Emanuel Steward was on edge. The legendary trainer was working Wladimir Klitschko's corner against Nigerian heavyweight Samuel Peter in a bout in Atlantic City. Klitschko was ahead on points but tiring.
"What round is coming up?" Steward asked as he readied to give instructions to his fighter during the one-minute break.
No one answered, so Steward did what a lot of people in the arena were doing. He turned away from his fighter and looked at the roundcard girl.
[Photo credit: Bleacher Report]
Roundcard girls came out of the Nevada desert in the late-1950s, when Las Vegas casinos began hosting fights. They're now a fixture at boxing matches throughout the world. The women serve two purposes. First, they advise fans which round it is. That's fairly straightforward since a number is printed on each card that they carry around the ring. And equally important, roundcard girls entertain the audience, particularly during slow-moving preliminary fights when fans tend to get restless. This function, of course, is directed primarily at male members of the crowd.
Roundcard girls come in all shapes and sizes, some more desirable than others. As a general rule, their looks and styling reflect the character of the promotion. Casinos supply their own roundcard girls. The bigger the fight, the more glamorously-dressed and elegant-looking the women are.
Lesser promoters offer an array of talent that ranges from local college students to strippers who ply their trade at nearby adult clubs. Some of the girls are clean-scrubbed with little makeup. Others look like hookers who were recruited off the streets an hour earlier. They're heavily tattooed and parade around the ring in raunchy leopard-print thongs while balancing on black-vinyl dominatrix-mode shoes with six-inch stiletto heels.
"I prefer the way roundcard girls looked twenty years ago," celebrated sports artist LeRoy Neiman opined several years before his death. "They were provocative but not vulgar and definitely more elegant than they are today.”
“But looks can be deceiving,” Neiman (who was Playboy’s “artist in residence” for decades) continued. “I remember drawing one of those elegant roundcard girls. Her manner and costume warranted a lot of respect. Then I went home and, later that night, I was watching a show called Midnight Blue on a local softcore porn channel. There she was, the same girl."
The script that roundcard girls follow is familiar. With ten seconds left in a round, the timekeeper raps his microphone four times to warn the referee that the round is about to end. This is the roundcard girl's wake-up call. When the bell rings, she walks up the ring stairs. An aide parts the strands, and she steps into the ring. Then the rope-splitter hands her a card.
The most popular roundcard girls parade seductively around the ring, stopping where they get the most favorable reaction from the crowd. That might be from ringside or up in the balcony. Either way, a good roundcard girl knows where her core constituency is and what it wants.
The response of the crowd depends on the looks of the girl and, more importantly, on how she plays to them. An average-looking woman with a big personality gets more cheers than a beautiful woman with little presence. Also, the crowd is more likely to voice its approval at club fights than at a glitzy Las Vegas championship match. Roundcard girls fit well with a blue-collar environment and beer.
At times, there are complications. For starters, ring canvases have a soft spongy feel. They're very different from a regular floor. Thus, a bikini-clad woman who worked a night of black-tie boxing in New York, observed, "Walking on the canvas in high heels feels funny. It feels like walking in high heels on a bed. Sometimes when I do my sexy dip and stick my bottom out, my ankles give way like I’m drunk."
Other times, the obstacles are more formidable.
Four roundcard girls once arrived at a fight card in New York promoted by Cedric Kushner only to learn that Kushner had remembered to hire them but forgotten to arrange for round cards. Undaunted, they circled the ring between rounds, holding imaginary cards in the air and signalling which round was coming next by raising the appropriate number of fingers.
Roundcard girls are usually paid $100 to $200 per show. For some, it's simply a night's work. Others dream of being discovered for bigger and better things. It's hard to think of a roundcard girl who parlayed the job into a greater future. Leslie Glass served as a roundcard girl and later became a porn star after shooting several photo layouts for Penthouse. But she died at age 36.
Roundcard girls are instructed to avoid playing favorites where fighters are concerned. In fact, they're not supposed to acknowledge the combatants at all. They flirt only with the crowd.
Do fighters notice the roundcard girls?
"I had a fighter named Willie Pastrano," Muhammad Ali's longtime trainer, Angelo Dundee, once recalled. "Good fighter, slick boxer. Willie liked women and he was a girl-watcher. Sometimes between rounds, I had to tell him, 'Stop looking at the chick and listen to me.'"
But Pastrano was the exception, not the rule. Indeed, Dr. Margaret Goodman (who served for years as chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission) has observed, "If I see a fighter looking at the roundcard girl instead of his trainer between rounds, that's a danger sign. It tells me that the fighter is losing concentration."
Then Goodman, who wore designer pants-suits in the ring and has the requisite beauty to entice a male audience, added, "I think being a roundcard girl is the coolest thing. There are very few jobs where you don't have to take your clothes off and are still automatically the object of sexual adoration. No one paws at the roundcard girls like they might at the dancers in an adult club. And people don't focus on their imperfections because the girls are only on for a minute at a time and most of the crowd is too far away to see them well anyway."
Not everyone likes roundcard girls. "I think they're totally unnecessary," Don Turner (who trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes) opined. "They don't have inning-card girls in baseball. Why pay money to some half-dressed woman to walk around a boxing ring? If you have extra money, give it to the fighters. But you know they won't."
Be that as it may; roundcard girls have spawned some of boxing's finest legends.
Don Elbaum has promoted club fights in the United States since 1958.
[Photo credit: Bigger Better Boxing]
"I used to promote in Steubenville, Ohio," Elbaum recalled. "It was a wild town with some of the best-run whorehouses in the country. The guys who ran them would give me hookers to use as round card girls for free. From my point of view, it was great. I didn't have to pay the girls, and I sold extra tickets because the people who ran the whorehouses bought seats for their customers in order to display their wares."
Another time, a round card girl saved one of Elbaum's fighters from defeat.
"I had a light-heavyweight named Tom Girardi," the promoter recounted. "He was a prospect. Another fighter pulled out, and Tom took the fight on short notice against some guy whose record was 2 and 6. I figured it was safe, but Tom got tired. It was a six-rounder. After round three, he came back to the corner and said he didn't think he could go six."
"Anyway," Elabaum continued, "the referee had been staring at the roundcard girl all night. She was a doll. After round four, I handed the girl a card that said '6' instead of '5.' Then I started shouting, 'Last round, Tommy; you can do it.' Well, of course, the referee is staring at the girl. He thinks it's round six, makes the fighters touch gloves, and says the fight is over after what's really only round five. I cut the gloves off real quick, and Tom, who was completely out of gas, won a split decision."
Those who consider Elbaum a sexist will be pleased to know that he got his comeuppance at a fight card in Brooklyn. Matchmaker Johnny Bos told that tale.
"Don and I were sitting together,” Bos recounted. “The round card girl was particularly flirtatious. She winked; she wiggled. Halfway through the show, Don turned to me and said, 'That's a hell of a broad; I wonder who's taking her home tonight.' Then, during the last fight, the girl reached up and pulled off her wig. It was a guy,"
The lessons to be learned from that are: (1) beauty is in the eye of the beholder; and (2) in boxing, there's always an element of surprise.
Surprise and violence. But the roundcard girl never looks at the carnage around her. She carries on, seemingly oblivious to the feverish activity of trainers and cutmen tending to fighters between rounds. Despite being in the midst of mayhem, she performs her duty with a smile and come-hither stare, memorializing her presence in the print of stiletto heels in blood on the ring canvas.