Boxing: Follett acquires ring of confidence

Mike Rowbottom meets Britain's first woman boxing manager, who learned the hard way to duck and dive in a man's world
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WHEN Paul Henry ducks under the ropes for his first professional bout at the Elephant and Castle on Saturday night, he will be taking something of a gamble. At 29, the Bristol boxer - who has previously earned his living as a welder - is getting into the game late. But there is more to it than that. Henry is represented by Britain's first woman boxing manager, Tania Follett.

Fairly or unfairly, his performance will be used to judge a 29-year-old woman who has grown used to ample measures of scorn and derision as she has made her solitary way in this quintessentially male sport.

Follett comes from a boxing family - her father and brother boxed, her great-great uncle was a regimental champion in India - and has always been determined to earn herself a place in its harsh landscape.

"There's nothing like the adrenalin of boxing," she says. "I just have this hunger to become involved."

One of the first things Follett learned was how to take a punch. But as her career has developed from press liaison, to working in the corner - she was the first female second in British boxing - to preparing journeymen fighters in gyms such as Casey's in Streatham, the punishment she has taken has been verbal. And none the less harsh for that. "It's always the same sort of thing: 'What does a woman know about boxing?' or 'What's a tart doing in the corner?'" she said.

The publicity she generates is one more reason for criticism - "there is a lot of jealousy in the fight business."

With Jane Couch's recent successful legal action to earn the right to fight in Britain, some people have accused Follett of jumping on the bandwagon. She is not having any of that. "I've paid my dues," she said. "I've got my own bandwagon."

To have got her wagon this far, Follett has had to make her way round several dangerous corners. When she got her second's licence, the promoter Frank Maloney threw her into the lion's den - a 10-fight bill at Bethnal Green's York Hall.

She carried her bucket with honour, and went on to work in the corner in 100 fights. For her next trick, the manager's licence, she was required to face a 16-man committee at the British Board of Control's HQ in Borough High Street.

"The room was full of boxing memorabilia - old pictures and Lonsdale belts," she recalled. "I sat at the end of a long table, and they fired hard questions at me about contractual things. A lot of people would have been very intimidated. But it is all done to make sure you know exactly what you are doing."

Follett is made of stern stuff. This, after all, is a woman who was given six months to live at the age of 20 because of a combination of anorexia and bulimia.

She came through that particular crisis by rescuing and caring for birds of prey. Her time is too tight to maintain that pursuit now - she is working full time at a Bracknell leisure centre - but she has not lost the ability to concentrate her energies to good effect.

So it comes down to Saturday night, when Henry, a big puncher with equally big potential, faces Lee Simpkin in a middleweight bout. Sky TV has already recorded a little preview, and will cover the meeting.

The stakes are raised by Follett's novel status. "It can work for us, or against us," she said. "The way I look at it, I'm damned if we win, and damned if we don't. But I've done my job. Peter Richards, Paul's trainer, has done his. Now it's up to Paul."

Henry was introduced to Follett by a mutual friend, the Bristol-based trainer Tex Woodward. "Tex asked me if I would have any problem being managed by a woman," Henry said, "because he knew of someone who had just got their licence. He said she had a good head on her shoulders and would look after me.

"It would have been the easiest option to sign up with one of the established managers in the Bristol area," he said. "But I'm getting into this game pretty late, and I think signing with Tania could work well for me.

"She spelt everything out. She said the fact that she was the first woman boxing manager would bring me publicity, although it would also bring extra pressure.

"If I lose on Saturday, then people will be saying, 'well, what advice could a woman be giving to him?' But even if I win they are not exactly going to praise her. She knows it's going to be hard to get credibility.

"Some people have the attitude of 'what does a woman know about boxing?' I get a lot of that. But other people who know the game say the honest truth is that she could do just as good a job for me as a man."