Ordinary women with lust for battle

Blood, sweat and fears as marines, medics and mothers get ready to rumble in a Texas oil town
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The Independent Online

There are no fake smiles in the changing rooms at the Twin Cities gym here, where just under 100 women boxers are preparing for the American amateur championships in nearby Midland.

There are no famous daughters of retired fighters or nude pin-ups from Penthouse preening in the dirty room where the women dress and prepare for their sessions. It smells, and it smells bad, and so do some of the women.

This is the credible end of the joyless business of female boxing, in which women with jobs have been learning a sport at night in amateur boxing clubs. It is not the shameful professional side in which promoters hire any female with a pulse for slaughter and throw them in against a protected and marketable product. "Nobody really understands what I do," said Jamie McGrath, a restaurant manager from Long Island, New York. "When I say boxing people think of just a few professionals, but I've had 30 fights and I'm still learning. Some of the professionals have fought just a few times."

McGrath is part of a large New York contingent that includes Jean Martin, an undercover vice detective with the New York City police department. Martin was reluctant to be filmed but not McGrath, who showed up at the main draw wearing a sweet T-shirt bearing the logo: Fight Like a Girl. She doesn't, and last year went to Finland for an international tournament and stopped all three of her opponents.

The women started to arrive on Sunday for last night's first bouts. There were mothers with their kids and others with terrific attitude. In the slick pro game there are no openly gay female fighters, but there was a bizarre contrast in Midland between some of the tattooed gay women with their female trainers and the slight light-flyweights.

Some will have to box four times to win the title on Saturday and each morning at 7am they will have to make the weight at the scales and pass the medical. There is no glamour in this odd little oil town.

In the gym the single ring was the showcase for the better fighters. The novices stuck to the outer shadows of the building hitting bags, but in the ring the flash women danced. Trainers of varying quality wandered around and the only others present were a few mothers.

"I knew I wanted to fight when I was kid," said Julia Day from Kentucky. "Each black eye and drop of blood from my nose made me more determined." Day is 20 and travelled to Midland without her parents' blessing. She ran away to be a fighter and will return after the tournament to tell them that she will at some stage in the next two years turn professional. She is one of the best but she is in the same weight category as McGrath, who is the defending champion.

Not all of the women have the experience and class of Day and McGrath. Some are hopeless, which is being kind, but they are honest and that is unique to amateur boxing, where competitors always have a far clearer idea of their limitations in the ring. The matchmaking process in the amateur sport is fair. The women in Midland will box three rounds of two minutes and have all been assured by the tournament doctor that they will be allowed to take the same amount of punishment as men.

"It is hard to make people aware of just how serious we are," said Cathy Herway, a medical student. "This is the sport we have chosen. We know it hurts, we know it can be dangerous but it is our choice, something that all the women here have prepared for."

Herway, who fought for the Unites States against Canada, will have to beat Linda Carrillo, the defending champion and world No 1 at light-flyweight, if she wants to be selected for the match against Russia in September. Carrillo is a veteran. She works as a newsreader for a TV station in her home town of South El Monte. Debbie Grim is prepared for pain and just wants to fight. At 16 stones with a delicate but predictable touch, she will get what she wants when she meets Cindy Zamudio, who is 18 and 18st. Grim will have to consider cutting off her dreadlocks because of a ruling that threatens her with disqualification if any come loose during the fight.

Kalina Fernandez has a piercing problem and has been told to remove them all. "They can have my tongue but my tummy and the rest stay in," she said.

The organisers have been forced to introduce piercing regulations, but the removal of small silver and gold parts is a voluntary and private decision. The tournament doctor is male and he should be too busy with traditional swollen parts and sore noses to have the time for a pre-fight probe in a fighter's sports bra or knickers.

Incidentally, Paul Ryan, the former British light-welterweight champion, once fought with tape over his pierced nipple.

At the end of the first training session the nerves had emerged. Marine Jennifer Driggers, who last summer underwent crucible training - "It means I'm a killing machine," she said - made the middleweight division after a final sweat. "I'm nervous as hell," she admitted.

Others in the gym had fallen silent as the hour of the opening bell approached. On Saturday 13 of the 97 will be champions, but yesterday they were just fighters with normal problems like bruised knuckles and black eyes and ordinary women with kids, pierced parts and jobs at home.