5 min

Marsha Valley is a serious contender

Vancouver boxer ranked third in the world

Credit: Xtra West Files

At just under 5’11”, 168 pounds and with a viper-like stare, Toronto-born Marsha Valley is currently ranked third in the World Boxing Council’s (WBC) female light heavyweight division. She has a tough time finding women to fight who are her equals in size and weight. As for sparring, fuggedaboutit.

When it comes to gym workouts, she often has to hit the ring with the guys. Her most memorable encounter was in a Toronto club with a young Russian who she refers to simply as “Yuri.” Weight: 185 pounds.

“This was when people were new to women’s boxing, and [people in the gym] were saying ‘you can hang with Yuri!'” remembers Valley. “I didn’t know any better. I was like, ‘this is boxing, I gotta hang.’ It was a slugfest…We were killing each other… I got my licks in, but he got the best of it. These guys have testosterone on me, but I want to do my thing. It was ridiculous.”

Ridiculous or not, the memory of that spectacle lights up Valley’s face as she involuntarily punches the air.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” she recalls. “I was wired for sound. I was in a fight, man. After the session and the big hug I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this every day with this dude.’ I was fighting for my life, but this was their way of saying, ‘we’re going to show her what boxing is all about, this is my world.’ You know this ego thing. It was some kind of initiation.”

Valley rolls her eyes. “Whatever.”

But the dearth of what Valley calls “big girls” to fight and spar with on one hand and the testosterone-filled atmosphere of boxing gyms on the other do not put her on the psychological ropes for one minute. It’s not part of her resumé or her way of being. She describes herself as naturally aggressive, pushing for her first-ever fight when she had only been in training for two weeks.

“I was, ‘I’m good to go, I’m good to go.’ They went, ‘well you gotta learn all this technique,’ but I knew darned well my girl, whoever I was fighting, didn’t know all this technique either,” she says.

“I just wanted to go, experience this, get it out of the way. It was a TKO, my first amateur fight, four rounds, and I got her in the second round. It was a rush. It was everything I hoped it would be.”

After a few amateur fights, Valley scanned the Canadian landscape of women’s boxing and found she could no longer ignore the loneliness she felt at her height and weight level. It meant she had no one to contend with for a Canadian title. Plus, she wanted to live what she had seen on television as a kid watching the Alis, Foremans, Fraziers and Spinxes with her dad.

And then Christy Martin from West Virginia, USA happened. She was the best female boxer on the scene by the 1990s, regularly featured on the undercards of marquee pay-per-view fight events courtesy of the iconic promoter of promoters, Don King, and showcasing Mike Tyson.

The sight of Martin knocking opponents to the canvas electrified and inspired Valley.

“Christy Martin, man! Boxing, making money, whoo! Cool, not very realistic, but cool! And fortunately,” adds Valley, really animated, “I was not the only big girl going, ‘Yeah!'”

Fate’s timing mingled fortuitously with Valley’s career musings and desires. She got a call in 1997 from the then fledgling International Female Boxing Association (IFBA) to head to the US. She made her pro debut the following year at the Great Western Forum, Los Angeles, defeating Brenda Drexel out of Seguin, Texas by unanimous decision over four rounds.

Valley quickly progressed to six-round bouts following a flawless record at the four-round distance, overcoming her opponent via a TKO.

The fight that stands out in Valley’s mind as a career keynote was against Mitzi Jeter, the Fighting Teacher. It had all the atmosphere, trappings and look of the professional life. Plus, the fight was entertaining.

“It was September, 17, 1998. Biloxi, Mississippi. My first drop in weight. I’m living the life in hotels. There’s televised commentary, interviews. I’m looking the bomb, had the corn rows going, and I won. I dropped her three times. It went the distance, and it’s one of those fights where she got up and kept coming.”

The sight of two women duking it out on an undercard, or comprising the main draw has faded on the novelty index. And to hear Valley and her handlers talk, so has the speculative titillation–whispered and overt–about the sexual orientations of women fighters.

In an interview with some years ago, freelancer Pam Huwig quoted Valley as saying: “This is who I am, and I’m proud of it, and I think everyone else should be able to respect that. If they don’t, the hell with them. I don’t know that I’m doing anything all that brave, really.” But Valley’s combativeness seems to have given way to a more philosophical but still politically inflected assessment of what it is like to negotiate the issue of sexuality, especially when it comes to the image-making and financial underpinnings of her sport.

“I didn’t want to reveal too much, being gay,” she says. “It was not always to my benefit. I wouldn’t ever compromise myself by denying it, but I would avoid questions or wouldn’t say much. In the last five or six years, I haven’t had a problem with it. I’m established enough not to worry about career decisions, but it always comes into play with promoters. It’s still the het community paying the bills. Why offend them? Why throw it in their face? It’s easier to sell or move me if I keep things to a dull roar, I’ll get more fights looking more feminine or less dyke.”

Gerry Gionco, owner of Trojan Gym on Commercial Dr where Valley now trains, dismisses the idea that sexual identity and orientation is even on anyone’s mind when a fighter goes into the ring, or creates a storm cloud over the head of any sports figure today.

“At one time it might have been an issue but I don’t think so anymore,” he says. “People just don’t care. Skills and heart, I think, is what impresses people. They want to see what kind of character the man has and how he plays. If he’s a good player, he’s a good player. It doesn’t matter what he does in his off-time. One time it would have been absolutely taboo, now it doesn’t matter. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”

Trainer Rob Dellapenna is much too focused on shaping Valley into a title contender and helping her navigate the business and politics of landing a title fight with Laila Ali to worry about sexuality. Getting to Ali is the ultimate mission.

“We get Marsha four or five wins, bring Anne Wolfe here [the number one contender], maybe at the River Rock Casino where they’re planning to put on some pro shows,” he says. “Give Anne five grand to fight, and be able to put the title on the line, make Laila step up to the plate. Basically, make Marsha force her to fight.”

Then Dellapenna thinks again. He suggests Ali would rather give up her title than fight Marsha for it.

“It’s the business side of boxing. We don’t have to worry about Laila. Marsha needs to get better.”

First thing’s first for Valley, though. Before a poster of the current women’s pro-boxing world rankings, she jabs a finger on Anne Wolfe’s name. Valley is 0-3 against her and wants nothing more than another shot at her on Valley’s terms, on Valley’s turf.

“She’s the big cheese, I’m calling her out,” says Valley with determination. “She’ll come for a hamburger. She’s said as much. It’s going to be on my terms.”