Frank Bruno: I didn’t want to go around mugging old ladies or robbing banks, so I took up boxing. It’s surely more honourable to fight for a living than be fighting in the streets.
- An historic decision was made recently to introduce women’s boxing for the first time as an Olympic sport in London in the 2012 Games. The landmark decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) comes more than 100 years after men’s boxing became an official Olympic sport at the 1904 Games in St. Louis.
Many boxing fans believe that female boxing only started in recent times, but there have been women fighters since the gladiators’ days in ancient Rome. Even in England going way back to the 18th century, women were trying to get in on the act by challenging each other to fight for side bets by advertising in newspapers. However the contests were usually cancelled when the authorities found out, and then informed the ladies in question that if the bouts went ahead they would receive a prison sentence, as such matches would violate both public decency and ethics. However, many ignored the threats, in fact records show that in 1722 at the Boarded House, near what is now Oxford Circus, Elizabeth Wilkinson, the Cockney Championess, defeated Martha Jones.
Although women’s boxing was banned in most countries, including the UK, for most of the 20th century a female fighter called Barbara Buttrick dubbed the Mighty Atom, fought on touring boxing booths during the 1940s and even went to America in 1949 and won a world title.
Not many people are aware that during the aforementioned St. Louis Olympic Games in 1904, a number of women boxed exhibitions, and as recently as 1975 in the United States even the Wall Street Journal recorded the fact that a lady called Caroline Svendsen had taken part in a boxing match and knocked out a Jean Lange at a venue called the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Reno, Nevada. The contest attracted wide media interest at the time because Svendsen was a grandmother. At the aptly named Liberal (Kansas) National Guard Armory in 1981, a boxing bout took place between two women, which ended with one of the strangest stoppages by a referee in boxing’s long history. Robin Haukaas lost on a technical knock-out to Angie Lopez. The fight was stopped by the slightly embarrassed referee after he was informed by Robin’s corner that she couldn’t carry on because her bra had broken!
Then the popularity of professional women’s boxing really took off in 2001 in the US when two females faced each other inside a ring in upstate New York and received lots of dough in the process. Laila Ali and Jacquie Frazier apparently received £112,000 each for the fight, and £185,000 each for the television rights. But it wasn’t for their boxing abilities that the fight was a sell-out and watched by thousands on pay-per-view at $25 a go. It was the fact that they were the daughters of two legends of boxing, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The arena would not have been packed with 8,000 people or had such big television viewing figures if it hadn’t been for the curiosity factor. There would have been no show without the historic rivalry between Ali and Frazier. I’m sure the biggest majority in the arena on the night, and those paying to view on TV, wouldn’t know the difference between a left hook and and fish hook. Laila Ali won the contest on points and certainly brought mainstream appeal to women’s boxing in the States over the years.
Until the last decade women’s opportunities in professional boxing were largely restricted to walking around the ring holding aloft a card showing the number of the next round, while showing off their figures. But things certainly changed in the prize ring after February 1998 in Britain when Jane Couch took legal action against the Boxing Board of Control in England for sexual discrimination and won her case. This led to her being the first woman to be granted a professional licence in the UK. After a career spanning over 14 years, the Lancashire lass who was nicknamed the Fleetwood Assassin, retired last December having had, what she called 39 hard fights, winning world title belts on five occasions. In 2007 she was awarded the MBE and is still involved in the boxing business being coordinator at Hatton Promotions run by her friend Ricky Hatton and his father/manager Ray.
Jane Couch has stated that she is thrilled with the IOC’s ruling to introduce women’s boxing into the London Olympic Games, her biggest regret she says is being born 15 years too early. However, boxing at the Olympics is an amateur sport and amateurs must be 35 or under, so Jane accepts that it’s a great opportunity for the next generation of women boxers coming through.
Women’s boxing has progressed worldwide in the last few years, in fact the number of registered female boxers in England has risen from 50 in 2005 to 642 today. In Ireland, over 200 girls are showing their talents in the ring, and there are half a million women registered to amateur associations across the globe.
Ireland for sure must have a real favourite for a gold medal, in the shape of Katie Taylor, reigning World, European and EU lightweight gold medallist. The 23 year-old boxes for Bray B.C. in Co. Wicklow and is trained by her father Peter, a former Irish novice middleweight champion, and coach with Ireland’s elite amateurs.
Katie is some sportswoman, for she has represented Ireland at football on more than 40 occasions, and the former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan no less, says she is phenomenal in a boxing ring, where at times she spars with men and is every bit as good, if not better. He states that he is astonished by Katie, as her skill, power, speed, technique and attitude are all top class and she is arguably the best pound-for-pound woman boxer in the world.
Women’s boxing may not be to my personal taste, but I’m probably being a dinosaur and I should move with the times. One thing is for sure, I would prefer to watch two equally matched amateur women boxers in a ring, who have to wear head and groin guards with the option of wearing breast pads for extra safety, along with a referee making sure that either one doesn’t take too much punishment, than the ugly sights – much too often nowadays – on television and in the newspapers, of young women punching and kicking hell out of each other in the early hours of the morning on the streets in the UK. It’s very unlikely that any of them are trained boxers, for one thing is for certain, the sport enhances self esteem and reinforces virtues like courage, chivalry and self control. I doubt very much that a youngster learning boxing would be the type to try to kick someone’s head in, carry a knife, or mug an old lady. It looks as if women’s amateur boxing at domestic and international level is here to stay.
By George Reed
This article appears in the print edition 603 of Island Connections