Selling your soul
By Sonia Randev
“Many women suffer from premenstrual tension which makes them more emotional and more labile and accident-prone. They are too fragile to box and they bruise easily.”
Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) Solicitor
The popularity of women’s boxing has soared over recent years.
The transition from amateur to professional has been rapid due to the high standards set by the likes of Katie Taylor, Nicola Adams, Claressa Shields and, the Serrano sisters.
It has gained new audiences and opened the doors for fresh revenue streams. This recent commercialisation of the sport was practically non-existent for many years. It wasn’t long ago that extraordinary boxers like Jane Couch, Cathy Brown and, Michelle Sutcliffe were, let’s be frank, fighting for their lives. Often times they were not getting paid enough – or even at all.
Women’s boxing was pushed from pillar to pillar and demoralized by, what was then seen to many as, a sport that had no room for women. Amongst those that ran the sport it was deemed completely unacceptable for any woman to step into a ring (unless perhaps hoisting a sign above their heads for audiences who evidently struggled to count rounds without the assistance of a woman in a bikini).
The prevalent view was, ‘this is a man’s sport and it shall remain a man’s sport’. Don’t believe me? The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) articulated their position though their solicitor, Bernard Buckley,
“many women suffer from premenstrual tension which makes them more emotional and more labile and accident-prone. They are too fragile to box and they bruise easily.”
The year? 1998.
I am a promoter. I disagree.
They hadn’t bargained on Jane Couch, an outstanding boxing talent who fought a campaign as brutal outside of the ring as anything she ever encountered in it. It was a clear cut, courageous battle of right versus wrong. Couch’s bravery to take on the egoistical heavyweights of the BBBC led to women’s boxing being legalized in the UK. But we should not forget the abuse and pain she endured during that time to fight for what was right. The scars inflicted during those trials she still carries today: a true warrior that showed good can overcome evil even when the odds were stacked against her. Which is part of the reason why it is so important to honour the legacy she laid down.
Fast forward to 2020.
In the UK we have an array of female boxers competing at the highest level. Although there is still not enough to create a domestic pathway, similar to that enjoyed by men’s boxing, we have great domestic clashes and world title fights that are exploding in popularity. Some of which were scheduled to go ahead when a pandemic put the brakes on all sport around the globe and we all took stock of what really mattered.
As the impact of the COVID-19 crisis sinks in, muttered conversations are beginning to bubble around women’s boxing being cast into the shadows again. There appears to be a notion that the media are simply not interested in covering it.
I am a promoter. I disagree. Strongly.
For a female athlete to undermine this fight is nothing short of a betrayal.
I’m extremely passionate about pushing women to the forefront. During this time, I have used my knowledge and experience to guide certain individuals to whom doing interviews does not come naturally. Sadly, it’s almost like there is a sense of fear that they will be persecuted if they speak their mind or say something ‘wrong’. Some just don’t need the added pressure of being under the spotlight. I don’t think that is anything I’d ever have to say about a male boxer.
I may add – not one single journalist has said no to interviewing a female athlete that I have pitched a story to.
Despite the sense of fear, we are seeing more women grow in confidence and prepared to speak about issues that matter to them: using their social platforms to interact with their sport, the fans and anyone prepared to listen.
However, that is not the full story.
When it comes to the promotion of women’s boxing, looks and sexuality are often placed in front of boxing talent and athletic prowess. I can understand why this approach has been used by some promoters: after all the knowledge that ‘sex sells’ is as old as the hills. But I do question some of the tactics used.
And if you look at what women daily have to put up with (not to mention the struggles Jane Couch, and other early women’s boxing pioneers, endured), I often wonder why certain female boxers are using their physical appearances to garner attention. It is as unnecessary as it is unsavoury. It doesn’t need to be used. Women in this sport have spent the majority of their lives fighting for equality. To be respected. To not be subjected to discrimination. To be considered boxers and athletes first and foremost. For a female athlete to undermine this fight is nothing short of a betrayal.
It’s OK to flaunt what you’ve got but if you want to gain the respect of the boxing community and the sporting world at large, follow the number one unwritten rule of boxing – let your gloves do the talking.
Before you cry ‘prude’ or ‘double standards’, hear me out. Yes, men post their daily workouts, often topless and of course it’s human nature for women to like that: just as it is for men to enjoy watching women working out.
Anthony Joshua has taken boxing to another level with a significant number of his fan base women. Perhaps some women only follow boxing because they find the boxer attractive. One could argue the same applies for some men and therefore why is it OK for women to lust after male boxers but not vice versa. A fair comment? Not on my watch.
Anthony Joshua’s success and notoriety is built on the foundation of his talent: his good looks are a bonus. Imagine if his fight with Joseph Parker had been billed as the chance to see two handsome dudes grappling with each other semi naked? You can’t, because it’s a ridiculous notion.
The issue here is that when we, as a gender, place the focus on our appearance for popularity and attention, over and above our abilities, it becomes dangerous.
Yes, it may attract a bigger fan base and an increase in ticket sales and sponsorship. I get it. Sport is business. It’s a short-lived career, so making the most out of what you have is imperative for anyone that wants to walk away from the sport financially secure. But it’s also a short-term strategy for women’s boxing that undermines the validity of the sporting spectacle. If a woman is continuously vocal on how they don’t get the same respect as male boxers whilst pushing their looks above their talent they are putting themselves in the firing line. Unfortunately, those firing the bullets rarely discriminate between one female boxer and another. By flaunting your sexuality over your boxing skills you’re declaring open season on every single serious female athlete who wouldn’t dream of using sex to sell a ticket to a boxing match.
Thankfully, I believe, despite the mutterings and those who seemed determined to send womens’ boxing back to the dark ages, I believe it is here to stay. Why? Because the talent and the spectacle is improving month on month, year on year. And that’s because there are the women that are just about their boxing. Those that do not feel the need to expose themselves this way. Those that let their boxing do the talking. They want to be recognized for their talents in the ring. Which is exactly as it should be.
Promoters take note. Women’s boxing is gaining popularity because the boxing and the boxers are displaying their own version of the skill, strength, speed and dramatic intrigue of gladiatorial confrontations that have captivated the audiences of male boxing for a hundred years. No more, no less.
TO CLOSE: my message to any aspiring women boxers is this: it’s OK to flaunt what you’ve got but if you want to gain the respect of the boxing community and the sporting world at large, follow the number one unwritten rule of boxing – let your gloves do the talking. The rest will follow in due course.
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Sonia Randev runs an award winning sports consultancy.She is also a freelance sports feature journalist. A passionate individual, who also uses her platform to speak frequently about issues that matter to her. She is a supporter of Alcohol Change UK, where she shares her experience of addiction, to further educate and encourage more Asian women to speak up.