It’s an exciting time for women’s boxing in the UK; female boxing has been allowed into the Olympics for the first time in the history of ‘the greatest show on earth’. But it’s especially electric in Yorkshire: only just last week Leeds lass Nicola Adams qualified for the Olympics at the World Championships in China, along with Britons Savannah Marshall and Natasha Jonas. Nicola, 29, is now Britain’s best hope for a Gold in boxing. In 2005 there were 70 registered women boxers across the UK and there are now over 1000 professional women on the books. So what’s happening outside the ring to make it all happen?
Paul Porter is described as ‘the man’ when it comes to boxing in Yorkshire. He is the Bradford Boxing Development Officer at the Bradford Police and College Boxing Academy, which will play host as a pre-Games training venue for the Korean, India and Chinese Olympic boxing teams this Summer. Paul has the prestigious role of Field of Play Master at the Olympics this year, in all weights categories.
Paul says that the women’s amateur boxing started about 10 years ago, but the reason its’ moment is now, “is simply because it’s good enough. It takes a long time for a sport to reach a high enough standard in terms of coaching and facilities for it to be considered at a World Championship level. If you look at marathons, women have only been running them professionally fairly recently.”
However, there has been a lot of resistance from the medical profession about women in boxing. The British Medical Association said of the decision to allow women to box at 2012, that boxing should “play no part in a modern Olympic Games”, citing the risk of “acute brain haemorrhage and serious damage to their eyes, ears and nose”. But it’s not about brutality with the women, many people argue, “it’s about points, not power”, says Paul. “In fact, very few Olympic bouts have ever been stopped through injury”.
Paul puts his confidence in the coaches, and the clubs, in terms of who and where are responsible for giving upcoming sports the chance to thrive, especially when there’s a pervading prejudice that threatens progress. “There’s no good having a coach who’s got outdated values about who should be allowed in the boxing ring.”
“What you need is modern forward thinking clubs and coaches with positive attitudes”. One such insightful coach is Mickey, who runs the highly successful Mickey’s Boxing Academy in Selby, the only one of its kind there. He began the club in Selby five years ago after having run a very successful pilot scheme in Sherburn where “there were lots of kids hanging around the village with nothing better to do”. Mickey himself started boxing when he joined the Parachute Regiment after leaving school. “Boxing is very big in the Armed Forces”, he says, “ so we train up young teens who want to join.”
The gym was opened and affiliated to the ABAE and is a pillar of the community: “we’ve made a massive impact in Selby, working with adult and youth offenders referred to us, along with kids with SEN referred to us by schools and social services as well as the rest of the community, we get people from all walks of life & backgrounds.”
“With the girls it’s about points, not power”
Community projects and sports clubs are often weighted with a social conscience, to imbue troubled youths with a purpose, but Mickey is adamant that this is no myth that a boxing club can get kids off the streets to keep them on the right track: “we’ve been doing it over 4 years and many kids have reaped the awards and benefits such as better health and weight loss”. But this achievement hasn’t come without serious commitment from all parties. Mickey’s commitment to his club isn’t gender specific though, and getting girls involved seems as important as helping naughty boys channel their aggression.
Apart from physical differences, Mickey says “the girls box no different to the boys”. But with a wink at the strife of a taming a testosterone-pumped environment, “I will say though that girls are easier to teach and tend to take more in than the lads, and some of the female bouts you see at shows are better than the lads”.
I ask whether things need to change in boxing coaching and clubs across the UK in order to inspire girls to get involved after the Olympics, and Mickey exclaims the same worry as Paul Porter, that “unfortunately there are still some old school coaches and boxers that don’t think females should box. That, in my opinion is the main thing that needs to change and it should be encouraged but changing attitudes is a very difficult task.” Of course, it’s not just a matter of getting girls to sign up, it’s also a matter of getting them to stay, “some gyms can have too much testosterone and arrogance so when girls do start they don’t want to stay”. But Mickey’s seems to be keeping them, now with five competitive females at the club, who he says are “treated no different to the lads”.
I’m sure this is true, but I wonder otherwise. Georgia started at Mickey’s two years ago aged nine, but agrees, and says “there’s no rivalry between me and the boys and I’m treated the same as everyone else”, which at 11, is pretty impressive. Mickey admits that, “the boys have a huge amount of respect for her simply because of her skill.” Georgia says she “always wanted to try it and once I started I found it addictive. Even though I waited almost two years to be old enough to compete it was worth the wait.
“The gym is like an extended family, she says, and I’ve always been 100 per cent focused since day one. I enjoy every part of it from the gym training, sparring at other clubs, Mickey’s summer camp and competing.” Hopes of competing at the Olympics though are a dream in the distance for this 11 year old, “there’ll be no Championships for me for a couple of years or so yet, my goals are closer for now.”
Aimee who is 23 years old, also boxes and coaches at Mickey’s gym. She initially got involved because she took her young son Tyler to the club, and then she and her partner decided to have a go too. She now trains three sessions a week: two 2 hour sessions and one 2 and a half hour session as well as coaching two 1 hour kids sessions per week. She says that if she weren’t boxing she’d “be at the gym anyway with Tyler”.
Given that amateur female boxing is only just starting its story as a major sport, it seems important that the rising stars such as Nicola Adams become icons through events like the Games, for young girls at local clubs. However, Aimee says that “I don’t really aspire to anyone; I’m my own person and have my own personal goals. But I always encourage girls to get into boxing when I can.” Georgia’s passion for the sport isn’t really about icons either: “it’s a release for me and something I can do where I just get in the zone and forget about everything else”.
Saira Tabasum is a coach the Bradford Academy and a Universities boxing champion, who is currently studying Biomedical Sciences at the University of Bradford. She says that “boys are more likely to have role models like Muhammad Ali who they just want to emulate in the ring, whereas girls will get in the ring with a much less idealised fantasy and have a much more thorough methodological approach to learning the sport”.
“Many boys often have ideas of the game from playing things like Pro Power video games” says Paul Porter, “but because they come with this craving for power, it actually holds them back from picking up skills like good footwork.”
In fact, Saira continues, “the professional side probably pushes girls away, because of the image associated with it,” and that appears to filter down into the clubs, “but I definitely think there’s the infrastructure there for girls to get into boxing and become successful, but the publicity from the Olympics will make it even more encouraging.”
Martial arts like Tai Kwondo seem more dangerous and yet those sports have had women competing in them for many years already at World Championship standard, so “yeah”, Saira muses, “I don’t know why it took so long for women’s boxing to get into the Olympics.”
Aside from the professional side of the sport though, surely it’s just a useful thing to be able to defend yourself? “I’ve never really thought about boxing as self-defence. It’s not brutal at all, and I’ve never been in any trouble so I’ve never needed to take it out onto the streets with me.” We both laugh, imagining her getting the wrong change in a chip shop, and ‘dealing with it’. Not that she’d do that, and not that she’d be buying chips anyway.
“Having said that”, she says with a smile, “if I’m out, and boys find out that I box they respect it, and we have a laugh really, and they’ll say things like ‘go on, give us a punch’ and they’re always surprised at how hard I hit.” Again, the chip shop image; I get the impression there are a lot of boys out on the streets of Bradford living in fear of messing with any of the girls at the Academy.
Paul Porter thinks that female boxing in Yorkshire is thriving because more clubs have female coaches here. But when it comes to the boxing being better the rougher somewhere is, he says that only applies to the men. With women, “it makes no difference”.
The impact of the Games hasn’t contributed to much funding though for local clubs. The Bradford Academy is only getting income for the pre-training facilities they offer, “otherwise we generate our own business by travelling around the world forging good relationships”. Mickey, on the other hand, “runs two to three shows per year to keep it all going. We do get good sponsors on the shows from local businesses, but it’s hard to get funding for sports clubs. We’re totally self funded.”
What Paul hopes will come out of the Olympics though isn’t to do with the funding, it’s about the image. “Just awareness of women’s boxing is the main thing, as long as it’s presented in media coverage by the BBC well, that’s great.” “In the future I’d like to see Bradford as the centre for national boxing, and for Yorkshire to run more International events.”
But for now though, the significance of female boxing at the Olympics for the first time can’t be underestimated. Mickey says, “it’ll help change the attitudes of those who don’t think females should do it. All bouts are subject to strict weights within 2-3kg depending on age, why is two females boxing any different to two males around the same age and weight? There is none in my opinion.” It seems opinions can’t ‘alf pack a good punch too.
Lee Karen Stow’s photographic exhibition named Girls in the Ring, The Female Boxers of Yorkshire runs at Hand Made, Tyrrel Street, Bradford, from June 8 to July 28. The special opening event is on Friday, June 15. Both photos in this article, and the girls interviewed for this piece are from Lee’s exhibition.