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LONDON: Interview with Marianne Marston, Prodigy of Late Heavyweight Champion of the World

LONDON—  Marianne Marston, prodigy of the late legendary Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and two time Cruiserweight Champion of the World Steve ‘USS’ Cunningham has underwent immense hurdles as a pro woman boxer. Years ago, she was denied a much needed boxing license by the British board for no other reason but for  their lack of interest in women boxing.

The year 2016 was not only a win for Marston and other women boxers because not only did she receive a license by a separate British board, she has received offers to be licensed in several other countries.

The lack of equality in boxing and sports has been a long time fight for Marston which led to her managing, promoting and providing competitive training for other women boxers. In a Women For Action interview, she expressed that she hopes that one day the world would take a more vested interest in women athletes. Furthermore, she hopes  to become a part of that change.

Women For Action: What sort of contribution do you feel women are bringing to the professional sport of boxing?

Marianne Marston: Women’s boxing attracts a more diverse audience to the sport and it seems that it also attracts a young audience. In itself, that is a major contribution in the long term for the sport.

Women For Action: You have possibly battled discrimination as a woman boxer in Britain which has denied you a professional license. Do you think the mentality is changing for women boxers in the UK?

Marianne Marston: On my return from America in 2009, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) refused to license me. Their General Secretary, Robert Smith said that it was because I would go back to America to fight, due to having a twelve- fight contract with an American promoter. He made it clear, that he did not approve of women boxing. It seemed obvious that it was going to be quite a battle to get my license here. I did appeal on various occasions but to no avail, even though I had fantastic support from world champions like Joe Frazier, Steve Cunningham and Tim Witherspoon to name a few.

However, eventually I became professionally licensed by the Malta Boxing Commission (MBC) in 2011 and as of April this year, I finally received a British license from the British & Irish Boxing Authority (BIBA) which launched earlier this year.

It seems that many other organizations [ in Europe and America] believed in my pro boxing ability. Thanks to MBC, BIBA and the German Boxing Association (GBA), as well as promoters such as Dave Murphy, Mark Lyons and Lee Murtagh, women’s professional boxing has really began to establish itself once again here in the United Kingdom.

When I debuted in 2013, at York Hall in London, on a GBA sanctioned event and on my Maltese license, I was the only active licensed British female professional. Now there are twelve of us licensed by MBC or BIBA. Actually, even the BBBofC has licensed three women in the last year, although I feel that it is more of a reactionary tactic. After all, the same people that occupy the BBBofC today were there back in 2009. In my mind, the women’s side of the sport in the UK is finally starting to establish itself.

Interestingly, women’s boxing had a chance to establish itself in the 1990’s after people like Jane Couch took the BBBofC to court and won the right for female boxers to be professionally licensed. Unfortunately, it didn’t really seem to take off. Yet, in 2016, it really does look like we are finally winning the battle.

It’s not just the increased number of pro licensed female boxers, also we are gaining ground on female fans attending events. When I started boxing, the average was seventeen percent; When I beat Marianna Gulyas for the MBC International title in 2014, it was over thirty percent; and my last fight, not only were there three female bouts on the card but the attendance split was almost a fifty-fifty male and female.

I’ve also noticed a significant increase in media interest over the past year. Now all we have to do is get the broadcasters to get behind us, so the wider world can see for themselves that there’s very little difference between male and female boxing.

Women For Action: What do you think society and or women can do to bridge an acceptance for more women boxers?

Marianne Marston: For me, boxing should not be divided down the middle by gender. I believe it should be the same for other sports. We are all athletes. So why should it be so different for us women? The big name British promoters does not have one woman signed to them. Nor does do they seem to have an interest in having a female fight on their shows.

Let’s compare the up and coming fights between the two genders. These guys are fighting for three unified titles at the O2 in front of 19,000 people. They are being paid millions; the fight will be broadcast worldwide and they are receiving huge levels of media coverage, which in turn means they will receive substantial sponsorship; and finally another major difference is that they get to train full time for the fight.

Gabilsile and myself are fighting to Unify FOUR titles. This fight will probably be in front of around 3000 to 4000 people at Alexandra Palace, as with all my previous fights. I have to cover the costs of  Gabisile’s purse, her team's travel and accommodation, as well as the championships sanctioning fees. The only way I get to receive any form of purse is if I have sold enough tickets to cover all the above and more. The only personal support I have at the moment is sponsorship from BoxFit UK for my training kit and Scott Mallon’s 3x Sports that provide my gloves. Plus, I have to pay for my training camp as well as work full time.

However saying that, it looked like I may be receiving some support this time. Former Hollywood Movie Producer Barbara Gold of The World Wide Organization to Aid Youth Through Sports(WWOAYS ) has offered to cover some of the costs, as this event will be raising funds for both the WWOAYS as well as the Amir Khan Foundation. Also through Claire Forsyth and Elena Capurro from Manray Media, I will receive some level of broadcast exposure thanks to the documentary “Right to Fight’ that they have been shooting for the past couple of years.

It is a vicious circle. If we don’t get the main-stream media exposure, we don’t get the opportunities and of course, if we don’t get the opportunities, we don’t the media exposure. Let’s face it. We are half the population, but women in sports as a whole only receive a small percentage of the coverage that our male counterparts do.

Women For Action: You are also a licensed manager and promoter and founded the company Women’s Boxing Classes (In London). What led you down this path?

Marianne Marston: Quite simply if I didn’t do it, women probably wouldn’t get the chances to box that they do now.

Even before I returned to the UK in 2009, I used to come back to London regularly. However, I could not receive the same level of training that I received in America. At the time, I was being trained by one of the most famous world champions of all time, Joe Frazier. Yet, all I was offered here was to join a ‘Boxercise’ class.

Luckily, I found a gym I could train at in London, although, I was primarily training myself, with some help from other boxers at the gym. Then I started offering personal training services and eventually persuaded the owner to allow me to set up women-only classes. These were so successful that within weeks, I had full classes which marked the beginning of my management and training venture. Unfortunately, the owner decided he didn’t want to keep splitting the fees with me so he took over my classes by offering the opportunity to a work-experience lad who trained for free.

A week later, I found myself at Johnny Eames’ TKO Gym in Canning Town by accident which is known for being the boxing nirvana. All the top London pros were based there such as the likes of Kevin Mitchell and Billy Joe Saunders. In a conversation with Johnny, I explained that I did not have a gym to train at. He offered me space at his gym. Shortly after that, he became my manager and allocated a coach to me.

After about a week or so, Johnny agreed to let me start offering personal training sessions as well as have my women’s classes based there in the evenings. As for the promoting and managing, well it was more or less the same reasons. I had developed some fantastic boxers that had progressed through the ranks from white collar to amateur and even had one ready to turn professional.

On the promoting side, I am seriously excited about doing more. In the future I’d like to organize the Women’s World Boxing Championships. I had proposed this to the BBBofC to sanction, but they turned it down. I am pleased to say that BIBA and various World Championship Organizations, such as the World Boxing Union and World Boxing Federation like the idea. So once my title fight is out of the way, I will start working on that again.
Women For Action: Sometimes media shows unhealthy images of women on women conflict or girls against girls. In which ways do you feel your profession is spreading more positivity for women and girls?

Marianne Marston: Boxing, like any contact sport, provides an opportunity for women to compete, if that is what they choose to do, but in other ways it is just as beneficial. As a sport, or even as an exercise, boxing provides so many benefits - -health and fitness as well as engendering discipline and confidence. Just the fact that these days they can participate is a major step forward. Yet, when we eventually get the exposure the sport deserves, it will also provide positive role models.

Women For Action: You are a protégé of the late legendary Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and two-time Cruiserweight Champion of the World Steve ‘USS’ Cunningham. Can you tell us briefly how these relationships came about?

Marianne Marston: I first met Joe by accident. I was at a coffeeshop in Philadelphia. It was particularly busy that day and the only spare seats were at my table. Two guys came over and asked if I minded if they sat at the table, I stated, “Yes”. During the conversation the young man mentioned he was a boxer. I replied that I had just started training and was going to go to Joe Hand’s Gym the next day to see if I can train there. The mature fellow asked me to do some shadow boxing. The young man then asked me if I knew who the other man was. I said, “No”. He laughed and then introduced him as Smokin’ Joe Frazier. I was so embarrassed. I hadn’t recognized him as he was my hero from an early age. Joe then handed me his card, and invited me to his gym the next day for a trial. The rest is history. Joe became my first manager; his son Marvis and Val Colbert became my first real coaches.

After two or three trips over to Philly for training, Joe called me into his office and said he wanted me to move to Philadelphia so that they could prepare me for my professional debut.

Shortly after I moved into my new apartment in Philadelphia, Joe’s gym, which was in a terrible condition had closed. I was devastated but it didn’t take long before I found the James Shuler Memorial Gym in West Philadelphia thanks to the advice of two-time Heavyweight World Champion Tim Witherspoon, who trained his son Tim Jr. there.

Initially, I was being trained by World Light Middleweight Champion Robert ‘Bam Bam’ Hines, but was really finding it difficult to understand him through a very strong accent. Therefore, gym owner Buster asked Shar’ron Baker if she could work with me.

Just after I started training with Shar’ron, Livvy Cunningham, Steve Cunningham’s wife and manager invited me to be part of Steve’s team. To say I felt honored is an understatement. The upshot was that Steve and Shar’ron would co-train me, as Steve could only really put in the time when he wasn’t in camp preparing for his own fights. These were such special times for me.

Women For Action: At an early age you were diagnosed with and beat Cancer. Plus you were diagnosed with coeliac disease some years ago. How do you think this has made you a survivor and fighter?

Marianne Marston: It was very hard going when I was first diagnosed with Cancer, I was just nineteen years of age and it took two operations over a five year period until I was finally given the clear.

Coeliacs is more recent. Initially it seemed to be triggered by food poisoning whilst I was in America about fifteen years ago. Yet when I look back, I actually wonder if I had it from an early age as I always seemed to have stomach problems after I ate bread. At that time there were very few gluten free products so I had to develop everything for my diet myself. I experimented with non-wheat flours and even made my own.

One of the biggest problems back then, especially as I was travelling a lot was eating out. No matter how much I stressed to the waiters that I cannot have anything with gluten, invariably they just didn’t get it. I was often in pain for days after having a meal out.

 same level of exposure through the media as well as airtime for their dedication to their chosen sport.

On the boxing side, specifically that the Women’s World Boxing Championships become an annual event and of course that the women’s side of professional boxing grows to a level where it is fully accepted and is seen by those that compete in the amateur ranks as an opportunity to progress to pro boxing as there is in the male side.

Finally that there are more opportunities for Sportswomen to be able to remain involved at the end of their careers in the sport in other capacities, such as coaches or officials.

For instance, BIBA has an equal opportunity policy and I am proud to be part of an organization that enforces this. Jennifer Burton is the Vice Chairman, Georgia Collison is an inspector, Amy Cardona a timekeeper, Dr. Louise Eccles is the Chief Medical Officer and I have been appointed as Honorary Director of Female Boxing. I have been made aware that another female ex-boxer has applied to be trained as a referee.

Contributor Julene Allen | This interview was provided by Women For Action Times. Published in Aug / Sept Issue Volume 2. 003  

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Julene Allen