You can box, girl, but I can't watch

Harry Mullan admires the skill and courage of women in the ring but still finds the spectacle unsettling
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The Independent Online
DEITRE Gogarty is a slim, quiet-spoken girl from Drogheda, Co Louth. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, she works as a graphic designer and moonlights as a professional fighter good enough to hold the Women's International Boxing Federation lightweight title. She is trained in Louisiana by Beau Williford, a friend of mine with one of those Deep South accents you could spread on bread.

It was more out of courtesy to Beau then any interest in women's boxing that I attended a couple of Gogarty's fights in Las Vegas. My first experience confirmed my prejudices: I found it repellent and unnatural to watch young and attractive women pounding each other and drawing blood to whoops and whistles of encouragement from the kind of beer-swilling loud-mouths who would have lowered the tone at a medieval bear-baiting gathering.

Yet when I next watched Gogarty in action, I had that strange and unsettling feeling you get when you realise that it is time to reappraise a prejudice. She was matched on the Frank Bruno v Mike Tyson undercard - the supporting acts of boxing matches - in 1996. Her opponent was a boxer called Christy Martin, a glamorous and superbly marketed prodigy of Don King, the American promoter. She already earns more than many of her male peers.

Gogarty was out of her class in terms of weight, experience and power. But her simple, stubborn refusal to accept defeat, and the courage with which she rallied her lost cause, stole the show from Tyson himself, and brought her a standing ovation.

It sounds corny coming from a leathery veteran of more then a quarter of a century of ringside reporting, but as I watched her climb down from the ring after she had lost on points I had a lump in my throat because I recognised in her the same battered nobility I had seen in the losers of so many epic men's fights. That was the moment when I had to acknowledge that what Gogarty was involved in was not just a freak show, nor a perversion practised for the unseemly pleasures of the dirty- mac brigade, but professional fighting at a high level of technical competence, with all the dangers, exhilarations and heartbreak that entails.

I don't like watching it, nor will I ever, but women such as Gogarty and Jane Couch, the Lancashire welterweight who is taking the British Board of Control to an industrial tribunal because of its refusal to license her, are entitled to respect and attention. Yet the Board's attitude is that they are unwilling to license women until the European Boxing Union and the World Boxing Council has satisfied itself that female boxing conforms with its safety guidelines. But that smacks of hiding behind the WBC's skirts.

The WBC has already declared Christy Martin its female lightweight champion and given her a world championship belt. Is the Board now saying that the WBC did so without first conducting an adequate investigation of the risks? Or perish the cynical thought, did it give her the belt just to please Don King, its chief source of revenue and Martin's promoter, in the hope that there would not be many other women wanting to follow her into the sport?

The WBC and the Board - which acknowledges that it has not commissioned any independent research in the field - cannot have it both ways. Either women's boxing is no more dangerous then men's, in which case Jane Couch and the others should be licensed, or they have not yet given the sport their safety clearance, in which case Martin should not have official recognition as their champion.

The amateur boxing authorities have, at least, acted decisively and given permission for women to box, although there is a world of difference between the level of fitness required to complete three two-minute rounds under the supervision of an amateur referee who will often stop a contest for nothing more serious then a dripping nose, and that needed to compete with the likes of Martin or Lucia Rijker, the other superstar of women's boxing.

Women such as these can really fight, which makes it all the harder to oppose their participation on any grounds other then aesthesic or instinctive. There are no logical or intellectual reasons why they should not box, and neither is there any way to express opposition to the idea without sounding like an unreconstructed Neanderthal chauvinist. I do not believe that definition can fairly be applied to me.

As editor of the sports trade paper Boxing News for almost 20 years, I employed women on the staff for the first time in the paper's history and gave space to female writers. I campaigned vigorously, and with some success, against allowing only men to attend boxing shows in clubs, and resigned from the Boxing Writers' Club in futile protest when it refused to admit women to any function. Having attended the birth of one of my sons, I have no doubts about which is the tougher sex.

Yet, however much I welcome women's involvement at every other level in the sport I cannot take the final step and applaud their appearance in the ring. It is strange that one can make a journey of discovery as I have done in coming to appreciate the professionalism of women boxers, and yet something inside me stops me from giving the practice my whole- hearted support. But you can accept that women should serve in the army without being prepared to put them on the front-line.

Yes, I know that there is no valid, legal, moral or health ground on which I can stand, only a deep-seated unease - an instinctive feeling - that it is somehow against nature for women to batter each other for the enjoyment of a largely male audience. Would it make any difference if more of the spectators were women? Perhaps. It is the edge of sexual voyeurism which heightens my discomfort.

Like anyone else who makes his living from boxing, I struggle to salve my conscience whenever one of the sport's accidents occur, but would find it much more difficult to defend if a woman was to be killed or seriously injured in the ring. This is not like marathon running, or football, or any of the other "unladylike" sporting activities from which they were once barred. The risks in the ring are greater. Injury is a probability rather then a possibility.

Women will box: They want to, and they are entitled to. Not even the Board of Control's rearguard action will be enough to keep them out of the ring - but while I have come to respect their right to box, don't ask me to enjoy the spectacle.