The rise of women boxers
Amanda Coulson (right) v another female British boxer, Alana Murphy. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe
‘I have had a bleeding brain, broken ribs, hands and nose, black eyes, split lips and a torn calf muscle,” says Cathy Brown. “I’ve been injured quite badly – but you expect it as a boxer, don’t you?” Indeed, boxing is often considered a bloodthirsty and dangerous sport and there have been several attempts to ban it. Women’s boxing divides opinion more than most other sports. Yet more and more women are taking it up – and the BBC has chosen to broadcast competitive women’s boxing for the first time tomorrow.
In 2006, Brown, now aged 30, became the first woman in the UK to win a professional boxing title. Pro boxing is known to have medical risks, including brain damage, and the British Medical Association would like to see it banned for men and women. But it is women’s amateur boxing that is really on the rise in Britain and that, say proponents, is a very different sport. “Pro boxing is a blood sport, but amateur boxing is completely different. It’s about outscoring and outclassing your opponent. It’s a physical game of chess, a noble art,” says Amanda Coulson, a member of the Great Britain amateur squad.
According to a survey by Sport England, the number of registered female boxers in Britain rose from 70 in 2005 to more than 900 in 2009. Significantly, in August 2009 it was announced that women’s boxing would be included in the 2012 Olympics. In England alone, the number of registered female boxers has increased by more than a quarter since the announcement, says the Amateur Boxing Association of England.
Partly this is because top athletes in martial arts such as kickboxing and Thai boxing switched disciplines for their chance to become Olympians. But Coulson believes the decision inspired women who had not previously considered combat sports. “Girls didn’t realise that women could box, but now there are role models for them,” she says.
The Olympic decision has certainly benefited serious female boxers. UK Sport, the agency that allocates funding, is to inject almost £2m to fund the Great Britain (GB) women’s boxing squad leading up to the Olympics. Perhaps more importantly it has helped to change attitudes within the sport itself, where many were still hankering for the good old days when boxing was a man’s world.
“The sport’s governing body made our life difficult: the referees and officials didn’t want girls,” says Coulson. “But since the Olympic decision, they’ve had to open their arms to us.”
Amateur fights are won on a point-scoring system measuring the number of blows landed, rather than the damage they cause. Natasha Jonas, 26, another British boxer, thinks that is a crucial difference. “It’s as different as rugby league and rugby union,” she says. But surely any kind of boxing carries risks? “It’s really not dangerous,” says Nigel Davies, a GB coach with specific responsibility for the Great Britain women’s squad. “I treat the girls like my own daughter, and I wouldn’t let anything happen to them. It’s not a ruthless sport, it’s a skilful sport. It’s not about knockouts; that very rarely happens in amateur boxing.”
Amateurs have more safety measures. Fights last three rounds, rather than the 10 to 12 typical in a professional fight. Boxers wear protective headgear and larger gloves. Women can wear protective chest plates – although it is an unwritten rule that female fighters don’t punch in the chest. This does not have the same sanction as low punches for men. “I’ve had more injuries playing football than I have boxing,” says Jonas.
Peter Hamlyn, a consultant neurosurgeon and the director of the Centre for Sports and Exercise Medicine at Queen Mary University, London, suggests there is little difference between the sexes. He said earlier this year: “The medical risks associated with women boxing aren’t any more serious than for men.” Yet women’s boxing has been officially sanctioned in Britain only since 1997. There were huge barriers facing women who wanted to train, never mind fight. Coulson remembers reading about the two 13-year-olds involved in Britain’s first sanctioned bout (one later withdrew from the fight due to widespread hostility). Inspired by them, she contacted her local boxing gyms, only to be turned away. “I got lots of nos,” she says. “I was told: ‘Girls don’t box’ or ‘We’ve got no changing facilities’.” Eventually she was accepted by a gym. “But only one of the coaches would coach me. The others wouldn’t touch me.”
Compare that with today when, according to the same Sport England survey, 40% of boxing clubs run classes specifically for women. Of the 149,000 people who participate in boxing once a month, a quarter are women. About 20,500 women box every week, compared with 156,300 who play football. Rachel Bailey is one of them. She trains at the Times boxing club in north London. “I just joined for fitness”, she says. “I’m far more comfortable here than at a normal gym. Everyone’s focused; no one’s posing or leching.”
The dated attitudes of many of boxing’s insiders may explain why British women have so far lagged behind other nations, especially Scandinavia, China and America. “There are too many male chauvinists in Britain,” says Alan Kean, boxing trainer at the Times. That was certainly the case when Brown, who is now a trainer at the Third Space gym in London, was trying to carve out a pro career. “I got a lot of opposition from typical Queensberry rules men, who didn’t want to see women fighting. I was told: ‘You’re too pretty to box.’” She sought to prove them wrong by becoming the best boxer she could. “I earned my respect in the ring, not on my soapbox.”
Now established, Coulson, Jonas and Bailey say they rarely come across any sexist attitudes, and their families and friends have always been supportive. “I do get the odd comment – ‘Ooh, girls boxing, I’d rather see you mud wrestling’ – but nothing that really bothers me,” says Coulson, adding that she has never come under any pressure to play up to a sexualised view of women fighters.
Davies, however, says he has heard plenty of negative comments about women’s boxing – “but it’s always from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.” He believes that once people see how skilful top female boxers are, they will change their opinions.
Britain is also catching up with the rest of the world in terms of performance. Three women went to the Women’s World Championships in Barbados in September. Two – Nicola Adams, 27, and Savannah Marshall, 19 – came home with silver medals. “In past competitions, if you drew Britain it was seen as an easy win,” says Jonas. “Now, people don’t want to come up against us.”
All of which makes the countdown to 2012 even more engrossing. This weekend the GB Amateur Boxing Championships in Liverpool will be broadcast live on the BBC. It’s a new competition that pits top amateurs against members of the GB Olympic Squad, and is regarded by coaches as an opportunity for more athletes to force their way into contention. The most eagerly awaited bout is between Coulson and Jonas, who are evenly matched and battling it out in the 60kg category. Claire Stocks, the Olympic sports editor at BBC sport, says men’s boxing was one of the broadcaster’s most successful sports at the Commonwealth Games. “Now we want to build the profile of our amateur women boxers, as well as the men, ahead of 2012.” Besides, she adds, the sense of “jeopardy – boxers are fighting to keep their places in the GB squad – should make for good TV.”
Squad members will start training full-time in January. For many, this means taking a career break or relying on the understanding and support of employers. Coulson, 28, works full-time as well as training six days a week, including up to three sessions on her days off from work. It’s quite a balancing act. “It’s the same for the men, but somehow the women seem to have more to juggle. Often the men still live with their parents and just focus on their boxing, but for me, boxing isn’t my life. I’ve got a job, a mortgage, bills – I can’t afford to put all my eggs in one basket.”
• The finals of the Amateur Boxing Championship will be broadcast live on the BBC’s Red Button on Saturday 13 November at 7.30pm.