Vicarious bloodlust or elevated admiration for physical courage? Virginia Ironside is a closet boxing fan
I hate cruelty of any kind. I'm against parents smacking children, I hate animal cruelty, and had I been born in Roman times and been asked to witness a Christian being eaten by lions, I would have shaken my head. So what was I doing, on Saturday night, sitting on my sofa in my dressing- gown with a glass of wine in my hand, heart pounding with excitement as two big blokes, Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan, slogged the living daylights out of each other?

Partly, it's the sheer style of boxing that I love. The electrifying moment when Benn, the Dark Destroyer, approached the ring, to the chimes of Big Ben, in a cloud of smoke that parted to reveal an amazing new haircut. Then there's the thrilling menace of anticipation. The bookies were for McClellan, who had boasted: "Why stand there for 12 rounds when I can get it done in one?" The Dark Destroyer was our man when they glowered at each other before the bell rang; every nerve was at twanging point.

But it's at this point that some women turn off. I have friends who regard watching boxing for pleasure as sick. And yet Saturday's ringside audience seemed to be full of women. What is it that turns them on? The sight of two incredibly fit and sexy guys beating each other to a pulp? Partly. But if I were to see a fight in the street, I'd be on to the police like a shot. I might even go out there, handbag flailing, encouraging them to stop. There's no thrill for me in street violence. It's too uncontrolled. I'm never certain if both parties really want a fight. Maybe one's bigger than the other. It's never fair.

But to watch two men who have made rational decisions to go into the ring is another matter. It's courageous in itself. And to win is even more courageous. In Saturday's fight, Benn was nearly knocked out twice, but even having been hit and hit till he wobbled, what made my hair stand on end was his extraordinary stamina and courage in fighting back.

In retrospect, knowing that Michael Watson is permanently brain-damaged after his fight with Chris Eubank, that Muhammad Ali slurs his way through life after a lifetime of brain-blows, when Gerald McClellan's life hangs in the balance - yes, in retrospect, it's natural to feel rather queasy about the kick to be got from watching boxing.

But the truth is that if boxing wasn't dangerous, if everyone wore hard hats and their gloves were made of candy floss, it simply wouldn't be such a thrill.

Boxing is one of the few sports in which you can witness real physical bravery. Even when that bravery is the kind of viciousness, the slaughter boxing shown by Nigel Benn, bravery is still something to be admired. Perhaps what women - and men, too - enjoy in boxing is not something bad, a horrible vicarious bloodlust but, rather, something good - immense courage, yes, even in the face of permanent injury or, even, death.