A growing number of women are going to boxing classes. Chris Bond visits one award-winning academy in Bradford to find out why.
WALKING into the boxing gym at Bradford College is a pleasant surprise. This clean, bright air-conditioned room is a far cry from the dingy club that I once frequented many moons ago.
Back then, I was hit by the pungent smell of damp air laced with sweat and the prospect of slugging it out with men who had muscles in places I didn’t even have places. Needless to say my foray into the so-called “noble art” was short-lived.
But times have changed and while are there still some people who would like to see boxing banned, there has been a concerted effort among those involved in the sport to soften its image and broaden its appeal. This includes encouraging more women to get involved, an aim that has been boosted by the decision to allow women to box at the Olympics this year, for the first time. Britain has three contenders hoping to compete this summer and write themselves into the history books and one of them, Nicola Adams, trained at the Bradford Police and College Academy Boxing Club.
The academy runs a women’s boxing programme, a joint venture between the college and the Police Community Clubs of Great Britain, offering women of all abilities the chance to come along and train. It was set up in 2008 by Bradford boxing development officer Paul Porter, who, along with coaches Mally MacIver and Kevin Smith, has helped the club blossom.
The women’s boxing programme has proved a huge success - it was the first project of its kind to be granted the “Inspire mark”, which recognises innovative and exceptional projects inspired by the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and earlier this month was among the winners of the 2012 Podium Gold Awards, earning the Outstanding Sporting Project award for its role in helping to increase female participation in the sport.
“There are now more than 1,000 registered and competing female boxers in England and many more women training in boxing gyms throughout Britain,” says Paul. The boxing sessions are open to those either studying or working at the college and university and around 400 women take part each year.
Paul and his team also run junior classes, based around fitness exercises, with local primary schools through an outreach programme and the plan is to make the boxing club open to women and girls across the local community this autumn. “I think all sports should be open to all young people,” says Paul. “I’m old enough to remember the days when women weren’t allowed to compete in marathons but now that idea seems ridiculous. Boxing is one of the last sports to be opened up to women even though it’s something they have been demanding for a long time.”
Some people view boxing as a barbaric sport that legitimises violence, but Paul disagrees and says it’s important to draw a distinction between amateur and professional boxing. “Most people’s perception of boxing is based on what they see on TV on Saturday nights with these guys knocking seven bells out of each other out. But amateur boxing is nothing like that, what people will see at the Olympics is a point-scoring discipline based around speed and technique.”
He points out that many of the women who come to the coaching sessions do so as a way of getting fitter, rather than to take up the sport competitively. Sajda Naz, from Shipley, has been coming here for the past couple of years. “It’s really good fun and you’re getting fitter at the same time without realising it, plus it keeps the fat off which is a bonus if you’re a girl,” she says.
“Sitting down at a machine in the gym can be boring but here the coaches make the classes interesting and they help push you to work harder. I also suffer from a bad back but my back ache just disappears when I’m boxing because I’m using all those muscles.”
Boxing is regarded as a macho sport, so doesn’t that deter women? “It is seen as a male sport which can put girls off because they think ‘I don’t want to get in the ring and get pummelled.’ But it’s not like that at all here, no one makes you do anything you don’t want to and if girls come along and try it they find they really enjoy it.”
Karen Massey is a research scientist at Bradford University who has just started coming to the boxing classes. “I wanted to try something that doesn’t involve going to the gym. I think a lot of people are looking for something a bit different, everyone went crazy for zumba classes and boxing is a really good work out for those people who want to try something different but don’t want to do dancing.” There’s also the element of self-defence. “There is a more serious side to it because it’s good to know that you can throw a punch at someone bigger than you if you ever need to.”
Learning to box can also have a bigger impact on people’s lives than we perhaps realise. Saira Tabasum lives in Bradford and has just finished the second year of her biomedical sciences degree at the university. She took up the sport two years ago and what started out as a hobby has changed her life. She recently become the British universities boxing champion and has been chosen as one of Yorkshire’s Olympic torch bearers next month, when she will be carrying the flame through Brighouse. Not only that, but she was also shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards.
“I’d never boxed before but I heard about the club when I started studying and it sounded interesting so I thought I would give it a go,” she says. Her early promise was spotted by the coaches and with their guidance and support she began competing in amateur competitions. She won her semi-final in February and the following month won the final to become the universities champion.
Bright and articulate she contradicts the assumption that boxers must be dullards and have a flat nose. “I think people have this image of female boxers. When I tell people what I do they say, ‘but you don’t look like a boxer.’ But I think this image is slowly changing and getting recognition with the Olympics is going to be a big help in publicizing the sport.”
Saira trains three times a week in Bradford and also helps out with coaching in her spare time and has become a role model in the community. “Women from ethnic backgrounds don’t necessarily see many females in sport especially in unconventional roles, but if they see someone like me being successful they might think, ‘if she can do it why can’t I?’ and they’ll be more likely to give it a go.”
But what about people who say boxing is dangerous? “I would say football or rugby are more dangerous. I’ve not had any injuries from boxing, but I probably would have if I was doing another sport. Plus, you also get a lot of protection at an amateur level.”
Boxing has helped transform her life. “It has given me more opportunities than I would have ever dreamed of, it’s made me a more confident person and it’s brought out skills that I never thought I had. I didn’t know I had leadership qualities, but boxing can help bring out your personality which isn’t something you would think it could do.
“I do coaching sessions and I give talks in schools which I would have been scared of doing in the past. It’s been amazing because if it hadn’t been for my boxing I would never have had the chance to be an Olympic torch bearer.”
Paul Porter says the success of people like Saira is helping to attract a wider cross-section of women from ethnic backgrounds into boxing. “In some cultural groups women tend to drop out of sport at a younger age, which isn’t good for their health and if we can offer a sport that attracts them back, in an environment where they feel comfortable, then that has to be good,” he says.
“We want to encourage more women into coaching, not just taking part and competing, and the more female role models we have in the sport the better.”