Piercing their incantations is a high-pitched woman's voice. 'Jab him, Billy,' she yells. She's jumping up and down on her ringside chair, her blonde hair making light waves around her head. She's small and curvy, wearing a white plunge-neck T-shirt, hot pants, a spangled velvet waistcoat and chunky high- heeled shoes. When Crook's head goes back in response to a punch, she goes wild. Beside her a more sedate but equally enraptured young woman calls out a milder message: 'Come on Billy]' She bites her lip. She is wearing black leather trousers and a body-hugging black shirt. Both young women wear gold bracelets and necklaces. Beside them an older woman watches, her expression fearful. She transmits nervous messages: 'Keep your hands up, Billy]' Her voice is quieter.
The women are Billy's two sisters Mandy and Lisa, both in their twenties, and his mother, Wendy. It is Mandy, the elder sister, whose voice is the loudest. As the fight reaches its bloody climax, amazing reserves of fury find their way out of Mandy's delicately drawn mouth: 'Hurt him Billy] Break his ribs] Box his lights out] Finish him off Billy]' Crook goes down, his nose broken, and Billy's fist is raised in victory. The crowd is beside itself. The women gather up their handbags, chattering happily among themselves.
That was my first boxing match - an evenly matched, high-glam, razzmatazz title fight between Billy Schwer v Carl Crook at the Albert Hall - and I'd found my prejudices against boxing simultaneously confirmed and subverted. A display of idiot machismo, yes, but there was something compelling about it. Looking around the crowd, I wondered who these shrieking women were. Most women, you might imagine, would be too sensible and humane - especially in the light of highly publicised cases of brain injury such as Michael Watson's - to derive any pleasure from boxing at all. But you see them at every fight, and most seem every bit as knowledgeable and passionate about what's going on in the ring as the men.
Boxing doesn't attract groupies. In general the crowds are far from welcoming to female spectators. These women, I discovered, are nothing to do with the mink-and-diamonds brigade portrayed in movies. Most of them are family supporters - there for husbands, brothers, sons or lovers. And every one I interviewed contradicted the opinion (endlessly repeated by men) that women aren't tough enough to cope with boxing.
There is, for women, just as for men, the idea that boxing has a kind of magic about it; a fascination with two contestants locked on to each other, eye to eye - in a concentration hinged to survival. To most of us it's horrific, of course. The fight promoter Frank Warren says comfortably, 'It's a sport that you can't justify, really.' But potentially it's as irresistible to women as to men, particularly if you've got a loved one in the ring.
BACK IN LUTON, in their modest, smart suburban house, Wendy, Mandy and Lisa Schwer sit around the kitchen table. Wendy's husband was Irish amateur champion in 1962; her brother was a professional boxer and she met her husband at one of her brother's fights.
'Billy started when he was 11. The whole family used to go to his fights in mini-buses,' says Lisa. 'We watch all the big matches on Sky,' says Mandy. 'I'd say we watch three times a week in the afternoons and three nights a week. My other half sells tickets for Billy and drives him about.'
Wendy likes 'the excitement and dedication. I know what goes into it, the weeks of training, all the things that he gives up.' Mandy is attracted by boxers' stamina, by their determination, by their skill. 'With the lightweights like Billy, there is an elegance, they float like ballerinas.'
Mandy is funny, sharp and friendly. But not bloodthirsty. She is embarrassed about her ringside yelling, and she is not an uncritical fan. 'The Watson fight (in which a knock-out by Chris Eubank left Michael Watson in a coma) really upset me. It made me think of Billy and wish he'd do cross-country running or tennis, something less dangerous.'
Billy says he couldn't have been so successful without the support of his family. 'The washing,' he says, 'three lots a day after training - the cooking - four meals a day - it's a tremendous help.'
'THERE'S a bond between brother and sister,' explains Koulla Solomon, sitting politely, knees pressed together, in her ringside seat at York Hall, spit 'n' sawdust centre of London's boxing world. She has just watched her brother, Rocky 'The Cyprus Cyclone' Milton, in bloody action; as he left the ring, she embraced him, heedless of the sweat pouring off.
She would hate it if Rocky really hurt anyone, she says; yet, she adds, with great feeling and no embarrassment: 'Blood gets me going. When I see blood on Rocky's opponent it makes me want to shout louder. It makes me want to jump in the ring with him.'
Koulla has been to all of Rocky's fights since 1985, when he turned professional. Tonight she was one of only two women - the other was her cousin - among 100 or more Greek men supporting Rocky.
'When he's in the ring it brings the animal out in me,' she says. 'I feel wild, I rage, I go crazy when I see the blood. When my brother causes pain enough for blood to come oozing out of his opponent's face, it's almost as if I can taste it, as if it's the sweet success pouring out. Blood means winning.'
She feels that she changes when she gets to a fight. 'It's that powerful aura surrounding the ring: the people, the faces, the expectations. It's live, it's raw, it's powerful. Those half-naked bodies are an instant turn-on. They send out body messages, body heat, the sweat trickling down their backs - I feel an excitement deep within myself. It's like an orgasm only more so - the violence, the ecstasy, the terror.' Koulla speaks fast, her eyes shining, her mobile face lending emphasis to her emotions. She is not shy, and seems at ease surrounded by men who can hear every word. Her husband hovers protectively. She roars with laughter at the thought that seeing Rocky win is better than an orgasm. 'Of course I love my brother more than my husband - it's blood, isn't it?'
BLOOD TIES are no less strong in defeat than in victory. The next fight at the York Hall involves a punishing defeat for Tony Collins, a handsome, half-Romany 22-year-old with a large, intimidating gypsy following. As the men file out afterwards, disconsolate and subdued, three generations of the Collins family are left at the back of the hall. Many are boxers themselves, or have been. But the two who seem to take Tony's defeat the hardest are women: his mother, Gill, and his grandmother, Louise.
Louise is muttering darkly, while her husband Benny shakes his head in disbelief. 'My grandson is definitely not on the scrap-heap,' says Louise in her deep, throaty voice, an index finger slowly wagging. 'Tony's not finished by a long chalk, put that in your newspaper.' She has watched generations of Collins men in the ring, but defeat is no easier to take. 'You feel it worse than what they do in a way because you know their pride's hurt.'
Gill is silent. 'I was in the toilets during the fight,' she explains later. 'I've spent hours shut in toilets, with the hand-driers and taps going to drown the noise - even hearing it is too much. I don't cry. I just feel sick. I can't really describe it. Even the thought of it upsets me. I don't like professional boxing, only amateur. I'd rather my sons did something else.'
Given the family's history, this seems unlikely. Louise has watched generations of Collins men in the ring. Her son, Tony's father, was an amateur title holder in the sixties. Her son-in-law fought John Conteh. Two of Tony's brothers, her grandsons, George and Benny, and two other grandsons are professional boxers. She knows what she's talking about.
The family live in Yateley in Hampshire. Tony lives at home with his parents, two younger sisters and one younger brother. Louise and Benny live in the next street, in a house that gleams and glitters with polished antique china on mantelpieces and in glass cabinets. Little sparkling chandeliers hang from the ceilings. They are delighted with the effect, it reminds them of a gypsy caravan, and they say they wished they had never had to live in a house. There are pictures of two of their boxer grandsons, Tony and George, with tiny pairs of gloves hanging from them.
'We're proper gypsies,' Louise explains, 'born in wagons. Not like the ones you see on TV.' Boxing, she says, is in their blood.
'It's a sport travellers like. My grandad used to get in the rings at the fairgrounds. I remember the black eyes. I was about six. I liked to watch. The winner picked up the money that was thrown in the ring. He was never beaten.
'I didn't mind him fighting,' she continues. 'I wouldn't take no sauce off anyone either. If a girl got arguing it might end up in a fight. They were pretty good.' She chuckles. 'I always gave them a hiding but I don't like to brag.' She pauses, straightening her apron. 'There was no hair-pulling, I gave punch for punch.' But Louise certainly doesn't think women should get in the ring. 'It's not ladylike,' she says.
MICHELLE COLLINS isn't related to the Collins family. Her function at Tony Collins's fight is as the board girl - a relatively new phenomenon in British boxing introduced by top promoter Frank Warren about 10 years ago. Board girls are the ones who parade around the ring between rounds, their official function to remind the crowd what number the next round is. Each time Michelle clambers into the ring, wearing hot pants, patent stilettos and black tights, the crowd starts baying.
Michelle is tall and slim, with cascades of blonde hair, and she stretches her arms as high as they'll go, giving her breasts a professional lift as she shows the board around the hall. The men bawl at her; they make jungle calls ('Werrrghhh', 'Geremoff' ); and she laps it up, smiling coyly, stretching her board higher and higher.
While the fight is in progress, she perches on a ringside seat, elegantly crossing her legs. She has a baby-doll voice and a constant smile. 'I'm a model and actress,' she says. 'I've done TV, I played a sexy blonde.' I've done Page Three in the Sun and the Star. I really enjoy it. I get pounds 50 an hour and I like to see my picture in the paper. It makes me feel pretty. My family and friends are proud of me,' she adds. She's never done porn. 'But I have done charity shows, singing and dancing fully clothed.'
What does her boyfriend think of her work?
'He doesn't mind. He's older than me. I'm 21. I like older men.'
Who is her boyfriend? 'No comment,' she says importantly.
Isn't he turned off by all those men cat- calling at her?
'He doesn't mind,' she says.
And what does she get from it?
'I love being in front of an audience,' she says. 'I love glamour. I can see why famous people like being on stage. It makes you feel really wanted.'
A small round man with a frizzy perm has been hovering near Michelle. 'Curly King,' he begins, extending a hand. 'I'm Michelle's manager, minder . . . everything,' he says, with a little bristle of pride. 'Boyfriend?' I ask. 'Yeah,' he replies, head bobbing with satisfaction.
Michelle smiles at him. 'I don't know his age and I don't care. I'm not maternal and his son's older than me,' she confides she and Curly get up to leave. In her stilettos she is a good six inches taller than he is, skipping to keep up with her as she skitters out.
PAULA CHEN, a half-Chinese woman in her mid thirties, had no interest in boxing and had never watched a fight until she fell for Kirkland Laing. In the six years they've been together, she has been to all his fights. She still isn't mad about boxing, though.
Harry Mullan, the editor of Boxing News, described Laing as 'spectacular, the most technically gifted boxer I've ever seen, a genius in an odd sort of way. He could have been a world champion.'
Now almost 40, Laing looks 10 years younger and is curiously childlike: 'Forty going on 14,' says Paula. Laing has a distinguished career behind him and lives in hope of reviving it. Three times British welterweight champion and once European, he once achieved world celebrity by defeating the legendary Roberto Duran. He says he intends to fight his way back to the lost titles. At the moment, despite his former success, he's on the dole.
Until he lost his Commonwealth welterweight title in April 1991. Kirkland Laing was managed by Mickey Duff, one of boxing's biggest promoters. Only two months earlier, Paula had given birth prematurely to a baby girl,
who died when she was three days old. Laing was heartbroken, and after that one disastrous match gave up the ring for more than two years.
There is little love lost between Paula and Mickey Duff. She described an occasion some years ago, when she accompanied Kirkland to a meeting with Duff and insisted that the contract being drawn up should be taken to a solicitor before Laing signed it.
'Duff said, 'That contract's not leaving this office' - the way he shouted, so aggressive and hostile] Then he went on: 'Who do you think you are - some woman rooting around my office? Are you going to sign that? No? Get out of my office, go on, get out]' '
She laughs, a small, high-pitched whinny. Eventually the contract was signed. Not long afterwards, the manager and the boxer Laing had signed an agreement with Duff that, if he lost his title fight against Canadian Donovan Boucher in April 1991, he would retire from Duff's management; and lose he did.
'Kirkland's head and heart weren't right,' says Paula. 'He was very depressed. Donovan Boucher knocked him out. Kirkland shouldn't even have been in that ring.'
Paula is five feet tall, slight and softly spoken. Last summer she had a stand-up, ringside row with Frank Maloney, another of boxing's most prestigious managers (he manages heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis) after a fight between Laing and one of Maloney's boxers was stopped. Convinced that Laing, the loser, should have been allowed to continue, Paula went for Maloney.
'I found him at ringside and boxed him on the chin,' says Paula.
Maloney said afterwards, 'Blimey, if Kirkland had thrown a left hook like that he would definitely have knocked my man out. I tell you, if I ever promote women boxers I'll sign her up immediately.'
Paula is pregnant again now, and Laing is back in the ring, though his age means the odds are against him. When he's is in training, Paula becomes, in her own words, 'a kind of widow. He goes to bed ridiculously early and I'm more or less insomniac. He gets up very early. There's hardly any phsyical contact and hardly any conversation because he's cut himself off completely. The change is dramatic. But I know it will be OK again. It's hard being a boxer's girlfriend in that respect, but you have to know when the cut off is coming. And he likes me to be around, so I don't go out much when he's training.'
She doesn't mind if he doesn't make it. 'I can cope on pounds 10 or pounds 1,000 a week. I've worked since I started in my father's Chinese restaurant when I was 11. But Kirkland won't stop fighting until he's right down. I just
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