Jennifer Han can’t sit still. Not just because the biggest fight of her life against Katie Taylor is a week away, but because as a mother of two young children, that’s not a reality for her at the moment.
As Han paces around her backyard in El Paso, TX talking about her in-ring strategy against Taylor, her six-month old son Nolan wants attention, so she stops mid-sentence to scoop him and his toy truck up before continuing her thought.
“I know most male fighters don’t have to do this,” Han says with a laugh.
Doing things most male fighters don’t have to do has been a common theme for Han and Taylor in their careers. The two will face off at Headingley Stadium in Leeds on Saturday in a co-feature bout aired on DAZN with Taylor’s undisputed lightweight title on the line. It’s a battle of two fighters who can rightfully be called trailblazers in the world of women’s boxing.
Taylor’s influence on the sport has been both immense and visible. Ranked by most outlets as the pound-for-pound best women’s fighter in the world, Taylor has shattered glass ceilings since her emergence on the elite international amateur scene in 2005. Seeing Taylor headline a massive venue, featured on major network platforms or in national media campaigns is not a rarity anymore.
But there was a time not that long ago when the sight of a woman boxing in her country was unheard of. Even during her training camp leading up to her 2012 Olympic gold medal win, Taylor trained in a gym without a toilet or a shower.
“For many many years I (trained) without getting fights, and that's an amazing training ground, because you're training without reward, without accolades, without somebody patting you on the back, and you just can't be driven by anything other than passion or purpose,” said Taylor on a recent appearance on The Late Late Show on RTE. "Mostly I survived on sparring growing up. But on a couple of occasions, I'd have the headgear on and my hair would be tucked in, just so I could get some fights with the boys. Even though everyone in the room knew it was me, we had to do it just to cover our backs with the officials. Every time I took the headgear off, that's when there would be uproar. All the officials would be going crazy."
Taylor’s experience is familiar to Han, who in fact was one of the women who helped pave the way for fighters like Taylor to have a place on the international scene. The bout this weekend is just a month shy of the 20th anniversary of the very first World Women’s Amateur Boxing Championship, held in Scranton, PA in 2001.
Women’s boxing of course existed before 2001, but the amateur pipeline was mostly limited to regional competitions—and even those hadn’t been around for very long in certain parts of the world. The first sanctioned women’s amateur bout between Dallas Malloy and Heather Poyner took place in just 1993, after Malloy filed a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Association that was ultimately validated by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that USA Boxing's bylaws preventing women from boxing violated Washington's anti-discrimination laws.
Han was a member of the very first women’s team to represent the United States at the 2001 Worlds. At the time, Han was an 18-year old kickboxing and martial arts convert who was also starting a semester at UTEP. Although women’s boxing in the United States was far from encouraged (the women’s team wasn’t even a budgetary line item for USA Boxing, according to head coach Dr. Christy Halbert), Han’s family is a Texas martial arts dynasty, and in other martial arts women participated freely—so why not boxing?
With just fifteen boxing matches under her belt, Han made it to the second round of the tournament before falling to future world champion Jeannine Garside.
“When I was on the first ever amateur women's boxing team, I was just so impressed. I had never seen so many females in my life, and from all over the world. It was amazing, it was a wonderful experience,” said Han. “I remember waiting for the Olympics in 2004. Then 2008. Never happened. Women's boxing didn't become an Olympic sport until 2012 where Katie Taylor won the gold medal.”
According to Dr. Halbert, that first US national team was a DIY project through and through. One fighter made posters, another with a background in film made a commercial, and the team collectively pooled together their own money to purchase Team USA windbreakers for themselves.
“When you're blazing a trail, you are literally blazing it. It's you and a machete and you're cutting through stereotypes and myths and all of these obstacles various people are putting out because they're scared or they're upset or whatever the case may be. Looking back on it 20 years later, I am so proud of what we accomplished as Team USA for that event,” said Halbert. “We all just did it, we didn't really complain much. We all just understood that if this is what we want, we're the ones that are going to have to do it. I think that's the true pioneer spirit. You don't talk about yourself as a pioneer. None of them talked about that.”
With the Olympics not on the horizon for her, Han turned pro in 2009 in a women’s boxing landscape that looked drastically different than the one we see today. In fact, it felt a whole lot like the DIY attitude of the 2001 Worlds. In 2015, Han captured the IBF super featherweight title with a victory over Helen Joseph, a title she went on to successfully defend four times.
But even as a reigning world champion, finding representation, let alone mainstream exposure was a near-impossible task. Even getting fights at times relied upon Han hitting a ticket sale quota in order for the bout to be included on the event. Han and her family were in charge of every single aspect of her career.
“When I came to the scene, it was very difficult, because if you don't have a promoter, you do it all yourself, and it sucks,” said Han. “Fighting was the easy part. Promoting the fight, getting tickets sold, I didn't have a promoter so I was doing all the hard work. It was exhausting, it was frustrating, and I wasn't getting compensated for the amount of work I was doing. I wasn't fighting on TV, I wasn't getting opportunities. I wasn't getting anywhere. It was overwhelming for me. I was ready to hang up the gloves.”
Han did effectively hang up the gloves in 2018, ultimately vacated her title, and gave birth to her first child. After giving birth, she developed plantar fasciitis, and was unable to run as a means of losing her baby weight. So she called her trainer Louie Burke and asked if she could spar recreationally, as it would be a little easier on her feet. He agreed, and before long, the itch to return to the ring for real was too strong, and Han made her return in 2020.
In mid-2020, Han was offered a spot on one of Taylor’s undercards, however travel restrictions related to the pandemic made travel to the United Kingdom impossible for her. Han said she “couldn’t stop her life,” so she had her second child. Not long after that, she received another call for a fight, but felt that one month to lose her baby weight was impossible.
Then the big phone call came, an offer for a fight against Taylor, and Han embarked upon a five-month journey to lose the weight and prepare for the fight of her life.
“When you gain that much weight, you have to learn to everything again. Your center of gravity is different, your balance is different,” explained Han, who lost 50 pounds in preparation for the bout. “When you get pregnant, your body stretches out, and you're trying to get it back to where it was pre-pregnancy, and you face a lot of obstacles. You don't want to get injured, you have to be careful because your body is very fragile. And that was difficult for me because I'm used to going so hard, and my coaches had to be like no, you have to take it easy, no, not yet. But you need to be disciplined and listen to them. Sometimes that's hard for a competitive athlete to understand, that rest is important.”
Although the timing and circumstances of the bout may not be exactly what Han had expected, the bout against Taylor is what she describes as “the highlight of (her) boxing life.” There is a palatable respect bordering on reverence for Taylor from Han, a sentiment shared by many in the women’s boxing community for whom Taylor has been a vocal leader and breaker of barriers. Fighters like Han helped catapult Taylor, who in turn has done everything in her power to bring those women up with her.
Back in 2010, AIBA tried to make skirts rather than trunks mandatory for women’s boxers, a ruling Taylor publicly refused to comply with, calling it “ridiculous.” Since turning pro, Taylor has continued to speak up about pay disparity between men and women in boxing.
“She seemed to always know what the issue of the day was for women boxers. She wouldn't just recognize it, she would make statements. She was supportive but also understood the movement in a broader capacity. She used her prominence in the sport to point out that this was a social justice issue. She put her neck out there for other women boxers. It's because of her and people like her that AIBA took notice of a number of issues,” said Halbert. “It always seemed like Katie kind of understood that there was something bigger at play, and she was so highly respected that her voice was given a microphone, and she used it for good. She used her superpower for good.”
Their kinship will pause for a little while on Saturday, and Han will have to contend with Taylor’s “superpowers” inside the ring. Oddsmakers have Taylor set as a massive -2500 favorite on many sportsbooks.
Regardless of the outcome of the fight, it is a monumental meeting of two significant figures who have punched down the doors that were locked and shut in women’s faces in boxing in the not-too-distant past.
“These were women who bucked the system. They went against all the barriers that were put in place,” said Halbert. “They are true pioneers.”
Taylor’s impact on the sport has been widely publicized, and her successes in the sport will undoubtedly land her in the International Boxing Hall of Fame whenever she decides to hang up the gloves. But the contributions of Han, Coach Halbert, and the women who fought at the inaugural 2001 tournament shouldn’t be forgotten.
Han et al blazed the trail, and although Taylor and her Olympic contemporaries have passed some of them along the way, fights like this are almost like a symbolic sharing of the rations. Taylor received the spoils the fighters before her might have dreamed of and is now in a position to pass some of them on to her predecessors.
“I am very proud of the journey I've gone on, and all the experienced I went through, because I did lay down the future for many female fighters, and they won't have it as hard as we did. But I won't say that I was the only one, because I was not. That's far from the truth. Everybody before me had a piece,” said Han.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.