Photo by Chris CozzoneMary Ann Lurie Owen
James Brown sang “this is a man’s world” back in 1966, but while America has seen the gap between men and women in the workplace close over the past few decades, there’s one area where men apparently still rule: professional sports. No other sport may lay claim to the Godfather of Soul’s mantra more than boxing. It’s something Henderson resident Mary Ann Lurie Owen has taken notice of and chosen to spotlight with her first book, Extraordinary Women of the Ring (Kirographaires Editions, $35).
As a 12-year ringside photographer, Owen has covered boxing for numerous publications as well as BoxingInLasVegas.com, the website she launched in 1999 with husband Butch Gottlieb. It was early in her career as a boxing photojournalist that Owen noticed the lack of attention given to female boxers and decided that their story needed to be told.
“I started the book in 1999 and was covering the all-female boxing events at Arizona Charlie’s,” Owen says. “I was new at it and I had never seen women box. It was a shock, like, ‘These girls can really fight!’ I kept shooting the pictures for Boxing in Las Vegas and I just had the passion of putting these girls in a book as a tribute to them.”
The 272-page book—which features photos and documents the careers of 47 boxers, including Christy Martin, Laila Ali and local fighters Layla McCarter and Jessica Rakoczy—took her a decade to complete. Then, being a first-time author in a bleak economy, Owen had her doubts that it would ever see the light of day.
“To get this book published was next to impossible,” she says. “It all happened by accident when I was in Paris. I met a young girl that was a photographer. Come to find out, when I met her the second time, she was an editor for a very small publishing house in Provence. I sent them all the information and it had to be that special publisher that loved female boxing. Kirographaires Editions published the book, and I was shocked.”
Growing up in Kearny, N.J., in the 1950s, Owen was called a tomboy because of her competitive spirit and athletic ability during an era in which women were encouraged to get married and stay at home rather than have a career–especially one as a professional athlete. She encountered this reality the hard way as a 10-year-old when she was removed from her youth baseball team once officials realized she was a girl.
She relocated to Las Vegas in 1963 and competed in everything from long-distance running to grappling (boasting a green belt in Jiu-Jitsu). While working as a corrections officer in the ’90s, Owen trained with Roger Mayweather, the uncle and trainer of boxing star Floyd Mayweather Jr., as she prepared to compete in a tournament for law-enforcement officers. After having a story about her boxing prowess featured in The Ringside Review, Owen was asked by the paper’s publisher if she would be interested in photographing female boxers. Considering that photography was Owen’s other passion growing up, it was a no-brainer. This is when she realized that documenting the struggles of women in sports was just as important as competing.
“I have a passion for these girls,” she says. “Women are always fighting for everything. There is a history of women struggling in any kind of professional sport, but especially boxing.”
Owen says much of the problem with female fighters gaining acceptance is that the emphasis by boxing promoters is often on the competitors’ physical appearance instead of their talent.
“With all due respect to all of the women who are tomboyish,” Owen says, “the promoters are looking for the next Laila Ali and Mia St. John. They feel like [beauty] is what really draws the crowd.”
Owen says female boxers don’t encounter the same difficulties in Europe.
“They really embrace boxing—male and female—and provide a huge fan base,” Owen says. “Their arenas are loaded with people. They love the female boxers and treat them like rock stars.”
With women not commanding the money and attention of their male counterparts here, Owen thinks it is time for the gender gap to close in boxing.
“If women can fight for their country,” she asks, “why can’t they fight in the ring?”
Extraordinary Women of the Ring is available at kiroed.com.