Seeking balance

Before Christmas, I had another fight, a draw. It strikes me that I’m not really building any suspense writing that, but sometimes you know the result beforehand and nevertheless you want to see how it’s done. I started training for this one straight after the other one, hoping that it would cure the feeling of emptiness I had. Perhaps it’s not surprising that it didn’t. It is hard to get enough of something that doesn’t work, as any alcoholic will tell you.

I had been in fight mode since I reported my ex to the authorities, back in Rio, in 2016. He turned up outside my house and waited there after the split. As he was a malignant narcissist and, perhaps more significantly, an armed cop, I was living in a lot of fear. My response to it was to tackle the fear, getting a restraining order and preparing to face him in court. That case never came as I left the country before the wheels of the justice system had got around to moving full circle. I remember the adrenaline that simultaneously kept me awake and left me exhausted. It was on my mind during the first fight, a symbolic victory which I had to have, to show the world who could win in a challenge between aggressors. “Your enemies are already dead,” a friend had said to me while I was in Rio, quoting an ancient text. I still had to murder every ghost, over and over again, until I was satisfied of that.

December 2018 and I was tired. Not just physically tired of training all the time, but tired in my soul. I don’t believe forgiveness is necessary in order to move on and I don’t forgive. I do however want to think about other things, and I have for some time. Humans are resilient and we want to build, to create, connect, and to live. Getting into the ring, I was overtaken by another impulse. Flight. I wanted it to be over so I could spend time in deep relaxation, the period of adrenaline consigned to the past.

Anger vs soothing

Weeks before, I had done a workshop at 12 Rounds Boxing called Punch It Out. Billed as a stress management workshop for women, it combined boxing with restorative yoga. We started upstairs in the light, airy space above the main gym there, warming up with some basic boxing techniques, then talking about stress and how it made us feel. During my tense times, I was ready to stay and defend myself, but I realised there were other things going on too. I couldn’t concentrate, I was always irritable, and I know when I’m stressed I tend to start arguments with people on public transport and stop replying to messages (arseholes that play videos with no headphones though! I am saving my most vicious upper cuts for you).

12 Rounds Boxing had already impressed me as a different kind of space. While briefing living in the area during my peripatetic existence since leaving Brazil, I had trained there. Along with the usual props, such as a ring, various instruments of torture like kettle bells and inspirational pictures of past boxing heroes, there were tampons in the ladies toilets. Owner Kat regularly holds workshops which connect boxing to general well-being. It was what I needed.

We discussed how our reptilian brains need to feel safe, while the mammal in us wants to connect with others. This conflict right here describes in a nutshell the last few years of my life. Boxing was used as a metaphor for handling stress, and how we can use our guard or defensive techniques to walk out of the punchline. Boxing as a metaphor can work for almost anything, which is why it has seeped into our language – being on the ropes, throwing the towel in, letting your guard down, etc, etc, etc. This did chime with my sense, as I continued to learn defensive techniques (and how they can set up counter punches), that it isn’t necessary to take every punch. I was realising this approach could save me energy and injury, as well as help me to gain points, and it was a strategy I could do with taking into life as well.

It was time to look at ways of reducing stress, rather than throwing myself into the line of fire time and time again. The workshop looked at strategies for addressing this, including mundane but helpful stuff such as switching off devices at night. I wondered if the experience I had in my fight meant that I had fallen out of love with boxing, but all it meant was that it was time to get some balance back. Kat also made the important point that when you are anxious, sitting still and quiet won’t help. You need to burn off that feeling. This is something I had learned from periodic insomnia, which worsened drastically after my return from Rio. People want to listen to plinky plonky whale sounds, but if I wasn’t feeling relaxed the best music I could hear was probably something like AC/DC, to burn off some of that tension. Boxing will continue to be essential for me, but now I do take time to relax too.

Coming back to balance, it seems to me that what boxing gives women is a bit of what we are lacking. Aggression, arrogance and anger are still discouraged in women, but as they are normal human impulses they stew inside us without an outlet. This workshop could only have been run for and by women, as I don’t see the same kind of reflections on being “good enough” coming from traditional boxing geezers. However, it is also traditional boxing geezers who bring so much to my life, giving me the things that are missing, like a focus on the external instead of the internal, and therefore providing some of that balance. It is not a zero sum game (unlike the fights themselves). I want it all.

Are men better boxers than women? Here’s why it doesn’t matter

Here’s a video of Katie Taylor, whose speed, aggression and intelligence are not in question. She’s one of a few who have risen above the herd and gets recognised as a sports star and a talent regardless of gender. Still, women’s boxing has a long way to go before it’s as popular as the men’s sport.

One reason often given for this is that women rarely get knockouts, which is something that the fans want to see. I have actually seen a woman knock out another woman in white collar boxing, but that was only once compared to many occasions with the men. The reason for that seems to be that they have less power. There is also the question of skill, though as Amy Andrew raised in my chat with her, this is really a chicken-and-egg problem. The more opportunity you have to fight good opponents, the better you get, and the more often fights are televised the more money goes back into the sport. That means more people ultimately get into it, and the competition makes people up their game.

I think some of the prejudice comes down to the belief that men are stronger than women and more naturally designed to fight than women are. That’s probably true if you were talking about a pound-for-pound match. However, it’s not true that women are somehow naturally less suited to fighting.

Why it doesn’t matter

Ever heard of the Bechdel test? It’s a test applied to movies and literature to see how effectively women are represented there. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Does your life pass the Bechdel test? Do you meet with friends only to discuss the men in your life – husbands, crushes, bosses? Or are women the main reference in it?

When I talk to fighters about the intensity of the moment with your opponent, the way that time seems to stand still and it is just you two alone in the world – that is passing the fucking Bechdel test.

When women fight, our references are not men. They are each other. There really is no better way to focus on someone than having them coming towards you trying to punch you. How often can we say that’s true in life?

For that reason, it’s essential that we get more women in the sport not only to box, but as coaches, gym owners, etc. Otherwise the danger is that your reference for approval and attachment is still going to be a man.

I hope that boxing takes after UFC and that the women fighters attract viewers and fans in their own right, and not as an inferior, novelty version of what men have been doing for years. We’ll take time to get there but this feels like a pivotal moment. I hope I’m right.

When boxing dreams become real: Amy Andrew

I first met Amy Andrew, 32, as a coach. I knew she had started her boxing journey in a one-off charity fight just like me, but this had created a passion which eventually led to her quitting her job and becoming a full-time amateur boxer. Amy, who is at Haringey Boxing Club, is a ball of energy in the ring, super fast and aggressive and exhilarating to watch. Her story had something of the fairy tale about it for me. As much as I love all our male coaches, there is something special about seeing a girl you know reach those heights. It connects you and on some indefinable, metaphysical level, you are there doing it with them. It made me understand why men especially like to say “we” about their teams. The tougher the sport, the more we as spectators need to see people like us doing them, to vicariously live out those heroics. Amy has had 31 bouts since that first white collar fight a few years ago, and now she is off to the World Championships in India, after which she will officially receive a ranking. It’s an important moment as she is now poised to enter the hall of fame at a time when women’s boxing is growing so fast. I interviewed her.

Why is women’s boxing such a great community?

It’s a movement. Boxing is part of it, I think because it’s fashionable and popular, and sport and exercise are fashionable and popular. The way women see themselves has changed, with this “fit not thin” thing… it’s part of this shift where being strong is really important.

I’ve not done kickboxing or other combat sports so I can’t really comment on them, but I know that in boxing, I’ve found a sisterhood that I haven’t found anywhere else. I’m friends with a selection of people, from all different walks of life, all different ages, from 10 to 50 years old and upwards, and even people that I compete with, people that I am going to the World’s against, at my weight. I’m friends with the person I had my first ever white collar fight with. You have a connection because you understand how much it takes, and why you love it so much. It’s like a shared passion. A lot of the time, women don’t want other women to succeed, because they worry it takes away from them succeeding. But some of the women who come down to my boxing class, it just blows me away how supportive they are of other girls. And I do think that boxing brings that out.

It’s crazy that it is in such a male-dominated sport that women have managed to find this. It must attract like-minded people. And it’s not even just the girls. I didn’t have that many male friends before, I automatically gravitate towards other women. I like other women’s company because I feel more comfortable. But now I’ve got guys who are friends, again because I think it attracts a certain type of person. You obviously have something in common straight away, I just think in general the boxing community is good.

When you signed up for that first white collar fight, what made you do it? Had you ever done any boxing before?

I had no interest in boxing then. I always did a lot of sport when I was growing up. I did sports science and English at Loughborough University, then I went off to do a journalism masters. In the journalism world it’s very boozy, and you work long hours, so just keeping up sport was hard. So I signed up to a couple of marathons but I didn’t train for them. So then I thought I would do a fight. I randomly saw it and thought it would be fun. I thought I don’t know the sport, so I’ll have to train. As soon as I started doing it, I fell in total love with it. I do love running but I probably wouldn’t do it without an end goal. The fight gives me that focus, but I love the training anyway, I love sparring, so there is enjoyment in the process, it’s not just about the end goal. I was hooked straight away.

What was your first fight like?

It was brilliant, really fun, the whole thing. The other thing about boxing is having this whole community thing, it’s such an ego trip. You go out there and everyone shouts your name, and you’re having crowds cheering for you every time you do something, and in the lead-up to it it’s all about you. You have to concentrate on it I guess, in a way that you don’t in other parts of life as a woman because it’s not the done thing to be that self-obsessed. When I found boxing, it was the first thing which was actually just 100% about me, and I could legitimately say this is important, I have to focus, or rest, I can’t go to that thing, because I’m doing this, and I like that. Leading up to the fight it was terrifying, scary and really fun, and it was at York Hall, so it was a really cool venue. Lots of my friends came and I can remember every moment of it.

What was your style like?

It was a bit shit. I think I ran away a lot, though in my head I was amazing. I gave her a bloody nose and I was incredibly proud of that. I just remember both of us, because we became friends as we trained together, just being up in those bright lights, and those moments of stillness where you look into each other’s eyes and think ‘my God, I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ It’s mind-blowing. I basically boxed rubbish, really loved the whole experience, couldn’t wait to do it again.

Did you decide straight away you wanted to do it more seriously?

After that, I didn’t box for maybe three months. It was the summer and I went on the piss with my friends. Then the girl I boxed against said ‘come down to my gym, I’ve found a new gym.’ It was called The Ring. Eventually I went down and did some classes, and signed up to another fight.

At what point did you decide it was going to be a career?
It’s been really gradual, and I think that’s why it’s so random now to be where I’m at, as it’s always been something which I just loved doing and been a hobby. One minute I was just doing it for fun and then getting pissed afterwards or whatever, and then the next minute I’m going to the World Championships. After I did the white collar, I was working as a journalist but I was looking for a new career anyway. I briefly worked for This Girl Can at Sport England, which I loved but it wasn’t quite for me working in PR. I was like, I’m always at the gym, I may as well just do that. That was kind of a big moment I guess, being like, I want to work in boxing. Maybe a year after that, it was more, wow, I am actually starting to do well, and I’m finding myself up against decent people, and maybe I should take this a bit more seriously. And that was another moment where I thought, you know what, you either do this, or you do it as a hobby, but you can’t be in between.

Do you think boxing is a bit of an all-or-nothing sport?

You have to train properly. There are a couple of fights last year where I realised you have to take this seriously or you don’t do it, because once you start fighting against really top people, but you’ve been prioritising other things in your life, while you might say that’s normal, you realise if you are going to box these people you have to train like an actual athlete, not just do it for fun. There was a fight I lost in Milan, and I thought ‘that’s it’. I quit one of the gyms I was working at, I was working at three, I work at two now.

How old are you now?

32 – old for amateur boxing, but what’s age? It’s something people talk a lot about, but I’ve only been doing amateur boxing for two years. Maybe it just means if you are a bit older, you can put the rush on it. And anyway, my fitness is up there, I don’t think there’s anyone fitter than me.

When you decided to make this your career, did you face any opposition from family and friends?

No, my family is very supportive. I took up amateur boxing, it coincided with a break-up, and people were probably like ‘there’s a lot of change going on’, because I changed my career at the same time. But also people were quite supportive, because I was 30 at the time, and a lot of people would like to change their career, but they don’t do it. And it is very tough- it wasn’t that I didn’t like journalism, I had just come to the end of my road in it. My parents are just amazing, they are always really supportive. It’s hard when you change careers, because you don’t have any money. You are used to being in a certain place in your profession, and then suddenly you are having to work from the bottom again.

Did you feel like the support was there for women’s boxing in general?

Everyone that I’ve met has been really supportive. Obviously, there have been a couple of comments every now and again, but I’ve never really taken that seriously, because they are just sexist jokes, probably. There are a few people who will say they don’t think women’s boxing is any good, I wouldn’t want to watch my daughter box. And I think that’s fair enough, I wouldn’t want to watch my brother box. When you care about people, or people have a particular attitude towards women, that’s fine, that’s up to them. But it’s never been a barrier to getting into the sport thanks to the work of people like Terri Kelly. I almost think there are more opportunities for women right now.

What about in terms of the funding and structure?

It’s getting there. It’s definitely a long way behind. There are some great volunteers like Terri Kelly, she works in London Boxing, and she does so much to give women opportunities. Grassroots boxing doesn’t have a lot of money, but it’s not expensive to do so kids from any walk of life can get involved.

What about coaching? Do you think there’s a special importance in having female coaches, and do they bring something different to the table?

Of course. Women’s psychology is different to men’s. Women box in a different way, they respond in a different way. The old-school mentality of boxing is very much ‘I’m the coach, you do what I say.’ Women don’t respond well to that, they just don’t. If you look at Durrant’s for example, how many of those girls aren’t putting 100% in? They work so hard. They’re already really hard on themselves, in a way that men – and this is a massive generalisation – but in a way that men usually aren’t. So men will often come to boxing with some sort of experience of fighting or maybe they’ll have seen fights more often, or they watch them on youtube. They’re a little bit more confident as men tend to be, so I do think that when approaching women you don’t need to be harsh with them because they are already very dedicated, and want to learn, and can see that they have areas for improvement. And I’m not saying that some men aren’t like that, it’s just in general. When I’ve had coaches who have been really hard on me, I haven’t taken it very well. Also with boxing, as a female coach, you know the female body, and you want a coach who can go into the weigh-in with the girl and all this sort of stuff. That said, I’ve got male coaches and it’s not that I don’t learn a lot from men as well. These are massive generalisations and I think it is good to have a mixture of both.

What about anger and aggression? I hear a lot of female boxers around me say they don’t like punching someone, but they like the technical side of boxing, as though it isn’t acceptable in a woman. Do anger and aggression feature as part of your game?

Well, I’m a very aggressive person it turns out [laughs].

Did that surprise you when you got into boxing?

You know what? Not really. I guess one of the reasons that I like boxing is it’s a massive outlet for emotions. I’m quite an emotional person, so having an outlet means that I’m quite a calm person now. I hit hard, so obviously I am aggressive. When I’m sparring, I do really think about technique, but I get satisfaction when I land a shot. I didn’t when I started off, I found that probably the hardest part. I’d feel guilty if I hurt somebody, but honestly I don’t really care anymore. I wouldn’t do that with someone who was of a lower standard, but at the end of the day, if you’re doing boxing, you’re ok with that, and it’s part and parcel of what you’ve chosen to do. I would never want to hurt someone for the sake of it. That’s me, other people are different, and that makes them really good boxers I’m sure.

Which fighters do you admire?

Katie Taylor is incredible, she’s just vicious. I really like Shawn Porter, he’s really fit, just jumps in, really aggressive. I like watching him because I feel like I can learn something for my particular style. I like Clarissa Shields.

What are your strengths as a boxer?

I think it’s that aggressive thing. As you were saying, it is something people are slightly uncomfortable with, with girls being aggressive. I’m very fit, so I put people on the backfoot. That’s it really.

How do you deal with losing?

I cry. It’s devastating! Normally I know why, you know why you lost. It’s not just about being in the ring, it’s about all the lead-up to it. I don’t have that anymore, because I always give it 100%, but from that [experience] I learnt that maybe I hadn’t done enough fitness at the time. I lost a fight and was really depressed for three days, then you snap out of it and you move on, and you learn what you have to take from it next time.

What about the nerves before a fight? I’m partly asking for personal reasons, as I find that really hard to deal with.

I find that really hard as well. I started seeing a sports psychologist. I didn’t know how to handle not only the nerves, but all the emotion around it. I do think it’s the case with a lot of girls, that I’m not worried about being hurt. It doesn’t even cross my mind, it’s more like what if I get up there, and I make a dick out of myself. What if I’m out of my depth? It’s not even about the winning or losing. I desperately want to win, so that’s without a question. But everyone’s different.

It sometimes seems like some people don’t give a shit…

Of course they do, I think it’s just an outwards-inwards thing, I can’t imagine that people don’t struggle with some sort of performance anxiety at some point. That’s part of it, and that’s why I think it’s so exhilarating, because you’re facing up to something about yourself before you get into the ring. Facing your fear, and getting in anyway. That part of fighting is why a lot of people don’t do it. When we do the white collar bouts or in general fights you’ll have a few people drop out two weeks before. People shouldn’t fight if they don’t want to fight so I’m not belittling them, but it takes a lot of courage to get up and fight, and I’ll always have an injury. I’ll have a cold, or I’ll have hurt my wrist, or something. That’s part of training, but also mentally you think, ‘oh, this is wrong,’ because you get nervous. Sometimes there are genuine injuries, and not taking away from that, but for those people who overcome that and get in, go past that, get your mates down, still get in, whether you win or lose, that’s amazing.

Is that what you love about it?

No, I love sparring. It’s so much fun. Fighting – I love winning, and I’m very competitive, I want to push myself as a boxer and go against different people, but I love going to a gym – any gym, I’ a massive gym slut, like I’ll go to Manchester or Newcastle or Italy or wherever it is – meet new people, jump in the ring, and spar. No pressure, just spar.

I suppose it can be like a kind of play.

Definitely. And then again as a woman, you’re not really meant to punch people in the face.
That’s fun, it’s like an animalistic, aggressive thing, but also you have to be clever.

What is your training like when you are preparing for a fight?
I train maybe two or three times a day, and part of that is pads, part of that is sparring, part of that is sprints, part of that is long runs. I’m not very good at doing strength and conditioning. I find it boring and I tend to get injured, but I know that’s just an excuse. It literally doesn’t interest me at all [laughs]. I love running, because I like being outside. I’m starting a running club for running for boxing, because some of those things like hill sprints are hard to do on your own.

What’s next for you?
My family is from New Zealand – my mum’s Kiwi, my grandparents and cousins and everyone lives there. I went there to box in some competitions, while I was seeing my family, and I am now going to represent them in the World Championships, which is really cool. This is where you get ranked. I don’t really know. We’ll just see how that goes.

Amy has a fundraising page for the World Championships here. On this occasion, the target was reached, but check back for future challenges.

The disappointment of my second fight – and no, I didn’t lose it

These clinches were tougher than I expected

Before I go into this, I want to mention that I often made the error as a journalist when I found the intricate details of something fascinating of assuming the reader wouldn’t feel the same. I usually skimmed over that part. While training for my second fight, I discovered that one of my faults is my tendency to rush or panic when trying to get things done. How you do one thing is generally how you do everything. I really had to learn to stop and think this time around. With that in mind, I am going to go into the details which were important to me about this fight and have faith that someone else might recognise something pertinent in them too. As a reader, I often like these details.

After the first bout, I felt so strongly that I had laid a ghost to rest. Rightly or wrongly, my success in that fight had come to symbolise a victory over my abusive ex, and proof to the world I wasn’t some kind of victim. It delivered. I won, I felt strong, people said I was an aggressive and intimidating fighter. Right from the beginning of training for the second one, I was nervous about who my next opponent would be. No one had any expectations of me for the first fight, and my opponent and I were two beginners. Not so this time around. Any time I trained with anyone who had fought before, I became filled with anxiety that we would be matched for the fight and that I would struggle to get another victory. I think it must be this way at all levels in boxing or any other combat sport: you are torn between the fear of losing and the natural desire to challenge yourself.

I probably trained a lot more, having a baseline of fitness and skill which was higher than it was when I first started training to fight. This Girl Can Box ran a four-hour workshop, in which I learned the joy of the screw jab, for example, and during sparring sessions I would get feedback for the first time on what I was doing wrong and what I could do to fix it. Private classes were especially useful, and I often felt I had been given the key to what had seemed like an unsolvable puzzle. During the first fight, I hadn’t been able to escape when my opponent stood in front of me, hitting me with the left and then the right. Straight punches which I stood there and took. Now, I could duck and roll, move to the side, move my head or move in towards her. The possibilities were multiplying, and it felt freeing and exhilarating.

As fight night drew closer, I was increasingly anxious. The way it works in white collar matches is that you don’t find out until very close to the fight who you’ll fight (a week before, in this case). Completely different to professional fights where the entire prep is based around who you will be fighting. The fighters are not professionals and it is imperative that they do not get badly hurt due to a mismatch, or have a bad experience. It is impossible to control entirely since getting in the ring is tough and some will hate it, but promoters and coaches try to be as fair as possible and tend to spend a lot of time over the decision.

I was especially scared of two of the women in my group. Our main coach noted that there was an “edge” to this group, partly because one of these women did not modify her power at all during sparring, so that total beginners got flattened, and became angry or upset. This collided with other tensions and created a moody atmosphere. In the end, the two I had feared fought each other. I was matched with a woman I had sparred with once before, who was slightly heavier and stronger but shorter, and had an aggressive style, moving very close and throwing a volley of punches, so that it became overwhelming.

My defence had been offence before, and now I was faced with someone I couldn’t just stand opposite and fight. I had to get out of the way.

The big night arrives

On the night, we were operating about an hour late as usual, during which time I had swallowed so much Red Bull and was brimming with nerves. I was going to the toilet so often, I was going back in as soon as I had gone out. Because the first fight had been like being in a tunnel and I had had no awareness of the crowd, I took it for granted that I would feel the same this time, but it wasn’t like that at all. The wait to go on was the wrong side of unbearable. I came on after my opponent, and as I stood in my corner, I felt the fragility of being up there. I could see people, the light on their faces in the dark, I could see my Dad, and my body felt so light I wondered if I would be able to move it or if it would collapse when the time came.

When the bell rang, my corner shouted at me a lot that I had to move around and move out of the way. It didn’t feel natural to me. I tend to face conflict head on, not seeing any other way to do it. I thought I would be able to beat my opponent if we got into a clinch as I am taller, but she was so strong we cancelled each other out every time we got that close. The only thing for it was to wriggle free, throw a combo of punches and move again, in the hope that she would get tired before I did.

As the rounds progressed, I started feeling more confident about doing this, with the result that I landed more than I took. I was able to free myself from her clutches and move back to the centre of the ring, controlling the fight from a defensive position. I can’t even recall now if I knew all along what the result would be, but at the end of the third round, I was declared the winner.

The end of ego

Fighting from a position of control meant that I never tapped into my rage. I used force and aggression to some extent, though far less than before. In some ways, the more you learn in boxing the more ego has to be set aside and you have to submit to the importance of technique, tedious repetition, meticulous observation of your opponent. A surrender to something bigger. The win was a relief, but it didn’t lead to any high. I was left with the feeling that I wanted some kind of recognition I could never achieve. Mine was just another fight on a night of amateur fights of varying quality, over in a flash and praised by some but not necessarily even the most entertaining.

The next day this calm gave way to a feeling of emptiness. I only knew how to solve it by signing up for another one, which I am beginning the process of training for now. I understood why heroin addicts say they are always chasing that first high. Along with chasing the feeling I had in my first fight was the awareness of it all as a spectacle, and even though I had won I felt chewed up and spat out. Was this because there is still – and always will be – such a huge gap between the elite sportswomen and my fights? It can’t only be that, as I recently read both swimmer Tom Daley and former judo fighter turned MMA champ Ronda Rousey said they felt bleak after winning Olympic medals. I think it is part of the paradox that you can only hope to win by giving the training and the fight your all, but when you do that, there is no way the payoff can be big enough. My ghosts long dead and laid to rest, I was out there in the world again, still exposed to its indifference to my existence. The only thing you can do then is carry on fighting.

My first fight – Part Two

I won that fight in the end. I was running on empty in the last round, but something in me kept going, and I think I held it together for long enough to be seen as the dominant boxer by unanimous decision. I had fantasised so many times about that moment when the compere would announce me as the winner, but it still felt better than I could have imagined. I attempted to climb the ropes, fell off one of them and ended up doing something which looked a lot like dry humping the ropes. I didn’t care.

After the storm: Sharing a hug with my opponent

The photo is of my opponent and I hugging afterwards (complete with surprised looks from both of our corners after such a brutal fight). The strange thing is that right after pummelling each other’s brains out, the first thing you feel for your opponent, if they are any good, is respect and affection. It is so rare to have an opportunity to show what you are made of in life. I have found it even rarer that another woman has given me this chance. Magical things happen when women let each other be angry, competitive, and even aggressive. I feel gratitude and loyalty towards anyone who allows me to show this side of myself, a side which goes on repressed in so many women, seeping out in bitchiness or passive aggression. Give me a straight up fight with fair rules any day over those silent wars. Competition is an element of life, and we should be allowed to test our mettle openly. If not, it will lurk there in the shadows anyway, looking to pounce.

My opponent had a fighting heart and had been through the same thing as I had, and that made us close. Last weekend, by coincidence we were both in the gym together for a class of boxing drills. My training schedule for Thursday’s fight has been manic, and I was exhausted. I have a tendency to put my head down and crumple when tired. “Look at me,” she said. Big eyes again, this time looking just as attentive but not because she was trying to kill me. “Don’t look down.”

What I wouldn’t give for a world where women could say that to each other every time things got tough.

My first fight: part one

Fighting for survival: My first boxing match with the tough Augusta Carman

In five days, I am going to fight again, so I am going through all the emotions I did four months ago when I had my first one. It is difficult to describe how all-consuming it is preparing for a fight. I felt myself becoming tense and irritable as the days approached. Early on in my training, I had met up with a jiu-jitsu champion, who told me to think from the beginning that I had already won the fight. That type of arrogance is anathema in real life, but I started to see the sense in it. I put away the doubts and committed to wanting to win. It seems to me that what is really anathema here, especially in the UK, is sincerity. Admitting that you really want to win, even at the white collar level of fighting as a hobby, could expose you to ridicule. People want to make a joke of it and pretend they don’t care just to save face if they lose. I couldn’t entertain the idea of losing.

I am going to write more about why I fight. Everyone has a reason and it’s always interesting. I met an Olympic boxer who said he never felt anger, but I do. When I fight, I feel a pilot light of rage ignite, and I stoke it secretly, almost afraid to unleash the full flame. When it is burning in full I feel a great freedom, the kind I never feel in real life. That’s something I don’t always want to admit but another writer told me to write this blog as if I was dead if I wanted it to be good, so I am doing exactly that. Specifically, I had the recent memory of an abusive ex who told me my fighting wasn’t serious. It was so serious for me on that day. I had to defeat this particular ghost. My opponent was nothing to do with it.

The night before my fight, my flatmate told me his dad was going to stay one more night with us. I decided unexpectedly that I needed to be alone. I checked into a BNB which was listed online as being very quiet. It is true what they say that what doesn’t kill you leaves you with weird ticks and coping mechanisms, it doesn’t leave you untouched. Whether or not it makes you stronger is an idea I will return to. My trigger is noise, and as I was already feeling tense, the sounds of jabbering voices, the whining sound of Ed Sheeran on someone’s radio and pootling motorbikes at all hours were unlikely to increase my calm. I needed a soundproofed room.

In the morning, I had slept a good 6-7 hours, but I had been tense all night. I considered it a win that the clock said 7am. The hotel was in Hammersmith, and I had breakfast – a full English, which unfortunately included tinned mushrooms – with the sounds of Eastern European voices around me. The rest of the day passed in a bit of a haze. I know I listened to Azelia Banks’ 212, her voice shrieking “I’m a ruin you, cunt”, before I thought I should conserve that fire for later.

At the venue, my opponent increased my ire by turning up in my dressing room. We were friends, and initially I was questioning if I would be able to fight someone I liked, but this tipped it over the edge. The guy who was supposed to wrap our hands was nowhere to be found, and she was panicking. I left the room to use the toilet in the rival dressing room, no doubt further freaking out the people in that room who were no keener on invaders than I was.

Waiting is terrible. As with all awful things in life, you tend to forget them later and gloss over the horror, but I can still remember how bad that was. The only good bit is you have an excuse to eat flapjacks and drink Red Bull. God knows I had no reason to drink Red Bull before I started boxing, but now I do it all the time.

Someone came to warm us up, and I realised my body was stiff with tension. I wasn’t moving my hips the way I should, and I couldn’t follow instructions easily. Bam! I hit the straight right, I hit the jab. I concentrated on the movement and applied more force. The trainer said I had impressive power, or I might have imagined that part.

Somehow it was time already. I was at the side of the stage, trying to move to prevent the stiffness taking over. “Move your head!” my corner was saying to me. The intensity of that moment is something I can never forget. I find it hard to trust people, hard to get close to them, and yet at that moment I would have done anything I was told. The usual distance between people is gone. So rarely can you open a door and step behind the social niceties to something so raw.

We walked on. I had DMX, X Gon Give it to Ya, a tune which starts with the sound of barking dogs. I knew my family and friends were there but I couldn’t see them. I just walked, like a robot, my corner throwing up an X with his arms which encouraged me. I was first in the ring and walked around it as I waited for my opponent.

I barely remember the moment when we started exchanging punches. I saw her face, her huge eyes, the look of concentration. Again, there was no room for guile, for any kind of mask. You look into each other’s soul is what I want to say. I am afraid to be that sincere because I am afraid of ridicule yet again, but that is how it feels. I remember being told to throw punches if nothing is happening, to throw them even if you don’t have the energy, and I remember that I wanted to make everyone pay that had ever underestimated me – in this, and in anything else ever. I was quickly dominating the fight. My skill and technique were lacking, but I just kept throwing and dominated it that way. At one point, I saw that she was on the ropes, but I couldn’t remember how we got there. I couldn’t hear the crowd at all, only white noise.

The bell rang for the first round, and I was exhausted. As my only defence was attack, I didn’t have anything left in the tank. My corner gave me water and told me again to move my head, something which I knew but it just didn’t make sense to me.

I went out again, and chased her around the ring, despite my diminishing energy. She never gave up and landed punches back. I was slowing down, but I carried on throwing them. Her eyes, concentrated and intent, stared back at me. At some point, I heard the noise around us. We sat down again. This time, my corner said to me, “just keep doing what you are doing.” Did I dare to hope I had won this? There was just one problem: my crude approach had exhausted me, as I had no skills to allow me to dodge the punches or buy a few seconds of time when I needed them. The only way I had of shutting her down was by attacking, but I was tiring fast. I was 41 and she was 26. I felt like I didn’t have another round in me.

Back out there, I remember very little of the third round. Through the exhaustion, I still extended my arms, but there was a moment I knew I was just standing there, guard down, while she hit me in the face. I heard her corner for the first time. “She’s finished!” he yelled. Was I, or could I come back and finish the job? It meant so much to me to win, but I couldn’t even get my breath.

Women who pack a punch: Rachel Bower

Former National Champion Rachel Bower

Former National Champion Rachel Bower

Since I started boxing, I became aware there was this whole universe out there which I had never known about. A history of a sport which is waiting to be told, heroes (heroines, perhaps I should say) and villains, and hordes of people beavering away to make women’s boxing happen at a grass roots level. What I’m doing is white collar boxing, or boxing as a hobby for people with other jobs. My opponent for my first fight once asked our coach what was the level below white collar, and he said, “I don’t know, a pillow fight?” As much as this made a mockery of our blood, sweat and tears, there are most certainly plenty of levels above it. Rachel Bower was someone who interested me, because apart from her career as a boxer (now retired) which included representing England and being a national champion, she is a coach who sits on the National Governing Body’s (England Boxing) Coach Education Subcommittee where she is involved in designing new coaching courses, and is active in promoting women’s boxing at the grass roots level. She has really seen it from all sides, and I was intrigued by this behind-the-scenes role in particular, and how this might be important for women.

Expect many more interviews like this one (done over email in the interests of journalistic disclosure) in the coming months.

How did you first get interested in boxing?

I joined the police around 12 years ago and in the Met there is a huge annual boxing tournament called the Lafone Cup. I heard about it and decided I wanted to enter. One of the officers at my station offered to train me and do my corner. I soon realised it wasn’t the boxing he was interested in, and he wasn’t even a coach! So I contacted the head coach for the police and travelled up to the old police training school twice a week to train.

What did you like about it when you first started?

I picked it up quite quickly and to be honest I just liked being good at something! It’s so technical, I loved how much learning was involved in something that looks so easy.

What can it teach you about life, which is of particular value to girls and women (or generally)?

I could talk for hours about this. Boxing can offer so much. In relation to women and girls it’s brilliant for self confidence. For young girls I love that it teaches them that you can do anything and don’t have to conform to a stereotype. In general it can really help people find a purpose, a constant quest of improvement and develop so many important life skills such as discipline, patience and persistence. I’ve been involved with coaching disengaged young people and have witnessed first hand how it can develop personal responsibility, timekeeping, respect and communication skills in people who have struggled with these areas in their day-to-day lives.

What were the challenges you faced as a woman in your career, in the training, competing and funding aspects of the sport?

I have been very fortunate in my boxing career. The police team had the strongest female squad in the country at the time I made the team. The coach was very proud of this and we were given his time, resources and lots of opportunity. I realise how lucky I was as this is not the case in 99% of gyms. In my last couple of years competing I moved to the famous Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club. Again I had a coach who focused on his female boxers but we had no facilities, having to change in an old toilet cubicle. Due to my day job and shift work I’ve always travelled around to different gyms to train. As a woman I’d often be treated differently at first, however, I was confident in my ability and once the coaches saw me train they would slowly warm up to the fact I was a ‘boxer’ not a ‘woman’ once in the gym.
Funding wise, as a boxer I didn’t face a problem as the club would fund travel to competitions etc. When I made the England team we also had our expenses covered to attend training camps. However, as a volunteer coach for England I don’t receive any financial support which is starting to affect the amount I volunteer. The camps I coach at are all around the country and i spend hundreds of pounds on train tickets.

Why is it so important to have more female coaches?

We don’t need female coaches just to coach women. We need them because they offer different ways of coaching and different skills than some men offer. However, there are some things that female boxers may feel more comfortable talking to a woman about and appreciate that they have been through the same thing. I feel that the more female coaches there are [the more it] will inspire other women to venture into coaching and [it] also normalises the role of women in a traditionally male sport.

Has the situation improved in the past decade or so?

It’s improved so much since I began boxing.
England Boxing, the national governing body for amateur boxing, are doing a lot to encourage more women into high performance coaching. I’ve just been appointed a mentor to help me progress to coaching at international tournaments. I do feel like some of the opportunities I’ve had, like coaching for Sport Relief, have presented themselves because I am female rather than despite of it. However, there are still few female coaches at grass roots level and this is something I feel passionate about. I share my experiences via a blog for the Female Coaching Network and social media in the hope that others turn to coaching too.

Is there a particular interest in women’s boxing happening at the moment? It feels like there is, but it would be good to get an expert view!

I think interest in women’s boxing peaked with 2012 the ‘Nicola Adams Effect’ and inclusion in the Olympics however the legacy still lives on. The professional women’s scene has really picked up and England Boxing have really invested in developing elite level boxers. There is also a thriving female white collar scene. However there is still some way to go to encourage women and girls to start and for clubs to invest in them and retain them once they get them through their doors.

Do some people still believe women shouldn’t be allowed to box?

There will always be people (both male and female) who will think that, like I’m sure some still think we shouldn’t be allowed to vote!

What was it like to coach your boyfriend?

It’s challenging but rewarding at the same time. It’s always great to see people close to you doing well, especially when you’ve played a part in it. However, the dynamics in our relationship change once we are in the gym and sometimes switching between girlfriend/boyfriend and coach/boxer can be hard.

Which female boxers, past and present, do you admire? Any key fights to watch on youtube (either up-and-coming fighters or classics are welcome)?

I’m sure everyone says this but Katie Taylor is just something else. I don’t really follow professional boxing (something which surprises a lot of people), but I always try and catch her bouts. In the amateur world Ebonie Jones is one to watch. I used to spar with her when she was a junior and by then she’d already won numerous titles. She’s now part of the Army Boxing Team and on the GB programme.

Sweaty gloves, Muhammed Ali and toxic femininity

Since I started boxing, I’ve suggested it to quite a few women I know. New people who sign up have usually had it recommended to them by friends who have already done a white collar event. White collar fights are usually aimed at professional people who have never boxed before. Some told me they were put off, not by the fear of being punched in the face, but because they had tried boxfit or similar classes before, and didn’t like putting their hands into sweaty gloves and pads which had been used by other people. One said to me she thought the hygiene was too poor in the fight gyms she had been to.

Muhammed Ali once said that it isn’t the mountain ahead to climb that wears you down, it’s the stone in your shoe. I think he was trying to say that it’s the trivial bullshit that can prevent you from achieving what you want to in life. Nothing is more trivial than being too concerned to put your hand into someone else’s sweat to ever feel that feeling of some greater force flowing through you as you punch the pads, to get strong and fast and fearless.

I do have sympathy for people with OCD, which is a mental health issue. However, I have listened to too many conversations in groups of women where they each try to outdo each other over the issue of cleanliness. Like competitive dieting, or judging others for their sexual behaviour, it is a form of a fixation on purity. If I’m the cleanest, that makes you dirty in comparison, just like if I’m skinnier than you, that makes you fat in comparison. Much is made of so-called toxic masculinity these days, but these are examples to me of toxic femininity. At its worst, it not only prevents the individual themselves from really living life and enjoying it, but attempts to inhibit the lives of others. Do not not do things because of other people’s sweat. It’s a bit rank, but you’ll soon forget about it when you’re learning how to slip and roll and deliver a killer upper cut (I still can’t do any of these things well, but I am trying).

This is a picture of my gloves. They don’t smell too good after a training session. I never knew it before I started boxing, but hands can sweat just like feet, and the odour is similar. They are also fucking awesome and I just don’t care.

When sparring makes you cry

Tuesday night I was walking down Camden Road in tears. They just fell down my face and I cried openly, with no real motive. No motive that is, unless you count the blood spewing from my nose and mingling with those tears, the dull ache in my head and the pain in my forehead every time I went to raise my eyebrows.

Once, in a job I had a long time ago, a colleague was telling me he thought another colleague was unstable. Erratic behaviour, extreme demands and shouting at others were all invoked as evidence, and then we came to the piece de resistance: she had been known to cry at work. To him, that was proof she was a loon. I wanted to tell him that on numerous occasions, I had been inconsolable in the toilets. Sometimes that was due to conflict with other members of staff, sometimes it was personal life stuff, sometimes it was just a release of tension and stress. But I couldn’t admit that without tacitly admitting I too was unstable.

The belief has stayed with me. The first time I sparred in my white collar boxing group, people apologised every time they made contact. Some punch too hard (you are only supposed to use 60% of power in sparring, which is practicing your fight skills without getting injured), drunk on the cocktail of fear, outrage and adrenaline. Some people get upset when they get hit in the head, and some cry. It takes some getting used to.

I have surpassed that stage, but it can still be a shock. I recently sparred on a Sunday morning with a formidable partner. Still sleepy from the melatonin I had taken – and I don’t want to face up to the fact that fighting might aggravate my insomnia rather than ease it, because I CANNOT give it up (I’ll save why that is for another blog) – I took a lot of punches from her, and they hurt. Right about that minute, I knew I was going to cry. It was like a dam bursting, and I couldn’t contain the water anymore. The shock and pain merged with all the residual self-doubt in me and I felt like I was hurting because I deserved it. Yes, there was self-pity in there too.

Then I looked up, and saw a quote from Mike Tyson on the gym wall. “Never show weakness,” it said. I went to the toilets, again, to blow my bloody nose and sob a bit. I came back smiling. When I came back, another woman who had been sparring was openly in tears. Why did I feel like I had to hide it?

When I was in Brazil, the first foreign correspondents I met were generally men. They talked about the choice to move to Brazil as a relatively untapped market which was to be the venue for two mega sporting events, the World Cup and the Olympics, and as an exciting and beautiful place to be. They never mentioned it might be difficult to be away from home in a dangerous country. If anyone thought that, they kept it to themselves.

Then I met a young female correspondent who was arriving soon before I was leaving. She wanted advice, so we agreed to have a drink one evening. I thought it would be about the practical stuff, like how to pitch a story, how to keep safe, etc. And the first questions were about that. Then, “How did you manage your emotions?” she asked. It took me by surprise. Nobody ever asked me that, but of course it mattered. Tyson was right that you can’t show weakness in a fight, or your opponent will take advantage of it, but that’s not the whole story.

I don’t know how far I’ll get yet, but I’m interested in these questions: do men and women deal with these emotions differently (in boxing and in life)? What can we learn from each other? What is true strength and courage all about? I don’t know the answers yet, or if I ever will, but for now I know that I can deal with it if I cry sometimes after sparring.

Fighting and writing

This blog is now dedicated to boxing. I’ve been home from Brazil for two years now and fighting is the most interesting thing I’m doing with my time. It would be misleading to even say I am an amateur boxer, as that implies someone who still trains full-time. Most of the time, I am sat at a desk like a sack of potatoes, and at 41 boxing will never be my main occupation.

Nevertheless, after taking part in my first fight on May 24 2018, I am addicted. There is something about boxing which attracts writers, even though it might be said to be the opposite of a cerebral activity. Maybe because of that in fact. You are never so much in the moment as when you are being punched in the face, and fighting for your life as it feels at the time.

A little part of me feels guilty that focusing on any sport and its inner ramifications for the player is neglecting what’s going on in the world, like a kind of navel-gazing. Maybe there will be time to reflect on those things too. Maybe my age makes me think this is the last time I will be able to throw myself into the purely physical, and I have to rage against the dying of the light with a pair of gloves and a bloody nose.

Another reason I wanted to do this is because some of my favourite fighters have not been known for their ability to articulate themselves, at least not in words. Obviously Ali is an exception. That might be why the sport attracts the likes of Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to do it for them. So much goes unsaid, and I want to try and say it.

Yet another is a thought which has been ruminating since I read A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan some time ago. It’s a good introduction to combat sports around the world, and also explores the compulsion to fight. While I find myself nodding along to a lot of it, there was very little in there about women fighters and quite a big focus on masculinity and the desire to join a pack and prove yourself. It struck me that for women doing this, it is not so much about belonging as transgressing. Women are supposed to nurture and heal, not compete, show aggression, and fight. Yet the sport appears to be becoming more and more popular among women. I want to explore that here, talk about some of the emotions it throws up and what it means to women to fight each other physically.

Let battle commence.