IN THE tatty, dark back room of the Foresters Arms pub in Tooting, south London, the hot air chokes with cigarette smoke and beer fumes. Two revolving overhead fans make no difference. In the middle, occupying what seems like half the floor space, is a boxing ring. In the middle of it two fighters are trading punches. 'Go on, girl,' screams someone from the crowd. 'Come on, Jane, keep your hands up,' shouts another.

But Jane's opponent, 'Dangerous' Deirdre Gogarty, from Dublin, gets through again, her punches landing hard on Jane's cheeks. At the end of six two-minute rounds, Deirdre's hand is raised in victory by the referee. The raucous crowd throws money into the ring in appreciation. 'Any more nobbins?' asks the MC, Johnny Simmons. 'Come on, let's have some more. I tell ya, I wouldn't wanna be married to one of them two and come home drunk.' The remark provokes a disapproving wince from another boxer watching at ringside.

On the same night that Frank Bruno was earning millions of pounds fighting Carl Williams at the NEC in Birmingham, 10 women competed in the first promotion by the newly formed British Ladies' Boxing Association. The aim is to take women's boxing out of seedy secret venues and into the daylight of respectability and, who knows, profitability. The association has doctors at ringside and licenses fighters, trainers and so on. There will be no topless boxing or 'foxy boxing' - where women in skimpy outfits fight using large, soft gloves in front of lascivious, lager-driven audiences.

Though the training disciplines of boxing are a familiar recreation for some women, getting in the ring is a different matter. It hurts. And motives run deeper than just keeping in shape.

'I've got a lump on the back of my head the size of a cricket ball,' says Lisa Canning, an hour after her bout with Lisa Fox. 'It was a very hard fight, very hard.'

A 30-year-old legal secretary in the City of London, Ms Canning does not look particularly bellicose now, dressed in a gold lame evening dress and heels. 'I live on my own and boxing means you are not so frightened, because you think you have got a chance against someone. That was an initial reason for doing it.'

A violent boyfriend may have been another. 'I lived for a long time with a man who wasn't . . . very nice. If I can live with him for the length of time I did, then there's not going to be a woman who is going to put me on the floor. I know it's an oblique way of looking at it, but it is there.

'In the third round tonight, after one of the punches she threw, it was as much as I could do to stand up. Everything just went numb for about two seconds. But there was something in me that wouldn't let me go over. I can't back down. If he hit me, I had to go back at him and got hurt twice as bad.'

Jane 'Rocky' Johnson takes her sobriquet from the Sylvester Stallone films that inspired her. 'I just love the crowds and the excitement.' For her, boxing has been a means of building confidence and control after several years as an alcoholic had followed her being severely bullied at school.

'It was mental bullying, I went to an all-girls' school. Eventually I was too scared to go to school and started taking drinks from my dad's cabinet. I was terrible and I've never forgiven myself. Unfortunately, my dad died about 10 years ago and didn't see me change.

'Playing football stopped the drinking. Boxing has helped my confidence grow. There is nothing more frightening - the thought of being knocked out in front of people is so embarrassing. It's the challenge of it. It's not a team game, you are stuck up there on your own.

'I was so scared tonight I didn't want to be here, but now it's all over. I'm so glad the fight wasn't stopped,' she says, untroubled by the abrasions around her eyes and on the bridge of her nose.

'You have to face the fear. When you face the fear - any fear in life - you're going to feel a lot better afterwards.'

Ms Johnson, who by day runs two mini-markets in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, had every right to be fearful of Deirdre Gogarty, a powerfully built Irish champion who will soon be on her way to the United States, where the women's boxing circuit is up and running, and where there is money to be won. Over here it is a matter of pounds 20 or pounds 30 pressed into palms at the end of the evening.

The fighters are tougher in America, too. But even there you rarely get the blood and knockouts of men's boxing. They might hurt, but women's punches are not as hard. What is more, at the Foresters Arms at least, the fighters smiled at each other at the end of a round.

Lisa Fox explains: 'The last thing I want to do is hurt anybody, but I want to win. Women in boxing is not about hurting, it's more about scoring points with punches, though the aggression has got to be there to get in the ring and hit another woman. I want to be thought of as a boxer, not a fighter.' She also would prefer not be introduced again in the ring as 'Luscious' Lisa.

Ms Fox is 23, from Liverpool, and has a five-year-old daughter. She says she likes to be considered 'a lady' and with the other boxers chose ladies' over women's for the association's name because the latter had feminist connotations.

Sue Atkins, the joint chairperson and founder of the BLBA, hopes the night in Tooting will be the start of something big. A crowd of 70 or so paying pounds 12 a head was encouraging. Having fought 15 times and reached the age of 32, she has turned to training, and works with boxers two or three times a week in a gym above the Foresters Arms run by her co-chair, Mick Nairn.

'There are hundreds of girls who want to box,' says Ms Atkins. 'Many of them probably now do martial arts - things like kickboxing - but would prefer to box. We want to get everything regulated and made official.' She has often been asked to box topless, but refused. 'People were interested in my boxing skill, but I did compromise and go on the same bill with topless boxers.'

Mick Nairn, a builder and boxing enthusiast, is looking to organise a dinner and boxing event next. There is nothing illegal about what he and Sue Atkins are doing. The BLBA is a self-licensing body, as is the British Boxing Board of Control, which governs the sport.

Yes, the Tooting night was a bit seedy. But all too often so is men's boxing. It is a fair shock seeing women fight, perhaps partly because the ring is such masculine territory. Some of the lads at the Foresters Arms were not taking it seriously, but there was also genuine appreciation of the boxers' commitment and courage.

'This isn't a joke to us,' says Lisa Canning. 'We are working on this seriously. Most of us are just babies, but we are all very keen and at some stage we would like to be known as the best.

'I think I have taken to boxing partly because there are not many women that do it. It may be egotistical, but it would be nice to be one of the best and one of the first.'

(Photographs omitted)