Boxing: First Night - The Ms of ceremonies

After a few difficult rounds, a self-confessed opportunist is now lady of the rings. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
It was when Charlotte Russell announced firmly that the referee had stopped the fight after 22 seconds of the first round with Carl Andrews unable to defend himself and then confidently proclaimed Carl Andrews the winner that you wondered about the future of women in the boxing ring. Admittedly, her introduction to the noble art had been unfortunate. One of the boxers in her first bout might have won the disco dancing contest in the next door night club but forgot to throw a punch for the whole of the six two-minute rounds and, just as the members of the National Sporting Club were beginning to get restless, Andrews, a blond bombshell of a heavyweight from Bristol, launched his one punch of the night straight at the chest of the referee, who rightly deduced that his senses were scrambled and ushered him to his corner. Up into the ring climbed Charlotte, a neat chasse through the ropes and an explosive launch of a well-manicured right fist smack on to the chin of a half-decent idea.

Nevertheless, history of a sort was made beneath the chandeliers of the Napoleon Suite at the Cafe Royal at 9.43pm last Thursday night. Never before in the 108-year history of the National Sporting Club had a pair of stiletto heels, let alone a shimmering full-length silver dress, appeared in their boxing ring. Indeed, until the Willis brothers, David and Bob, bought the club and quietly dropped the men-only exclusivity - "with rather less fuss than the MCC" as David put it - no women of any kind had been allowed to spoil the boys' own conviviality of the traditional blood and bow-tie boxing nights.

The wider claim that Charlotte was becoming the first female Master of Ceremonies - should the title be changed now? - in the history of British boxing was subject to dispute. Mickey Duff had apparently employed a lady MC on some of his undercards 20 years ago, an attempt at barrier- breaking which had led to the doors of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Luckily, the former lead singer of the Minx all-girl band, Madonna or Marilyn Monroe lookalikes a speciality, had not the faintest idea what she was letting herself in for. Like all the other 250 applicants, she had seen the ad in The Stage - "Wanted: female with commanding voice and of glamorous appearance for live sporting event" - and decided that, barring an overwhelming disinterest in sport, it was just right for her. Unlike the other 249, her modest assessment proved spot on.

In pursuit of her big break, she had been swept from her day job as manager of the Arcadia clothes shop in Chippenham to an audition at the Corn Exchange in Ipswich on Tuesday and onward with barely a backward flick of her platinum blonde head to the airwaves of Talk Radio, to a quick pout on the pages of the Daily Star and her much heralded routing of the boxing record books with the words "boxers to the ring please" at the Cafe Royal.

Roughly two hours later, her innocent self-confidence had been all but shattered by the demands of a job which is not quite as simple as it looks. Like the newscaster or the commentator, the MC is secondary to the main event, yet a vital part of it. Michael Buffer, the most famous of modern MCs, earns $5,000 a night for his ability to say "Let's get ready to rumble" in a rolling baritone. Easy money perhaps. But without it, big fight rituals in the States would not be complete. "The MC has to command his audience," says Frank Maloney, whose own controversial assessment of a woman's place in boxing had prompted his innovative campaign for a woman MC. "The tension before a big fight is unbelievable and an MC must try to heighten that while also presenting the boxers to the public in the hall and on television." As any woman MP could tell you, acoustics rarely work in favour of the female voice. Shout over the male rabble and risk fever pitch, lower the tone and risk being ignored. Margaret Thatcher employed a special trainer to improve her parliamentary delivery, but still sounded as if she was bartering with a particularly obstinate shopkeeper. The 15 girls selected for audition in Ipswich had been roughly split between the strident hectorers and the gentle persuaders.

The judges had decided beforehand that voice was the most important feature, then had gone spectacularly for appearance. Charlotte had clearly prepared herself, first by popping down the local gym where, as luck would have it, the owner was a former MC and by practising the tricky art of entering a boxing ring with a modicum of decorum while encased in clingfilm. Her rendition of a bubbly blond was flawless and while her academic credentials - nine GCSEs and four A Levels - clearly took her beyond the bimbo category, they did not necessarily qualify her for saying the "British Boxing Board of Control" with the necessary gravitas or for presenting boxers as if they were rather more significant than the next stop on the Bakerloo Line. MCs have about 30 seconds to bring to life the boxer in the blue corner.

A self-confessed opportunist, more than once during a surreal evening, Charlotte Russell, the only daughter of an antiques dealer and an architect, must have wondered whether her eye for the main chance had not perpetrated the most fearful deception. Ignorance, on this occasion, was bliss. "I know nothing about boxing, so really I was divorced from the whole occasion," she said later. "I had no real idea what a big deal this whole thing is. It didn't seem real."

A starring role as God in a school production of Jonah and the Whale was hardly an adequate basis for lassoing an audience, many of whose notions of the role of women in boxing stretched no further than the mini skirts on the ring card girls. The pre-fight preparations had not been helped by the intrusions of Sky television and a quick photo shoot, in gloves and skimpy boxing shorts, for the Daily Sport ("I wasn't happy about that one") and by the hasty writing and rewriting of her cue cards. "There are three possible endings to a fight," Maloney had taught her. "Points, technical knock-out and knock-out." Charlotte had found a fourth in her very first bout, as a spectator, in Ipswich. One of the boxers had tripped and dislocated his foot.

Halfway through the evening, "thrown in at the deep end" was in danger of becoming "drowned with all hands". The temptation to take to the lifeboat must have been overwhelming. "When that fight ended after 22 seconds, I just fell to pieces," Russell said. "I was saying to Frank, `What do I do now, what do I do?' It wasn't nerves so much. I just wanted to do well for him because he'd given me a chance."

But then a strange thing happened. Russell stopped trying to be Marilyn Monroe, Madonna or Melinda Messenger and became Charlotte Russell, the girl who once gatecrashed the Versace party in Bond Street dressed in a Topshop suit, who was voted 100th most influential person in the fashion industry in 1995 and who was picked on at school because she had a posh accent. She adlibbed a bit, apologised for her mistakes, thanked the audience for putting up with her debut and regained a patch of male ground. "Not too bad," Maloney nodded. "She learned a lot." What about? "Survival."