Round one to women boxers

First appeared in The Guardian.

It’s 7.30pm on a Friday night and I’m tucked away in the corner of York Hall, Bethnall Green, London’s oldest boxing venue which, tonight, is hosting ‘London Calling’, an evening of white collar boxing. I hardly recognise myself; I am a fighter; my shoulder muscles flicker when I move and my triceps poke threateningly out of my upper arms. I’ve long been a fitness fanatic but the last two months of training have pushed my body (and mind) to a whole new level. Just before my name is called across the microphone, I peer out for a sneaky glimpse of what I’m about to walk into; at least 500 people are gathered outside to watch this, the evening’s first bout, and my 6 minutes of boxing stardom.

It seems a long time since London 2012 Olympics, the first ever to include women’s boxing [it was included in the 1904 Games as a demonstration bout, then subsequently banned in most nations], when I watched in awe as Nicola Adams fought her way to a gold for GB. Has this inspired other women, as well as me, to enter the world of boxing (on whatever level), I wonder? It may be too early to realistically tell but what I have sensed however is the shift in spectator attitudes towards female combat sports post-Olympics.

There are those too who object, not to boxing in general but to female boxing; it’s just not right (and far from ‘nice’ or ‘soft’) they say, for women to hit and want to hurt each other. What about their pretty faces? Doesn’t all that hair get in the way? It’s fine for girls to hit pads and bags in an effort to get fitter, stronger, leaner…  But to actually hit someone else with the intention to cause pain or damage? The implication is that it’s just downright unfeminine.

I have friends, either those already interested in boxing or else keen sportsmen and women themselves, who think it is a fantastic and admirable undertaking. Others are unashamedly anti-boxing, claiming that it is fundamentally a brutal sport that causes brain damage regardless of any protection worn. There are those too who object, not to boxing in general but to female boxing; it’s just not right (and far from ‘nice’ or ‘soft’) they say, for women to hit and want to hurt each other. What about their pretty faces? Doesn’t all that hair get in the way? It’s fine for girls to hit pads and bags in an effort to get fitter, stronger, leaner…  But to actually hit someone else with the intention to cause pain or damage? The implication is that it’s just downright unfeminine. Thankfully it seems that Adams’ win has somewhat forced such ideas underground; it’s no longer seems to be politically correct to doubt that women (regardless of sexual orientation) are just as able to engage in such a primarily aggressive sport as men.

As the second British woman ever to turn professional, Cathy Brown (www.cathybrown.co.uk) understands the battle that female fighters faced, before stepping into the ring:

‘When I started out, there weren’t enough British female boxers – my opponents had to be shipped over from Europe. Persuading UK promoters to allow me on their show (some still refused outright to put a female fight on) meant selling enough tickets to pay for my opponent’s and their trainer’s airfare, accommodation and expenses and still be able to hand over a profit to the promoter. In order to raise my profile, I had to work a lot with the press, including doing sexy half naked shots in newspapers.’

As European flyweight champion and the first woman to win an English title, Brown, once ranked 3 in the world, was clearly exceptional. Yet her gender was still an issue, she explains:

‘I wasn’t trying to be a man; I loved being a woman but I also loved boxing. If I had been more butch, it [my being a boxer] may have been more acceptable, but that’s not who I am; I want to stay looking beautiful and then it’s even more surprising when the power and skill of my punches strike.’

‘Even though my skill set was as high as the men and I regularly appeared in the media, I never got sponsorship, nor a fraction of their earnings. The US and rest of Europe showed female boxers financial support, but companies here were scared to put their name to a female boxer in case it looked bad. It was a constant battle, The trainers never focused on me as they did their male fighters and I constantly had to push to get time with them.’

Back at York Hall, female boxing is on the rise with four (including mine) of the sixteen bouts involving women. Dominic Shepherd, the show’s promoter says: ‘In the ten years I’ve promoted White Collar Boxing, I’ve only ever featured two female bouts, so to have eight ladies on this show proves that there is a big increase in women’s boxing. I think it’s definitely down to the London Olympics where, in my opinion, the women outshone the men.’

The bell goes, marking the first of three two-minute rounds in a ‘no contest’ fight; Shepherd hopes that in not declaring a winner or loser, people will enjoy the sport for the physical game of chess it is, rather than seek a knockout punch. The implication is that boxing doesn’t have to be about blood and victory. Nevertheless, the din is deafening. There are probably about 50% more men than women here watching. Of those I spoke to about it, both sexes seem to find the woman in high heels and see-through dress (whose sole purpose is to hold up a board indicating which round is coming up) amusingly superfluous, rather than offensive. 

The first round is over already, then the second, then the third, and, in a blink of an eye, my challenge is over, but for women coming into the sport at a grassroots level it may have just begun. For a minority sport much maligned by many, women’s boxing is fighting its way into everybody’s hearts. About time too.

– By Lucy Fry

www.cathybrown.co.uk

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