In a class of her own

She’s won world titles and may be the best female fighter around. So why do so few of us know Jeannine Garside?
Mike D'Amour
In a class of her own
Photograph By Brent Foster

Few people other than boxing aficionados have heard the name Jeannine Garside, yet the Canadian scrapper may be the best female fighter in the world. She holds four featherweight (57-kg) world titles, and when the Windsor, Ont., fighter finishes her career, she imagines being encircled by belts, like a woman hidden in the centre of a stack of all-season Michelins.

Garside, 32, is an attractive five-foot-five blond with a disarming smile and a granite-hard body chiselled during thousands of hours in the gym. She spars mostly with men and often travels to nearby Detroit to prepare at Kronk Gym, home of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward and celebrated champions such as Thomas Hearns and Leon Spinks. But the fact is, many female fighters put in the same number of hours in the gym, and many hit just as hard as Garside, but they don’t win in the ring. What sets her apart as a champion? “Heart,” says her manager, Wally Petrovic. “Heart,” echoes her trainer Josh Canty. “It’s not something you can coach,” he says. “It comes down to will versus will, and Jeannine’s not afraid to go to war. It brings out the best in her when somebody really tests her.”

Garside, a southpaw, doesn’t disagree. “I feel I win a lot of fights because I hit with such a force that when my opponents feel it, well, I’ve seen in their eyes they’ve given up, they don’t want to be there anymore.” Born on Vancouver Island in Duncan, a forestry town of about 5,000, Garside loved roughhousing as a kid. “I grew up with the neighbourhood boys who would spar in the yard and I wanted to join in,” she says. Boys who chivalrously put an arm behind their backs soon regretted it, and many nursed bloody noses as a result of their gallantry.

Garside speaks with the rat-a-tat style of a ricocheting speed bag, and her words come in a rush as she explains how her career began because of a 1996 pay-per-view. “I was with my dad at home watching the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight,” she says. While Tyson easily disposed of Bruno in the third round, it was a bout on the undercard that caught Garside’s—and the boxing world’s—interest. The bout featured Christy Martin, a scrapper out of the U.S. who fought, well, like a man. Straight jabs, mighty uppercuts and devastating power shots were all weapons in the arsenal Martin used to win. Gone were the flailing arms, weak punches and amateurish ring skills of earlier female boxers. “I didn’t know women were competing at that level,” says Garside. “I was so excited that right then and there I decided if women were doing that, then I wanted to do it.”

Her first fight—and first win—was in 1998 in front of a boisterous and appreciative crowd of about 300. “I did it in my hometown and that was awesome,” she says. “The Machine” (a sobriquet given by Duncan sportswriter Don Bodger) never looked back. Garside soon racked up an impressive 45-5 amateur record and won several titles along the way, including four Canadian boxing championships. She moved to Windsor to train at the Border City Boxing Club with Canty and Margaret Sideroff before she stepped into the ring as a prizefighter in 2004. She won the Women’s International Boxing Association (WIBA) featherweight title in 2006, but lost it two years later in Sarajevo, when judges awarded a split-decision to hometown fighter Irma Balijagic-Adler. The win came despite the fact Garside twice knocked the Bosnian to the canvas.

In a class of her own
Photograph By Brent Foster

Emotionally depleted and left to wonder about her next move, Garside went to Duncan for a short breather. It was there she and her mother had a chance encounter with Petrovic, owner of Final Round Martial Arts, who offered to help her win back the title. “Jeannine and her mother thought I was full of hot air,” he recalls.The skepticism was not unfounded; Petrovic had promoted fights at the local level, but never anything as hefty as a world title. Petrovic turned to the Internet, where he serendipitously found the manager of a crafty New York City fighter, Dominga Olivo, and arranged a title fight to be held in Duncan. Garside won the June 6, 2009, scrap by unanimous decision and was presented the international featherweight championship of the World Boxing Council (WBC) in front of a rapturous hometown crowd.

Her next fight was 10 months later with Ontarian Lindsay Garbatt, in an attempt to win back the WIBA title that had been stripped from Balijagic-Adler. Garbatt, who possesses a legitimate knockout punch, was sent to the canvas for good in the third round. That earned Garside the WIBA featherweight belt. Petrovic recalls, “Jeannine said to me, ‘You keep setting them up and I’ll keep knocking them down.’ ” And that’s exactly what Petrovic did when he arranged a July 3, 2010, fight with Germany’s Ina Menzer, an unbeaten fighter with a record of 26 and 0, with 10 knockouts.

The fight was booked for Stuttgart in front of thousands of fight fans. Garside, who had a 9-3-1 (3 KOs) record, was expected to lose the biggest fight of her life. Menzer, says Petrovic, was so confident of a win she risked her three world titles without asking Garside to put her two championships on the line. “No one expected Jeannine to win,” says Petrovic. Well, not exactly no one. “Jeannine takes on all comers,” said her dad, Al, who still lives in Duncan and is known to diet with his daughter when she has to cut weight for a fight. (Interestingly, Garside never allows her seven-year-old daughter to attend her fights. Leah’s dad—and Garside’s long-time fiancé—J.R. Larkin looks after Leah when mom’s in the ring so the fighter isn’t distracted.)

When the fight in Germany ended with both boxers on their feet, Garside got the unanimous nod and earned her biggest purse to date—a modest US$12,000. The fact is unless one’s last name is Ali or Foreman (former heavyweight champs Muhammad Ali and George Foreman both have daughters who’ve fought in the ring), or Martin, few female fighters make what could be considered big money. “It’s tough,” admits Garside, who makes a living as a waitress at a Windsor-area casino where her bosses allow her a flexible work schedule. “It’s the only career where they will let me go when I need to go.”

Garside is among a group of hopefuls who believe the inclusion of women’s boxing in the 2012 London Summer Olympics could change the financial reality of women’s boxing. But some say they’ve heard that song before. Sue Fox is a former boxer and creator of the award-winning Women Boxing Archive Network, a website regarded by many to be the last word in women’s boxing. Fox says there were only two times in recent memory when women’s boxing had a chance to grow. The first was when Christy Martin came on the scene, but that petered out. The second was in 2004 with the release of the film Million Dollar Baby. “But really, it was just a bunch of fighters advertising they were the ‘real’ Million Dollar Baby, and I don’t believe it drew more people to the sport,” Fox says.

Winnipeg-based psychologist Toby Rutner says there’s a simple, albeit emotionally chauvinistic, reason women’s boxing will never catch on. “I don’t think we mind seeing women punch like men, but we don’t like to see women get hurt. Even guys who like blood sports don’t like to see women get injured.” Regardless, Garside says she’ll continue to lace the gloves for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that a three-fight deal in Germany recently disintegrated. Another disappointment was an anticipated rematch with Ontario’s Garbatt that, after weeks of negotiation, failed to materialize. “It’s tough,” says Canty. “She’s beaten everybody and there haven’t been any offers out there.”

Still, the champ says she’s not discouraged. Belts from two other federations “are vacant and I would love to fight for them,” says Garside, who notes she wants to stay with the sport long after she’s unable to step in the ring as a combatant. “I want to be a colour commentator,” she says. “I love boxing, I love watching the fights, and I can see so much now.” And, she laughs, “I can’t keep my mouth shut.”