For all too long, women's boxing started and ended with the colorful ring exploits of "The Coal Miner's Daughter," Christy Martin.
With Martin, 32, showing signs of wear and tear, not to mention scar tissue, promoters of women's bouts have attempted to spice the sport by showcasing the fighting daughters of legendary Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Roberto Duran.
To Isra Girgrah, the International Boxing Federation women's lightweight champion, this is just a circus act, distracting from the women who can really fight and don't need to ride their fathers' coattails.
"Of that whole bunch, I think Laila Ali is the only legitimate fighter," said Girgrah, who meets Melinda Robinson in the eight-round co-feature at Martin's West tonight.
"The others are getting publicity and purses they don't deserve. Freeda Foreman got $15,000 for her first fight, and she has no skills at all. It's the same for Mia St. John, who gets a lot of attention because she was once a Playboy centerfold."
Girgrah, who has been dubbed "Raging Beauty," has been a professional since 1986, when she earned $600 for her knockout debut of Debbie King in Cut Off, La. A native of the United Arab Emirates who grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, Girgrah has lost only two of 17 bouts.
One of her losses was highly questionable - a controversial decision at the hands of Martin at Madison Square Garden on a 1997 championship card promoted by Don King.
"The crowd booed the decision," Girgrah said. "Everyone thought I won. I broke her nose and outboxed her every round. But with Christy being King's main woman attraction, this wasn't the first time she got the benefit of the doubt."
Girgrah won the 135-pound title in her next match, stopping Angela Buchanan in three rounds. But continuing to fight in Martin's shadow and suffering periods of inactivity, she decided to leave King and seek a new manager.
Steve Nelson, who serves as co-manager of World Boxing Association middleweight king William Joppy and World Boxing Union heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman, led Girgrah to Casey Dansicker, the brother of local promoter Arnie Dansicker.
"I never thought the first fighter I'd manage would be a woman," said Dansicker. "But she's been a real joy. Everything I've asked her to do in terms of training and publicity, she does without hesitation. We've hired a nutritionist and conditioner to improve her stamina. All I've promised to do is to keep her busy with at least five fights a year."
At 28, Girgrah feels she is reaching her fighting peak. A multi-sport star in high school volleyball, soccer and volleyball, she proved a natural as a boxer. "After graduating, I needed something to keep in shape, and that led me to a boxing gym in 1994," Girgrah said.
Within a year, she was fighting professionally, although it was some time before she let her parents know about her moonlighting. She quickly ran out of capable women sparring partners. Now living in Hyattsville and being tutored by veteran trainer Adrian Davis, Girgrah spars regularly against the likes of world champions Sharmba Mitchell, Joppy and welterweight contender Vernon Forrest.
"They're not out to hurt me, but they're also too macho to be embarrassed," she said, laughing. "One time, I gave Forrest a bloody nose. I know he wasn't happy about it."
To Girgrah, boxing is a serious business, not a circus act. She resents women's boxing being compared to the antics of overhyped Butterbean, the "king of the four-rounders."
"Fans expecting to see catfights between the women are going to be disappointed," she said. "With better athletes and improved training technique, women boxers are getting better and better. It's legitimate."