It was not Nichols, after all, who graced the cover of Playboy in November 1999 as the International Boxing Association's Women's Featherweight Champion. It was Mia St. John, a curvaceous brunette, who says she posed to prove that she can box and still have a feminine side. Her reasoning is the same that Playboy readers have encountered so often in the past -- "I can be an Olympic athlete and still have a feminine side," "I can surf and still have a feminine side," "I can be an investigative reporter and still have a feminine side," and so forth. One would almost get the impression that women everywhere are wracked with doubts about their sexuality and that one's feminine side is the side that doesn't wear clothes. So it was with St. John, pictured with the IBA's featherweight championship belt and not much else.
The depiction is amazing -- not because she's on the cover of Playboy, but because she was not the IBA Women's Featherweight Champion. And she admits it.
Nichols, on the other hand, really is the IBA Women's Featherweight Champion, and she's never posed for Playboy.
The Nichols/St. John fiasco is important because far from simply being about a misrepresentation on the cover of one of the world's most-bought magazines, it is a bellwether in women's boxing, a just-emerging sport that's struggling for respectability in a morass of shapely women and serious athletes against the heavy-money backdrop of men's boxing. Add to that the recent influx of "famous daughters" -- Laila Ali, Maria Johanssen and others -- and it looks more like a soap opera than a sport.
Only the women in the ring know just how serious women's boxing is. For Nichols, it seemed a way out of the daily grind of Dalton's carpet industry -- a route to fame and fortune. Nichols' father worked in the carpet mills, her mother was a beautician. Like so many people in the rural South, they looked to athletics to escape mind-drubbing monotony. They played softball and baseball and basketball, and so did their daughter. When she was a teenager, Nichols began kickboxing. It was an exotic and exciting sport, but it also was easily accessible -- there are karate studios in even the smallest Southern towns. Then she married young and confronted the kind of violence that doesn't obey any rules.
"That's when I learned to take a punch," she says dismissively. "I didn't fight back, but I learned to take it. Later, after the marriage, I learned to throw a punch." She's been married twice. She's raised her 12-year-old son, Dustin, alone and worries about that. She says he has an anxiety problem, stress over school makes him sick.
She worked at Carpets of Dalton in the accounts receivable department. She was happy to have the job, but she sometimes felt she was struggling through the same grueling existence she'd dreamed of rising above.
She took comfort in kickboxing. Her teacher, a world titlist named Ben Kiker, says boxing came naturally to one of his most aggressive students. "Deborah took to it like a duck to water," Kiker says. "She's a good athlete. She likes fighting, she likes contact. She's a competitor."
Kiker has flowing white hair and matching beard. He looks like Moses leading his people to the Promised Ring. His belly hangs over the black belt of his blisteringly white gi as he sternly directs students at United Karate Studio on Walnut Avenue in Dalton to run laps while he talks about women's boxing.
"There are some shady characters involved in it. But there are some good people too," he says. "It's just that it's such a new sport. When Deborah started out, nobody knew anything about it."
Nichols got her start in the mid-'90s, just as a woman named Christy Martin got worldwide attention for the sport with her stunning championship victory over Dierdre Gogarty.
According to Denise Moraetes, a junior welterweight and two-time New York Golden Gloves champion, the Martin/ Gogarty fight in 1996 was the high point of women's boxing. It convinced women that they were just as tough, just as respectable, just as solid in terms of investment, as men. Martin's face was everywhere. But if that was the Golden Age, it was short-lived.
Today, Moraetes is disenchanted with her sport and wondering if she'll ever get back in the ring. She blames the over-hyped, under-challenged presence of fighters like Laila Ali and Maria Johanssen as well as scandals like the Nichols/St. John hoopla for her state of mind.
"I have the greatest respect for Deborah Nichols. She's an outstanding boxer, and I think it's unfortunate that this has happened to her," she says. "One day the sport might weed itself out, but I don't know if I'm still going to be around by the time that happens."
Nichols had a rosy view of the sport after the Martin/Gogarty fight.
In 1996, she boarded a plane for the very first time -- at age 33 -- and flew to Detroit to compete in the National Tough Woman contest. She fought five matches in a row, finishing third because she lost to two opponents. Both of them outweighed her by more than 40 pounds.
In August of 1997, Nichols officially entered professional boxing. She knocked out Teara Sanders 40 seconds into the third round of a match in Nashville. One week later, she disposed of Sharon Yates in the same fashion, just 23 seconds into the second round. After that, a fourth-round knock out of veteran boxer Helen Zagadinow in Allentown, Penn., firmly secured Nichol's nickname, "K.O." The broken nose she dealt Zagadinow forced Zagadinow to withdraw from a scheduled International Female Boxing Association fight with champion Bonnie Canino.
Nichols, now 37, was her own manager. After a day of work and taking care of Dustin, she lived on the phone, talking promoters into letting her fight their boxers. "Persevere" is her mantra and her perseverance eventually paid off. In February 1998, she appeared on the USA Network's "Tuesday Night Fights" against Austin, Texas, policewoman Melinda Robinson.
That was when Tom DiNapoli, an amateur boxer and public relations executive in Sacramento, Cal., first saw Nichols fight.
DiNapoli, had some buddies over as usual to watch the fights, not really thinking about the women's match that usually serves as an intro for the main event. Nichols came out swinging. In a matter of seconds, DiNapoli and his friends were out of their seats cheering her on. He still talks about the fight with a note of awe in his voice.
"It was a great fight," he says. "Man, it was a brawl. They were back and forth, back and forth. Really, it was two women trying to knock each other out. It was a real fight. There was no fight on that card that was better."
A nation of viewers agreed. Channel surfers who normally clicked by the network, stopped, entranced by what they saw -- not the "barroom slaps" that so many boxing fans have come to associate with women's boxing, but a powerful, disciplined barrage of punches, the precise brutality that characterizes a great fight. The segment garnered the highest ratings "Tuesday Night Fights" has ever gotten aside from Larry Holmes' notorious comeback fizzle.
Nichols' best shot is her straight power-right. Watching, you can hear her land them like catapulted bowling balls against her opponent's punished flesh.
"Everybody knows she fires these big bombs from the right," says DiNapoli, who was so impressed with her that he became her manager, a job that lasted for about a month before he realized just how little money there is in the sport (the one fight he snagged for Nichols, at the Tropicana in Atlantic City, had a purse of $1,200). "I've tried to get her to land more left hooks. That's everybody's complaint about women's boxing: there are not enough left hooks." (The right-sidedness of women's boxing probably is related to the fact that most serious female boxers come from a kickboxing background, a field that plays heavy to the right.)
In May 1998, Nichols elicited an enthusiastic response in her hometown when she won a six-round unanimous decision against a veteran boxer, just 30 miles up the road in Chattanooga. Her face glows when she talks about that night. The high point was walking out of the dressing room and seeing about 80 of her fellow Carpets of Dalton workers seated in the first few rows.
"They were shouting my name," she says, as if recalling a dream. "They were shouting my name. I couldn't believe it."
But the next work day, she says, she detected a change in the office atmosphere. People seemed ill at ease around her. She says they gave her the "cold shoulder." The temperature at work kept dropping until her boss informed her that she could no longer work flextime to allow for training. She quit her job and continued training.
She's still puzzled and hurt about what happened. She offers an explanation: "Maybe it was jealousy."
She found another job that she candidly admits was created for her at a local radio station, a promotional gig, but it eventually ran out. She now works for her cousin's printing company as a sales rep. On the day of her interview with CL, she was still high off the "win" of landing an account.
Her last bout was the one that brought her the featherweight title. In 1999, again in Chattanooga, Nichols went in the ring and wiped out Dee "Dynamite" Dufoe, a skilled fighter in her early 20s who had blazed a trail of fallen warriors before Nichols stopped her. Nichols took the title with a unanimous decision.
"It's strange if you think about it," she says, obviously having thought about it before. "Here I am, a world champion, and I'm still living paycheck to paycheck."
She's sure that's not the case with Mia St. John, and one certainly gets the impression from St. John's website that she's not living from paycheck to paycheck. St. John, like Nichols, comes from a kickboxing background. She grew up in a working-class family. Her mother was from Mexico. Her father moved the family around a lot, and St. John used fighting as her therapy, just as Nichols did. Their biggest difference, aside from St. John's dark softness as opposed to Nichols' golden-girl tautness, is that St. John has never fought more than four rounds. She's never gone the distance of an actual 10-round, championship fight. She has said in numerous interviews that her promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank Boxing -- who is also Nichols' promoter -- has never allowed her to take on a real 10 rounder. St. John's record of 9-0 makes boxing purists wince.
When she showed up on the cover of Playboy with the "IBA Featherweight Champion" caption, it made them gag.
Tom Moraetes, Denise Moraetes' husband and trainer, takes a realist's view: "Mia was not on that cover for any title. She was on there because of her tits and her ass."
How does he know?
"Oh, please!" He screams with frustration. "Do you know who Lucia Rijker is?"
Lucia Rijker is a phenomenon. She's Nichols' idol, and she's in Denise Moraetes weight class. Many professional fighters -- both women and men -- believe Rijker's strength and ability border on the supernatural. A kickboxer from Amsterdam, she's like Jean Claude Van Damme with a dangerously seductive feminine side. She's like a Bond girl who can actually do all the stuff that Bond girls get stunt doubles to do. Something about her olive-skinned solemn face bent prayer-like above the collar of her jet-black robe brings Carlos Santana's "Black Magic Woman" to mind. When she became a professional boxer, ring-watchers immediately began craving a match between the white-clad, no-tummy-showing good-girl of boxing, Christy Martin, and Rijker. But it didn't materialize. Rijker's promoter, the ubiquitous Arum, severed relations with her and picked up the pink-sequined, four-round fighting Mia St. John.
"He dropped the baddest woman on the planet to go with this girl, Mia St. John, for her chest," says Tom Moraetes. "Doesn't that tell you everything you need to know?"
Moraetes organized the first USA Boxing Women's National Championships in 1997 in Augusta. That's where he met Denise. This weekend (August 9-12), Tom has his hands full again with the National Women's Golden Gloves Championships. He's chairman of the Augusta Boxing Club, the host of the event.
Moraetes believes women's boxing will get the respect it so desperately needs when it becomes an Olympic sport, and he's been lobbying USA Boxing, the boxing division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, to make that happen. But his efforts have no financial support. He recently proposed to hold the first Women's Amateur World Boxing Championship tournament in Augusta in 2001. He says such a tournament is critical in getting 70 countries -- the minimum number required for Olympic inclusion -- to sponsor women's national championships. USA Boxing responded by sending him a bid package that he calls "ridiculous."
"They want $25,000 cash just to apply," says Moraetes. "That's just to get on the board. And we're probably talking at $100,000 before the bid process is over. How can I raise that kind of money?"
Denise, who works full-time as a special education teacher in public schools, wasn't in Augusta helping with preparations. Instead, she was home in New York, mulling over the reality of women's boxing.
"Here I am, busting my, excuse my language, but really busting my ass, putting so much into the sport, teaching full-time. It's a tremendous amount of work for an end that I have no idea if I'm going to be able to achieve. And then you see something like Lucia Rijker getting dissed by her promoter and people like Mia St. John getting all this publicity and these famous boxers' daughters who really can't -- and I mean this -- can't fight a lick, getting these huge purses," Denise sighs heavily. "That, right there, in a nutshell is where the sport is at."
The effect, she predicts, will be that the American public will come to expect bad boxing from women. With the real boxers out of the way, people will think that women's boxing is silly-looking and a waste of time.
Rijker's loss to St. John was less public than was Nichols'. Last fall, Nichols got a call from DiNapoli, her old manager, who told her he'd seen St. John on the cover of Playboy. Nichols obtained a copy from a friend. Remembering it now, she pounds her chest and says "it tore my soul" to see St. John on the cover, cupping her breasts with her boxing gloves, above the double-header caption "IBA Featherweight Champion" and "Mia St. John NUDE."
The spread features St. John taking a very thorough shower and engaging in that activity that takes place only on the pages of men's magazines: working out in the nude.
It wasn't the Playboy spread alone that was so difficult to deal with. It was the shower of publicity that came after Mia St. John posed with Nichols' title belt that was the problem. St. John was on Leno and morning news shows. Nichols and her son, then 10 years old, watched.
After all the training, the pulverizing of opponents, the indisputable knockouts, the convincing decision over Dee Dufoe in Chattanooga, somebody else -- somebody who never even fought a 10-round fight -- was getting the credit.
"Most people who know about women's boxing know that I'm the featherweight champ, but how many people is that?" she says. "Most people think that St. John's the featherweight champion because of Playboy."
It's been more than a year since Nichols has had a fight. Her record stands at eight wins, including four knockouts, and two draws. She says Top Rank's relationship with her is strained at best. Arum did not return calls to CL. Lately, according to the boxing press, Arum, like many other high-profile personalities around the ring, has been busy testifying in a federal case that has probed the ugly underbelly of both men's and women's boxing.
Playboy's position is that St. John's promoter represented her as the four-round world featherweight champion. There's only one problem with that title: There's no such thing. According to the IBA's own guidelines, a championship title is won by fighting 10 rounds that last two minutes each. St. John's "four-round" title, as the IBA has admitted, was only a promotional gimmick, part of the publicity swirl created for her by Arum, a man second only to Don King in terms of pugilistic spin-prowess. He has promoted George Foreman, Oscar De La Hoya and other greats.
Bill Farley, spokesman for Playboy, says the magazine has no plans to print a retraction and probably won't do anything at all unless he hears from Dean Chance, commissioner of the IBA. So far, he says, Chance hasn't informed him that St. John's title wasn't the real thing.
But Chance did tell the Chattanooga Times and Free Press in June "We called Mia the Queen of the 4s, but you can be assured that Playboy gave her money not because she was Queen of the 4s but because she's a beautiful woman."
Regardless of what the public may or may not think, Nichols is more than ready to climb back in the ring -- and she'd love to face off against St. John.
It's clear that she wants to fight as she spars with amateur boxer Andrew Foster at Kiker's gym. The two go at it, with Nichols advancing behind her right, then ducking Foster's left. She lands a jab that smacks like a whiplash, and she smiles.
Something she said during the interview echoes: "I love to fight. I do. I admit it. I love to hit. I like the way it feels when I connect and I know that I've landed one. There is no better feeling than that."
She has nothing bad to say about St. John. When asked if she would pose for Playboy, she leans across her front porch swing toward Dustin who has unknowingly adopted the very same stance as his mom, one leg down, one foot up, his arms wrapped around the bent knee. "I wouldn't now. But if you're asking me if I ever would have, well, I don't want to say that I wouldn't have. I've been in some tough financial situations, and I bet Mia got about $100,000 for those six pictures. It would be very tempting. I'm lucky that now I don't have to consider something like that, but I can't say that I wouldn't have done it."
She looks at the cover of the magazine for minute, narrows her eyes as if sizing up St. John as an opponent and says firmly, "But I wouldn't pose now."