Deirdre Gogarty: Ireland’s first female professional boxer

As we again revel in the triumphs of our Olympic boxers and the gold medal of Kellie Harrington, we look back at the career of Ireland’s first champion female boxer, who blazed a trail for women’s boxing in Ireland and abroad.

We tend to remember notable Irish women in the late 19th and early 20th century that fought for equal rights. But it’s easy to forget the struggle for equality is still a contemporary one. For Deirdre Gogarty, living in Ireland in the late 1980’s, she had to fight all comers both in and out of the ring, to pursue her dream of becoming a professional boxer.

In 1996, a young Irish fighter was about to fight for a championship belt in the MGM Grand Las Vegas on the undercard of the Tyson-Bruno rematch. The bout would be broadcast around the world, and be fondly remembered as being the fight of the night. Irish boxer Deirdre Gogarty fought Chrissy Martin over 6 rounds, with both fighters being tested to their limits. This fierce contest is widely known as being the bout that finally brought women’s boxing to the attention of the masses. But Deirdre had to fight a much harder battle out of the ring to realise her dream of making it as a professional boxer.

Deirdre Gogarty in a boxing match with Christy Martin in Las Vegas

Deirdre Gogarty (left) goes toe-to-toe with Christy Martin during their championship bout at the MGM Las Vegas. It was the first womens boxing match broadcast worldwide.

Deidre had always wanted to box, but women boxers in Ireland in the 1980’s weren’t just uncommon, they didn’t officially exist at all. Farcical and laughable notions abounded. The various boxing authorities in Ireland would not sanction official bouts for women, spouting spurious and vague ‘medical issues’ as the reason. Boxing gyms and clubs would not consider admitting women, thinking it would prove too distracting for male members.

Deirdre was not deterred. Coming from a middle class family, one of 7 children from just outside Drogheda, Co. Louth, Deirdre was actively dissuaded from boxing by her parents. She would practice in secret on a punching bag she hid in a wardrobe. After seeing Belfast’s Barry McGuigan become champion in 1985, the boxing bug bite hard. And after watching Sugar Ray Leonard fight with Marvin Hagler she could no longer hide it. She wanted to be a boxer. She wanted to be a champion.

She approached her local club in Mornington. They were skeptical, but she persisted with all the determination that marks out future champions. With the authorities still unwilling to sanction women’s bouts, she travelled to London for her first professional fight in 1991.

It dawned on Deirdre that she would have to keep traveling if she was going to pursue her dream, not just for fights, but also to receive proper training. So like many Irish before and since, she sadly had to say goodbye to Ireland to pursue her ambition. She eventually reached Louisiana and the Ragin’ Cajun gym in Lafayette. They weren’t keen, but neither was she. It was a long way from home and she didn’t see herself staying to long.

As the fights came in and she started getting experience, she warmed more to the place. Professional boxing isn’t an easy world to survive in. There were many setbacks in the early days of her career with dodgy promoters and ill-suited bouts with opponents above her weight class.

So when in March 1996, with 10 days notice, she was called in to fight her first championship fight it looked like she was getting another bum deal. Chrissy Martin was the star of women’s boxing, vastly experienced and had a 15 lbs weight advantage over Gogarty. What followed was a fight full of everything one wants in a great boxing match – guts, bravery, and skill. She landed a number of big hits on Martin, taking her the distance only to lose the fight on points. But she insured she made a name for herself.

A year later in 1997 Gogarty would be a champion herself, winning a points decision against Bonnie Canino in New Orleans. Ireland had a professional boxing world champion, and yet she still could not fight in Ireland even if she wanted to.

Deirdre Gogarty photographed holding up her World Championship belt at Dublin Airport

Deirdre Gogarty returns to Dublin Airport with her World Championship belt.

Her time as champion was cruelly cut short. A shoulder injury picked up in her first title defence meant she was lucky just to finish the match, never mind go the distance and lose on points. The injury would never heal properly. This coupled with a series further dealings with unscrupulous promoters that boxing seems to have in spades meant Gogarty would eventually decide to retire in 1998.

Deirdre Gogarty blazed a trail for women’s boxing not just in Ireland but around the world. The Irish boxing authorities finally relented on their decision to refuse women to box in the late 90’s, paving the way for future generations such as World and Olympic champions Katie Taylor and Kellie Harrington.

Deirdre’s commitment and dedication to boxing was recognised in 2015, when she was admitted in to the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame. And these days you can still find her in the ring. She’s a trainer now at Ragin’ Cajun gym in Lafayette, Louisiana, the place she now calls home with her her husband and children.