Elliot Worsell investigates the significant and overdue strides that women’s boxing has made and those it still needs to take
IT is perhaps no coincidence that in a time of uncertainty and desperation the boxers who have stepped up and made something of themselves in the past 12 months happen to be female. Long denied, eager for both their chance and approval, they have successfully let bygones be bygones, forgiven boxing for years of mistreatment, and helped resuscitate the sport back to life during the COVID-19 era. They have nurtured it. They have protected it. They have, in short, been the bigger person.
Consequently, where women once had to beg for opportunities, they are now the first port of call; where they were once relegated to the bottom of cards, they now bolster and occasionally headline them; where they were once derided, they are now revered.
Cynics, of course, will claim the newfound prominence of women’s boxing has more to do with how cheap a female fight is to promote (relative to a fight involving men) during a pandemic than any sudden desire on anyone’s part to do the right thing, push women’s boxing, or explore the idea of equality. But even if that’s true, the important thing, and what matters most, is that female boxers are now active, now relevant, and now getting the opportunities they were once denied. Years after Jane Couch was treated like a bug in need of squashing, female boxers are standing shoulder to shoulder alongside well-known male counterparts and being watched by a growing audience. This, no matter how or why it happened, can only be a good thing.
That said, be warned: there is no guarantee it will remain this good. This is a strange time for boxing, after all, and should crowds someday return, more money will be available, more men will be hungry for fights, and women could again find themselves either shelved or pushed towards the lower end of fight cards, thus slowing their momentum. Hopefully this won’t be the case, but it is certainly fair to say the real test of the popularity of women’s boxing will arrive when arenas return to being full and promoters have deeper pockets and a complete menu of fighters from which to choose.
Still, whatever the future holds, female boxers have spent the past year pushing their way to the front of the queue and have let their voices be heard and their faces be seen. Better yet, they have allowed their skills to make the most noise and have produced action their male colleagues have often been unable to match. They have fought energetically when called upon and will, if in the future they go missing, be conspicuous by their absence.
“Women’s boxing is a hot subject at the moment and it’s really pushing in the right direction,” said Stefy Bull, trainer of Terri Harper, the WBC super-featherweight champion. “Last year we had ‘Fight Camp’ and Terri and Natasha’s [Jonas] fight, [Katie] Taylor and [Delfine] Persoon’s fight, and also [Rachel] Ball and [Shannon] Courtenay’s fight. They’ve really taken things to a new level during this pandemic. It’s almost as if women’s boxing has become fashionable.
“As a promoter, I’ve had the experience of bringing Terri through from scratch, going from little venues to bigger ones, and the feeling I get with Terri now is that there is a whole new and different audience behind women’s boxing. When a man boxes, especially on small hall shows, it’s just male friends and family who purchase tickets. But with Terri and other female boxers you’ve got mums, you’ve got dads, you’ve got grandparents, and you’ve got children who have all become fans of female boxing. Katie Taylor’s viewing figures have shown this.”
Jamie Moore, the man now guiding WBC super-lightweight champion Chantelle Cameron, is equally optimistic about the future of women’s boxing. He, like Bull, remembers a time on the British circuit when women’s boxing was merely an afterthought and fighters like Jane Couch an inconvenience.
“I’m happy for Chantelle and the girls on the scene at the moment for the way it has all developed,” he said. “The days when Jane Couch was fighting for the right to fight seems like an eternity ago now. When you look how fast the progress has been, it’s brilliant.
“The problem now, though, is we’ve got the talent but haven’t got the depth of talent. I’m sure that will come as it keeps growing and growing, but at this moment in time we’ve got some fantastic fighters on top of divisions that aren’t that deep. For instance, you couldn’t even think of bringing in a British title at the moment. There just aren’t enough women boxing at British level. Those are teething problems and the only way we overcome those problems is by doing what we’re doing, keep flying the flag for the sport, and hope that more girls are attracted to picking up a pair of boxing gloves.”
The issue of depth in women’s boxing is both nobody’s fault and also an issue hard to ignore. At the elite level, as shown recently with fights like Katie Taylor vs. Delfine Persoon and Terri Harper vs. Natasha Jonas, women’s boxing can mix with men’s boxing and more than hold its own. However, these represent cameos of quality rather than a consistent trend and the lack of depth has a habit of revealing itself beneath world title level.
“There is more depth,” said Joe Gallagher, coach of Natasha Jonas, “but it is still not deep enough right now, as we’ve seen with the Shannon Courtenay and Ebanie Bridges [WBA bantamweight title] fight, which should never have been a world title fight. They’re [the WBA] saying to girls, ‘You can go and win a world title after just a few fights against opponents with losing records,’ and then, on the other hand, you’re watching what Terri Harper and Natasha Jonas produced last year, which was the female ‘Fight of the Year’. The quality and talent pool will get bigger and bigger thanks to this generation of girls, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Plenty felt the vacant WBA bantamweight title fight between Courtenay, then 6-1 (3), and Bridges, then 5-0 (2), was not only unacceptable but sadly undermined the strides women’s boxing has made in the past 12 months. That view is not meant to disparage the two boxers involved – both played their part in an entertaining 10-round fight on April 10 – but is instead fuelled by the WBA’s need to attach themselves to anything that moves, as well as the promotional gimmick of exploiting the online followings of popular but inexperienced female fighters.
“You can’t criticise the girls for being in that position,” said Bull. “They’re fighters. They’re going to take any opportunity they can get. They’re not going to say, ‘No, I’m not taking this world title fight because I’m not good enough and don’t deserve it.’
“Was it a competitive fight? Yes. The problem was that there was a world title attached to it. You have Terri versus Choi Hyun-mi [WBA super-featherweight champion] at one level, and Katie Taylor versus Natasha Jonas at one level, and then you have Bridges versus Courtenay also at ‘world title’ level. That’s a bit of a problem but it still has nothing to do with the girls involved. The title was vacant and the WBA approved it.
“Ultimately, pro boxing is a business. Eddie Hearn and Matchroom have got to sell a product. Shannon Courtenay and Ebanie Bridges was good business and that’s why it happened.”
Gallagher is aware of the fight’s appeal and understands the reason it was made. But he is also someone who feels that female fighters being used to make good business is not the same as female fighters doing good business under their own steam.
“There’s more and more women’s boxing on TV – Sky have got behind it, and Frank Warren pushed Nicola Adams for a bit – but that’s because it’s cheap,” he said. “The wages are cheaper. It’s cheaper to put on a female in a six-rounder or eight-rounder than it is to put a male on in a similar kind of fight. The same applies to world title fights.
“How do you address the difference in wages? I’m not sure. Men will say they’re fighting more minutes and more rounds, so should get more money. I’m not a big fan of three-minute rounds over 12 rounds for women – I think that leads to a lot of punishment – but I do think for world title fights they should make it 12 two-minute rounds instead of 10 two-minute rounds. I’d like to see that.
“What I don’t want to see is the WBA, who are quick to come down on bad judging, sanctioning fights like Courtenay vs. Bridges. I’m all for both girls getting the chance to become a champion and put food on the table but it’s frustrating seeing fighters like Claressa Shields and Natasha Jonas having to campaign hard for better pay for world title fights when the term ‘world title fight’ is also being applied to a fight like Courtenay vs. Bridges. Then again, even with the men, you find plenty fighting in world title fights for 50 thousand dollars while others are fighting for five million dollars. So, I understand it.”
Regardless of the rights and wrongs, female fighters have clearly taken centre stage and are doing everything in their power to ensure they won’t be muscled into the background anytime soon. A sea change has occurred, one long overdue, and this change has been not only felt by those in the game but also embraced.
“I saw Chantelle fight before she approached me to train her and I knew how good she was,” said Moore. “When she gave me a call and asked me about training, I was more than happy to help her out. She explained the situation she was in and I had a lot of sympathy for her situation. It wasn’t just about training somebody as a fighter, it was about helping them out as a person as well.
“She came up, I got to know her over the next few weeks, and I discovered pretty quickly she’s a lovely girl. So, firstly, I was helping a girl who needed a pick-me-up and, secondly, women’s boxing was booming and it seemed appropriate that our gym, which was at the time doing really well, welcomed a female boxer. In fact, it was only a couple of weeks before Chantelle rang me that my wife actually said, ‘The way women’s boxing is going, all you need now is a girl to come along and join the gym.’”
Stefy Bull can vouch for both the dedication and quality of female fighters. He has worked with Terri Harper since she was 11 years of age and has never once thought she was out of place when training alongside his male boxers.
“Pound-for-pound, I would say Terri is the most naturally gifted fighter I have worked with and I have worked with some great fighters over the years,” Bull said. “I’ve worked with Jamie and Gavin McDonnell, Robbie Barrett, who won a British title, Jason Cunningham, who won a Commonwealth title, and Josh Wale, who won a British title. In terms of her natural ability, Terri is at the very top.”
Another interesting dynamic brought about by the rise of women’s boxing concerns how female boxers are now being integrated into predominantly male-dominated boxing gyms to be coached by men with little – if any – previous experience training female fighters.
When working out in his Manchester gym, Joe Gallagher says Natasha Jonas more than holds her own – both in the ring and verbally – and will often lead by example, her dedication such that the men in the gym look up to her and raise their own levels in response. Bull, meanwhile, having known Terri Harper since she was a child, understands when to push and when to pull back, something important when dealing with female boxers.
“The logistics are slightly different because females box two-minute rounds and the sparring is geared towards how you fight on fight night, but training-wise it’s no different than training the boys,” Bull said.
“The women’s [menstrual] cycle, though, is a big thing. You’ve got to understand it and be prepared for the change when women are coming into their cycle and finishing their cycle. There is a lot more to it than training men. You can’t just drive a woman into the ground. There will be times when a female body changes during the cycle. You get that sussed and plan that into the training schedule.”
In truth, it’s an education for all of them, and a necessary one at that. Jamie Moore, two years into coaching Chantelle Cameron, sees the subtle changes in his gym and is thankful for the impact his first female fighter has made.
“A couple of years she’s [Cameron] been training with us and she’s a delight, to be honest,” he said. “It was different initially in the sense that you’re careful. I’ve been brought up to be very respectful around women. You don’t curse around them and you watch yourself and watch your mouth around them. But because I was also coming from a boxing gym environment it’s just different. You make small adjustments. You have to. But from my point of view, it was a positive change.
“Because of the way we’ve been brought up, and the way society is, you are very protective of women, or at least the majority are. Growing up in the eighties, I was from the old-school tradition where a man goes out to work and the woman looks after the family. But as you grow up you develop your own ideas and now time has moved on and women are very much part of business. That wasn’t really the case when I was a kid, though.”
Maybe aware of his protective nature, Cameron wasted no time telling Moore she could fend for herself when the pair first started working together. “She said, ‘Listen, you don’t have to look after me. I’ve sparred men for years and can hold my own. Don’t worry about it.’ She then laughed it off,” Moore recalled. “I only had to watch her do it a couple of times to realise she wasn’t kidding. She really can handle herself.”
Peter Fury had a similar experience when he agreed to train Savannah Marshall, the former Olympian he would end up guiding to the WBO middleweight title. Their union had been unplanned, owing as much to fate as anything, and it led to Fury, a true fighting man from a true fighting family, having to overcome at least one mental hurdle before he could get comfortable.
“I’ve got daughters and I know how they are, and I also know how hard the sport is,” Fury said. “I used to sit at the side of the ring and watch Savannah sparring the boys and I’d be thinking, I hope these don’t hit her hard today. I used to even have a word with them before they started sparring and would tell them, ‘You know you’re sparring a girl, don’t you? Can you try and take something off your shots because I don’t like to see a girl getting hit. It’s not about hurting your opponent. Do you understand me?’
“I remember once going to a boxing show with my wife and saying to her during a women’s fight, ‘Can you imagine our Sissy [Fury’s daughter] getting hit in the face like that?’ That has always stuck in my mind. Fast-forward to today and I’ve got Savannah Marshall.
“I just felt a duty of care when it came to sparring, that’s all. But going on from that, the way she has come on, she now has proper open spars and there’s no pulling punches or anything. That shows how well she has developed. She can spar anybody from 65 kilos to 80 kilos and is comfortable with them all. I’m also much more comfortable watching her. I’m not in the least bit concerned anymore.”
There is comfort to be found in being reassured. It can also be found when certain of what it is you are watching and how whatever it is you are watching will end.
Applied to women’s boxing, it’s probably a stretch to say female fighters are now sitting comfortably – most know there is still a long way to go – but they have at least found somewhere to sit and, more than that, found their presence at the table most welcome.