Women fight the good fight

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UNDER the gaze of a poster of Lennox Lewis, a boxer is throwing uppercuts at a pair of giant padded gloves held by a trainer. The trainer's arms jerk upwards under the blows.

But one thing makes the scene in Tex Woodward's gym, housed in converted farm buildings at Compton Greenfield, near Bristol, extraordinary: the boxer, clad in a sweatshirt and cycling shorts, is a woman.

The Spaniorum Farm gym is popular with local male professional boxers and big names such as Lewis and Frank Bruno have trained there. Mr Woodward first introduced a woman to boxing to improve her footwork for squash, another sport that he coaches. Now he has about eight women who box regularly.

'More are showing an interest and some of them pick up the technique much faster than the men,' he said. Most give up more traditional keep-fit activities such as aerobics and badminton to take up boxing.

Rachel Dowding, 24, a production controller at a Bristol factory, says: 'People assume women boxers are all 12-stone bruisers with muscles like iron dumb-bells and faces to match. But you can still be feminine and box.'

Her husband Kevin, a couch potato himself, agrees. 'He likes the idea that I can look after myself,' Rachel adds. But there have been reservations. 'When I came home with a black eye he was worried people would think he had done it.'

With Elaine Harry, 23, a police photographer, she took up boxing to improve her technique for kick-boxing. The women certainly throw themselves into the training with as much energy as the men.

The gym has nine different punchbags with fillings ranging from maize to water. There is a football-sized punchball connected by elastic to the floor and ceiling, which can spring back and deliver a useful blow to the unwary fighter.

Injuries are comparatively rare. 'You get the occasional bloody nose, of course, but everything is well regulated,' said Mr Woodward. Elaine commented: 'I don't think about getting injured. We don't go all out to kill each other.'

The other boxers take little notice of the women. John Roberts, an amateur middleweight, said: 'They are doing their training the same as us. I'm all for freedom of choice. Women are playing rugby now, so why not boxing?'

Only Charlotte Leslie, at 14 one of the youngest boxers, has found difficulties with her friends. 'It is hard being a girl boxer because there is no one to box with or talk to about the sport. My friends don't think girls should box.'

Charlotte wants to box competitively, but women's boxing is frowned upon by the Boxing Board of Control and the Amateur Boxing Association.

However, the sport is catching on in the United States, there are unofficial women's bouts in this country and interest is growing. Claire McCarthy, 24, was watching the women box. 'Anything men can do we should be able to have a go at,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)