BIG ISSUE NORTH 15 FEB, 2010
It’s twelve years since Jane Couch, the infamous ‘Fleetwood Assassin’, sued the British Boxing Board of Control to win the right to box professionally.
The attention the story generated threw into relief some of the attitudes which surround the issue of women fighting. Is it barbaric? Unsafe? Unladylike? Unskillful? Though women have competed for a long time at martial arts such as kick boxing, boxing’s media profile could not help but suck in all the issues which swirl beneath the surface with respect to women and pugilism.
Couch was a trailblazer and a street fighter of fearsome reputation, who became a three times world champion through battering a succession of pretenders with intimidating ruthlessness. But in retrospect her landmark ruling and subsequent rise in the bloody world of pro boxing both changed the playing field while at the same time casting the issue as something of a sideshow in the popular imagination.
In August 2009 the International Olympic Committee confirmed that for the first time womens’ boxing would be included as an event at London 2012 – at three weights: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. The move reflects a growing interest in fighting sports among young women (not just in boxing) and suggests that the image of women fighting each other will edge further into mainstream focus. Recent surges in womens’ attendance at boxing, martial arts and MMA gyms will no doubt redouble themselves in the wake of the exposure womens’ boxing will enjoy in two and a half years’ time.
What’s more, in Natasha Jonas, Great Britain harbours a genuine medal hope on whom to fix attention.
The ever-smiling scouser, a youth worker, is at twenty five ranked fourth in the world amateur rankings and presents an intriguing photo opportunity for womens’ boxing. A strong southpaw with an intelligent, hit-and-move style, her victory over Alana Murphy at last June’s ABA Championship in Manchester secured her her third national title, to which she added an EU gold in Bulgaria a few weeks later.
The Toxteth youth worker professes to like nothing better than watching DVD’s of old Jack Dempsey slugouts when she isn’t outreaching on the streets of Liverpool or training at the Rotunda, Liverpool’s celebrated boxing stable. It’s just a few years ago that the club’s Sylvia Singleton became the country’s first licensed female boxing coach, and it was at Singleton’s invitation (she knew Jonas’s uncle, who runs a karate gym in the city) that Jonas began attending the weekly girls only training sessions.
I ask her if she thinks there’s an innate difference in the approach to boxing between the women and the men.
“It’s hard to explain but it is slightly different. It’s a bit more boisterous with the men.” She finds the womens’ approach, at amateur level at least, a bit more thoughtful and reliant on technique, the mens’ more instinctive. “It’s like, theirs flows a bit more but ours looks a bit better. I may be being biased, that’s just my experience. But I think we get judged a lot by the lower levels, the novice levels.”
As a fight fan she draws inspiration from both Floyd Mayweather (“so hard to hit”) and Manny Pacquiao (“when he fought Marquez the second time you could have just stood them on a tin of beans and both of them would have stayed there”) while on the womens’ circuit cites Katie Taylor, Ireland’s world champion at lightweight (“so unorthodox”) and England teammate, the Leeds-based Nicola Adams – a quickfooted showboater with the audacity of a Sugar Ray Leonard or a Prince Naseem (“she’d rather fight well and lose than fight badly and win.”)
Jonas is currently attending the Great Britain team’s assessment camps, which began in November at Sheffield’s state of the art EIS Centre, which she will have to come through in order to win her place in the nine girl squad for the games. Though strongly fancied, she faces competition from old rival Amanda Coulson of Hartlepool and Jane Miller from Scotland. Jonas is dropping down 3kg in order to make the weight category.
“It’s hard to put it in words, isn’t it?” she says, of the prospect that she could be at the heart of Britain’s first female Olympic boxing team. “It’s the biggest thing. Even just the run-up to it, to be a part of the set-up, to be there.”
While one side of the collective consciousness gets to grips with unisex Queensbury rules, the other – presumably the channel flipping, magazine flicking, tabloid rustling, youtube clicking side of the brain – can hardly have failed to absorb the rise in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) or ‘cage fighting’ as it’s more commonly and controversially known. Here too, out beyond the showpiece UFC circus (whose CEO Dana White has yet to endorse female fights) there has been a flood of women into the sport.
Like Jonas, Manchester-based cage fighter Anna Mayne started out as a child attending martial arts classes, inspired by the Karate Kid movies and the need for an outlet for her competetive drive. For Mayne, a physics Phd student based in Manchester it was a search for realism, as she worked her way through a succession of traditional disciplines: Korean Tae Kwon Do (“the way of the foot and the fist”) giving way to kick boxing (“more practical, less traditional” and Aikido (“throwing people – it’s more defensive and relies on an ‘ukki’ which is the collaboration of a partner).
Then she found grappling – which covers a variety of wrestling disciplines – and the world of fighting opened up. “Most real fights end up on the floor anyway,” she says. “I think if people are concerned about self defence then it’s the most important martial art that you can do. It’s not about having to bench press some massive guy off you, it’s moving your hips in the right way and making ‘levers’ instead of muscling out of things. It should be on the national curriculum.
Ultimately, she says, she realised she didn’t want to get better at a type of fighting – she just wanted to get better at fighting. MMA, combining both stand up (striking) and ground work (grappling) fit the bill.
“It’s a very technical sport to watch,” she tells me in Manchester’s Straight Blast gym, one of the many MMA clubs to have opened up in the north in recent years. The more you to it, the more you appreciate all the different things that are going on. If you watch an MMA fight form a background of nothing at all then it must be a bit weird, a bit scrappy, people rolling around on the floor. And then all of a sudden somebody’s won and you’re not sure why or how. But if you’ve done the sport for a little bit you’ll see that it’s really impressive.”
Training partner Ella Yee, who at 16 became world Thai boxing champion, agrees.
“MMA takes a lot longer to master than stand-up forms of martial arts because obviously you’ve got your ground game as much as your stand up game. There’s more things to watch out for, more you can do, more defences.”
Isn’t it exploitative though?
“I don’t think women are portrayed badly at all,” says Mayne. “There’s no one going around being extra slutty to try and get men to watch and things like that. There’s not that many women who come along who are like these brutes who are just there to destroy people.”
If anything, Mayne sees more problem with attitudes in gyms.
“There’s subtle sexism,” shrugs Mayne. “No one’s ever said, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t roll with the guys.’ But at the same time sometimes you go to a gym where you switch partners and you’re the last person to find one.”
Perhaps the greatest potential impediment to female fighting sports is male squamishness. Natasha Jonas recalls with some mirth the tribulations of trainer Mick McCallister in bringing on a young female boxer.
“In the ABA’s he was doing the corner and he pulled my shorts forward so I could breathe. And then he just froze. I was like, ‘No that’s all right, I can breathe now. ‘ He just does it cos that’s what he does with the lads.
“The worst one, though, was when I put my headguard on, once, when I was about to fight. And I said: ‘Oh my God I need to take my earrings out!’ And he said: ‘Oh girl…’ He was like: ‘I can’t do that!’ He was shaking, taking these earrings off me. I said: ‘Just pull it out!’ and he was like: ‘How do you do it?’ He’d never done it before.
“When the fight was over he said: ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’”