Gentle sex, my ass

The Times, August 20, 2005

Traditionally, there has been no place for women in the boxing ring. For some, though, the sport has proved an unlikely route to self-knowledge, says Alex Wade

BOXING IS ENJOYING A renaissance. Pro fights are back on television with a vengeance, as ITV seeks to showcase Britain’s new world light-welterweight champion, Ricky Hatton, as well as the bright young thing vying to take his crown one day, the Olympic silver-medallist-turned-pro Amir Khan. Frank Warren, British boxing’s best-known promoter, is forging links with the amateur game, helping to give it a much-needed shot in the arm. On top of all that, there is the emergence of white-collar boxing, in which City workers mix it with labourers and brickies at well-attended events at boxing’s spiritual home, York Hall in Bethnal Green, East London. Cinderella Man and Million Dollar Baby are proof that Hollywood is in on the act, too.

But if the noble art is in rude health, is it still an exclusively masculine pursuit? Joyce Carol Oates, in On Boxing, famously wrote: “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.” For Oates, the only roles for women at a boxing event were as card girls — there to teeter around the ring on high heels in skimpy outfits between rounds — or, perhaps, as the occasional National Anthem singer. “Women have no natural role in the spectacle otherwise, ” said Oates, for whom the idea of the female boxer was “monstrous”.

Most men involved in boxing would agree. But the American writer and pugilist Leah Hager Cohen challenges stereotypical views in her remarkable part-memoir, part-essay Without Apology: Girls, Women and the Desire to Fight. For Cohen — and at least some of the female boxers she met on her journey into this seemingly most testosterone-filled of worlds — boxing is the key to understanding one’s own womanhood.

Cohen came to boxing by chance in her mid-thirties. A photographer friend invited her to a boxing club in a tough district of Somerville, a working-class city over the river from Boston, where she had heard that a group of girls was training with a female coach. Cohen went along despite — up to that point — a lifelong aversion to boxing. As she says: “Aggression itself was a stranger to me. I can’t remember any time I claimed it for myself or even claimed to be familiar with it.” But within minutes of walking into the gym, Cohen does not want merely to report, but to engage. She observes the warmth of the coach, Raphaella — and “the sorrow shimmering about her” — and she feels she has found a kindred spirit.

What follows is Cohen’s account of a year spent training at the Somerville Boxing Club, a down-at-heel institution located in a church. Most boxers at the club are men and young boys, and its most famous son is “The Quiet Man” John Ruiz, holder on various occasions of the World Boxing Association heavyweight title. But Raphaella, a Golden Gloves champion, coaches a precocious set of girls — three sisters, Jacinta, Josefina and Candida, aged 15, 12 and 10, as well as Nikki, also 15, and Jacinta’s best friend. As they train, hip-hop blares out; “something with a lot of f*** you, bitch, in it,” as Cohen observes. The girls mess around, fall out and make up, but dedicate themselves to boxing. There is talk of competing in the Women’s Nationals, but as the club falls on even harder times and Raph-aella marries and falls pregnant this increasingly seems “like a mirage”.

A mirage it proves to be — save for Cohen, for whom boxing has become integral to realising her true self. Early in the book she cites the belief of both Raphaella and one of the male boxers that “people who box hold in common, almost as a kind of prerequisite, some scarring, hurt or deprivation”. Put more simply: if you are well-adjusted and happy, you don’t box. As the narrative proceeds, deftly intertwining reportage of the business of boxing with digressions on the nature of femininity, we have glimpses of the underlying unhappiness that has made boxing work for Cohen. She has felt oddly dispossessed of her body, conscious of her weight, because “a woman’s body, a girl’s body, is construed as unpowerful at best, a liability at worst . . .”

In a brief vignette, Cohen describes suicidal thoughts, which, we are left to infer, are a consequence of the way in which she has unwittingly accepted society’s construct of femininity. It is a construct that forbids the expression of aggression as much as of desire; as Cohen finds, a girl who boxes “challenges the idea of what it means to be a girl in our culture”. By her boxing, Cohen achieves an acceptance of herself, “as though all of myself has converged in my body”, one which is predicated in the recognition that aggression is key to the existence not merely of men but women, too.

Throughout the narrative there is an underlying ambivalence, as if Cohen — mother of three small children — cannot quite believe that she has found peace in the world of heavy bags, black eyes and rope burns. And yet peace does exist in this world — as Cohen knows, as I have found, and as many others drawn to boxing will testify. It is a shame, though, that some level of trauma is a prerequisite, and more bittersweet still that Cohen is right — women can lay as much, if not more, claim to this as men.