Estelle the actuary squares up to Ann (who's somebody in TV)

Independent on Sunday, Sunday June 22, 2003

By day, Estelle Ford is an actuarial assistant with Canada Life. The 25 year-old works at the life insurance company's UK headquarters in Potter's Bar, in a profession not renowned for its glamour and excitement. She hopes to qualify as an actuary in another five years.

But at night, the budding city professional enters a far more adrenalin-fuelled world. She becomes Estelle "Model T" Ford, one the increasing numbers of women to have taken up boxing. Not boxing as we know it, but 'white collar' boxing.

"I train at least four times a week, sometimes five or six," says Ford. She turned to white collar boxing earlier this year, having taken up kickboxing in January 2002. This week, she will make history as she fights Ann "Sweet P" Parisio, in the first-ever women's white collar boxing bout to be staged in the UK. As Ms Ford says, "If men can do it, why can't women? Besides, anything men can do women can do better, and on the night we're going to show up the men."

Ford and Parisio have trained hard for their contest, in which they will go hell for leather to batter each other into submission. If no quarter will be given on the night, pre-fight the women are agreed on one thing. They do not want the card girls, the strutting glamour girls of boxing lore who climb into the ring between rounds. They want card men.

"Why not?" says Ford. Her opponent is emphatic: "I want card men!" says Parisio. Parisio says that some of the boxers at her club, the Lennox Lewis Centre in Clapton, east London, have offered to hold up the traditional inter-round cards. Quite what the audience of corporate professionals at the black tie event will make of this is anyone's guess. The average testosterone-filled boxing audience is unlikely to greet a muscular card man with the rapture it does the svelte, stiletto-heeled blondes who normally take on the role.

But this being white collar boxing, anything is possible. The pastime, in which city professionals sign up to be trained by professional and amateur boxers, has defied stereotypes of boxing, as lawyers, property consultants and brokers glove up and do combat for three two-minute rounds. Its governing body is The Real Fight Club, whose founder, Alan Lacey, brought white collar boxing from its US roots to the UK two years ago. Lacey says The Real Fight Club now has over 1,000 members. Of the impending bout between Ann "Sweet P" Parisio and Estelle "Model T" Ford, he says: "It is not a gimmick. Both Estelle and Ann are exceptionally fit, motivated and talented natural athletes. They'll be putting the men on the undercard to shame."

Ford's opponent, 38 year-old Parisio, is a freelance television documentary maker who boxes for fun. She shares Estelle Ford's egalitarian enthusiasm for boxing. "Fighting is a basic human instinct, and if men are sanctioned to do it, why shouldn't women?" she said.

Not everyone is as keen on white collar boxing as Ford and Parisio. Both the British Board of Boxing Control and the Amateur Boxing Association have expressed their objections to The Real Fight Club, claiming that its matches are an 'unregulated' form of combat, an accident waiting to happen which would tarnish a sport whose abolition is called for often enough as it is. For his part, Lacey insists white collar boxing is safe. His fighters wear headgear, fight in large 16oz gloves and are assessed before each fight, at which a doctor and paramedics are ringside.

For all the doubters, Ann Parisio insists that there is a "controlled beauty and power" in boxing, and says it has changed her view of herself as a woman. "All women suffer a pressure to be thin and conform to the fashion industry's view of beauty. It's rubbish, but it still gets to you. Through boxing I can get away from all that it's as if you can say 'who cares?' when your body has become an efficient boxing machine."

Last night, Laila Ali, Muhammed's daughter, and Britain's Jane Couch were among the women on the undercard of the heavyweight title decider between Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko, in the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. This Thursday, at the Grange City Hotel in London, it's the turn of Estelle Ford and Ann Parisio. Whatever the arguments about women's boxing, one thing is for sure: life at Canada Life for Estelle Ford is going to seem mighty dull come Friday morning.

The event is being held to raise money for the Daisy Fund, which aims to pay for the hospital treatment of Daisy Lloyd, a four year-old who was born with a rare form of cancer of the eye. See www.thedaisyfund.org.