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What Muhammad Ali meant to women and transgender boxers

Savoy Howe—also known by her boxing name, Kapow Howe—founded and runs Toronto's first women-oriented and trans-friendly boxing gym. The Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club has always had a special place for boxing legend Muhammad Ali: on their walls—a space that's usually reserved for photos of powerful women.
Savoy Howe, founder of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, shows a group of women how to shadow box in front of posters of powerful women boxers, and the notable exception of a Muhammad Ali poster—visible on the right. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Savoy Howe—also known by her boxing name, Kapow Howe—founded and runs Toronto's first women-oriented and trans-friendly boxing gym. The Toronto Newsgirls Gym has always had a special place for boxing legend Muhammad Ali: on their walls—a space that's usually reserved for photos of powerful women. They make a notable exception for Ali, whose image inspires them to do a host of social activism work.

Listen to Howe discuss the place of Ali in her gym with Checkup guest host Duncan McCue.

Savoy Howe runs Toronto's first women centered boxing gym, Muhammad Ali holds a special place as the only male boxer with a photo on her walls. 5:37

Duncan McCue: We're talking about Muhammad Ali. What are your thoughts.

Savoy Howe: I'm in my 24th year of boxing and I spent 14 of those years in very male-dominated clubs: both with the Toronto Newsboys and at Sully's. In both gyms the walls were covered in photos of powerful men: photos of Muhammad Ali and all these inspiring men for the boys. I always said, "When I have my own gym, my walls are going to be covered in photos of powerful women." Now that I have my own gym, we only have one boy on our walls and that would be Mr. Muhammad Ali.

We have posters of Ali on all four of our walls. It's such an important image for the gals because, to me, he represents social activism. He's somebody who used boxing to get so strong that he could make a change in the world. The social activism that our gym stands for is helping the transgender community. If there's a community out there that needs support right now, it's the transgender community. So that's who we're fighting for. We use boxing to get strong enough to do that. [Muhammad Ali's poster] is such an important image for reminding us that we can do it.

Savoy Howe shows a group of women how to shadow box in front of posters of powerful women boxers, and the notable exception of Muhammad Ali's poster—visible in the top right corner. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

DM: I want to ask you about about about why, but before I do, who are the boxing women on the walls? I'm just curious.

I have had over 45 amateur fighters come through through me as a coach, so we have pictures of them at their fights with a bloody nose and a big smile on their face, or of them jumping up high in the air when it's announced that they won their fight. There's a photo of also Ellie, Foreman's daughter. We have posters of trans women on the gym wall so that people know that it's an option as well to be a trans woman and be in the boxing.

DM: There are so many people inspired by his quest for justice. He wasn't a saint; he was a complicated man and he did have, at times, a difficult relationship with women—does not that detract from his image and his words at all?

SH: I'm not a saint either. I've had a heck of a time with women so I would say no. I will tell you as a lesbian, the only person I ever call my boyfriend is Muhammad Ali.

DM: Fair enough! When you think back, as a boxer yourself, what is it about his boxing that inspired you?

SH: He's so smart. He would get in the ring with fellows who could destroy him and he would have a strategy for everything that was thrown his way. Like he would stay on the outside, get in a sting, then move; use his footwork as a form of defence; use his taunting and his humour.

His humour is such a beautiful thing. Maybe not so much in the ring although he did use humour in the ring. But on the outside you know in his poetry and stuff at press conferences. He was just such a clever guy; just he was like a rock on the end of an elastic band, as opposed to the type who would get in there and bust heads.

He was an entertainer and you could just watch him forever. He was such an entertainer, on top of a boxer, on top of a good looking fellow—any lesbian would trade their card for that—and he was an amazing social activist.

Founder of Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, Savoy Howe, leads a boxing class in Toronto. She says that 'having access to a heavy bag is cheaper than therapy.' (Melissa Renwick / Getty)

I think his social activism is the biggest thing to me. He was not afraid to go to jail for something he believed in—because killing somebody that never hurt his family just didn't make sense to him. I don't know how many times I've had to make a decision for myself where I knew the outcome wasn't going to be good but I was standing for what I believed in because I had a role model like Muhammad Ali who did it before me and showed me that that's possible.

Savoy Howe's and Duncan McCue's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ayesha Barmania.

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