Back in the days when women’s combat sports weren’t widely accepted, the first woman to be publicly recognized as the women’s boxing champion was named Hattie Leslie, and she was from Buffalo.
Hattie Leslie was a theatrical performer and a wrestler as well as a boxer. She sometimes performed an act on the vaudeville circuit in which she sparred with her husband, John. Hattie was once described by the Buffalo Express as “a well-built woman with a strong pair of arms,” with looks that were “far from homely.”
Some Buffalo men came up with the idea of crowning a women’s boxing champion. Among them was Billy Baker, who was considered Buffalo’s heavyweight boxing champion. Back then there were no formal boxing titles back then, even for the men, so they decided to create a female championship. A cash prize of $250 would go with the title.
Leslie challenged Alice Leary of Bradford PA to fight for the title. According to the Buffalo Evening News the 20-year-old Leslie was 5-10 and 168-lb. and Leary was listed at 6-ft. and 148-lb. The fighters’ heights and weights differed in various newspapers, but it was clear that Hattie had about a 20-lb. weight advantage. Hattie’s record at that time was 34-0, including 29 knockouts; Leary was 24 and had been fighting for five years, and claimed a record of 52-0 with 47 KOs.
The fight was arranged to take place on Navy Island, located on the Niagara River, on Sunday, September 16, 1888. Its relatively isolated location made it a popular site for prize fighting, which was illegal in New York State.
(Interestingly, the now-uninhabited island where this historic prize fight took place was considered as a site for the United Nations. Its placement on the Niagara River along the peaceful border of two great nations made it a serious contender before New York City was eventually chosen.)
It was supposed to be a bare knuckle fight, but promoters convinced the women to wear gloves; not padded ones, but thin, flannel-lined kid gloves with the fingers removed.
Despite being outweighed by her opponent Alice started strong, and drew first blood. By the fourth round she had knocked Hattie down several times and broken her nose. The fight seemed to turn in the sixth round as Alice was knocked down twice by Hattie. After the seventh round Leary’s corner threw in the towel to end the bout. Both fighters were battered and bloodied.
The fight received national coverage, and most newspapers were highly critical. The New York Times called it a “disgraceful prize fight, adding that “Both women presented a disgusting picture.”
Maybe because it involved female fighters, or maybe because it was held on a Sunday, the authorities aggressively pursued the participants in the event. The new women’s champion was arrested a week later, along with most of the organizers, though Alice Leary couldn’t be found. Hattie Leslie was later released, but some of the men involved served time in the workhouse for aiding and abetting a prize fight, including Hattie’s husband and Billy Baker.
Over the next four years Hattie offered to defend her title against all comers, but not many challengers came forward. She had a standing offer to pay $50 to any woman who could last four rounds with her or any man who weighed 125-lb. beat her in four rounds. Hattie also continued to do boxing exhibitions with her husband on the vaudeville circuit, billed as the champion female pugilist of the world or the female John L. Sullivan. She was on one of those engagements in Milwaukee in September 1982 when she fell ill with typhoid fever and died at the age of 23.