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Throwing a hook: Japanese American teacher was secret women's boxing trailblazer

Hamaguchi started with a registration form workaround, took her case to the ACLU and ultimately paved the way for women's Olympic boxing.
Dee Hamaguchi
Dee Hamaguchi.Corky Lee

In the fall of 1993, high school teacher Dee Hamaguchi saw a curious flyer in her Harlem gym.

It was an application notice for the Daily News Golden Gloves, the country's premier amateur boxing tournament, which took place every April. Hamaguchi, 28, already an accomplished judo fighter, wanted to master a different combat sport. The Golden Gloves seemed like a perfect opportunity to practice sparring.

But when she tried to enter, she was told women weren't allowed to compete.

Undeterred, Hamaguchi engineered a workaround. Noticing that the application form had no checkbox for gender, she filled out an entry with her Japanese surname and her first initial, "D." The strategy worked. Unbeknown to organizers, she became the first woman to enter the contest in its 68-year history.

"It's always cool to make a difference, but that's not what I set out to do," Hamaguchi, now 55 and living in Los Angeles, told NBC Asian America. "I just wanted to learn how to box."

In the end, she couldn't participate in the 1994 tournament. She didn't get the notice to schedule a physical exam on time, so organizers disqualified her, a move Hamaguchi suspected was in part due to her gender. But her efforts broke a crucial barrier. The following year, the Golden Gloves officially announced that it would accept applications from female boxers.

Yet the road to the historic 1995 contest was far from straightforward.

After she was ruled out of the previous year's bouts, directors resisted her attempt to apply again, explaining that there was no one for her to spar against. No male competitor, they said, matched her 5-foot, 1-inch, 105-pound physique.

Hamaguchi wasn't a lawyer, but she knew New York state prohibited gender discrimination in amateur sports. So she called the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, then overseen by lawyer Sara Mandelbaum. Referring to gender discrimination statutes and the New York Human Rights Law, Mandelbaum wrote to the Golden Gloves' chief executive, which helped sway his decision to admit women. The strategy, Mandelbaum said, was to apply the laws in a gender-neutral way and have him acknowledge that Hamaguchi was a qualified entrant.

"Boxing cases were completely new to me," Mandelbaum said, adding that she remembered Hamaguchi to be "rightfully angry" but direct and businesslike. "I never knew there were women who wanted to be a part of it."

Decades removed from the eras of Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, men's boxing had lost a lot of its luster by the mid-1990s. For women, however, the sport was still uncharted territory.

"It was tough, because we were all pioneers at the time," Hamaguchi said, recalling the few other women who trained at her gym. "What we lacked in skill we made up with heart."

When the 1995 tournament came around, nearly 40 women entered the draw. Hamaguchi's opening bout at Madison Square Garden attracted local and international media buzz. In a report of the match, a Daily News reporter described her as "the reason why women were here ... in the first place."

"There was a lot of excitement, because people knew it's the first time women were competing," said Peter Ong, the former managing editor of Asian New Yorker, a defunct monthly newspaper.

It was a watershed moment in Asian American history, but Hamaguchi's achievements never gained much traction outside the boxing world.

After she lost the fight, the media rarely mentioned her contribution to the sport again. Because of boxing's fading influence on American culture, Ong said, Hamaguchi probably needed to win the match and build an extraordinary career to grab people's attention.

"Instead, she did something that was profound in principle — trying to change the system," he said. "I've done more than 50 profiles throughout my career, but hers really stood out."

The photographer Corky Lee, who took portraits of Hamaguchi before the match, said public recognition of her life might follow a trajectory similar to that of many Asian American trailblazers, including the suffragette Mabel Lee.

"Dee is part of a long line of Asian women who made major contributions in their time," he said. "And you read about them 20 years down the line."

Hamaguchi never fought in another Golden Gloves tournament after 1995, although women continue to participate to this day. (In 2018, four-time champion Sonya Lamonakis, president of USA Boxing Metro NY, took over the tournament from the Daily News and rechristened it the Ring Masters Championship.)

Hamaguchi turned professional in 2000 and, since she moved to Los Angeles, has continued to compete and to teach high school math and physics.

A quarter-century after she wrote her chapter in the annals of boxing, she's happy to see the progress women have made in combat sports. In 2012, the International Olympic Committee added women's boxing to its program, paving the way for fellow Asian fighter Jennifer Chieng, a former Golden Gloves winner, to compete in Rio de Janeiro four years later.

More recently, the explosive popularity of mixed martial arts has propelled Zhang Weili, the strawweight UFC champion from China, to superstardom. (Five years ago, Hamaguchi herself began training in mixed martial arts and kickboxing.)

"The most important thing is that there are young girls who know already that boxing is something they could do," she said.

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