There are competing backstories about exactly how Jo-Ann Verhaegen ended up becoming a professional boxer in postwar Indiana. One account has a sharp-eyed promoter spotting her pummelling boys in a sandlot football game.
Another has her gaining local notoriety for being refused permission to start on a high school gridiron team. The most Hollywood narrative involves her punching out a male co-worker at the Bendix factory who harassed her once too often. Whatever version rings truest, she fought over 70 times in the late forties and early fifties under the memorable nom de plume JoAnn Hagen, the Bashing Blonde from South Bend.
“She knows how to throw a good punch,” said Edmonton promoter, Jittery Jack Berry. “In fact, she throws better leather than some guys I know.”
Not all her bouts are in the record books because quite a few cards she fought on were off the grid. They had to be. Woman fights were illegal in her home state and plenty of scheduled bouts were cancelled at the last minute because local zealots took umbrage at the presence of distaff combatants and padlocked the venues. More times she was listed on the poster as Jo Hagen, ambiguous enough to avoid attracting undue attention at least until she arrived. On one walk to the ring, a charmer warned her, “This champ business is going to make an old maid of you. No man wants a wife who can knock him out.”
Nearly seven decades after Hagen fought her last and was largely written out of the sport’s history, her pioneering career will finally be recognised. It was announced last week she will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this coming June.
That she will be posthumously honoured alongside contemporary luminaries like Rafael Marquez, Timothy Bradley Jnr and Carl Froch illustrates the groundbreaking contribution she made, barnstorming across America’s Midwest putting on shows in tavern basements and high school gyms. A long way from Katie Taylor’s potential Croke Park farewell.
“Miss Hagen brought another refinement to the ring,” wrote Art Evans of the night she defeated “Battling” Barbara Buttrick (a Yorkshire native suffering the only loss of her career) in what was supposedly the first female boxing match held in Canada. “Instead of sputtering and blowing and gulping and wheezing between rounds as is the accepted style with the menfolk, she leant delicately over the ropes and her handler held a dainty white handkerchief to her classic nose. Man, that touch was really refined. We wouldn’t have been surprised had her handler suddenly produced a permanent wave machine and touched up the ends of her long blonde tresses.”
Apart from the barbs of snide columnists, and the whistles of catcalling fans, female pugilists were also at the mercy of promoters trying to turn a buck. Three times she was put in against male opponents and won. At the behest of a wily carnival barker named Champ Thomas, Hagen also fought Beverley Lehmer, a 17-year-old high school student and professional wrestler, in a six-round hybrid “Rasso-Boxing” match at Moose Auditorium in Council Bluffs, Iowa. At one point in that contest, the pair were grappling so fiercely they fell through the ropes and out of the ring completely.
There were more glamorous evenings too. She fought on the undercard of an Ezzard Charles fight and got asked for her autograph by Jack Dempsey during a visit to his restaurant in New York City. She had been there to make her television debut, after the director Sidney Pollack, an alumnus of her high school, nabbed her an appearance alongside Jerry Lewis on What’s My Line? – where celebrities tried to guess the occupation of a guest. None of them figured out what she did.
There was another cameo on The Steve Allen Show in 1956 where, billed as the women’s world champion boxer, she was first interviewed wearing a glitzy ball gown before going behind a screen to change into her fighting gear while still being quizzed about being a woman punching for pay. Then, she threw playful jabs at the host and sparred properly for the cameras with Phyliss Kugler, a training partner and sometime rival who eventually played a key role in her downfall.
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Just a few weeks after their trip to Manhattan, “the two feminine belters” (as one reporter put it) fought for the women’s world championship. Hagen won the first three rounds handily enough before being caught with some good punches in the fourth and final stanza.
Having earlier bloodied her opponent and put her on the canvas, she appeared to have done enough to gain the verdict, especially since Kugler had been the only one to wear a headguard throughout the contest. The judges thought otherwise, and the crowd lustily booed the decision against her.
“Rumours quickly circulated that the fix was in on Kugler’s behalf and, worse yet, that it had been her and JoAnn’s co-manager Johnny Nate who was behind it,” wrote Chris Benedict on Thegruelingtruth.com. “Whether true or not, Hagen felt irreparably betrayed by her two former confidantes and, disgusted about the whole affair as well as being denied a rematch, never again laced up a pair of gloves. She enlisted in the Marine Corps, got married, and started a family which she raised in South Bend where she remained until her death in 2004 at the age of 73.”
Some woman. Some life.