Rolling with the punches: Women's boxing is shedding its dirty raincoat audience. Ring skills are improving as the jab and hook replace 'cat-fighting'. Esther Oxford reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
After a Hell's Angel wiped his knuckles across Ana Lemos's face, she decided to take up boxing. She'd been standing at a party, tipsy, in a funny mood. He'd slithered by, innocuous enough, then turned and bashed her across the nose.

So Lemos, 30, a Brazilian music journalist from Dalston, took up kick-boxing: 'I didn't like the way I handled the aftermath. I was depressed for a week. I decided to teach myself how to cope with physical violence in a more practical way.

She still bears the scars: the Hell's Angel had rings on his fingers. But the fear has worn off and in its place is an animal need to crush someone else's face.

'When I'm fighting a man I feel that extra spurt of hate and anger,' says Lemos, who now weighs 12st 7lb and boxes at heavyweight. 'Even if I'm just sparring, I hit hard. There is no point in being soft with anyone. It just gets you into bad habits.'

Lemos is one of a number of women who have begun boxing in the past six months. Most are just doing it for fun; hitting someone would be out of the question. But a significant number have started training seriously.

'In February there were just 70 women on the competitive circuit, says Pauline Dickson, general secretary of the Womens' International Boxing Federation (UK). 'Now there are 135 on the federation's register. All of them want to box in the next all-women's tournament in October.'

The interest stems from the first women's tournament held in February at York Hall in the East End, London's boxing Mecca. The standards varied and the audience was small, but the sight of women throwing punches, ducking, diving, then winning, was enough to persuade a number of 'closet boxers to come forward.'

Some are new to the sport, but many have been training for years without ever having fought.

'Until six months ago, back-street pubs were the only places where women could box competitively,' Dickson explains. 'You'd go along to a top room and see a fully-dressed woman boxing with a topless woman just because she was desperate for the practice.'

Health checks and referees were unheard of on what was known as the 'underground girlie circuit. Shows were unregulated and unsupervised. Tickets cost up to pounds 40, but the promise of 'uncontrolled aggression between 'scantily-clad girls meant there was no shortage of people willing to pay.

Now women are being given the chance to box in a ring under full medical supervision and with trained referees. But the lack of ring-practice shows.

Lemos was at the first all-women's tournament. The standards, she says, were pretty depressing. 'Some of the girls were just hammering each other - they were just grabbing - there was no style or technique there.'

Having an over-protective referee did not help matters. 'Just when the women appeared to be flying at their best, the male referee would intervene.'

What annoyed Lemos most was the audience. 'The crowd seemed to encourage poor boxing. Every time the women started cat-fighting the audience went wild. They loved it.'

'Some people were there for the wrong reasons. You get men who are obviously there for the kicks - Amazon Action readers we call them. (Amazon Action is a London-based soft-porn magazine featuring women dressed in boxing gear). 'They really went for the uncontrolled fighting. The aggression was what turned them on.'

At first sight, Casey's, a boxing gym in south London, looks like an Amazon Action picture spread. It is in a basement and frequented mostly by men. There are pin-ups all over the walls.

On closer inspection, you see that the 'models' are not topless women, but topless men. There are women in the gym, but they are kitted out for serious work. This is the prime training spot for women in London and Dickson is the trainer.

'When I first came here two years ago, the guys told me I was the only one around,' she says. 'When I asked why, they said few gyms would allow women in. When they were allowed in it was only to do the warm-up - the Amateur Boxing Association wouldn't permit them to spar.'

To counter this, Dickson set up the Women's International Boxing Federation last November. The federation, like the British Boxing Board of Control and the ABA, is self-licensed, and its purpose is to pass information to women interested in taking up boxing, to regulate the sport and to organise tournaments. Women are given full medicals before a tournament, doctors are present and all fights are refereed.

The first 'legal' all-women's tournament was also Dixon's idea. Until women were given the chance to prove their worth in a fully supervised, regulated fight, they would never be taken seriously, she argued.

At Casey's gym this afternoon, Sandra Williams, a 24-year-old student from Tooting, is in the ring. Dickson suggests she spar with a former ABA champion. After just three months' boxing training, Williams doesn't stand a chance. For a minute or so the thuds land like bullets on her forehead. But she holds out, stalwart as an ox, ducking and diving and occasionally throwing a well-aimed punch.

Williams had wanted to box since she was a child and spent eight years searching for a gym that would take her. It was only when she went to the all-women's tournament at York Hall that she realised there was a female boxing circuit in London. She also noticed the dearth of competent female boxers.

'That first tournament was an embarrassment, she says. 'I knew I could do better than that.'

Mismatches accounted for some of the poor fighting. Other women were just too inexperienced. Many had kick or Thai boxing experience but little or no training in boxing proper. These 'mistakes' were discovered only on the night.

Occasionally, says Dickson, the fault lay with the trainers. Some were anxious to get their starlets noticed and oversold their talents. A couple of trainers entered women who were not fit enough to fight competitively.

By the time of the second tournament in February, the organisers had a better idea of the talent, and standards were much higher. The attitude of the audience had also improved: instead of the dubious 'raincoat types, the crowds were made up of trainers, genuine enthusiasts and sports reporters. The only thing missing was a sponsor: most had been put off by claims that boxing can lead to breast cancer.

Lemos laughs at old wives' tales such as this: 'It's just a feeble excuse to keep women out, she says. Nor will she consider wearing a breast-plate: 'I've heard of women who have worn the hard breast-plate for protection only to be horribly wounded when the plate breaks. Being hit on the breasts is rare anyway. And when it happens it's not as bad as people make out. I've only ever been bruised once - that was when I got kicked in the chest.'

Being hit in the face is worse. Lemos has had her nose broken twice. 'You really feel the impact on the bone. You can feel it crunch. But it doesn't hurt because your face goes numb.'

'One time, my nose was completely disjointed. My face just folded up. I had to wait five days for the swelling to go down before the doctor would even look at it. They wanted to do it properly because I was a woman.'

Lemos does not believe that the ABA's ban on women boxing competitively will last much longer. Attitudes in the gyms are changing too. 'Men used to come up to me when I was training and just assume that I wanted to hear their advice. I would listen quite patiently until I realised they'd only been boxing a week or two and already thought that they knew more.'

As yet women's boxing is very much in the embryonic stage. 'I still can't get used to picking up hairpins in the changing rooms and adjusting to the fact that boxers can have babies, says Tex Woodward, treasurer of the WIBF). But he predicts that in five years standards will have improved. 'It takes that long to train anyone to any level,' he says. 'But there are some super fighters out there already.'

Promoters are also beginning to see the profit potential.

'I've had trainers come to the gym and try to poach me with all kinds of promises. Most of them are in it for the money, says Lemos, tossing back her curly, uncontrollable locks. 'They've suddenly caught on that women's boxing is going to be big.'

Now when Lemos suspects she is being patronised she throws a punch - extra hard.

(Photographs omitted)

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