t fall under the purview of the Athletic Commission. Tonawanda won in a second round knockout. Fighting men was not her preference; kickboxing was not her preference. But Jackie would take what she could.

The following year, she was invited to training camp with Muhammad Ali in upstate New York. Tonawanda sparred with the champ, and was written up in the New York Times. The article describes her as outspoken and genial and nearly as interested in astrology as she is in the sweet science. In the story, she also appears to lie about her age by about two decades. The sexism is there too:

“Many people assume that the women who are involved in such traditionally masculine and brutal sports as boxing are not particularly feminine, or interested in their femininity. This is clearly untrue on the case of Miss Towanda.”

Tonawanda was at the time managed by the former NFL player Alex Karras. She was plotting out a fight against Mike Quarry (whose brother Jerry had twice fought Ali) in the Houston Astrodome. The fight against Quarry never materialized. But Tonawanda supposedly worked as a bodyguard for Ali, and later George Foreman. She also continued her quest to box as a professional. 

When Dooley denied her a license, Tonawanda sued the state Athletic Commission. Here’s a very brief passage from the Commission’s defense:

"Neither is the Commission satisfied that women boxers would not be unduly endangering their reproductive organs and breasts; despite the use of whatever protective devices may be available. The avoidance of serious physical injury is a major responsibility of the Commission.”

It goes without saying that eventually, Tonawanda won out -- along with two other contemporaries, Marian “Tyger” Trimiar, and Catherine “Cat” Davis, she is credited with ultimately winning women the right to fight as professionals and paving the way for future generations of women boxers. 

But Tonawanda only managed one official pro fight -- and it wasn’t in New York, it was in Louisville. She lost a split decision to Diane “Dynamite” Clark, a fighter two decades her junior. After that, Tonawanda continued as an amateur, and fought one more time against a man (she won). In 1986, she was in a car crash that finally convinced her to retire. She was 53 years old. 

Tonawanda lived in Connecticut for a while. She worked civilian jobs. But she also remained a fixture in the New York boxing scene, working with fighters both male and female as she came across them. It wasn’t a glamorous life or an easy one. She was reportedly inducted into the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame, and she was the first woman to join Ring 8, an association of boxing veterans in New York.

When she passed away in 2009 from colon cancer, she didn’t have much. In fact, she was on the verge of burial in an unmarked common grave. It was Ring 8 that raised money for her funeral service and a proper burial. There was something beautiful about it: the fraternity of boxers had finally accepted her, and finally helped. But there was also something tragic about it. Jackie Tonawanda spent her life fighting for inclusion among the sport’s governing institutions. The truth is, she had always belonged among boxing’s elite. She knew it all along. They recognized it too late.

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Related Reading

Much has been written about Jackie Tonawanda. You can find her dotting the archives of the New York Times, and occasionally in the late Bill Gallo’s old New York Daily News boxing stories. I recommend a couple of quick articles from Mental Floss and Fightland that cover her journey and her fight to become a professional. 

Tonawanda also appeared regularly in Jet Magazine

If you’re interested in her legal fight to achieve pro status, you can read the New York Supreme Court decision in Garrett v. Athletic Commission online. 

Tonawanda’s legal battle is also covered in some books, including Malissa Smith’s A History of Women’s Boxing.

Also: it’s worth stating here that there are a few places that show Tonawanda as having been born in 1948, as opposed to 1933. I tried my usual tricks to look up birth certificates and stuff but did not have any success. That said, her obituaries all have her as born in 1933 . Most semi-official sources do. The 1948 birth year seems to have come from Tonawanda herself in select interviews. I went with 1933.

Israel Carlos Garcia

In 2000, Tonawanda became an unofficial trainer of sorts for a heavyweight contender named Israel Carlos Garcia. The relationship was rather remarkable: Garcia worked as a maintenance man at Tonawanda’s apartment building in the Bronx. He was a latecomer to boxing, not starting until he turned 21. So he asked Tonawanda for help. She guided him to what would ultimately be a 21-3 career record, and a place among contenders for the heavyweight title. In a news story on Garcia, she chided Garcia for his lack of a killer instinct. “You’re opponent ain’t your friend, she said. “He’s your enemy.