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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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"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.

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