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So you wanna be a boxer?: Boxing is no longer the preserve of the macho male. Now women are fighting fit without breaking bones. Emma Cook enters the ring

When boxing trainer and manager Isola Akay visited New York's largest gym five years ago he was shocked to see women fighting in the ring. 'I couldn't believe they were hitting each other so hard' he recalls. 'I decided I could offer something much better without all that bashing.'

The result is 'K O Circuit', a boxing training for men and women based on US techniques but with no physical contact. Akay's leaflet promises a gruelling blend of warm-up exercise, shadow-boxing and one-to-one ring work, where punters can 'hit but not get hit.' 'We don't want any macho shit round here - you can leave that at the door', says the 59-year-old, who used to fight professionally in Ghana and Chicago.

His workout is about controlled aggression, so he is not interested in 'street fighters or bullies'. The people who do well here, he says, are those who admit to having no experience and are willing to start with an open mind.

Confident on both counts, I enter the All Stars Gym, a converted church in West London. A boxing ring, raised like an altar, provides a focal point in front of which a group of about 20 warm up. After the initial exercises, beginners are taken through the basic punches. Standing with legs apart, we are told to bring our fists up close to our face. Punches include: the jab, hitting straight out; the hook, swinging the arm from the side to strike across; and the uppercut, moving the fist up sharply. These are combined with nimble steps, backwards, forwards and side to side.

We begin by dodging around each other, hooking and jabbing our invisible opponents. Then Akay hands out the boxing gloves and motions us forward, one by one, to test our agility. I go first. 'Alright, I want three right hooks and three left jabs.' I punch his hand gingerly. 'Come on', he bellows, 'think of someone who makes you angry and really punch out.' I imagine breaking Chris Eubank's monocle. Akay grins as I start to hit faster. 'You're releasing your aggression. That's good', he says.

As well as its therapeutic benefits, the K O Circuit also provides self-defence skills. After 10 weeks of training, most women can pack a punch potent enough to deter most attackers.

Though female boxing has a glamorous edge - Michelle Pfeiffer, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer have all boxed their way to fitness - most of the women here seem more interested in the training itself.

For Helen Haywood, a sculptor and first timer at the gym, the physical exertion is a welcome change to 'sitting around and creating'. 'I love this', she pants between punches.

If you are tempted to vent some angst, beware of imitations. According to Akay, a lot of classes are run by aerobic teachers with no boxing experience. 'That's not the real thing at all', Akay says disapprovingly. 'This is the serious business.'

All Stars Gym, 'K O Circuit': 7.30- 9.30pm Mon-Thurs, 576 Harrow Rd, London W10 (081-960 7724)

Steptoes Fitness: 6.30pm-8.30pm daily Rom Valley Way, Romford (0277 230052)

(Photograph omitted)