Boxing: The woman in the red corner: A male bastion was stormed this week as Britain's first female second made her debut. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
THE BAR at the York Hall in Bethnal Green, east London, was packed before Wednesday night's boxing promotion. Not unusual. But there was something unusual going on nearby - and it had just been spotted by one of the drinkers gazing out towards the spotlit canvas.

'Look,' he said to his companion. 'That bloke's got a bird in his corner.'

'Oh yeah. . .Must be his old woman.'

It was a reasonable assumption to make, given boxing's traditional roles for women: screaming from the seats, or preening in the ring. But the female in question was not P J Gallagher's old woman. Nor was she matrimonially involved with Big Bad James Oyebola, the next tenant of the red corner. She was Tania Follett, and she was history - the first female corner second in British boxing.

On the night, she wore the required spangly black jacket; but her task was entirely unglamorous as she supervised water, stool, gumshield, spit bucket.

'It doesn't sound a lot, but it's all timing,' she said. 'I had been dreaming about dropping the water or letting the stool fall over. I knew that everybody would be looking.'

There were, indeed, several photographers concentrating on her as she stared in fierce concentration through the ropes, awaiting her 10-second cue from the timekeeper. There was even a two-woman documentary team from Goldsmith's College, London, in attendance. On the row of seats behind sat her boyfriend of nine years, Dave Johnson - rather tense, making and smoking roll-ups. 'I'm behind her 101 per cent,' he said. 'I'm so pleased for her and so proud of her. She doesn't want this to be seen as a novelty. She is desperately serious about this.'

It was not simple chance that this 25-year-old from a boxing family - her father and brother boxed, her great great uncle was a regimental champion in India - should be given her first outing in the male-dominated enclave of E2. Earlier this year, Follett worked as a press assistant on the tour of Britain by Lennox Lewis, the world heavyweight champion managed by Frank Maloney. When she convinced Maloney that she was seriously intent upon gaining a licence to work as a second, he offered to give her her first job.

After attending a boxing course in Bristol and practising in gyms from Hoxton to the fabled Thomas a Becket in the Old Kent Road, she became the first woman to earn a licence from the British Boxing Board of Control. Maloney, who put on Wednesday's show, kept his promise.

'It's one of the hardest places to be accepted because it's so male-dominated,' she said. 'Frank threw me in at the deep end.' She did not sink. 'Tania acquitted herself well,' said Mick Williamson, a cuts man with Maloney for 12 years. 'It's not the sort of job where you can make mistakes. If you screw up, you are out.'

Lloyd Honeyghan, the former world middleweight champion who was among the smattering of celebrities watching from the wings, also had a view. 'Women should be in the kitchen,' he said. It might have been a joke.

As Follett accepts, she has just placed her foot upon the first rung of a ladder which she hopes will lead to her becoming the first female boxing manager. Maloney believes she can do it. And she has already shown she can overcome a challenge.

Five years ago she was given six months to live because of a combination of anorexia and bulimia. Her salvation, she says, was to turn to a new pursuit - rescuing and caring for birds of prey. 'Those birds saved my life,' she said. 'Every time I saw one, the better I got.'

She has become well known in this field - three months ago, for instance, police near her home in Bracknell rang her up in the early hours requesting help after a barn owl covered in oil was spotted on a factory roof. After five hours of clambering, and one fall, she brought the bird back to the aviary in her garden, trimmed its feathers and nursed it back to health.

Follett intends to press on in a man's world with similar determination. 'There's nothing like the excitement and adrenalin of boxing,' she said. 'I just have this hunger to become involved.'

She was nevertheless taken aback by the interest her efforts on Wednesday provoked. 'People were patting me on the back, and saying, 'Well done'. What really surprised me was when I went into the girls' loo. The women in there were saying how wonderful it was, and how they really admired me.

'Someone said: 'That's one for women.' But I like to stay away from all that. Wednesday night was not for women. It was for me.'

(Photograph omitted)

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