The great boxing writer, Jimmy Cannon, said this is the way it should be with champs: “They should go down the streets with people following them and crowds coming up on their feet shouting when they enter a fight club. It ought to be plenty of money rolling in and fast action and the excitement of true fame. … They moved around to the sound of strangers calling their names and a sense of being the biggest men alive.
It’s different for Jill Matthews, champ. She stands 5-foot-3, 105 pounds, in the kitchen of the home where her husband’s aunt is sitting shiva. “We walk in,” she recalls, “and there are 15 rabbis praying. I’m really uncomfortable because I don’t know what’s going on. I’m standing in the kitchen and they’re looking at me, right away, a shiksa. Then they go, ‘Ooooh, you’re the boxer!’“I got a phone call from my mother-in-law: ‘I heard you were in The Jerusalem Report, and on the cover of Women’s American ORT. Very nice. I hope something comes of it.’“Something comes of it?” cries Matthews. “What sort of crazy comment is that? I’m world champion. Something already came of it!
She is Jill Matthews, newly crowned junior flyweight champion of the world, ranked at the top by the International Women’s Boxing Federation and the International Female Boxing Association, the governing bodies of distaff pugs. In 1995, she was the first woman crowned champ of the Golden Gloves, the fight lasting just 71 seconds.
And no, she’s not a “shiksa.” A Jewish woman, she looks like this: a wild, just out of bed, strawberry blond mane; golden arms and legs, lean and gently rippling muscles. She’s one of those women whose beauty is felt through motion and proximity, surprising those who know her only through photos.
Several years ago, in an article on women boxers, The New York Times said “Women who box symbolize … a blurring of sexual distinctions.” But there’s nothing blurry here. The ORT Reporter, a normally dignified Jewish women’s magazine, gushed that the champ, 34, is a “glamourpuss … perfectly coifed … eyes lined lightly in black … great cheekbones, Roman nose, curvy mouth, full lower lip.
She says, “That super tough look is overdone, especially with women boxers. Wanting to be a man and wanting to be a boxer are separate things. I want to be a boxer.
Her hips are so slim that the $3,000 championship belt hangs low, like it belongs to her daddy.
She doesn’t belong to her daddy, whose last name was Herman. Matthews is her stepfather’s name. Afraid that “no one would know I was Jewish,” she goes by the nickname “Zion Lion,” with a skull and crossbones between Zion and Lion. The moniker is embroidered on the satin robe she wears while climbing into the ring. In Atlantic City, the crowd chants, “Zi-on, Zi-on,” when she puts up her dukes.
After winning the Golden Gloves, a reporter asked Matthews about her future. “I’ll have my people talk to your people,” she laughed. She said she’d like to have a baby, adding with a twinkle that pregnancy just would have her fighting in a heavier weight class.
Turning pro (with a 6-2-1 amateur record), she found out that a woman champ only earns about $10,000 for a title fight. But she figures, “Hey, I’d be working out every day anyway. And how often in life do you put your heart and soul into something and get anything back, let alone this much, and I’m talking more than money.“Hey, I don’t want to say this for a sob story, but I had a horrible life. I never saw two people that were married and happy. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anybody: parents’ divorce, a selfish mother, fathers with problems, public schools, no religion at all, no sense of who I was or where I came from. I tried to be the perfect kid, feeling sorry for my mother: I didn’t date, I was a perfect teenager. That’s probably why I’m a boxer now.“I was born at 30,” four years ago, when her husband gave her gift certificates to a gym for a Chanukah present.
She’d been working as a hairdresser (and still sees private clients); getting a degree in nutrition from Hunter College; and playing guitar, singing and composing for her rock band Times Square, with her husband on drums and an old boyfriend on bass.
Now she trains four days a week at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, the top boxing gym in the world, where Ali, Mike Tyson and Jake LaMotta once climbed through the ropes. (Negotiations are under way for her to climb through the ropes again next month and defend her title, though the deal isn’t yet done.) One afternoon, when she was discouraged, someone showed her a list of the 114 champions that laced up gloves in Gleason’s: Among them, “Jill Matthews.”“But,” she says, as she offers rugelach and coffee in her West Side apartment, “tell that to my in-laws. They say, big deal, so when am I getting pregnant? But would you be here talking to me if I did nothing but have a baby? If I only had a baby would I be on the cover of that magazine? My in-laws, though, after they heard I won the title, they said, ‘Is this it already? Is she going to move on now?’ They didn’t call me before my fight; they didn’t call me after my fight. Because I’m not pregnant.”Only her husband, of all her relatives, drove to Atlantic City in the spring to see her win the crown.In Gleason’s, there’s one section dominated by boxers from Guyana. Matthews’ trainer is Lennox Blackmoore, a champ in Guyana. “He made me,” says Matthews. “I couldn’t have done anything without him. I’m at the gym all the time. I have no girlfriends. I don’t go to the office. One day I say to my husband, would you totally disown me if I get a gold tooth like the guys from Guyana? So I got one solid gold tooth, and one with a diamond. It looks nice, right?“I’m actually very conservative. I would never get a tattoo, because I’m Jewish. But these caps are funny for the boxers. My husband likes it too, so I’m keeping it for awhile.” And the diamond matches the jewels on her championship belts.She’s a stranger to her family, but in fight clubs and hazy arenas there are strangers who shout her name.