Ups and downs in lives of Britain's boxing babes

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The Independent Online
THE VERY idea of mere girlies running long-distance races used to be anathema, and as for that scandalously unfeminine pole vault... People have always needed to have a few things around them to get hysterical about, and the idea of full-grown women boxing, let alone juveniles, serves as well as anything to set the whingers off.

Short Stories: Boxing Babes (Channel 4, Tuesday) dealt with the subject in such a matter-of-fact manner it was almost propagandistic: how could anyone object to such an innocuous hobby? The film followed two Welsh teenagers, Marie Leith, or "Cheesy", and her friend Marie Davies, or "Slaps". The pair fought last year in this country's first distaff bout, and we see them preparing for the first women's international, against Scotland, 10 days hence.

A veteran of four fights (and four wins), Cheesy is a remarkably down- to-earth young woman, exuding the composure of a Michael Owen as she dispenses with those namby-pamby notions that boxing is bad for girls. "I haven't had a scratch from this boxing game," she says. "Not a bruise."

The two of them got into it after persuading trainer Mike Haines to take them on at his all-boys gym. If he had any prejudices, he tossed them out of the ring straight away. And besides, he says, "Amateur boxing is not dangerous. Yes, your features might be rearranged if you're not trained properly, but no, it's not dangerous."

At the start of the film, Slaps is in trouble - she's showing "no dedication" says Haines, and indeed, she is unable to resist the more conventional delights of adolescence. Cheesy goes along as they hit the town, and even downs a beer. Slaps, though, caught on camera having a fag, clearly doesn't have her dedication. She calls Haines and tells him, "I've lost all my confidence."

Cheesy loses a warm-up bout in Balham but is unfazed, and with four days to go, Haines is pushing them both hard: Cheesy, 9st 4lb, needs to get down to bang on 9st, while Slaps, more worryingly, has 7lb to lose from her 10st 7lb frame - "or that's the last time you'll ever box," Haines tells her. Her last time may well have been and gone, in fact, as she pulls out on the eve of her fight.

On the big night up in Scotland, there's predictable controversy when some of the home club's committee voice their unease, while a sweet old doctor (he looks like Dickie Bird's grandfather) examines Cheesy with the air of someone slightly bewildered by modern times. "And you've actually fought before?" he asks her as he listens to her heart. "Five times," she tells him, matter-of-factly. "Good for you!" he says, agog.

Cheesy's beefy opponent, to whom she is giving away a few pounds, is new to the fight game, though she has kick-boxed and done tae-kwando, and as she weighs in she looks unruffled at the prospect of fighting under Queensberry rules. "It's a really horrible feeling," Cheesy says of the minutes before a fight. "Your whole body tingles." She looks a little tense as she enters the ring, but nothing too debilitating. "I don't mind losing for myself so much," she says, "but I don't want to lose for my country."

The film falls back on those hoary cliches, monochrome and slo-mo, for the few seconds of the fight we're shown (it wasn't enough - were the makers afraid that a few seconds more might turn viewers?), but the girls are taking things seriously, punching rather than slapping. Cheesy takes at least one blow full in the face but is unperturbed. After taking three good shots, she takes a count of eight and is then stopped, incredulous, as she goes back to her corner. "Absolutely diabolical," says Haines.

Though she looks calm enough, there are bitter tears after, as Haines puts his arms around her. A few minutes later, though, she is in front of the press and media, in complete control. "It was a bit pathetic, really," she says of the referee's decision. "She caught me on the gloves... and he stopped it." And later, in private, she is even more forthright - and full of commonsense.

"I've fought better people," she says as she sits in front of her bedroom mirror putting on her mascara. "Slaps is better than her. The sooner we have women refs the better. They know what we can and can't take. Men just go, `Ooh, they can't do that, that's horrible, that is.' "

Still, this teenage charmer has taken defeat in her stride. "Got to wait for next season," she says. "Then kick some butt." You get the sense that whatever she does with her life, Cheesy will make a success of it. It's completely irrelevant, but I thought you might like to know that next Tuesday's Short Stories features "an unusual romantic relationship between a transexual prostitute and a teenage rent boy."

And finally... though this column deals with television rather than radio, something has to be said. On Radio 5 Live the past week, it has been impossible to avoid teasers for "The Greatest Heavyweight Of Them All", the second part of Harry Carpenter's series The Hardest Game. In the event, as an excellent programme reached a climax, just after the "Rumble in the Jungle", Harry suddenly sputtered, then there was silence, followed by a couple of minutes of trailers for other programmes. Cut to the news and an apology, but no replay of the missing minutes. A late knock-out after being ahead on points, I think.