Saturday 20 October 2018

Real Life: Fight like a girl and kick ass while you're doing it

A rise in the number of women taking up boxing shows that this calorie burner isn't just for the boys

Packing a punch: Anne Reilly, Katherine Gough and Orla Doyle are all converts to boxing and are regulars at Mick Dowling's gym in Dublin
Packing a punch: Anne Reilly, Katherine Gough and Orla Doyle are all converts to boxing and are regulars at Mick Dowling's gym in Dublin

Amanda Phelan

A mother-of-four says it helped her sister lose a stone and is "better than a night out". The Cork football team say it helped them win the All-Ireland. One young Irish woman is such a champion that she's set to fight for the green, white and gold at next year's London Olympics.

Boxing is on the rise, with record numbers of women signing up to learn this fitness technique that's hard to beat as a challenging and calorie-burning workout.

According to a survey by Sport England, the number of registered female boxers in Britain rose from 70 in 2005 to more than 900 in 2009, and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association says the growth rate is similar here.

"There's been a big jump in the numbers of female boxers across the country. Given the chance, teenage girls really enjoy the sport, and most clubs now encourage them to join as they see how good they can be," says Anja Norman, the association's development officer for female boxing.

Ms Norman, originally from Sweden and herself a former boxer and coach, is helping to coordinate a major push to encourage more women into the sport and this initiative, backed by the Irish Sports Council, is paying off.


"The attitudes are really changing as clubs see that women are good at boxing and there's no tears or problems," says Anja, from Kilkenny.

"We now have more than 600 females involved at top level, and thousands enjoying the benefits of recreational boxing. I remember stepping into the ring for the first time, and thinking this covers everything -- agility, posture, speed, balance and coordination."

Most important though is the element of fun: "It doesn't matter whether you are a tiny 45k woman, or a bigger 120k, everyone can box."

Paul McDermott of the Irish Sports Council agrees: "You can't beat boxing for fitness and more and more women are signing up for classes as the skill base of the sport is opening up to them. It keeps you agile, fast and pushes you physically and emotionally."

The growing numbers are also inspired by the likes of three times World Amateur Boxing champion Katie Taylor, from Bray, who is helping to show that there's nothing wrong with, well, fighting like a girl.

In 2005 only 140 girls were boxing here, and only 20pc of clubs accepted them. This figure has now tripled, and few clubs refuse female candidates.

Mother-of-four Orla Doyle (37), from Rathgar in Dublin, says boxing is "better than a night out for fun -- and you don't have a hangover the next day, just a few sore muscles".

Former Olympic contender Mick Dowling admits he was surprised at first at the number of females showing up for classes he helps to coach.

"We have about 30pc women, and some of them are very handy at throwing punches," says the silver-haired former boxing champion and current RTE pundit, who runs a sports shop, boxing classes and a boxing gym.

Mick and his team run boxing-drill classes for everyday folk at his daughter's fitness centre, Evolve Coaching and Exercise studio, which is tucked into an industrial estate in Kimmage in south Dublin.

That's where Orla works out and she says her weekly boxing classes help her cope with the challenges of looking after four young children, aged between one and six.

"You never get bored like you can do at the gym," she says. "And it's good to work out with men who challenge you. You do three minutes of each exercise, and it really pushes you -- I love it."

Another fan, Anne Reilly, says she went into Mick's shop, Sportsworld, two years ago to buy a skipping rope, as she wanted a new fitness challenge.

"Mick sold me the rope, and talked me into trying a boxing class," recalls Anne, a mum in her 40s. "I was a bit wary, but I loved it and I've never looked back."

Anne is flushed from her workout at Evolve, where she punches a heavy bag high and low, with a force driven by her hips and body as well as her shoulders.

Learning Curve

The first few classes were a learning curve for the coach as well as his students, says Anne.

"Mick wasn't used to teaching women, so he'd give us a clip round the ear if we didn't have our guard up. You learn to watch out for him coming up behind you."

Attitudes to women fighting polarise opinion more than in most sports.

The BBC only agreed to televise competitive women's boxing for the first time last year, and it will officially be added to the Olympic line-up in 2012.

Boxing for fitness pushes you to work your whole body, and you train like a professional, using all the equipment, but without the physical contact.

"Females really enjoy the training," says Ollie O'Neill, from Paulstown club in Kilkenny.

Ollie, whose son is champion Bernard O'Neill, says he's also seen an increased demand from females for boxing.

Ollie is proud of the club's success stories including members of the local Travelling community, sisters Hannah and Josephine Carty, 15 and 14, who are competing in international championships.

"We had one girl, Amanda Coughlan, come with her brother about 10 years ago, and she really got into it and is really good -- she just competed in Turkey.

"More followed and women come along to the club just for the fitness element but when they see the boxing they get really involved."

So what does a boxing workout involve?

A typical class runs for 60 minutes, and involves a circuit that includes punching heavy bags, throwing medicine balls or using them for sit-ups, hitting speed-balls (harder than it looks) and punching a focus pad held by a classmate, as well as skipping and squats against the wall with a five-kilo weight.

Get through that lot, and you sure feel like a contender.

Catherine Gough (27), from Walkinstown in Dublin, is also a fan of Mick Dowling's classes.

"It's made me much stronger, and really toned up my arms. You soon learn to relax under pressure and work on your technique. And the squats are great for your legs."

Catherine enjoys the camaraderie of the classes. "It's low-tech, no fuss and no posing like in the gym -- you just work at your own pace," says Catherine, as she shadow boxes in front of a mirror holding five-kilo weights.

Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) spokesman Bernard O'Neill says few regimes provide the all-over body workout of boxing training and isn't surprised it's gaining popularity with women.

"The only people who watch their weight more than women are boxers and jockeys," he said. "If you're over the weight limit for your class, you can't box."

While few of us are likely to reach the levels of lightweight champion Katie Taylor, the chance to pound out a few rounds and be coached by people of the calibre of Mick Dowling and his team is pretty satisfying.

"We all have pressures, and this is a fantastic way to burn them off," says Anne, who is such a fan of her new sport that when it came to Christmas she asked her husband for a simple present: "My own punching bag for the garage at home."

For Orla and her sister, the classes are a fitness boost, with clear physical and mental results.

"I'm definitely fitter and more toned," says Orla, who can talk and skip gracefully without even breaking a sweat. "And my sister lost over a stone so far."

After the adult class, a group of teenage boys wanders in, gloves at the ready for training.

But they aren't alone. Five teen girls, complete with Ugg boots and US-style sweat pants, also square up for the boxing session.

This is a welcome development, says Mick.

"It's good to see so many young people involved. Kids doing this are more focused and have good self-esteem -- that keeps them out of trouble."

Katie Taylor, who won her first match at 15, recently visited Dowling's gym and it was packed with fans eager to glimpse our golden girl.

"She's such a good ambassador for the sport and a real inspiration," says Anne Riley, who watched Taylor along with classmate Orla.

"We were all blown away when we watched her sparring. Katie is quite slender, but when she throws a punch, you can hear the crack like a gunshot -- I wouldn't like to be at the other end."


  • Anja Norman --
  • Irish Sports Council for info on local boxing clubs --
  • Evolve Coaching and Exercise: KCR Industrial Estate, Kimmage, Dublin 12. Tel: 087 9046200. Classes cost €80 per one-hour session or eight sessions for €600 for two to three people
  • Irish Amateur Boxing Association, Tel: 01 453 3371

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