Boxing: Women with rights

Shirley could be a contender as boxing follows other sports into the contact zone and scales the gender barrier; Andrew Baker finds that after Judgement Night will come Mother's Day
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The Independent Online
Casey's is everything that a boxing gym should be. In the cellars of a pub in Streatham, south London, it is battered, glamourless, purposeful. The floor is scarred, the ring-ropes sag, the mirrors are blotched - if you gave a set designer the instruction "Essence of boxing" they could not do better.

It would be the perfect launch- pad for one of the noble art's rags-to- riches sagas, the tale of a fighter coming up from the streets, fuelled by talent, guts and a steely determination to succeed. A fighter with attitude, a lean, hard body and 10 tattoos; a fighter who lives for the adrenalin rush of the ring - and the grins of her two lovely little daughters: Julia Shirley, super-welterweight.

She looks the part. Her 10st 5lb is solid muscle, her hair is cropped short and she does not waste energy smiling. There are women boxers who derive publicity and obtain fights through playing up the pretty/tough dichotomy. Shirley is not one of them. "They go on their looks," she said, comtemptuously, "big hair, big bust. They're just dolly birds. I'm not a dolly bird. In this sport you use your hands, not your chest."

Last week's decision by the Amateur Boxing Association that women should be allowed to train and fight under its rules has offered a place on the bottom rung of boxing's ladder of opportunity to Shirley and fighters like her. "You have to go through structures to get picked to be a pro fighter," Shirley said. "Those structures are there now. But a lot depends on what the ABA do next."

Because there are no professional women boxers who are recognised as such at present, the sport is divided into "novice" and "open" classes. Julia has fought six times at open level, coming within a split decision of defeating Jane Couch, the Women's International Boxing Federation welterweight champion. Shirley believes that title will one day be hers, along with one or two others. "My goal is three belts," she declared. "British, European and World."

Shirley already has the trappings of success. Well, she has an entourage. That is, she has Muffy, her PA, who in proper Don King style sings Shirley's praises and feeds her snappy one-liners. She also helps to arrange baby- sitters, a service that King is unlikely to provide. "Julia wants to go a long way," Muffy said, watching her charge shadow-box around the ring. "She knows it's going to take time and effort, but I'm sure she'll get there."

While Shirley works out, her two daughters, three-year-old Sarah and eight-year-old Julia Jnr, are at home, where the boxer's father is babysitting. Relatives old and young are great supporters of Shirley's pugilistic ambitions: little Sarah is apparently particularly keen. So what does Shirley say to those who find the notion of young girls cheering on their mother in the ring offensive?

"All I care about is that my girls should be proud of me," she said, bristling. "No one makes a fuss about other sports that women go in for, like rugby and martial arts. You can get hurt, or raped, or worse, walking down the street in London. I use boxing for self-defence: I wouldn't just stand around and let someone attack me or my kids - I'd hit back."

What about a hazard of boxing that is unique to female fighters, blows to the breasts? "The first thing to say is that in all my fights so far I haven't been hit on the chest once. The next is that if you are concerned, you can wear a chest protector. Personally, I find them uncomfortable and awkward and don't bother, but I wouldn't be surprised if the ABA made them compulsory. That might put people's minds at rest."

Muffy had hinted that there had been "a few little niggles" between Shirley and her fellow women boxers, but she insisted that however hostile things might get in the ring, there is none of the mud-slinging of the male game. "It's a small world," she said, "and most of us get on very well. In the ring you do your job but out of it we're friends."

Pauline Dickson, of the Association of Women Boxers, wants to see that small world expand, and explained how the ABA's announcement could help. "Until now we have not had enough good, experienced fighters to fill an entire bill. And if we put on a show involving too many novices it would not be setting a good example. Now the best women amateurs can share bills with male boxers as part of a good-quality show."

A place on such a mixed bill must be the next step for Julia Shirley. Until that happens she will persist with her training in the Streatham cellar, and dream.

If the expansion that Pauline Dickson hopes for does take place, young female boxers of the future will have unlimited opportunities. How would Shirley feel if her daughters were to follow her into the ring? "I'd back them, whatever they wanted to do. Ballerinas or boxers, I'd back them."