Olympic-Level Boxing Coach Cary Williams Is Fighting for the Fate of Women’s Boxing

By Grace Bydalek

A longtime female boxer, Olympic-level USA Boxing coach, and founder of Tussle, Cary Williams is speaking out about an updated USA Boxing rule that she says will put female boxers at risk. The rule, updated during the first week of 2024, allows male boxers who identify as transgender women and have completed a “gender-reassignment surgery” to box against women.

“You have grown men who have knocked down their testosterone and changed some parts, and they’re boxing women,” said Williams in an interview with Independent Women’s Forum. “It’s unreal.”

Williams spoke about the risks this rule poses for female athletes from personal experience. At 30, she was sparring with a 16-year-old male in preparation for a tournament. 

“This boy hits me with a body shot,” she said, “and he really didn’t mean to do it hard. He just barely threw a body shot and gave me a hairline fracture in my rib.” Williams said that—in the moment—she was stunned, and he was mortified.

“I thought to myself, if any of these boys, even at 16 years old, decided to go 100% with me, they could’ve knocked me out in an instant. Hands down, I have no question in my mind,” Williams said.

When Williams was coaching and competing at the same time, she said there weren’t many female fighters. While taking her students to neighboring towns to box, Williams said she would carefully gauge the experience, build, weight, and capability of their competitors. “I would know within 30 seconds if that would be a good sparring partner for my athlete.”

“Safety is really the first concern, especially in boxing,” said Williams, who was intentional about cultivating an environment for her athletes that was safe both physically and mentally. During the 25 years that Williams has been with USA Boxing, she thought that the organization similarly prioritized the wellbeing of their female athletes.

“The thing that they’ve always driven home is safety, safety, safety,” she said, reflecting on how the organization encouraged coaches like herself to prioritize their athletes’ wellbeing. “Now I know it’s because they didn’t want to get sued.” 

The Sacramento native and self-proclaimed bookworm first began boxing while she was working as a gym owner. In 1997, a friend introduced her to the sport, saying, “if somebody comes into the boxing gym, they can’t train just to train. They have to be a fighter.”

Where her friend saw a hard-and-fast industry norm, Williams saw a massive untapped market. “I want to open up a boxing gym,” she recalled saying to herself at the time. “I want everybody to be able to learn how to box, even if they don’t want to fight.”

Williams picked up a Business Plan for Dummies from the bookstore, crafted an infrastructure, and presented her idea to the bank. “I was on fire. They said, ‘we’re going to give you a feel-good loan.’ I didn’t know what that was, but I ran with it.”

With a $40,000 SBA loan, she opened her first gym and earned $100,000 in revenue that year.

Williams’ first order of business was to hire a team of experienced trainers. Soon, with business booming, she found herself stepping into the ring to assist. “All of a sudden, we had kids coming in that wanted to compete, and I was in their corner. We had a team.”

“I thought, ‘wow.’ It’s a little hypocritical of me to tell these kids what to do or how to do it if I’ve never competed before.” At the age of 29, Williams began competing with the goal of becoming a better coach. Soon after, she became one of the few women to attain Level 4 coaching status, qualifying her to coach athletes at the Olympic Games.

Achieving this milestone elevated Williams’ profile, placing her at the cutting edge of women’s progress in boxing—a sport in which women have only been permitted to compete in the Olympics since 2012. 

“That gives you an idea of how far behind we are,” she said. “And when you get to the Olympics, there are only three weight classes. Girls kill themselves to make a lighter weight.” Her aim is to drag boxing out of the antiquated, male-dominated past and into the future.

For Williams, speaking out on USA Boxing’s ruling is a no-brainer, but she said that many female coaches who thank her for taking a public stance hesitate to share their own opinions out of fear of professional and personal retaliation. Williams said that their decision is “just heartbreaking.” The imminent importance of her message extends beyond typical partisan buckets—beyond liberal and conservative—and into common sense and human dignity.

For those coaches, and for female athletes, she has a single message: “Stand up. Speak out. Ladies, we can do this. We don’t need men to step in and save our asses again.”

Williams urged female athletes and coaches to write letters to organizations like USA Boxing who made discriminatory policy changes and put pressure on them to reverse their rules—lest they cancel their memberships.

“There is power in numbers,” Williams said. “Don’t be scared. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

While Williams trains the next generation of fighters, she’s urging USA Boxing to acknowledge the clear danger that male athletes identifying as transgender women pose for girls and women in combat sports.

“We’ve worked hard for years for our space,” Williams said. “Make this fair for women and girls. Make the sport safe for women and girls.”

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