Sport on TV: Calamity for Jane, pain for Miss Prestige

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ANOTHER splendid Champions (Channel 4, Monday), the documentary series which boldly goes where no conventional sports programme would think to - or dare to. This week: women in the ring. Why would women want to box? An interesting question, though there's possibly a broader and juicier one: why would anybody?

Is there any place on earth less accommodating than a boxing gym? Imagine a prison exercise yard crossed with some of the less palatable aspects of a teenager's bedroom. Under weirdly suspended clouds of mist, as seen in tropical rainforests, big, leathery bags sway and creak. And that's just the training staff. It was pretty merciless of the Champions team to shoot these places with such gritty, documentary realism. Some of the images were so vivid that a fug seemed to seep from the screen. In fact, the morning after this programme, the sitting-room still smelt of stale sweat and Lucozade.

Here was Jane Johnson, working out with Tex Woodward, who had a name like an old Hollywood star but the gentle manner and kindly appearance of George Martin, who produced the Beatles. This didn't fool us for long. I don't suppose Martin ever had Ringo down on the ground doing 41 squat-thrusts before collapsing in a breathless heap of twitching muscles. (Though actually, listening to the drumming on 'She Loves You', maybe he did.)

Despite the training, the almost insane degree of commitment, it has to be said there was something about Jane which didn't feel quite like world champion material. Maybe it was the moment at which she confessed to Tex that she had been supplementing her strictly calibrated, pre-fight diet with the odd furtive biscuit.

Or perhaps it was the point at which, trying to define what she got out off boxing, she said, laughing: 'Regardless of the result, you feel on top of the world for months.' This wasn't fighting talk: it was the kind of thing nice people say. Did Mike Tyson ever begin a sentence, 'regardless of the result'? (Coming to think of it, did Mike Tyson ever begin a sentence? Other than in the penal sense, that is.)

There was more bad news for Jane's chances later and again it fell from her own lips in the form of a couple of cheery confessions. It's probably not ruthlessly professional to go out nightclubbing less than a week before a big bout. And as for her packet-a-day cigarette habit . . . well, there's a lot of trainers who would be mildly concerned about that, too. Jane eventually lost out in the bout we saw though, by her own criteria, she would have been on top of the world about it.

Officially, women can't get a licence to box in Britain, but some entrepreneurs are working on it. The tournament Champions focused on took place at Bethnal Green and nearly didn't happen. We'd seen the promoter, in the weeks leading up to it, desperately phoning around seeking sponsors but finding that, where women fighting is concerned, 'people are very dubious, aren't they?' So, no lucrative deal with Virgin (one of the places we heard him planning to try). Clearly, one of the misconceptions that women's boxing is going to have to fight off if it's ever going to establish itself along with bowls and snooker in the public consciousness, is that the sport is some close cousin of topless mud- wrestling - a kind of sleazoid, red-light attraction. The fighters themselves face intimate versions of this misunderstanding, and of others related to it. One of the boxers, worried that friends would think her 'butch', had hung her punchbag out of sight in a cupboard. (Good job her hobby wasn't restoring old traction engines.)

At the Bethnal Green weigh-in, Dawn from Wigan was 8lb above and beyond competition specifications. Her companion tried to explain, rather pathetically, that she'd got a bit peckish on the drive down. Eight pounds, though: that's an awful lot of service-station sandwiches.

The fights were not for the squeamish. With space for body-blows inevitably somewhat restricted, the women's bouts become terrifyingly centred on the head. Over in America (where women can fight on the same bills as men), we got to watch Deirdre Fogarty of Ireland take on the USA's own Stacey 'Miss Prestige' Prestage. Miss Prestige said she got into fighting because she was always getting into fights. We saw her at home, watching a video of her last meeting with Fogarty, and deciding that this time she wouldn't go with the white singlet, but rather she'd choose something which wouldn't show the blood.

At that earlier fight, and then again here, Prestage was awarded victory by the judges, much to the dismay of Deirdre's trainer, who considered that his fighter had in fact romped home on points. Or, as he put it, in one of his less lovely turns of phrase, 'she beat the snot out of the girl'.

At the end, her nose broken and her cheeks several shades of blue, Miss Prestige looked like she had just walked away from a plane crash. As one of the trainers had said: 'Women are natural fighters.'