Women’s Boxing Delivers A Knock Out Blow At Olympics
Debate, ridicule, even a little jeering – women’s boxing appeared for the first time (excluding a demonstration bout in the 1904 Games) at London’s 2012 Olympiad and many wondered if it would be a success or simply a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Even more questioned whether women should be boxing in the Olympic ring at all – after all boxing was a man’s sport… wasn’t it?
Well, it might have been once but not any longer it seems.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”] after all boxing was a man’s sport… wasn’t it?[/quote] Frank Maloney, one time manager of Lennox Lewis, described the first British women’s amateur boxing match as “a freak show”, Cuba refused to send female boxers to London 2012 with coach, Pedro Roque, saying that women should be “showing off their beautiful faces, not getting punched in the face”, and Nicola Adams tells the story of when she first walked into Fred Gummerson’s Barnsley gym, only to be told by her future trainer that he was “dead against” women’s boxing.
Even so, women’s boxing has become one of the huge Olympic success stories of 2012. But where did it come from, what’s it all about, is it here to stay and is it really okay for two young girls to stand in a ring trying to knock each others blocks off?
The public seems split between those who believe that it is all about equality and the others who think it far too aggressive a sport for women to take part in. But according to the figures from Sport England, the number of women that take part in boxing has been rising steadily over the past four years with 1,849 female amateur boxing club members in England and the number of registered female boxers in Great Britain rising from just 70 in 2005 to more than 1,000 in 2011. It seems that even before the London Olympics women’s boxing was on the up, with 19,600 women participating in boxing at least once a week and over 30,000 getting into the ring once every four weeks.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]The number of women that take part in boxing has been rising steadily[/quote] That’s an awful lot of female boxers, especially when you consider that it wasn’t so long ago that English female boxers couldn’t participate at all – women’s boxing wasn’t even made legal in England until 1996.
With Nicola Adams winning gold at London 2012, many see women’s boxing as the new up-and-coming British Olympic hope, rather like cycling was back in the late nineties. Richard Caborn, former sports minister and ABAE chairman, said after the Games: “Participation in boxing, by both males and females, has been on the rise for some time, but I believe that over the next 12 months we will witness the ‘Adams effect’ among young women who will be inspired to try the sport after watching the Olympic boxing on TV and seeing Nicola win a gold medal in such fantastic style.” And it seems that plans are being made to encourage more girls to take part in the sport. Mark Abberley, the ABAE chief executive said: “At the ABAE, which is responsible for grassroots boxing in England, we have developed a series of new products and initiatives to drive participation over the next four years and many of these are targeted at young women.”
Of course there are those that believe that boxing, whether women’s or men’s, shouldn’t be an Olympic sport at all. Martin Woodrow, national secretary of the British Medical Association (Scotland), wrote recently: “Boxing is a dangerous sport. Unlike most other sports, its basic intent is to produce bodily harm in the opponent. This objective is the same regardless of whether the boxer is male or female.”
“But rather than debating the role of women in boxing, the real question to be asked is whether boxing should be considered an Olympic sport at all. Since the early 1980s, the BMA has been calling for boxing to be banned in the UK. This opposition is based on medical evidence that reveals the risk not only of acute injury but also of chronic brain damage which is sustained cumulatively in those who survive a career in boxing.”
So with the dangers involved just what attracts women to the sport and how does it differ from Men’s boxing?
Some detractors feel that Women’s boxing was introduced to the Olympic program in a cautious, almost half-hearted way – with only12 women boxers in each of the three weight classes as opposed to the 10 male classes with up to 30 men in each class. The rules are different as well; women fight four rounds of two minutes duration, whilst the men fight three rounds of three minutes each. But it isn’t the number of classes or the rules that make women’s boxing so different – it’s the skills of the women themselves.
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]For many people boxing is about brute force and aggression[/quote] For many people boxing is about brute force and aggression, but boxing can be a lot more than a slug-it-out punch-up. Let’s not forget the beautiful, almost ballet-like styles of Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali. Boxing isn’t all brawling and battering and many women boxers seem to excel at what is sometimes called the “stick-and-move” technique – innumerable fast jabs, split-second footwork, spiralling movements, and just the occasional right-hander. The stars of women’s boxing at London 2012, Ireland’s principle gold medallist, Katie Taylor, and Britain’s Nicola Adams, are technically brilliant fighters in this stick-and-move tradition.
It was the skilful grace of the women in the ring that really knocked the crowd out; the physical agility and technical precision of the best female boxers taking them back to what is most impressive about boxing. Lightweight, Alexis Pritchard became the first female boxer to win an Olympic bout and said after her fight: “I’m sure a lot of you may not have seen a lot of women’s boxing in the past and from the skill level, you can see that we have the right to be here. I’m proud to be representing women and also the other boxers that couldn’t have this chance here. It’s very special.”
ABAE chairman, Richard Caborn, talking about the success of women’s boxing at London 2012 said: “The Olympics has provided a shop window for the sport and many people that have never previously seen women’s boxing or heard of the Team GB athletes have now seen for themselves what a fantastic sport it is and what brilliant role models we have in Nicola and the other members of the team, Natasha Jonas and Savannah Marshall, who is the world champion at middleweight.”
It seems like despite the debate, ridicule and even the jeering; Women’s Olympic boxing is much more than simply a flash-in-the-pan. Yorkshire born, boxing pioneer, Barbara Buttrick, a professional world champion in the 1950s, certainly thinks so: “When I was around, I would never have dreamed women boxers would ever get into the Olympics, but now they’ve got that credibility and that will bring a lot more girls into it because they’ll feel more comfortable going into a gym.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Women’s boxing seems to tick all the boxes[/quote] Women’s boxing seems to tick all the boxes – grace, excitement, massive crowds, role-models, medals. But what does the future of women’s boxing in the Olympics look like? Well, it’s got off to a roaring start, eclipsing the men’s boxing and providing a series of stunning, almost unbelievably crowd-pleasing events and it would be surprising if there were not more weights, more fights and more women boxers in Rio in 2016.
Yes, there’s no counting it out – it seems like women’s boxing at the Olympics is here to stay.
But does women’s boxing offer anything more than a vehicle for progressive gender politics? For many people boxing is defined by sheer power and force. While it is a skilful and precise sport, the argument goes, physical virulence and might are what defines it. Yet the physical agility and technical precision of the best female boxers take us back to what is most impressive about boxing.