Babes in Boyland

Her left hook is suspect, but Darla Johnson is a knockout. Ring rats at The Nuway Athletic Club think there should be more boxers just like her.

But Darla came along and started training at Nuway. Big changes give a guy the opportunity to think, and Lunceford started thinking about what might be done with Darla's untapped boxing talent. When he looks at her now he sees potential. And money.

There's nothing new about women in the boxing ring. The American Boxing Association has accepted women fighters, and there is now a Women's International Boxing Federation--the only organization in the world that sanctions women's boxing. Christy Martin, a 28-year-old protege of promotion god Don King, is tops in her field after slugging her way to a bloody decision over Deirdre Gogarty last spring in an undercard of the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno match. The West Virginia coal miner's daughter made $15,000 for that bout; for his win, Tyson raked in $30 million.

And right here in Big D, Katherine "Bunny" Etheridge, a far stronger and more devoted boxer than Darla, is working on a serious boxing career. Etheridge was the women's Dallas Golden Gloves champion in 1994, only the second year women were allowed in the competition.

In contrast to Darla, the 20-year-old Etheridge is stocky and plain and she doesn't cotton much to make-up and fussy hair. She is one of those "big girls" to whom Lunceford so indelicately refers.

"There's no doubt that Christy Martin is very talented and that more ladies could get to that place," Lunceford says. "But let me bottom-line it for you. The thing that keeps most girls from getting in the ring is the violence. They don't want to get hit in the face. I mean, one well-placed punch could bust their nose. No pretty girl wants that."

Surely no sane man wants that either, but that is a quibble. "It's different with guys," Lunceford says. "They're supposed to get cut up."

Lunceford follows this enlightened path to its inevitable end. To get more "girls" into fighting--more "cute girls" to be precise--someone has to come up with adequate face and chest protection. And Lunceford and his boss, Harold Helm, are just the men to do it.

Their dream goes like this: Helm will design and patent a special face mask--with a vertical bar from the forehead to the chin--that will protect the nose and eyes from damage. Helm says he's also working on a special chest guard that will cushion the breasts from blows. Once that's done, Helm says, he'll use his connections in the boxing world to start a whole new women's boxing association. Currently, women who fight competitively do so with minimal protection--and certainly not helmets. Helm and Lunceford claim that with their plan, women will flow into the boxing gyms.

When asked to show a prototype--even a rough sketch--of these new face and breast guards, Helm says he doesn't have one. "I'm working on it," he says.

"With our own association we could have our own sanctioned belt. And the women wouldn't be afraid to fight because their looks could be preserved. Let's face it," Helm continues. "Most of the women who want to box have jobs where their looks are important. They're secretaries, or waitresses, or, let's face it, club dancers. So they don't want to do anything that would hurt their looks."

Harold Jr. has been standing beside his father during this human anatomy lecture, listening attentively and nodding in agreement. At age 25, Junior is a chip off the old block, with a tree stump of a body and a faint mustache that more resembles a smear of mud than facial hair. Junior adds: "This added protection is going to be very important, especially the breast protection. I mean, to guard against breast cancer and everything, you know."

In the minds of these men, the brass ring is right there waiting to be grabbed. All they need is the right kind of promotion. And Darla.

"As I see it, my deal is to try to get Darla in the kind of shape where she can really compete," Lunceford says. "Eventually we might get her to a Don King event--an all-women card with Christy Martin as the main event and Darla as the semimain event. Give people a chance to see what a pretty girl can do.

"The key is going to be in the matchups," he says. "If we do this right, Darla will be the good guy, and good always triumphs, right? I mean, if this was Darla the drug addict, the penitentiary gal, we wouldn't have a prayer. But she is so clean she squeaks. She'll be a killer."

Darla has taken off her earrings, and four rings from her fingers, in anticipation of a training session with Lunceford. She begins slowly weaving yards of black cotton tape around and between her fingers--wrapping her hands for stability before donning her boxing gloves.

The first time she hit someone--hard--in the ring, she remembers feeling "weird, scared, like I'd done something wrong." But the more she has trained and sparred with men, the more aggressive she has become. The last time she sparred with Campitelli, for instance--the day he offered her a dollar for every time she socked him in the nose--she got madder with each punch he threw.

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