Why I joined the ladies who punch

First appeared in You magazine, Mail on Sunday.

Have you ever had a single thought that turned into something life-changing? Mine came on 9th August 2012 when I sat on my sofa and watched in awe as 29-year-old Nicola Adams fought her way to a gold medal in boxing for Great Britain in the first ever Olympic games to include women’s boxing. What does that feel like, I wondered? To step into the ring and do battle; to be hit and not falter; to hit back and stay calm?

Like many women, I had often punched bags and pads in the gym for fitness purposes and dreamt of taking my training to a new level. I wanted to see what I was capable of – just how fit, strong and powerful I could get when truly pushed, as professional boxers are – but dismissed it as pure fantasy. Because boxing isn’t just about sky-high fitness levels, it’s also about fighting. The truth is that the very idea of being hit, especially in the face, terrified me. Somewhere along the line I had decided that boxing ‘proper’ was something other tougher, stronger women did.

But now, here I was, questioning myself. Granted, Adams is a fair few kilos lighter and inches smaller than me (and would thus compete in a different weight category), but she hardly looks like a killer. The speed of her reactions, as well as her hands and feet, are what I’m drawn to. She’s aggressive, sure, but only in a skillful way; she avoids punches as much as she delivers them and her strength and stamina is clear from one sideways glance at her lithe, muscular physique. What’s more, during interview, she doesn’t seem unreachable, not with such a winning smile and humble attitude. Hers doesn’t seem to be a sport of brawling, nor of unfettered fury and although she is, quite clearly, a champion among champions, what really divides us is the years she has spent training. Why couldn’t I have just the tiniest fraction of Adam’s experience, if I put in a fraction of the time and effort that she has? I remembered a favourite phrase of mind: ‘Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.’ I believed in this adage, so why wasn’t I living it?

As with so many things in life, once you start opening your mind, eyes and heart to something, it appears to have been there all along. Within a matter of weeks, a series of circumstances had led to me meeting with ex-professional boxer, Cathy Brown (www.cathybrown.co.uk), former flyweight European Champion (and second British female boxer ever to turn professional), who works as a PT and boxing coach at London’s exclusive The Third Space gym (www.thethirdspace.com). The majority of those who join Cathy’s boxing classes enjoy the non-contact side of the sport; they understand the aesthetic benefits as well as the emotional and mental release that comes from putting gloves on and hitting pads; they want to do the typical bodyweight conditioning drills (like press ups and sit ups) that get boxers so fit. Most of all they love her no-nonsense teaching style .

Although I went on to be part of a relatively small group of members who actually get in the ring at spar with one another, I too was drawn in to boxing with Cathy for all of those reasons. Forty-two years old, 5ft 1, blond, beautiful and exuding confidence, here’s a woman who knows how good she is at her job and it’s infectious; I quickly realised that she was the best and so asked tentatively if she could train me up to fight. She looked me up and down, made me throw a few punches and agreed (I later discovered that she wasn’t yet sure if I had the necessary grit to box, something it took me a few weeks to find and prove). But there was a problem: the next ‘white collar’ night (ie. unlicensed, so anybody can take part – as opposed to the amateur boxing of the Olympic kind or the big-money professional bouts) was only a few weeks away. It was now mid September. We would have just 60 days to train me for the fight on 16th November. It might just be enough, said Cathy. But I’ll have to commit 100% to the training, change my lifestyle and, essentially, do exactly as I’m told. There’s one thing she promises in return though: the experience will change my life forever.

One day I am instructed to practice slips (where a boxer ducks to one side to avoid an oncoming punch) so much that the next day the sides of my stomach feel almost torn they are so taught. What’s more, by the end of week one and my first ever full contact sparring session, I’ve taken a few hard hits.

And so it begins. There’s no time for easing me in; the first week starts as the others will continue, with an average of there hours (broken down into a morning and evening session, to fit in around my work), six days a week, spent doing a mixture of sprints, weights, punching the bag and pads, full contact sparring classes and (the toughest hours of my week) one-to-one sessions with Cathy. I realise very quickly that this is going to take me to places I’ve never been before. First and foremost, my body is being pushed to new limits – my back calf is constantly tight from moving around endlessly in a boxer’s stance (where the rear heel is elevated), my chest and shoulder muscles ache every day from the punching and press-ups which they never recover fully from. One day I am instructed to practice slips (where a boxer ducks to one side to avoid an oncoming punch) so much that the next day the sides of my stomach feel almost torn they are so taught. What’s more, by the end of week one and my first ever full contact sparring session, I’ve taken a few hard hits. During the third week I suffer my first bloody nose and in the fifth I am knocked to the floor by a punch. Yet, bizarrely, I find strength in these experiences, each of them causing me to feel relief as yet another supposedly scary thing happens and I come out smiling (although admittedly I haven’t broken my nose or suffered concussion, the two greatest risks I believe I face with this kind of training).

But it’s not all elation and boundary-breaking. Often I return home from training drained and speechless.   

‘I hate what this fight is doing to you,’ says my partner, Bella, as I apologise, time and again, for being moodier, snappier and even more sensitive than normal. I no longer want to socialise much and stop going out for dinner with friends, choosing instead to prepare the correct, nutrient-dense food for the 5-6 daily meals I need to eat in order to sustain my body and mind through such a gruelling regime.

More than this though, some very intense emotions seem to be rearing their rather ugly heads. Speak to anybody who’s been there and they’ll agree – if you have any demons lying dormant within, boxing training will root them out. For me it’s the battle against the voice within that says ‘I can’t’ that becomes the greatest one of all as, often, just the act of returning to the gym for an evening session (particularly as the winter darkness draws in) while still aching from the morning’s exertions is a huge challenge in itself. Then there’s the obsession, the inability to switch off from it all, which engulfs me. On the sofa, in the bath, in bed… I close my eyes and find myself dancing around the ring, my neuromuscular system now so accustomed to the movements (jab, cross, slip, roll) that they’ve become embedded into my psyche as much as my body.

But it’s not just myself (or my opponents) I’m fighting with this challenge. It’s other people’s opinions too. Boxing (and women’s boxing in particular), it seems, polarises opinion. On the one hand there is much positive feeling amongst my sportier friends, or those who come out of the woodwork as having a secret penchant for the sport. My parents, on the other hand, are clearly worried; they have no frame of reference when it comes to any martial art or combat sport and are anxious that I might be hurt (my mother says later that she felt a mixture of ‘sheer pride and utter terror’ about the whole thing). But, they are my parents after all and will always veer on the side of over-protectiveness, despite my assurances that compulsory headguard and mouthguard I wear (and that must be worn in all ‘white collar’ and amateur boxing, whereas professionals go without a headguard of their own volition) really does help to shield me.

It’s the negative comments from friends and acquaintances, those who insist I am crazy, raising the possibility that I will be ‘brain damaged’ that upset me more (particularly from those who I know cycle around without a helmet!). But even this, however tactless is tolerable; people have their reasons to dislike boxing; it is a sport which, although I consider it more a physical game of chess than two people beating each other up, certainly has a gruesome, violent edge. What I find unacceptable are those who seem only to dislike women’s boxing (although have no problem with men’s): “I’m sorry,” they say, although they clearly aren’t. “But I just feel uncomfortable watching women hit each other.” When questioned as to why they felt this way, they never have a coherent argument and usually simply state that boxing is ‘unfeminine’, especially ridiculous since whether or not one is ‘feminine’ is always subjective and, in the boxing ring, irrelevant. 

But now, standing on the stage of the iconic, shabby, atmospheric fighting venue, York Hall, Bethnall Green, about to walk into the ring, I don’t give a moment’s thought to such opinions. The old me might have cared, but this one doesn’t. Something about the ceaseless training, forever outside my comfort zone, has taught me that it doesn’t matter what most people think. I’ve developed a thicker skin, I suppose (as well as a few pounds of lean muscle mass) and, in fact, I hardly recognise myself. I am dressed in bright red Lonsdale vest and boxing shorts, and black boxing boots. My hair is braided at the front, my hands are protected with wraps and tape. I can see my shoulder muscles and triceps flickering threateningly out of the corner of my eyes. I am thirty-one years old and I have never been so nervous in my life.

‘I can do this,’ I think. ‘I am strong enough to do this, now.’

‘Ready?’ Asks Cathy and I nod.

Her eyes fill with tears. Over the last 60 days she has been my coach, my mentor and my counsellor, walking alongside me on this journey without a moment’s respite. Hers are tears of pride, I know; this is a sport she truly loves and she understands, as much as anybody, what it takes to step into the ring, put your gloves on and give it everything, repeat everything, you’ve got.

I can feel the flush of adrenalin in my legs as I walk through crowds into the ring, the sound of my chosen music (a suitably aggressive hip-hop track) booming from the stereo. I’m flanked by my cornerman for the bout, Richie Kyle, fellow Third Space Personal Trainer and friend of Cathy’s. Due to having a professional boxing licence (and the differences between professional and amateur boxing), Cathy cannot walk me into the ring here, nor be in my corner, offering advice in-between rounds. This will be difficult for both of us; we’ve grown so accustomed to one another that she knows exactly what words and phrases to use to bolster me.

But now, it’s up to me, Lucy “Firework” Fry, to live up to my chosen ring name (rather than the less explosive nickname, ‘Sparkler’ given affectionately to me early on by my coach). And here’s my opponent, Nicola Hudson (who prefers not to use a ringname, saying that she’d ‘like to earn one one day’ and) who trains at Lions Gym in Chelmsford, Essex.

I had no idea until now who my opponent would be, just that she would be of a similar height and weight to me and roughly matched in ability. I later find out she’s 25, has been training for a couple of years after what started as an endeavour to lose weight continued as a love-affair with the sport. She says: ‘Mentally it can be quite challenging, especially the sparring. I’ve often stepped out of the ring feeling like I’ve just been someone’s punchbag but then I’ll chat to my sparring partner and realise they feel the same!’

A quick chat from the referee and it’s on. The bell goes, marking the beginning of three two-minute rounds in the first of the evening’s four female bouts. It may still be just a quarter of the total sixteen of tonight’s bouts, but it remains impressive, considering Dominic Shepherd, the show’s promoter says: ‘Before tonight, I have only ever featured two female bouts in the ten years I have promoted White Collar Boxing.’

I feel strong and fierce and deliver flurries of punches wherever possible, enlivened by the 500 or so spectators and the hoarse voices of my supporters (who include my father, sister, cousins, wife and over 40 of my friends) screaming my name. The first round is over already. The din is deafening but I listen intently to the wise words of my cornerman, Kyle, hoping that they compute. ‘Slow down,’ he repeats. ‘Stay calm.’ I nod, feeling the luminosity of this moment as it tickles the hairs on the back of my neck.

During the second round I take a few more punches than I’d like (one, in particular, straight on the nose), although with all the adrenalin they feel lighter now than they will tomorrow, no doubt.

The third round is a blur; my body takes over and most of what I do is instinctive. This is where hours of repetitious training, especially the nighttime rounds of sparring when already exhausted from earlier hours of exercise, come into their own and save me from meltdown. I am not conscious of anything, just know that I can empty the tank, and after this it is all over. Quickly, too quickly, the bell goes. I am relieved and euphoric.

Have I won, is the next question? Apparently not, but I haven’t lost either; at tonight’s event, ‘London Calling’, the fights are ‘no contest’ (there are no official winners or losers) and the referee actively discourages knockouts. Blood is forgiven however (especially if it’s coming from the nose), as is the odd tumble, but each fighter receives a trophy after they finish.

Previously I might have welcomed such a sporting attitude (‘I don’t want anybody to go home a loser’ says the show’s promoter, Dominic Shepherd) but tonight I am frustrated. I have trained, either to win, triumphant, or to lose, fair and square.

But win, lose or draw, there’s one thing of which I’m certain, that Cathy was right: the experience of training for and completing my first fight has changed my life, and for the better.

Now when I’m facing a difficult situation (perhaps when I’m feeling despondent about something, or else under pressure and need to stand my ground), I close my eyes and try to remember that self-belief I felt just before entering the ring. I recall also the grueling training with Cathy, and how, even in my darkest moments, regardless of what I thought or felt, I continued to put in the action and turn up for training.

With this I keep alive the greatest lesson I’ve learnt from boxing (one that I’m s ure both Nicola Adams and Cathy Brown learnt early on in their fighting careers): that true strength is defined by commitment and dedication, as much as it is by the power of your punches. Remember that and, whatever the outcome of any of life’s battles, victory is yours.

– By Lucy Fry

www.cathybrown.co.uk

www.thethirdspace.com

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