Sports views: Hollywood tries to turn women's boxing into something it isn't

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hollywood can make you laugh, make you cry, make you think. For two hours or so, in the back of a darkened theater, it can almost make you believe.

Reality, though, is usually different.

Lucia Rijker knows that better than most. She plays the villain in the hottest movie of the day, a big screen tearjerker that will likely land Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank some nice new golden hardware when the Academy Awards are announced.

Rijker won't get an Oscar for her role in ''Million Dollar Baby.'' And it's not just because she was typecast as a fighter in the movie and has no speaking part.

You see, Rijker is too real for Hollywood's portrayal of women's boxing, a fantasy world where Swank knocks out 12 straight opponents in the first round and then splits a million dollar title fight purse with the ferocious looking Rijker.

That's not to say fantasy can't sometimes be more fun than reality. In ''Baby,'' the decrepit boxing gym called the Hit Pit was just like ones I've seen a hundred times before, the acting is impressive and the dialogue a lot better than I've heard from most fighters.

Before you cry at an unexpected turn of events, you have to laugh at scenes like the one when Eastwood's priest calls him an ''(expletive) pagan'' and another where Eastwood tells Swank to hit her opponent in a certain body part ''till they turn blue and fall off.''

Rijker, who plays a nasty champion in ''Baby,'' claims to be the best female fighter in the world, which is a lot like claiming to be the world's tallest midget. It's hard to prove, and there's not much reward for being either.

To say woman's boxing is in a slump would be true only if the sport had somewhere to slump to. It did spark a brief flurry of interest a few years ago when Christy Martin startled everyone by actually looking like a real fighter when she made some bucks on Don King cards, then some more when rival Bob Arum put pinup model Mia St. John on his undercards.

Both promoters soon found out something they should have known in the first place. Women don't like to watch other women fight, and men would rather pay to see them wrestle in mud than bloody each other's noses.

Rijker is undefeated, hits like a man and wants desperately to be taken seriously as an athlete in the sport she loves. In Hollywood's world, she's a world champion making a half million dollars for a fight that packs the Las Vegas Arena.

In the real world, she gets less attention when she fights than Tonya Harding, who, by the way, would have been perfectly cast as part of Swank's trailer trash family in the movie.

Rijker always thought she'd be the Muhammad Ali of her time, spreading her message of perseverance and self discipline learned while growing up in the Netherlands where she was a champion kick boxer.

Instead, she has fought only once in the last year, barely makes a dime when she does fight, and is now hoping ''Baby'' will do for her what her fists have so far failed to do in the ring.

''Maybe the movie will get me recognition I didn't get in the ring and maybe that big fight,'' Rijker said.

Sorry, Lucia, it's not going to happen. Go to the Academy Awards, look good and smile a lot. Then dust off that acting resume and try to make some money that way.

Even a good female fighter with prominent lineage — Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad — can't do much better than a spot on the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight in her father's hometown of Louisville.

''Mia got in with her looks and Laila with her name,'' Rijker said. ''That works for a while, but it can't last.''

Things are different in Hollywood, where ''Baby'' wraps itself around woman's boxing with Eastwood playing an aging trainer and Swank a 30-something waitress who dreams of being a fighter. In less than two years, Eastwood has molded her into a power puncher who knocks out other women with devastating shots and fights her way into a rich title shot.

I paid $6 for a ticket and another $8.75 for some popcorn and a diet cola (matinee prices don't extend to the snack stand) to see what all the buzz was about Friday when ''Baby'' opened nationally. The theater was packed, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house when the movie turned tragic.

This isn't a boxing movie, though, but a love story. That's clear at the start when a doctor threatens to stop a fight because a boxer is cut on the cheek, something that doesn't happen in real boxing. It's also evident in the climactic fight scene, when something happens — I won't give away the ending here — that's even more bizarre than Mike Tyson biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield's ear.

In ''Baby,'' women's boxing is exciting, dramatic and full of surprises. In real life, it's men's boxing-light, featuring women with widely varying skills and bodies flailing at each other with oversized gloves in shortened 2-minute rounds.

Only a handful of women — Ali, Rijker and Christy Martin come to mind — have ever shown they have the kind of skills that make great male fighters. Those men have the power to knock each other out with one punch, the kind of jabs that pepper an opponent mercilessly, and the ability to throw quick combinations from almost any angle.

Rijker hasn't given up her dream of changing the women's game, even as she ages like the character Swank played in the movie. She holds out hope that Martin will come back and they can fight each other and make a few dollars before she gets on with the rest of her life.

Like Swank's character, she would like to make enough money to buy her mother a house.

Unfortunately for Rijker, though, this is one story unlikely to have a Hollywood ending.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.



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