A Pioneer of Women's Boxing Looks Back on a Lifetime of Battles

Barbara "Mighty Atom of the Ring" Buttrick was called an "insult to womanhood" when she became one of world's first professional female boxers. The fearless 87 year old reflects on her groundbreaking career.

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Mar 6 2017, 3:12pm

Barbara Buttrick in Florida. Photo courtesy of WOW (Hull), copyright Dana Goldstein

In a black and white film from 1949, Barbara Buttrick—a diminutive 19-year-old who clocks in at four foot eleven inches—sits down in front of the camera and glares down its lens. "I think all this talk about girls not boxing is old fashioned," she says in a broad Yorkshire accent. "Girls aren't the delicate flowers they used to be. Anyhow, my boyfriend doesn't mind, so why should I?"

Over the next decade and a half, Buttrick would go on to pioneer women's participation in professional boxing. She went from being jeered as an "insult to womanhood" by the British papers to the first female world champion. In 2010, the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame adding her to their honor roll next to Muhammad Ali.

Buttrick was first introduced to boxing through sheer chance. As a kid growing up in the English villages of Cottingham and Hornsea, she tried to get a team of girls to play soccer (which she describes as "just as frowned upon as boxing"). After kicking around a ball on a muddy street one day, she ran into a friend's house and was told to clean her dirty shoes with some newspaper. Buttrick was intrigued by a picture of fairground boxer Polly Fairclough and said, "Just don't use that page—I want to read it!"

Nicknamed the Mighty Atom of the Ring, Buttrick began fighting men and women in exhibition matches held for entertainment. As professional boxing opened up to the opposite gender, she turned pro in North America and battled women in competitive bouts, becoming the first woman to win a world title. She was only ever defeated once.

Now 87, Buttrick resides in Florida and presides over the Women's International Boxing Federation, one of the most recognized global boxing organizations in the world. It's a long way from her childhood days in England, where she scrapped with boys in the street. Now the subject of a one-woman play called Delicate Flowers, Buttrick is returning to her old stomping ground in Yorkshire for a talk at the Women of the World (Hull) festival. She looks back on a pioneering sports career.

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BROADLY: What was it like when you were growing up?
Barbara Buttrick: I was in Cottingham till I was six, and then we moved to Hornsea on the coast. The three years I spent in Hornsey just before World War II were the best ones in my life. As a kid, I used to in summer holidays just go out on my own, a seven or eight year old, walk down to the beach, I'd sit and watch the piers and I knew every little twist and turn of Hornsea. The school was just at the back of where I lived. It was a very modern school with very young teachers. It was a mixed [gender] school, which wasn't very common in those days.

Barbara Buttrick training with a male sparring partner in 1949. ShePhoto by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Have you always been a fighter, ever since you were a kid?
When I was a kid in the street, we did some boxing and fighting and that was worse! Because if you get hit in the mouth with somebody's bare knuckles, you're going to get little cuts up the end of your teeth. That was rougher. If you get a pair of boxing gloves on, then it seems more civilized.

Did you fight boys or girls when you were growing up?
When I was a kid in the street, I went around mainly with a little bunch of boys. There was a little boy who was a little bit younger than me, maybe a year and a half younger, but he was exactly the same height and weight. That meant every time we got together we had to fight each other. I felt like I could handle him, though he was a rough little boy. He was my main opponent when we were in the street as kids. I was maybe about ten, 12.

If I got hurt, it was my choice to take that chance!

As someone who was only four foot eleven, were you ever scared of fighting people bigger than you and more physically imposing?
Most of my opponents were much bigger than me. I didn't worry about it. I trained with a lot of men and did exhibition fighting with them–a male lightweight isn't going to come out there and knock me out or anything, it was just exhibition boxing with the men. With the girls, it never worried me because I never was put against anybody my own size! I lost the one fight to JoAnn Hagen and she was five foot seven, and outweighed me by 30 pounds. We went eight rounds in Canada. But I wasn't particularly worried about her punching power or anything like that.

I'd quite like to box, and I was wondering if you had any tips—it seems like quite a scary thing. Did you have to get over your fear of being hurt?
You're standing in the corner there, and you wonder, "What am I doing here?" There's somebody in the opposite corner you have to go out and defeat! I don't think it's a fear of being hurt, I think it's a matter of producing the effort to look good and do what you can. You're more concentrated on beating your opponent. I don't think you worry about getting hurt, it's just about trying not to get outboxed and beaten. If you feel like doing that, you should!


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What do your old friends from back home think of you now, as someone they used to play fight with in the Boxing Hall of Fame?
Most of them are like me: very surprised by how different the opinions of women boxing have become. If I was young these days, I would be so happy! You could go out on soccer teams and boxing gyms. Back then, there wasn't a sport. There was just the odd fight and the odd gym you could use. My friends are very happy. I got knocked in the press very badly and now it's accepted and there was an apology by the Daily Mirror for what they had said about me. You know, "disgraceful" and that about the woman boxer... I've got it somewhere. The press were really against me.

Did all that negative attention make you want to stop boxing?
No, because I always felt that everyone should have the freedom to get involved with what they wanted to get involved with. If I got hurt, it was my choice to take that chance! And I didn't like the fact that girls really didn't have the freedom to do whatever they felt like doing without people scowling.

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Did you have any especially bad injuries? What was the worst injury you got from boxing?
I didn't have any bad injuries. I didn't get knocked out. The only thing I had was a bruise across the bridge of my nose. I had a permanent mark across there for a while, which was pretty much gone away now. So I can't say I had any permanent damage from boxing.

How did it feel when you were boxing against someone else?
It took the first round to settle down. Once you did the first round, then you were settled in. Then you just concentrated on your boxing. If you box, you'll find that you'll probably be nervous when you get into the ring. Once you get over the first round, then you settle down and you just concentrate on your boxing. The situation isn't bothering you anymore, sort of thing. You have to focus completely and not let anything distract you.

How do you look back on your career, all these years later?
I'm happy with the fact that I did what I wanted to do and I did as much as I could. And now it's accepted. I feel very happy about that.

Barbara Buttrick will be in conversation at WOW Hull on 11 March. For further details of the WOW Hull programme and ticketing information please visit: www.hull2017.co.uk/wow