"I don't have female friends," says Jill Matthews, who looks every inch the female in her silver nail polish, tight black jump suit, and curly, flowing locks. At first impression, it's convenient to dismiss Matthews, who bills herself as "The Zion Lion" (and not Lioness), as a self-absorbed intruder in the male-dominated worlds of punk rock and boxing. But watch her fight, and hear her out, and you learn she's something much more than that. In fact, forget Christy Martin's crushing KOs and Lucia Rijker's educated skills. Matthews, the junior flyweight champion of a pair of female alphabet bodies, is the best argument yet that women deserve the opportunity to box. Or in Matthews's case, need the opportunity.
Two days before Christmas, I watched Matthews, 34, spar with a 41-year-old former fighter named Charlie Ruiz at the Blue Velvet Boxing Club in New York City. Lightweight Ruiz outweighed Matthews by 20 pounds, but that didn't seem to faze David Turetsky, Matthews's husband and manager, the drummer of her punk rock band Times Square, and during traditional hours, a Park Avenue labor attorney. "Watching her get hit is hard," acknowledged Turetsky. "But seeing her hit someone is satisfying." Matthews, a southpaw, was doing most of the hitting, backing Ruiz to the ropes and unloading under the watchful eye of her trainer, Lennox Blackmoore. Her punches seemed tame until I realized I was watching a 105-pound woman. What was I expecting, Earnie Shavers (the prominent hard hitting heavyweight - FSCC)?
"Jill has learned how to box, how to slip punches," said Blackmoore, a former Commonwealth lightweight champion from Guyana who challenged world welterweight champion Aaron Pryor in 1981. "Before she was just a brawler. She'd come in and throw her hands like an amateur." Try as he might, Blackmoore isn't going to develop a female Willie Pep (boxing legend - FSCC). A stylist? Well, Matthews does cut and shape hair for a living.
When Matthews exaggeratedly bent at the knees to slip her spar-mate's punches, a la Pernell Whitaker, she seemed to be showing off. Come fight time, however, it's strictly in-your-face. "I'd rather win a brawl that win nice and easy by outboxing somebody," she said. "My first and only time on TV, I fought [England's] Lisa Houghton, and they stopped it in the fourth round. I think they should've let it go until someone was face-down on the canvas."
Matthews hasn't fought since halting Houghton in June, primarily because, as Turetsky put it, "the bottom of women's boxing has fallen out". The Houghton bout was the co-feature of an all-female card aired on the USA Network's "Tuesday Night Fights". After a run of 17 years, that series was cancelled in August. ESPN2 recently began a weekly series, but Russell Peltz (house promoter at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia) makes the matches. "I'm not a big fan of female boxers," said traditionalist Peltz. "I'm in the business of men's boxing, and the dates on ESPN2 are very valuable, every one of them. If ESPN2 were to come to me and insist I use female boxers, I'd do it. But they know my feelings. I made them clear when I first made my proposal last August."
To date, Matthews's biggest purse was $10,000, which she received for the Houghton bout, as well as her title-winning 10-round decision over Anissa Zamarron last March. The latter fight was promoted by Diane Fischer, who owns a hair salon and boutique at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. Fischer has promoted five all-female cards, including a pay-per-view show, and lost money on every one of them.
"It's a shame because the fans really like women's fights," said Fischer. "But TV is telling me they want mostly men, so I'm trying to do half-and-half cards. On the undercards, women get more money than the men, and to put on a show without television money, just using ticket sales, won't do it. Jill is unbelievable. The first time with Zamarron, they just kept fighting and fighting. Then the first six rounds of the next fight, it was the same thing. I'm promoting a show on January 29 at the Tropicana, but I can't use Jill because I can't afford her."
What about those who can afford Matthews? It's not as if the major promoters have shut women out; Bob Arum has been featuring Rijker and Mia St. John, the former because she can break bones with her fists, and the latter because she can break hearts with her looks. "Jill is somebody I would certainly use on a show, but right now the market for female boxing isn't that great," said Ron Katz, Arum's East Coast matchmaker. "There's not a huge outlet." "At one point we talked to a representative of Don King," reported Turetsky. "Basically, it would have been signing away your life, and maybe, maybe Jill becomes the next Christy Martin." Regardless of who promotes her, Matthews needs a fight, if not for her own sake, for her husband's sanity.
"Jill is a very anxious person," said Turetsky. "She's always thinking about a million things. Sometimes she has trouble sleeping, sometimes she gets depressed. Two weeks before a fight is the most relaxed I've ever seen her, the most satisfied. She's the happiest person in the world." When I asked Matthews why singing and performing in her band doesn't give her the same high as boxing, she answered: "Because I think I suck at it." (Nonetheless, Times Square's CD, "Learn It", accompanies Matthews's press kit.) As we talked in a coffee shop near the gym, Matthews allowed me to play Freud a bit longer.
"I'm an angry, depressed person that goofs around a lot," she said. "I was born and raised in tough neighborhoods, the only white girl and from a Jewish family, and you get stereotyped. People look at me and assume I'm boxing for kicks. They don't know I'll fight to the fucking death. If I bust someone up, do I enjoy it? Yeah. It's either me or her! It's my way of showing the world what I can do. When a fight gets cancelled, it feels like someone in my family died. It's the worst depression ever. Nothing fulfils me like boxing. I get more enjoyment in 10 rounds than people get in their entire lives. If I'm not fighting, I'm worth nothing." In a previous interview, Matthews said: "My mother's name I can give you, and that's about it: Marilyn Matthews. My father's name [was] different every week."
Born and raised in a troubled part of Manhattan, Matthews was always reminded she was different; she was white and Jewish in a high school filled with black, Hispanic, and Chinese students, and she was far more interested in the company of men than women. "I hate women," she said. "I always say I'm a homosexual male trapped in a woman's body." When she wasn't trying to match her brother's output of sit-ups and push-ups, Matthews was immersed in gymnastics. "I spent my entire teenage years in the gym," she recalled. "It was my reason for living. And I got nothing out of it." Well, she got something out of it: bulimia. Maybe that's why, after 15 years of a class or two at a time, she recently received her college degree in nutrition. Matthews has always been a fitness freak
At age 30, she advanced from boxing aerobics classes at an exercise studio to workouts at the white-collar Wall Street Boxing Club. In the spring of '95, Matthews drove her in-laws crazy (Turetsky's father is a rabbi) by entering the New York Golden Gloves competition. Two quickie KOs later she was crowned the first female GG champion in the tournament's 68-year history. "It was the best moment of my life," she said. "Those Gloves were validation."
When the promoters kept calling, Matthews began punching for pay. Her brief career illustrates the problems of the fledgling women's game. In that regard, she's much more a symbol than Martin or Rijker. For starters, there are few competitive women at Matthews's weight. "In nine fights, I've fought the same opponent three times," she said (Anissa Zamarron), "and I've never been able to spar with a woman my weight. That tells you something." Moreover, despite her status as a relative novice, she managed to win a world title in her eighth pro fight. "Compared to the men, yeah, the level is poor," Matthews said. "But it's the inexperience factor, not gender." If male fighters need balls, Matthews is loaded with the female equivalent. (We'll call it chutzpah.) :)
In June '95, Jill turned pro and was stopped on cuts in the second round by Zamarron. Hey, Henry Armstrong was KO'd in his pro debut, too. "I said to myself, I don't want to quit on one fight, one loss," Matthews told The Village Voice after that. "I want to give it one more shot to see if it was a bad day or I really suck." Clearly, her motivation wasn't financial. After expenses, she made about $15.
Her return came 17 months later; she lost to Turkish Sengul Ozokzu and then scored consecutive first-round KOs. In '98 came two more bouts with Zamarron, the first a draw and the second a decision victory for which she was double-belted.
"I like to get hit and show I can take it," Matthews said. "In one of the Zamarron fights, I got hit and was on Queer Street. The people thought that was it, but it wasn't it. I think I have a reckless personality. That's a bad philosophy [for boxing], but I have no fear of getting hurt. My only fear is looking bad."
Maybe that's why Matthews is somewhat reluctant to face the toughest fighter in her 108-pound weight class, San Diego's Jolene Blackshear. "I honestly think she can kick my ass," said Matthews. "She's the only woman in boxing I can say I'm scared of. I'd fight her, though." Right now, Matthews isn't fighting anyone. As we went to press, there were a couple of possibilities in March - without television.
With great reluctance, The Zion Lion has begun accepting the cold reality of life in the jungle. "If I don't have another fight in my life, it's been an amazing, amazing experience," she said. "I don't want to be pathetic, but I can handle disappointments - wouldas and couldas. I feel I've gotten more out of boxing than men who put their lives into it." "Wait a minute," I said, sounding like a corny Hollywood talent agent. "You do realize, don't you, that the way you fight, the way you look, the way you talk, you could become a star?" "I don't understand why," she answered, "if I'm so enthusiastic, I can't get a fight."
As Matthews said goodbye, turning off Fifth Avenue and toward the subway, the most feminine "homosexual male trapped in a woman's body" I've ever known told me she'd be spending the rest of the day cutting hair. A sex-change operation seems out of the question, so the best she can hope for is therapy. And you don't need Mike Tyson's battery of psychologists to realize the best therapy for her would be the chance to kick some female butt.
Don't you think?
*) After this article had been written and until Jill's boxing career finish, she had three bouts in 1999 - against Regina Halmigh, Kim Messer and Lori Lord managing to defeat just Lori Lord.
Jill Matthews' professional boxing record
7-4-1 (3 KOs)
June 2, 1995. New York. Lost to Anissa Zamarron - TKO in the 2nd round. The 108 LB (48kg) division.
May 5, 1997. Randers, Denmark. Lost to Sengul Ozokcu by a 4-rd unanimous decision
July 7, 1997. Rochester, NY. Defeated Angela Barnes by TKO in the first round. Flyweight Division.
January 10, 1998. Atlantic City, NJ. Draw with Anissa Zamarron (108). Jr. Flyweight Division.
March 28, 1998. Atlantic City, NJ. Defeated Anissa Zamarron by 10-rd unanimous decision. Flyweight division.
June 30, 1998. Atlantic City. Defeated Lisa Houghton by TKO in the 4th round. Jr. Flyweight Division.
October 11, 1998. Cayman Islands. Defeated Jamie Blair by KO in the first round. Flyweight Division.
May 14, 1999. Pikesville, MD. Lost to Kim Messer by unanimous.decision.Jr. Flyweight division.
July 30, 1999. Ledyard, CT. Defeated Lori Lord (108) in 8-round unanimous decision.
September 18, 1999.Stuttgart, Germany. Lost to Regina Halmich by a 10-round unanimous decision. Jr. Flyweight division.
Jill Matthews' favorite opponent - Anissa Zamarron
Jill Matthews against Anissa Zamarron