Sport Tuesday, December 13th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Adam Knight

Girl Power: Hereford's Female Boxers

Sport Tuesday, December 13th

Girl Power: Hereford's Female Boxers

Counting the minutes to her lunch break, Rhiannon Roberts paces the floor of one of Hereford’s premier jewellery stores in high heels and a pencil skirt.

Her mobile rings. As she listens, a smile appears on her face.

“I’m going out for lunch,” she tells her boss.

She parks up her car, kicks off her heels, and reaches across to the passenger seat to grab a pair of ankle-high, Adidas boxing boots.

“There was a girl at the gym who had a bout coming up, and she was looking for a few rounds of tough sparring,” Roberts, 22, tells me.

“Vince called to see if I could make it down on my lunch break.

“I went back in to the shop looking like I’d just been in a fight. I still had all my makeup on from work, and it was looking – interesting.

“But I was so pumped up to sell jewellery that afternoon.”

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Shay Jarrett, 13. Training in Hereford.

 Punching someone in the face for money has long been the preserve of men.

The mythology built up around the sport - from dimly-lit working men’s clubs to LAD’d-out Vegas casinos - drips with testosterone.

However in the UK, the women’s fight game is in the midst of a rise so fast that it threatens to leave professional boxing’s more conservative voices swinging at nothing but air.

During a three-year run that started with Nicola Adams winning boxing gold at London 2012 right up to today, where Ronda Rousey is one of the most recognisable faces in all of sport, it has never been easier to watch women compete at the top level in combat sports.

Not to say, that that it is easy.

In a sport that didn’t hand out a professional license to a female boxer in the UK until 1998 it is of little surprise that the next generation have to, for the most part, take their cues from the Floyd Mayweathers and Amir Khans of the world and not their female counterparts.

“I get more passionate about women’s boxing. I like watching it,” Roberts said.

“However women’s fights are just not televised.

“Even at amateur shows, you’ll go along and out of 15 fights, probably only one will include women. Because most of the attention is on the men – until Ronda Rousey and Nicola Adams came along – the sport was all about men’s boxing.” 

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This is no longer the case at gyms up and down the country.

South Wye Police Boxing Academy in Hereford is among the 40 percent of boxing clubs that now run a women’s class, as participation in the UK has rocketed from 70 registered female boxers in 2005 to more than 36,000 girls getting in on the action ten years later.

But while the grassroots look healthy, those who lace their gloves up at the top end of the sport are still fighting for recognition in a sport that has long been held up as a fierce bastion of masculinity.

It is why Rousey was the first woman since Cat Davis in the 70s to appear on the cover of Ring magazine – The Bible Of Boxing - and it is why just one link down the food chain, world champions are finding it impossible to work their way on to boxing’s televised fight cards.

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“Do whatever you can to take the word “women” out of it.”

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This was Rousey’s response on a recent pre-fight media tour when asked how to increase the prominence of female fighters within the world of MMA.

“People aren’t here because they love women. They’re here because they love fighters. We’re fighters.”

It’s a feeling echoed by Roberts. ”Boxing’s boxing. It’s the same punches. I don’t see much gender difference.”

This feeling may come about in part because as long as she’s stepped into the ring, it has been with male boxers.

The daughter of club coach Richard Roberts, she first had to satisfy her father that her skills were good enough to spar – “he didn’t want to see my face get smashed” – before he allowed her to take her training to the next level.

And soon Roberts found that her father’s caution was more than just paternal instinct. At a competitive spar against a boxer from another gym, she was told by the other corner that her opponent had barely fought before.

The bell went and it became clear instantly that she had, unloading combinations that far exceeded her supposed experience.

“There’s a lot of that in boxing. It’s sneaky, it’s awful,” said Roberts.

But the reality of being a girl in the sport – especially in a rural area - is that in order to train at a high level you have to travel to spar, or you fight men.

And often, getting men in the ring in the first place is harder than handling them once they’re in there.

“Back when I started sparring at 18 there were no girls. Literally no girls.

“And I still mainly spar with men because there aren’t many girls at the level I want to compete at.

“The hardest thing is trying to get the men to go 100 per cent. I find that really hard. Even when I spar with my boyfriend – who’s a coach at the club - I tell him to hit properly, but I can tell he’s not.

“I can see it, and it’s frustrating for me. They don’t want to beat up a girl, but they don’t want to get beaten up by a girl. And I’ve had a few men just refuse to go in with me.

“That’s why I enjoy sparring with girls - you know that they are going all-out.

“Ultimately it’s hard for me to learn and progress when there’s no other girls to spar with.”

Lucy Johnson - who works for the council in environmental health - training with Anna Moudis

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To many outside the sport Rousey is the face of fighting. For Roberts, a boxer, she is clearly an important figure.

“’Women can’t box’ – you get that a lot. But the success of women’s MMA has taken away the stereotypes.

“Because Ronda’s in the news more now it does make it more acceptable for someone who wants to get into the sport.

“It takes away that initial shock about a girl fighting.”

During a recent absence of the kind of Rock Star personas that for so long were synonymous with both the Octagon and the squared circle, the media leapt upon Rousey’s own rise over the last 12 months.

Suddenly her swagger and star power filled a Mayweather-shaped hole on boxing websites and Sky Sports News segments, and her face could be spotted in Hollywood film trailers.

However it’s a face that required plastic surgery after her most recent bout - the only loss of her MMA career - which resulted in a brutal KO at the hands of former three-weight boxing world champ Holly Holm.

“Holly’s win came from her boxing skill,” Roberts said.

“A lot of people didn’t know she was a boxer before switching to MMA, and I think that’s leading the way for people to ask – ‘okay, so where’s women’s boxing at?’”. 

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In Hereford, the literal answer to that question is the South Wye Police Academy.

On any given Thursday, between eight and 15 women can be seen meticulously wrapping their hands before the session, the running clock buzzing on three-minute intervals in the background.

The group is diverse. 

Working the pads one-on-one, 15-year-old Anna Moudis peppers her coach with shot after shot, diving in to throw flurries of hooks that leave it unclear as to which of the two is happier to hear the bell.

Anna Moudis, 15. Boxer.When she steps out, her face melts to a large smile.

“My other friends like that I do it. They think it’s cool,” said Anna, who has been boxing for three years, and looks the most likely to be able to take her skills to the next level.

“But you do get those other people at school who don’t understand why I’d do it. And I don’t think my parents would want me to actually fight.”

The rest of the group is taken through games and drills by one of the club’s main coaches, Vince McNally, who runs his council job from an office at the front of the gym so that he can open up at any time if his fighters want to train.

As the group face the mirrors, shadow-boxing in unison, the boxer on the end of the line maintains an expression that is somewhere between fierce concentration and joyful exuberance.

Katie Phillips, 50, came to boxing later in life.

“I always wanted try it, but my husband never wanted me to,” she said. “When we got a divorce, I came down for my first class – that was 18 months ago now.”

The class brings together a local policewoman, and a 13-year-old, Shay Jarrett who got into boxing “because I used to get angry”.

The Bishop of Hereford Bluecoat School pupil is a front-foot fighter in the ring, but says she would never punch anyone outside the gym.

“I really like it. I watch lots of boxing now,” she said, having caught her breath following an all-out assault from her partner Anna using a padded bag swung repeatedly at her midrift, in a drill that improves core strength.

“You don’t really hear about women’s boxing. It’s a men’s sport.”

For most, they first stepped foot into a boxing gym to improve their fitness. For some, the sport stuck.

“I used to watch videos with my dad of old Tyson fights before I even knew who was fighting,” Roberts said.

“But the first time went to the gym, I fell in love with it.

"I always knew I wanted to compete and take it as far as I could.

"I love the technique, the tactics, the art of it. I like the pysicality. I've always been drawn to those kind of sports - lifting, rugby - is that a bit weird?

"But I do think every girl should be able to throw a few punches.

“To actually get in the ring, it can be quite intimidating. A lot of girls do the classes for fitness but the thought of actually hitting someone in the face is a big thing.

"Until you do it few times.”

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Female fighting’s figurehead, Rousey had a different kind of clarifying moment imposed upon her last month.

Her loss to Holm ensured there are no longer any delusions to her grandeur.

The biggest female athlete on the planet may already no longer be the best. But in July the former Olympic judoka will headline what stands to be among the highest-paid rematches in fighting history, of any discipline, and of any gender.

It’s a big statement in the prizefighting game – which more than any other professional sport embraces the uncomfortable relationship between the fan’s back pocket and the direction it takes.

From those who organise fight cards, to the clubs and casino and sports halls that host them, to the trainers that coach and select the fighters, the bottom line looms large.

Who will sell?

It’s an uneasy standard hangs that over everything.

And the consensus is that, by and large, fight fans are not interested in bouts by fought by female boxers. They do not, by extension, pay, in a sport where livelihoods and mortgage payments often already hang on a judge’s call, a lucky punch.

While the hope is that the rising tide of Rousey and the MMA – there were more than 1 million pay-per-view subscribers for her fight in Dec, the second-highest of all time – raises all ships, it remains almost impossible for the next generation of Rouseys or Holms or Adams’ to see a woman box on TV in the UK.

Those young fighters are there however. And in many ways, more resilient because of the obstacles they face.

Between the absence of prominent female figures within boxing (Roberts has never encountered a female coach), the societal pressures pushing them away from a sport that until 1996 was prohibitively masculine at the professional level, and the lack of opponents, if you are in the sport, it is not by accident.

If you are a young woman who boxes, you really want to do it.

Inspire A Generation was the motto of London 2012, and it half-succeeded. There is growing number of young women up and down the country turning to boxing gyms.

But there remains a real disconnect between each level of boxing – from Anna to Rhiannon to Nicola to Ronda – and the sport owes it to the current influx, to showcase its own Amir Khans and Anthony Joshuas, to show in Robert’s words that there is a way to “climb the ladder”. 

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