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The naked truth about women's boxing

Never mind that Deborah Nichols was the champ in the ring, Mia St. John was Playboy's idea of a knockout.

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Deborah Nichols is a fighter, not a stripper, and she's not going to take her clothes off to get the attention she feels she already deserves. Nichols has a highly functional kind of beauty. Men who appreciate economy, simplicity, athletic grace, would appreciate it. But maybe they're not necessarily the men who buy Playboy.

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.

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