It's definitely not a good idea to call her babe

Linda van den Berg, the first woman to fight on an Amateur Boxing Association bill, tells
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The Independent Online
"You're not going to write that I like to hurt people, are you?" Linda van den Berg asks suspiciously, almost as soon as we sit down in a pub in Paddington. A complete unknown a little over a week ago, she is already learning to treat the press with the resigned weariness that one would expect from a seasoned celebrity.

Interest has mounted as news spread that van den Berg will make history in less than three weeks' time when she becomes the first British woman to fight on an amateur boxing bill. Last December the Amateur Boxing Association agreed to let women, hitherto barred, appear on their bills from next month. Van den Berg, 28, in training at the Fitzroy Lodge club in Lambeth - one of the oldest clubs in London - will also be the first female amateur boxer to fight internationally, appearing in Los Angeles in November.

Five minutes in her company and it's apparent that there could be other reasons why she is causing a stir. After all, another woman is competing on the same bill as van den Berg, but nobody seems interested. In a sexist industry, van den Berg, with her long blonde hair and large blue eyes, is the acceptable face of female boxing. Last week an Express writer reflected: "One wonders why she wants to put at risk features that sit in perfect symmetry on a face to which God has been particularly kind."

Her coach, Mike Carney, admits gruffly: "She's a bit of a sort, as they say in the trade. She presents a nice image in amateur boxing - no tattoos or effing and blinding." He adds: "I don't really agree with the ladies boxing. But if a girl's really willing to work hard, who am I to say `no you can't'?" In a sport where men still refer to women as "ladies" with no trace of irony, it's easy to see why Carney has made van den Berg an exception.

Van den Berg shrugs off the suggestion. "I've never thought about it. A lot of people say I don't look like a boxer but who cares? The most important thing is that people respect my ability."

Van den Berg, an exhibitions organiser, turned to boxing as a means of self-protection. She has a brown belt in karate and progressed from kick-boxing to straight boxing six months ago. "I started off two years ago because I just got fed up feeling scared all the time walking round London."

It is her background as much as her gender that makes van den Berg stand out in a sport that tends to nurture working-class boys, certainly not middle-class, educated women. Born in London to South African parents, her father an architect and mother a secretary, her first love was classical music - as a child she played violin at the Festival and Albert Halls. After her O-levels she moved to South Africa, playing piano at a college of performing arts. Two years later, she returned to college in London to study music, theatre and English.

If her background seems unlikely, so do her beliefs - she is a practising Christian. "What I do isn't about violence," she says quickly, "but I do look at that paradox and have trouble reconciling it with myself sometimes."

Usually, though, she sees boxing as just another creative pursuit. "It's like a game of physical chess," she says. "You don't go in there to try and maim or hurt. There's a lot of mental agility - it's about pushing yourself to the limit."

She believes many women are put off boxing because they assume a blow to the face must be unbearably painful. Isn't it? "In my first fight I got hit really hard in the face. It was such a shock to the system. But then I realised it doesn't hurt. Once you get used to it, it's not a problem. And when you win, the feeling is absolutely unbelievable."

Van den Berg switches seamlessly from an earnest discussion on technique to gleeful teenage rapture about the special club gear she'll be competing in. "I've got the satin shorts and a really nice top," she chirps.

In an ironic twist, the bout she'll be dressing up for - in a hotel off Russell Square in Bloomsbury - is for a male audience only. Partners may be invited to the dinner show later in the evening. It's a detail that hasn't gone unnoticed by Pauline Dickson, secretary of the Association of Women Boxers. "For such a historic event, it's a shame that women can't buy tickets. It's weird. We've come such a long way on the one hand, yet we can't sit down, eat a meal and watch it all too." Even Ms Dickson couldn't get a ticket.

Van den Berg doesn't seem perturbed by such an omission.Her primary interest is to win the fight, not to debate gender politics or make a deal out of being a woman.

This, far more than her appearance, must be why Fitzroy Lodge - such a bastion of masculinity - chose her in the first place.

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