WHY WE FIGHT
AS THE NUMBER OF WOMEN BOXERS IN THE UK SKYROCKETS, MICKEY CARROLL FINDS OUT WHY LGBT WOMEN KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE
How boxing is changing women’s lives
Wrapping your knuckles takes time. Each wind of the bandage is saving you from a week of floppy hands and shooting pains though, so it’s worth it. Plus, with those wraps on, you feel like an utter badass.
When I first started boxing, being a badass was pretty high on my list of priorities. I was a bisexual, fairly femme woman and I was bored of caring that I didn’t seem “gay enough”. I wanted to be one of those women who didn’t give a shit. So, I started boxing at an LGBT club called Knockout London. I’ve been fighting for over a year now and I’m, ahem, hooked – pun entirely intended.
Boxing as a queer woman feels like an act of defiance. It spits in the face of gender stereotypes. It means I can defend myself. Since the Brexit vote, London has seen a 12% rise in reported LGBT hate crime and sadly, dly, we may need to be able to defend nd ourselves more than ever. But there’s re’s a growing community of women fighters who can do that. t.
According to Sport England,ngland, there were 1,849 womenn fighting in UK amateur clubs in 2011. 011. There are now over 48,000. That hat means there are 2,500% more of us fighting regularly. The increase is in no small part due to o Nicola Adams.
Adams is a twotime Olympic champion, a trailblazer of women’s boxing and an all-round dreamboat. She was the first woman to win an Olympic boxingg title in 2012, the year the number of boxers began to sky-rock sky-rocket. She’s also openly bisexua bisexual. I spoke to Nicola while sh she was promoting her auto autobiography, Believe, and it to took every fibre of my being to keep me from fan-gir fan-girling over the phone. “W“Women should be able t to defend themselves in any situation,” she says. I’m finding out why she cares about women’s boxing. But it is not only the physical aspect that is important. “Boxing has made me a lot more confident. I have an inne inner belief in myself that I can achieve anything
now. It is nice to know that I’m creating the path for other women to do that.”
Being LGBT hasn’t played a huge part in Nicola’s boxing life. People don’t seem to care. She was 15 when she came out to her mum and then her coaches after that. For them, it was a non-issue. “They were much more bothered about training and making sure I was performing well.” Being a woman fighter has caused some problems though. She even had to persuade her new manager, Frank Warren, that women could fight, and he’s in charge of her career. “He was very against women’s boxing but he says I changed his mind. I feel like if I can change Frank’s mind, I can change everybody’s mind.”
I believe her. Having strength in your convictions is the only way to get through boxing. When you’ve got aching arms, sweat pouring out of every crevice and a coach shouting at you to “Get in the ring!”, you have to believe you can. There are too many people who think women can’t fight for you to also be one of them.
Confounding gender-stereotypes was important to everyone I spoke to. Amber has been fighting since she was 12, when her mum cajoled her into trying a kick-boxing class. Of all the people I met, Amber was the most confident, and with good reason. She is a complete charmer and an incredible fighter. One of the women I spoke to was worried about being matched with Amber in a fight. She listed all the ways Amber knew to beat someone and then turned to me and said, “I do not want to fight her”. Despite that, though, she’s often not taken seriously when she tells people that she’s a boxer. “People don’t believe me when I tell them I fight.” She is small and has a beaming, friendly smile. You don’t automatically picture her in a boxing ring. “I like fighting men because they think they can get comfortable and beat me. I like watching them realise that they can’t. I will go into the ring with someone 10 times my weight, just for that moment.”
Amber’s confidence is key to her success; if you were to step into the ring with her, you’d know she expects to beat you. That can be the difference between winning and losing a fight. “When new women come to class, they tend to be nervous and not want to hit very hard. I like to watch them spar and then tell them what they were doing wrong. I’ll help them fix it and get their confidence up. Then the next time, they’re so much better.”
It isn’t surprising people feel nervous when they start. We’re told as we grow up that nice girls don’t fight. Thumping the guy making leery comments about you may seem tempting, but very few of us actually do it. So the first time you step into a ring is horrifying. People actually expect you to hit another human. It can take a few months before that stops being weird. My first time sparring, I performed what can only be described as “panicked doggy paddle”. You know the stereotypes of a girl fight – all flappy hands and squealing? I’m sad to say that was me. A year later and I’ve finally got the confidence, if not the skills. No more thumping heart and clammy neck for me; now I can focus on what my hands are doing and where my feet are. I’ve stopped apologising when my punches land and the thought of people watching me bounce around a ring no longer fills me with dread.
That confidence translates out of the boxing ring and makes you more resilient. Although violence is a risk, as LGBT people we’re much more likely to face verbal abuse. Emily Norgrove started fighting at 16, soon after coming out. “Coming to terms with who I was as a person allowed me to take on new challenges like boxing. I was discovering who I was. Once I started boxing, it was great – any comments I got just rolled off me. I was exercising and doing a sport that I enjoy; I felt so happy with myself. I felt powerful.”
By the time I’m done talking to Emily, I’ve realised why boxing is so addictive. It gives you power that you might not have had elsewhere. You are forefront and centre, taking ownership over your body. “I was shy when I started, I never wanted to be the centre of attention,” Emily says. “When I’d done group sports, I never wanted to be the striker, the one everyone watches. But when you’re boxing, you have all the attention on you and I liked it. It brings out your cocky side.”
When you come out of a boxing session, you feel invincible. It doesn’t matter if you’ve landed a punch or just tried bloody hard, the fact that you made it through the session is enough. The final person I spoke to said that is the reason she started boxing. “Paddy” Paddison is into intense sports. She’s an ex-rugby player and started fighting when she was 18, back in Spalding. “It’s really challenging, it’s a scary thing to do. That’s why I liked it. I thought, if I can go to a boxing session, then I can do anything.”
Once she left university and started fighting in London, Paddy found a community. “Because we’re all doing it together, three times a week, we’ve all become friends. While we’re waiting to spar, we’ll be sat chatting. There’s not really any competitiveness – which could be a problem when we actually come to fight.”
Paddy, and most of the people I spoke to, were competing in the Pride Boxing fight organised by Pride In London. 32 of them spent 10 weeks intensively training for a fight that kicked off the Pride weekend earlier this month. Everyone I spoke to had made friends. Everyone I spoke to was going to have to fight one of them.
The more I talked to these people, the more I realised that it was their mental achievements that made them impressive. The fact that Nicola could change someone’s mind about women’s boxing to the point that they represented her career. The fact that Amber steps into rings with men, knowing they think she can’t win. The fact that Emily dealt with coming out by taking on another challenge. The fact that Paddy started boxing to prove to herself she could do anything. These people aren’t impressive just because they can throw a good lefthook. They’re impressive because they’re fighting for themselves and everyone around them to be better.
Each week I wrap my knuckles, step into the boxing gym and get one hook closer to being like these utter badasses.
“I like fighting men because they think they can beat me. I like watching them realise that they can’t”
Left to right: Amber Charles, Emily and Paddy. Below: Nicola Adams