Esquire Middle East
FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT
As Turkey’s first professional female boxer, GÜLSÜM TATAR, steps into the ring for a ‘career defining’ bout, she knows that what she is fighting for is worth so much more. Esquire Middle East reports.
Turkey’s first professional female boxer is in for the fight of her life
IN THE SMALL, SLEEPY
BELGIAN TOWN of Roeselare, Gülsüm Tatar is about to step into the ring for the fight of her life. The Turkish boxer bounces on her feet, her jaw set and face composed. With her coal black hair shorn at the back and sides and braided on top, she looks like a Mohawk warrior set for battle. Her name is announced, and she walks out into the lights, noise, and bombast of the arena to Major Lazer’s ‘Light it Up’, and climbs into the red corner of the ring.
Gülsüm’s fighting name is ‘Sampiyon’—champion. Now 34 years old, she may be Turkey’s greatest ever boxer. After a long and illustrious amateur career, she became Turkey’s first professional female boxer two years ago. Tonight, a victory over the 31-year-old Belgian fighter Oshin Derieuw — ranked sixth in the world super-lightweight rankings — will catapult Gülsüm into the top ten and bring her a step closer to a major title fight. It is also another stage in her long struggle for recognition and respect for Turkish women’s boxing.
Oshin Derieuw comes next, soaking up the cheers from her 2,000 strong hometown support, and steps into the blue corner. It’s set to be a tough fight, both fighters are unbeaten in professional boxing: Oshin with a record of 10-0-0, Gülsüm with 3-0-0. They meet in the centre of the ring, lock eyes, touch gloves. Retreat to their corners. And the bell goes.
“MUCH OF TURKISH SOCIETY MIGHT
BALK AT THE IDEA OF WOMEN BOXING, WORRYING THAT IT IS IMPROPER OR TOO DANGEROUS. BUT GÜLSÜM HAS ALWAYS FOUND ACCEPTANCE IN THE BOXING GYM.”
A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE
FIGHT, Gülsüm was involved in a blistering sparring session that surged back and forth over the sweat-stained floor of a small, ripe-smelling gym in Kadıköy, Istanbul. There was a row of punch bags lining one wall, a pile of truck tyres on the floor, and a small ring crammed into a dark corner, so close to the walls that fighters have to watch they don’t bang their heads when against the ropes. Gülsüm’s trainer urged her male sparring partner to hit her with more shots and more venom. When the session ended, she sat on the floor, shiny with sweat, her chest heaving. She was feeling relaxed and confident, as usual.
Gülsüm was born in 1985 in Kars, in the cold, rugged far east of Turkey. Her family moved to Istanbul when she was a few years old. The harsh climate and high altitude in Kars produces many natural fighters, and boxing is in Gülsüm’s blood. Her uncle Kibar Tatar boxed in the 1988 Olympics. She grew up scrapping and wrestling with her four older brothers. Even so, boxing didn’t occur to her as something she would do. Gülsüm’s parents believed women should marry young and stay at home to raise children. They didn’t want Gülsüm doing any sports, let alone boxing.
But when she was 15 or 16, her brother Serkan—himself a promising boxer—began taking her with him to train at Fenerbahçe Boxing Club to keep her out of trouble, and to use up some of her excess energy. She didn’t tell her parents. “The open-mindedness of my brother led me here to my life,” she told me.
In general, Turkey is a patriarchal, conservative country, with a dire record on gender rights and equality. Much of Turkish society might balk at the idea of women boxing, worrying that it is improper or too dangerous. But Gülsüm has always found acceptance in the boxing gym.
When she first started training, there were no other girls there and the men treated her like any other fighter. She embarked on boxing’s brutal learning curve. When she took a sharp blow during sparring, she often couldn’t find the strength to fire back, and afterwards she would go and cry alone from the pain. Losing weight was hellish. But the frustration only made her more determined, and when her brother or a trainer praised her, she grew in self-confidence and craved to get better and better. She became stronger, her stamina rose, and she became a match for her sparring partners. She was soon lost to boxing. “When I could throw a punch properly, I felt like an immaculate, perfect person,” she said.
THE FIGHTERS TWITCH AND
FEINT, coiled with latent violence, warily observing each other. Gülsüm dances in her southpaw stance, slippery and confident, with an open guard, dominating the centre of the ring.
Oshin Derieuw, slightly crouched in an orthodox stance, jabs and tests, her right hand cocked and poised for the slightest opening. The crowd falls quiet, and the canvas creaks with their shifting feet. They both fire controlled explosions of blurring shots, but few land cleanly. Gülsüm looks more comfortable, sending a spearing left hand into Oshin’s stomach just as the bell ends the first round.
GÜLSÜM HAD NEVER FOUGHT
A FEMALE FIGHTER until the 2003 Turkish national championships. She remembers dominating that fight, but the victory was awarded to her opponent. Her uncle jumped into the ring and started cursing and screaming that Gülsüm was being punished for his political dispute with the federation. Gülsüm was in tears, she didn’t understand what was going on. As a result of her uncle’s outburst, she was banned from the ring for several months.
But she quickly resumed a gruelling training program, practically sleeping at the gym, racking up punishing rounds of sparring, developing into a supremely fast, technical, and elusive fighter.
When her parents found out she had been boxing they were angry, but they couldn’t stop her.
Her next fight was at the 2004 Turkish national championships. Her uncle stayed away, and she smashed through every opponent to be crowned champion. She was still only in high school. Later that year she won the European Championship gold medal.
Female boxing was prohibited by most countries for much of the sport’s history, it has only really emerged officially in the past two decades. Turkey was one of the few countries that sent female fighters to the 1999 European Cup, and Hülya Sahin won a gold medal. “Turkey was one of the pioneers for women’s boxing,” says the Turkish boxing writer Cihat Gemici.