Boxing: Fighting to breach the defences of a hard trade: The men who run boxing are having to accept that women can do it, too. Jonathan Rendall reports on the run-up to tomorrow's event at Bethnal Green

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The Independent Online
WITH respect to excellent press officers such as Dave The Growl, Young Frank and John With Shoes On, this Pauline was different class. Any chance of coming down to the gym? Not only was this no problem, says Pauline, but thank you for asking. 'It will be a classic boxing-gym environment,' she adds. 'And all the women will be available for interviews after they've finished sparring. Thanks again.'

A theory gaining currency is that having breached the outer walls of male supremacy in the 20th century, the gradual onset of a true meritocracy will inevitably mean that the world is completely run by women by the end of the 21st. 'I'm really sorry that you broke your nose,' Samantha Beckford, a promising lightweight, says to Anna Lemos, a Brazilian journalist who was to have topped the bill at the all-women boxing tournament at York Hall, Bethnal Green, tomorrow. 'It had to happen some time,' Anna says. 'But thanks anyway.'

Perhaps this is what it will be like. Despite the hard trade being practised, a serene glow seems to wrap the classic environment of Casey McCallum's gymnasium in a basement below a pub in Streatham. Already there are signs of role reversal. The interviewers - three hacks and two television news crews - are being asked questions by the interviewees. 'What do you think of women boxing?' I am asked warily by Anna Lemos. 'I don't know,' I say. 'I've never seen women box.' She pauses before saying: 'Good answer. A lot of people are dismissive.' Phew.

'What's your position on women boxing?' asks Pauline Dixon, who is organising the tournament along with an Irish promoter named Jimmy Finn. I nonchalantly unleash my prepared answer but Pauline counters with: 'I just can't believe the press. We have to get away from negative images. There's never been an event like this. The only other women's boxing I've seen was in a pub in Tooting where the MC was drunk and they introduced the girls with names like Luscious Lisa. We have to get away from that.'

The Bethnal Green promotion is being advertised as the first British foothold of the American-based Women's International Boxing Federation, whose president is the grande dame of female pugilism, Barbara Buttrick. Buttrick, born in Humberside, has lived in Florida for most of her life. A flyweight, in the 1940s and 1950s she was acknowledged as the best women's boxer of her day and was written about in Ring magazine. She trained at the Fifth Street gymnasium later frequented by Muhammad Ali.

Buttrick was unbeaten at her weight over 10 years and more than 30 bouts, including a victory over Phyllis Kugler in San Antonio that brought her to the attention of the Mob, who then ran boxing's most lucrative weight divisions. 'I was all set up to do an exhibition tour with Frankie Carbo's boys,' Buttrick said. 'It never came off. But they didn't give me any trouble.'

In the last year American promoters have cottoned on to the possibility that they could make money out of women's boxing. Don King recently featured a leading American, Christy Martin, on a Chavez card in Las Vegas. Martin won by a firstround knock-out, but ringsiders reported that the spectacle was unedifying not because they were women, but for the same reason many male bouts are ugly: it was a mismatch.

That is the problem for women's boxing. There are too few women who want to box, and the top boxers have to go in against each other again and again, which does not increase suspense or help ticket sales. Along with Martin, a leading attraction in the women's game is an Irishwoman named Deirdre Gogarty, who is trained in Louisiana by Beau Williford, a well-known fight figure.

Research among both males and female acquaintances quizzed about the idea of women's boxing surprisingly showed that the No 1 question was: breasts; to hit or not to hit. I asked Williford about this and he said that while breasts were a legitimate part of the target area, women had an innate sense of fair play.

'Women are supposed to wear these protective cups over their breasts, but one time when I was in the corner and Deirdre was fighting I noticed her opponent wasn't wearing the cups,' Williford said. 'At the end of the round I said to her, 'Deirdre, go for her tits and bring her hands down'. But Deirdre wouldn't do it, which I never could understand.'

When Finn admits that the promotion would likely not have happened at all were it not for the filming of a Channel 4 documentary about women's boxing, and when most of the women in Casey's say that they took up boxing training for the benefits of a 'box-aerobics' class, one wonders if there may be a certain exploitable navety among the cheerful Streatham enthusiasts. They will be matched against a range of opponents that includes experienced women kick-boxers.

Buttrick sees no need for alarm. 'I'm sure Jimmy is not going to overmatch the girls. If people are concerned about women getting hurt they shouldn't look at boxing. They should make the streets safe.'

(Photograph omitted)

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