Malissa Smith, a historian specializing in women's boxing who runs the website Girlboxing, will be releasing her second book, “Promise of Women's Boxing: A Momentous New Era for the Sweet Science,” on June 4. Smith will be at Gleason’s Gym in New York City on June 15 for a book launch party, but first she spoke at length with BoxingScene about her observations on Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields and more.

Below is Part 1 of our BoxingScene Q&A with Malissa Smith. Look for Part 2 to be published on the site Thursday.

BoxingScene: So what is the premise of your second book?

Malissa Smith: I am a women's boxing historian, one of very few in the world, and I originally wrote a book called “A History of Women’s Boxing,” in 2014. Since then, no one has followed me in terms of writing books specific to women's boxing. There have been some academic works, but that's about it. My publisher, Rowman & Littlefield came to me and said, “Maybe you should update your book; so much has been going on.” Then, in talking it through, we said, “Wait a minute, it really needs to be a whole new book, because my first book was a history book. It covered the arc of 300 years, from the early 1720s until the Olympics in 2012. And so, the genesis for “The Promise of Women's Boxing,” a momentous new era for the sweet science, was taking a look at what happened the day after the Olympics. Did women's boxing suddenly explode? Or have there been lots of bumps along the road to bring us to the point of having these remarkable superfights between the likes of Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano, and so on. So that was the departure point for the book.

BS: So what's the process like going from writing something with a scope of the whole history of women’s boxing to looking through a microscope at a very defined time period? Is there a level of freedom in either? What are some of the differences you noticed?

Smith: There were quite several. The first thing was teasing out what it was we wanted to cover, and I broke the book up into three distinct periods, the period from 2012 to 2016, which really focused more on the amateur world of boxing, and contrasting that to the women who had already been boxing as professionals but were having such a hard time getting traction on cards and pushing for opportunities to make money. So I really wanted to focus on what those parallel tracks looked like. I then looked at the period from 2017 to 2019, to think about what happened when the Olympians finally started to enter into the world of [professional] boxing. Was their experience different from the old-game boxers or was it significantly the same? And in the case of fighters like Claressa Shields and Katie Taylor, it was a very different paradigm. They started off earning salaries that the women who had been boxing all along never saw. So those are the kinds of things that we looked at, and then the third part of the book was looking at COVID-19 to the current state of boxing, which really sure saw another shift, where women started to have real superfights, started to earn a million dollars, or certainly six-figure paydays, which they had never routinely earned except for some rare exceptions during the Christy Martin era.

BS: What changed in the last decade for women’s boxing?

Smith: For me, from my perspective, it was the proven ability of the Olympians Katie Taylor, for one, Claressa Shields for another. If we look at those two in parallel – although they’re very different women, very different fighters – they had a similar experience in terms of coming to the party with a really tight promotional team and management team that had a real sense of what the future could look like as they began.

Katie Taylor, as a fighter, is a known quantity. We essentially have her to thank for women boxing in the Olympics in the first place. And not to say she was the only driver – that’s not the case. But as a fighter, her excellence in elite amateur sports and in winning all the international titles, the world titles, really went a long way demonstrating to the IOC, and then to the AIBA – which was the international organization managing elite boxing at the time – just how high a level of boxing women had achieved. Because of her and boxers like Marlen Esparza, the American who eventually won the bronze medal in 2012 at the London Games, it pushed the window, if you will, to bring women into the sport. Then they achieved so much notoriety, so much excellence in the 2012 Olympics, it really gave momentum and excitement to the sport.

For a fighter like Heather Hardy, who turned pro in 2012, just at the time of the Olympics in London, her path was very parallel – she had been an amateur champion. But her pedigree was much smaller. She had started later in the sport; she hadn’t started as a child. She had won some fights, she lost some fights, but she didn't have the momentum to be able to become an Olympian. So her choice was to go into the pros at that time, but that meant maybe $3,000 for a fight? Or five, maybe four. And yes, she was an incredible ticket seller and always had a real sense of how to market herself. Which meant she could sell $40,000 worth of tickets for an event at Barclays, and she was the first woman to box at Barclays Center, but she couldn't get on a television part of the card. Even though she would sell out her tickets (and then some), she’d end up fighting at 5:00 and the people who paid to see her wouldn't even get to see her fight. So there were a tremendous number of challenges that she fought against.

Katie Taylor and Claressa Shields, who both won gold medals at the Olympics in 2012, didn’t opt to go pro then, because they knew there was no way they were going to crack the code now. They had the advice and the support of their teams to hang back. Do another round of Olympics in 2016. And they judged that to be a better time to cross the divide into the pros.

BS: How does the emphasis on appearance, beauty and presentation in women's boxing differ from that in men’s boxing? Is this evolving?

Smith: That’s a terrific question. It’s one that’s plagued the sport for a generation, really, since Christy Martin started fighting in the ‘90s and made the sport that we know of as women’s boxing. She came out in pink, she was attractive. She wasn't muscle-bound. However, she was strong, and therefore very unthreatening to a male-dominated sport.

Lucia Rijker – who is probably on everyone's pound-for-pound greatest female fighter list, or at least the top three or four – along with Christy Martin, were the first two women to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2020. Rijker, who grew up in Holland, was a kickboxer. And as for her body, she’s muscle-bound. That’s just her natural body. She’s got a low fat ratio. She’d always been in athletics, and she would get tortured for how she looked. People would say, “Are you really a woman? I refuse to fight you unless you take a chromosome test.” It was really vicious. So that never really overcame itself, and you have now issues with prettiness in the sport, colorism in the sport. Someone will look at Heather Hardy and say, “Oh, well, she’s not really a fighter. She’s just a pretty blonde. Well, she is a fighter – and a really tough fighter.

But women are stigmatized for their looks, whether they’re good boxers or bad boxers. Ebanie Bridges, who is a phenomenal fighter out of Australia, takes pride in her gifts as a boxer and as a very pretty, very shapely woman. She had been a bodybuilder who came out to weigh-in in very elaborate, scanty underwear, and this has scandalized people. But she’s owning her sexuality as part of her brand and how she’s marketing herself sport. So it gets complex, because it’s like the women own what they’re doing or not. And if they don’t, how are they negotiating that? And it very much plays out in social media, as you ask or as you considered, in terms of how women are perceived, whether they’re pretty enough or not pretty, or whether prettiness plays any kind of part in how they are marketed. Now, a fighter like Katie Taylor, she’s obviously female and very pretty, but no one ever thinks of her as a sexual object. She just comes out as an athlete, she’s usually there just with her trainers. It’s never assigned to her. She always has this assignment of, she’s just a great boxer and you never think of her in those terms.