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 the recent success of women’s boxing and the subject of trans and non-binary fighters in boxing, and more.

Below is Part 2 of our BoxingScene Q&A with Malissa Smith. Click here to read Part 1 of the interview.

BS: Boxing often has an effect on how people carry themselves. Is that the same for, say, Katie Taylor and the other great women fighters?

Smith: The case with Katie, I have to tell you, I've met many fighters. I've interviewed them. I train alongside them at Gleason's Gym. I met Katie Taylor, I am a quivering fangirl. I don't even want to say to her, I am so overwhelmed. I talked to her coach, I can't really talk to her. I can't ask her the questions because her presence is that overwhelming, it is that strong, as an athlete, and as someone who is completely self-possessed within themselves. Now, not all fighters have that, not all athletes figure it out, not all humans have that. She definitely has that.

You look at someone like Claressa Shields: She has had to really fight to overcome being black, being from Flint, Michigan, being tall, not being considered to meet the typical beauty standards of the United States, what we think of as beautiful. And yet, she also commands presence, she commands your attention, and commands and demands that you respect her. Whether you agree with her or not is something else. But she has really fought hard to make her own presence felt, as an athlete and as a fighter. And, yes, she lately is also trying to raise a sense of her own femininity. She’s playing that out for us in public and on social media as part of our own growth. But she also just commands the room as an athlete and says, “No, I’m a two-time Olympian. No, I’m a three-time undisputed fighter, and I really deserve this place where I am, and I deserve the respect for it,” continuously pushing the envelope of what women’s sports can be and what women’s boxing can be.

BS: It always seems like Shields has a lot on her mind. It shows how even if you’re a superstar, you can still have ordinary-people problems. What do you think of her current position in the sport? It feels like her story is still unfinished.

Smith: She has a long, evolving story. I mean, her early childhood is the stuff of nightmares. And the fact that she could achieve anything at all is an extraordinary testament to her inner fortitude and her inner being, and it is playing out in front of us. There’s something very tragic but also very beautiful about her accessibility and her setting herself up as a role model for others who have had really hard lives and who have had to overcome many difficulties, and helping to chart a path. Is it always the right path? Is it always the path that any of us would necessarily choose? It can be a yes, it can be a no. But I think you’re extremely sensitive to point out that it’s an unknown – it’s an unfinished story. What we hope is that it will lead to a very great conclusion, where she becomes all the things that she can become.

But then you have a fighter like Amanda Serrano, she grew up hard. She was born in Puerto Rico, she grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She fought on the same really hard, tough cards. She was the first woman to be on television in many, many years when she fought Fatuma Zarika in 2015, on CBS Television, middle of the afternoon, a little six-rounder. But it was the first time women had been on TV in 10 years – it was crazy. That was followed by Heather Hardy in 2016 fighting Shelly Vincent on the same day that Claressa Shields won her second gold medal. That day, they were the first people to appear [on the card] on NBC television. It was streaming on a PBC card – which, PBC no longer has women, that’s another whole story. But they sold out this amazing little Amphitheater in Coney Island. And even though Errol Spence was the main event, everybody was there to see Heather and Shelly. Between the pair of them, they sold it out. They fought a great bout and made history in terms of bringing women back into mainstream boxing media. That was followed shortly thereafter by Maureen Shea being on pay-per-view for a Shane Mosley card. Shane Mosley said, “No, I’m not going to do this without a female championship bout, and he put Maureen Shea on; she lost, but it was a commitment. Since then, 2016-2017, the women started to sneak back into televised fights. When Claressa Shields had her debut, she was on a fight card that wasn't broadcast, but it was streamed on an Andre Ward undercard against Franchon Crews-Dezurn.

It was the bottom of the card, but it was a great fight. Those that were able to see it and stream were like “Wow, this is something there.” Same thing with Katie Taylor. Her fight was streamed, her first fights were streamed, and she made the deal with DAZN and Matchroom. Claressa’s first shot was with Roc Nation, but then she got together with Salita Promotions and has been with him ever since, and has had a remarkable career. So there have been some remarkable changes, but also so much the same. Boxing right now in the USA is a disaster. I mean, it’s a disaster anyway, because we don't have anywhere to watch the fights. It’s like, “Who’s the streamer of the day?” We’ve got DAZN, occasionally ESPN, Boxxer has now made a deal with Peacock to show some of their Sky Sports British fights, Golden Boy is on DAZN, and who has women?

BS: It seems like all the great U.S. women fighters have to go to the U.K. Mikaela Mayer, Alycia Baumgardner and Claressa Shields have all recently fought there.

Smith: That’s what Claressa Shields did. She was supposed to have her third undisputed fight during COVID. Didn’t happen. COVID got the fight canceled. She was supposed to have that fight on Showtime. Then, when Showtime started to come back, they had to deal with PBC. There were no women. That was it. She couldn’t get any traction. Then she did a fight on her own and she made the two-fight deal with Boxxer to fight in the U.K., to get her a seven-figure deal and to fight Savannah Marshall. Savannah Marshall was already with Boxxer, so they were able to put that deal together.

And in the interim, you had the remarkable Amanda Serrano-Katie Taylor showdown at Madison Square Garden, which was sold out. We think of that now and we go, “Oh my God, they were the main event in the main arena, Madison Square Garden, Mecca of Boxing, how amazing!’ But you go back three months before that fight, when they were having the press stuff, you had people laughing and going, “What? How can they be the main event? How could you do that? How stupid. They’ll never do anything. They'll never sell anything. You have Bob Arum talking about, “Well, that’s like watching some little dinky women’s soccer thing when you could watch Premier League.” It turned out he had Shakur Stevenson on the same night. It’s like, “Well, got to eat your words, dude, because they got 1.5 million views. They sold out Madison Square Garden. There wasn't a dry eye in that entire stadium.” That was electric all night. You had two women's undisputed battles on the same night – Franchon Crews-Dezurn won her super middleweight title on that night. So that’s how great a fight card it was.

Then that directly led to Mikaela Mayer going to the U.K. to finally fight Alycia Baumgardner, another American, on this amazing all-female card at the O2 Arena. That doesn’t happen without Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano, and it certainly didn't have Bob Arum, Top Rank and ESPN in the mix without the success of that evening. Because then it was like, “Oh, they actually did sell it out. They kicked Shakur Stevenson's ass in terms of the number of views on fight night. I guess I better get back in.” [Arum] is an interesting figure because he was doing women's boxing in the ‘70s, pulled back out, got back in in the ‘90s, pulled back out, and in 2017, he signed Mikaela Mayer after the Olympics in 2016. It was like they had never done any women's boxing before. It's like, “Hello?” They had Lucia Rijker in the ‘90s.

BS: Taylor-Serrano, Mayer-Baumgardner, Seniesa Estrada-Yokasta Valle. Have rivalries been part of the success and a focal point for the growth of women's boxing in the past 10 years?

Smith: I think so. It’s a tried-and-true marketing technique for boxing. Why wouldn’t it translate for the women’s side of the game as well? The other part of that, though, is that they’re also delivering, because what you have is the best fighting the best. Even on these undercards, on these major fight cards, you’re seeing high-caliber boxing. That just adds to what the rivalries are about. Did Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields really despise each other? No. They fought – they had one fight in 2012 – and they’ve been stoking it. It was a great way to get momentum, to get them at the head of the card, to sell out seats, to get Boxxer, Sky Sports, Bob Arum involved in promoting it, and it was a huge promotional hit. They got over 2 million views. Did they make a lot of money on it? Probably not. But it set a pace and a place, and since then, women's boxing has certainly shifted to the U.K., to the point then in 2022, Natasha Jonas, who was a 2012 Olympian, cleaned out the 154-pound division and became the first British woman to win the British Boxing Board of Control’s Boxer of the Year award in their entire history. Then the other person that won foreign fighter of the year was Claressa Shields.

So the fact that you had two women who had commanded enough brilliance in the sport to be the best fighter of the year and the best foreign fighter of the year was quite something in the United Kingdom, which, less than 20 years before, had tortured Jane Couch when she won her court case in 1998 to allow women to box at all. I mean, the vitriol she was subject to on her ring walks, while she was even in the ring, with reps going, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” I mean, it’s a disgrace. But a generation later, you have women at the pinnacle of the sport in the U.K.

BS: We are entering a new era that is prompting us to have tough conversations about trans and non-binary people in sports. How do you envision those issues evolving when gender identities may become more and more blurred over time?

Smith: That’s a very good question. We’ve had women who have transitioned to become men and identify as men, as pro boxers. Pat Manual comes to mind – the former boxing amateur champion as a woman, now boxing professionally as a man, is doing very well. There seems to be less controversy about his participation in the sport. Where people start to wig out is when a man – someone who was identified as male at birth – transitions to becoming a woman after puberty – and I’d say that, after puberty, because there are different things that happen in terms of their chemical needs – but after puberty becomes a boxer. Then you get the whole issue of strength. Do they still maintain their “man strength,” even though they have now transitioned to being female, and are considered female? This is an incredibly controversial issue. It also depends on your weight category. Are you fighting as a minimumweight? Or are you fighting at 108 pounds? Or are you fighting at 154 pounds or 168 pounds? And there’s been a tremendous amount of controversy and a tremendous amount of pushback.

I think they will continue to be in the Olympics itself. They keep kicking the can by coming up with artificial numbers to say, if you’re a man or a woman who’s transitioned to be a man, you have to maintain a testosterone level under a certain number. Otherwise you can’t compete because you’re no longer considered female. Where it gets controversial is that men who transitioned to becoming women after puberty need to maintain a certain level of testosterone to remain healthy. So very, very complicated biochemistry. So we have that factoid. Then you have the, as you say, non-binary issue – which is, “I’m neither a man nor woman, I’m just me. Don’t think of me in terms of my gender at all, no matter what I look like. I get to choose where I want to be.” That also gets to be complicated because it’s sort of, “Well, are you safe?” If you decide you’re non-binary, and you decide to box as a man? Do you have the physical characteristics and the physical ability to be able to box safely for yourself and for the other boxers? And that’s sort of the crux of where the issue is. You have the WBC that’s looking at this and saying, “Oh, we’ll just go with a third league. If you’re not male, you’re not female or you’re trans, you’re going to box in the trans station here.” Is that really the satisfying answer? I really don't know.

We’re looking at other sports, we’re looking at the experience across sports to see whether the bottom line is in terms of the physical characteristics and hormonal needs of these fighters or athletes – what it looks like, in terms of the fairness of their strength and capacity within a boxing ring. Now, here's where it gets dicey: Because we know boxing kills people, people die in the ring, people become incapacitated and seriously injured in the ring, if you have someone who’s an anatomical woman – strong, good boxer, great skills – fighting someone who is a trans woman but still may have more “man strength,” because they were male, until they were 20 … I don't know the answer. But that’s the crux of the issue. How do you keep the fighters safe – and particularly female fighters, who may be fighting someone who has an anatomical advantage just because they still maintain greater physical strength based on their birth sexuality.