Touted as the first fully female-produced pro boxing event in New Orleans history, the Sting Ring at the Sugar Mill on Friday, Sept. 6, blended food trucks, custom-rolled cigars, appearances by Vegas-style “card girls” and nine scrappy matches, including one between female fighters and a featherweight title contest. At intermission, New Orleans’ satiric burlesque rapper Boyfriend performed her liberated ranting from within the sweat spattered boxing ring.
New Orleans-born sisters Audrey and Mullady Voelker boxed at local gyms to tone up and blow off steam.
“We’d spar,” Mullady said. “We’d get in the ring and hit each other. But for us it was more about fitness.”
Audrey Voelker, 36, was development director of the Idea Village entrepreneurial think tank. Mullady Voelker, 38, was the former president of a health care startup.
In addition to working up a sweat under the tutelage of trainer Marty Marino, the sisters “got to know these dedicated fighters,” Mullady Voelker said.
The Voelkers discovered that it’s tough for aspiring boxers to find professional opportunities. New Orleans was a pro boxing hub at one time, but the sport had ebbed. The Voelkers said young boxers climb the pro ladder by fighting in low-profile matches scattered across the country.
“Some of these fighters would spend the best years of their careers fighting in barns in Oklahoma,” Mullady Voelker said.
“Why do they train so hard, work so hard and still can’t put food on the table for their families?” Audrey Voelker asked.
So the Voelkers set out to produce a series of professional fights in New Orleans that might provide better paydays for the aspiring athletes they’d come to admire.
Joining them in the conceptualization were pals Annie Irvin, 35, the executive director of Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden Museum in the French Quarter, and Ali Carlisle, 34, the former Idea Village marketing manager. The women called their boxing business SWARM, a term used to describe furious toe-to-toe punching.
The women modeled their Sting Ring project on the popular Friday Night Fights amateur boxing matches held periodically on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City. But, as Audrey put it, they knew their “appeal would be different.” The SWARM production would hopefully be a “perfect marriage of grit and glamour,” Mullady Voelker said.
The women of SWARM realized from the start that they would be defying expectations, because the quartet of 30-somethings had a distinctly different vibe than the stereotypical fight promoters who populate the smoky ringside in “Rocky” and “Raging Bull.”
As they laid out their idea at local gyms and at the Louisiana State Boxing and Wrestling Commission, Audrey Voelker said that one of their main challenges was “managing their disbelief.”
But in the end, SWARM achieved the official buy-in necessary to produce the first Sting Ring.
Boxing is still a man’s world, but the women of SWARM have been “very quick learners,” said Jimbo Stevenson, the vice chairman of the Louisiana State Boxing and Wrestling commission.
“I didn’t know who they were or where they came from,” Stevenson said, “but I’m going to tell you, they’ve been a pleasure to work with. They’re new young faces in the business and they have the boxers at heart.”
On the day before the first Sting Ring event, the New Orleans City Council awarded the producers with a proclamation of congratulations for their “work in helping restore the City of New Orleans as a boxing town.” Boyfriend had agreed to postpone an out-of-state performance to lend her talent to the event because, as she said in an email, “it’s important to me to support their endeavor,” which she called “New Orleans’ first-ever all-female produced professional boxing event.”
Stevenson said he’s aware of husband-and-wife boxing producer teams in the past, and maybe a woman or two who took a jab at it on their own, so SWARM might not be the very first, but female producers are definitely a rarity.
In front of a crowd of roughly 650, Friday’s bouts featured the charismatic 22-year-old New Orleans boxer Delvin “Dagator” McKinley, who wore a gladiator skirt made from pale green faux alligator hide and flattened his opponent in the first round, standing over the fallen fighter in Muhammad Ali-like triumph.
Eighteen-year-old Florida fighter Rebecca Cruz pummeled her North Carolina rival Myasia Oglesby into weary defenselessness in her first pro match. Before the bout, Cruz confided that her parents hadn’t wanted her to become a boxer.
“They were telling me it’s not the safest thing to do, but I forced them to put me in it,” she said. Because she generally spars with “quicker, taller” boys, Cruz predicted that her 22-year-old female adversary would be a “piece of cake.”
Meanwhile, Oglesby described herself as a natural street fighter who’d learned to confine her fisticuffs to the ring. “I want to get paid to beat you up,” she said.
Amid the bouts, Boyfriend and two accompanying dancers took to the ring, wearing dressing gowns and hair curlers, chanting the lyrics to a song titled “Beauty is Pain” and other flippant selections before taking their seats ringside to watch the final matches.
Boyfriend’s in-your-face feminism seemed completely opposed to the traditionally masculine mystique of boxing yet completely compatible with The Sting Ring backstory.
Miztle Amador, 46, a former Louisiana Golden Gloves amateur bantam-weight champion was among the boisterous aficionados studying the fights from the second row. “Straight right all night!,” and “body shot, body shot!” Amador yelled at fighters who seemed to have momentarily forgotten boxing fundamentals in the midst of a match.
“I definitely enjoyed it,” Amador said, though he felt the some of the fighters were mismatched. He said that more nights of pro boxing would be great for aspiring fighters in New Orleans, though he admitted he could take or leave the superfluous entertainment. “Overall, I’d give it a B,” he said of the first Sting Ring event.
The evening’s climax was a passionately fought 8-round split decision that went to local hero Curtis “Hard Knocks” Johnson, who took home the U.S.B.C. Super Featherweight Championship Belt. Boyfriend had coquettishly displayed the glinting golden belt to the crowd before the match. In an email after the fight, Boyfriend gleefully wrote: “I got to be a ring girl!!!”
As the referee held Johnson’s arm upright in victory, a trickle of blood flowed down the cheek of his talented and tireless adversary, Mexican fighter José Antonio Martinez.
Real blood. Which brings us to an elemental conundrum. Fans view boxing as an exhilarating distillation of all contact sports down to the bare essentials. But in the era of concussion awareness, others see it as a dangerous anachronism.
“When I first saw boxing, I might have felt the same way,” said Audrey Voelker. “But when I actually saw the training, saw the drills, the mind-body coordination required is more of a ballet. I don’t view it as any more violent than football, where people are crashing into each other.”
Audrey declined to share the payment the fighter received at the first Sting Ring, but she said that SWARM wants the purses to rise. In addition, she hopes that at SWARM productions, mutual esteem will be paramount.
“It’s a competitive sport, a combat sport, but everybody that comes into our events has to show respect for their opponent,” she said.
Audrey said that SWARM hopes to grow the pro boxing audience beyond the family and friends of the boxers to “anyone in New Orleans.”
“I want the girls I went to Sacred Heart with to see this,” she said.
Audrey predicts the second Sting Ring event will take place in early 2020. Boyfriend has already expressed an interest in reprising her appearance, Audrey said.