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‘The Lady is a Champ’

Carol Polis shares her story of becoming pro boxing’s first female judge, and the role she played in some of the sport’s biggest fights

August 10, 2018
By CJ HADDAD ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Sometimes, it's not easy being the first.

In a world filled with testosterone, haymakers and fist-clenched warriors-Carol Polis found herself ringside to some of the world's most epic boxing showdowns in the squared circle, not as a spectator, but as a judge.

And not just any judge, the first female professional boxing judge in the world.

Article Photos


Cape Coral resident Carol Polis, professional boxing’s first female judge, poses with some memorabilia. The bottom photo is an image of the Feb. 19, 1973, heavyweight bout between Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young — the first professional fight Polis judged. She appears in the bottom right of the photo. The other photos are of her playfully “knocking out” Marvis Frazier, right, and an iconic image of Muhammad Ali deftly avoiding a Joe Frazier punch.

"It was exciting, but scary," Polis said of her first professional fight as a judge.

She grew up in Jenkintown, PA, a suburb just north of Philadelphia-a city with roots deeply entrenched in boxing lore.

The oldest of three children, Polis was a spirited youth who enjoyed swimming, cheerleading and tennis, among other sports.

"I was very much into sports, my whole family was," she said.

Though her love for athletic competition was always there, it took a few rounds for her to develop the passion she feels for boxing today.

"I hated them all," Polis said of the fights her ex-husband would take her to, as he was a part-time referee. "I never understood why when there was bleeding they didn't stop the fight. But, through osmosis, and thousands and thousands of fights, I learned, very quickly, that the only way they would stop the fight is if the bleeding interfered with the vision."

She felt lost the first time she would step into an atmosphere that would eventually feel like home to her.

"I'm sitting there and I thought 'Oh my god, what am I doing here?' this is like a street fight coming inside," Polis recalled. "I thought it was barbaric, very cruel and awful. Again, I didn't understand why they didn't stop it."

She described the crowd as "animals."

Despite feeling like a fish out of water, Polis said she played it cool in a foreign environment, even when men in the audience would fawn over the ring girls.

The first jab to the head boxing gave Polis to let her know it was creeping in, happened when she stopped to watch a title fight on television between Ken Buchanan and eventual personal favorite, Roberto Duran, in 1972.

Buchanan's kilt-style trunks caught Polis' eye-and the sport hasn't lost her attention since.

The night Polis' future would take shape happened at the famous Philadelphia Spectrum.

Her ex-husband was working a card at the arena and told her to keep score herself on the back of a program.

At this time, Polis had only been to about four or five boxing events in her life.

"He taught me how to keep score, a 10-second lesson, just to keep me busy in the ring while he was refereeing," she said.

The brief lecture would result in the first scorecard of what would be many Polis would fill out over the course of her life.

"Watch for low blows," she can remember him telling her.

At the end of the night, Polis' ex-husband told her he was going to turn in her make-shift scorecard to the commissioner.

"Have you ever seen a grown woman beg?" said Polis with a laugh.

The Philadelphia Athletic Commissioner at the time was former Harlem Globetrotter, Negro Leaguer and eventual third man in the ring for the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Zack Clayton.

"He said to my husband, 'I like her scores better than the men,' and he looked at me and said, 'Keep doing it,'" she remembers.

Clayton, who always called Polis "lady," sent her a boxing rule book in the mail that was quite small in size but thick in content.

It took her a year and a half to get thorough it.

"What happened that piqued my interest was that every time I went to a fight with my (ex) husband, I was prepared. Zack would ask me on-the-spot questions, what I called the oral part of my exam. And the written part, would be me turning my score into him so he could compare it with the men, and he did. This went on for a year and a half," she said.

One fateful night, Clayton came up to Polis and her ex during the intermission before the main event-her life would never be the same after this conversation.

"He said, "Lady, I've got some good and bad news." I said, 'Give me the bad news first." He said, 'You and Bob have to drive from Ft. Washington (Polis' home), to the capitol Harrisburg in Pennsylvania.'"

Polis didn't find this to be that bad of news so she asked, "What's the good news?"

"I can put myself back in time and tell you exactly how I felt," she reminisced. "I was in shock when he said, 'You're going to be appointed as the first woman professional boxing judge in the United States.' It was two years later when we found out it was the world."

On Feb. 1, 1973, Polis was appointed a judge by the then-governor of Pennsylvania, Milton Shapp.

"They gave me huge boxing gloves, and I'm thinking 'Well, if I strike him, they're gonna put me in jail,' so I didn't dare," she joked.

Polis, who is Jewish, knew Shapp was also of the same faith.

She whispered in his ear, "Local Jewish girl makes good," with a smile and a laugh.

Polis was beyond excited and thought to herself, "This is the way Marilyn Monroe must of felt."

The mother of four was ecstatic of the honor bestowed upon her by the governor and the faith Clayton had in the 5-foot-1, 115-pound blonde spitfire.

"I told Zack I would never let him down, and I didn't," she said.

Clayton was truly a mentor for Polis, as she took to heart a lot of advice about the boxing realm and how to properly score a bout.

The newly appointed judge took her seat ringside on a high stool, eye-level with the canvass, for the very first time on Feb. 19, 1973, in a heavyweight bout between Jimmy Young and Earnie Shavers, two former champions, throwing up the peace sign when her name was announced.

Shavers won by TKO in the third round at the Spectrum.

Clayton came over to Polis and asked how she felt, "Are you kidding me? I'm a nervous wreck!" she exclaimed. "He said, 'Don't worry about it, it'll be over in the third round.' And I never knew how he knew.

"I had to have been in shock. 17,000 people, and I only heard two voices (none that she knew). One said 'Carol did you know that was a body blow?' and the second one, I liked, 'Carol I think I love you.' I liked that a lot," she said with a grin.

Her nerves were kept in check, as the judges' scorecards did not have to be submitted due to the TKO by Shavers.

"Not only do you determine the fighter's paycheck, but, very important, you determine his standing in the rank," she said.

Naturally, being a woman in a heavily male-dominated sport, she faced backlash from spectators and those in the boxing circle.

She'd hear things like "Carol! What fight were you watching?" "Go home and bake!" and "Carol! Did you know that was a right uppercut?"

What annoyed her the most were the "clowns" in the audience who would yell instructions to the fighters in the ring, thinking they could hear them.

Polis was thrust into the fire, and quickly acclimated herself into the world of professional boxing.

"I wore dark clothes, because they would bleed on you a lot. You were that close," she said.

The part that intimidated her the most was when the boxers would get too close to the ropes, fearful that they might slip through, or over, and onto Polis.

She would watch how secure the turnbuckles were and how much give the ropes had before contests.

Her 10-second lesson years prior, developed into a tactical, educated approach to scoring a fight fairly and down the middle.

"We look for many different things. Clean hitting, effectiveness of blows, fouls, technical violations, all kinds of things," Polis said.

She tried to avoid even-scoring, meaning she called a round a draw, upon the advice of old mentor Clayton.

"They (the punches) have to be effective and they have to be in the right zone. Not just whoever throws the most punches. No low blows, no kidney punches, no punches to the back of the neck or holding the neck," Polis said of her scoring style.

Over her 45-year career, controversy could not escape the native Philadelphian.

While judging a fight in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a fighter bit his opponent on the shoulder-naturally a point was deducted from the fighter.

A member from the corner of the fighter who did the biting claimed the fight was fixed, an allegation Polis took exception to.

Polis wrote a letter to a high official that ultimately resulted in the removal of that person from boxing altogether.

During a bout Polis was judging at the Don King promoted United States Boxing Elimination Tournament of '77 in Annapolis, Polis and her counterpart judges scored a decision unanimously for Johnny Boudreaux against Scott LeDoux.

The decision enraged LeDoux, who felt he had won the fight, as he had thrown hundreds more punches than Boudreaux.

"That's an example, a lot of punches thrown, it didn't mean a thing. He didn't win the fight. It was unanimous," Polis said.

Legendary sports journalist Howard Cosell, along with George Foreman, were interviewing Boudreaux about his victory when LeDoux went to kick at his opponent's face. Cosell jerked his head away from the blow, sending his hairpiece airborne.

"I got out of my seat and briskly headed towards an exit. And as I am, I see something black and furry in the air. It was his (Cosell's) toupee!" Polis grinned.

Two days later, the FBI showed up at Polis' house with a subpoena already enforced on her bank account. She showed them all of her notes from the fight, among other things, and ultimately was cleared of any wrong doing.

"I deliberately called Tom Cushman, a reporter for the (Philadelphia) Daily News. And I told him that if anybody ever came to me about fixing a fight or anything like that, I would tell. Because I figured if I did that, everybody would've stayed away from me," she said.

She was even replaced as a judge, simply because she was a woman.

People have asked her, "You've never fought, how could you be a judge?"

Her response, "Anyone I've ever worked with, any of the male officials, they've all fought sometime in their life. They're very partial to their style. I don't have a style. So I'm the best you could get because I'm impartial. Being a judge is very subjective."

She sometimes found herself as the oddball out of the judging group she was in.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm the one that was right," Polis quipped.

Polis has seen it all and experienced it all during her one-of-a-kind career.

She's judged Holmes in '81, Tyson in '95 and was even a guest of Ali at his training camp.

She asked him two questions, the first, "Your fists are considered lethal weapons when you're not in the ring, how many men have tried to pick a fight with you?"

Ali responded, "Remember, it takes a man to walk away from a fight."

The second, "When you are climbing the steps to go into the ring, are you ever afraid?"

Ali said, "Of course I have butterflies in my stomach. And yes, I'm afraid."

"He loves that word, butterfly," Polis noted. "But yes, Ali was afraid."

She has travelled the globe, having judged fights in Japan, South America, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Panama and more. Italy is her favorite place to travel.

"Every sport has their own family. And the boxing world is no different. The connections I've made, along with being able to travel and see so many places- that's what I'll take away the most," she said.

When it was all said and done, she had officiated 27 title fights and even made a cameo appearance in "Rocky V."

Now, Polis is a new resident to Cape Coral and does speaking engagements, sharing her remarkable story.

She wrote a book, published in 2012, along with co-author Rich Herschlag, called "The Lady is a Champ"-a play on one of her favorite songs, Frank Sinatra's "The Lady is a Tramp."

Polis, a cancer survivor, "loves to share her story," and enjoys dancing, karaoke and Italian restaurants.

She said her greatest accomplishment in life has been raising her grandson, Larry, from birth.

Polis will be the keynote speaker for the Chamber of Commerce of Cape Coral at an event on Aug. 22.

To inquire about speaking engagements, you can contact Polis at 239-984-2120 or

Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj



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