Secret scenes: Women's boxing

The Canadian author Joyce Carol Oates, in her 1987 book on the subject, wrote that ’boxing is only like boxing‘. Metaphorless, it floats all alone in the sea of modern sports; naked aggression, the unmasked will to overpower, and an undeniable, bone-crunching realism are at its heart. You cannot argue, as you might of some sports, that boxing is just a game. It is ancient, and ’it will never go away‘, in the words of one ex-boxer, since ’when you get angry, you hit. It‘s in our blood‘

  • Secret scenes: Women's boxing

    Martin preparing for the fight

  • Is it? ‘Well, not yours, you’re a girl,’ my pugilist friend grins. But women’s boxing is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK, a phenomenon that has divided the boxing establishment. Last month, in search of its heart, I went along to Goresbrook Leisure Centre, Dagenham. Top of the bill was the fight between Juliette Winter, a 33-year-old from Derby, and Shanee Martin, a local girl, for the British Masters Superflyweight title. It was the first female Masters fight to be sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC), and Winter won on points after eight long rounds, 79-75, in what a shocked, bow-tied referee agreed was the fight of the night.

    One weird moment during the bout came close to crystallising the contradictory nature of women’s boxing. The two boxers were both sat in their corners between rounds, hair restrained in neat cornrows to stop it getting in their eyes, noses bloodied, cheekbones blooming with bruises. While they were busy swilling spit and blood into their respective buckets, a woman in a gold bikini and stilettos paraded round the ring, displaying the number of the round on a card above her head. The curvy card girl and the sweating female fighters looked like different species.

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    Shanee Martin (right) and Juliette Winter slug it out at Goresbrook Leisure Centre in Dagenham

    Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that women’s boxing seems an anathema to many. ‘I’m an old man, maybe,’ says one baffled ex-promoter, ‘but they’re both pretty girls – I don’t get why they’d want to break their noses.’ Frank Maloney, one of the most successful promoters in the UK, is less shy. ‘I don’t do with it,’ he says loudly, outside Winter’s changing-room. ‘Anyone who wants to watch women fight shouldn’t be given the vote.’

    His opinion is quietly shared by many. Incredibly, women’s boxing was illegal in this country until November 1996, when the Amateur Boxing Association of England voted to lift a 116-year-old ban on the sport. And when Jane Couch, Britain’s Number One and a world welterweight champion, wanted a professional licence, she had to take the BBBofC to court to get it, in February 1998. She won, and 16 women now hold pro licences in Britain, though resistance remains. When asked whether the board is now happy to issue women with licences, Robert Smith, the BBBofC’s assistant general secretary, replies ‘We got taken to court, we lost, we have to.’ Among the amateurs, boxing remains the only sport in the Olympics in which women aren’t represented.

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