The Katie Taylor effect has seen women of all ages and walks of life enter the boxing ring in their droves to get fit, gain confidence and relieve stress, says Áilín Quinlin
NIAMH DURACK swapped her boxing gloves for a bridal bouquet when she married her fiancé, the well-known comedian, Chris Kent earlier this month. The 29-year-old primary teacher from Rathmines, is one of a growing number of Irish women who box. Durack became interested in the sport three years ago after being introduced to it by Cork-born Kent, who boxed competitively at one stage, and still enjoys it as a hobby.
Last January, the bride-to-be signed up for regular training sessions with former Irish Olympian and professional boxer Cathal O’Grady, whose White Collar Boxing company trains wannabe boxers all over the country.
“I never experienced exercise like it,” she says. “I was always fit, but with the boxing training my body shape changed and I became more toned and shapely,” she says, adding that the sport has many other benefits. “There’s a good social aspect to it, it’s a great stress-reliever and it’s challenging and different.”
Durack, who also ran the Dublin City Marathon last month, believes boxing compares favourably with exercise regimes such as boot camps or spinning.
People were surprised to hear the petite 5’1” schoolteacher continued boxing in the run-up to her her humanist wedding ceremony in Slane.
“They said I could end up with a black eye. But it’s very difficult to get hurt as the training is very controlled,” she says.
More and more women are entering the sport, says Billy Walsh, head coach with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s high performance team.
“Over the last few years there’s been a big uptake, particularly amongst women coming in from other sports,” says Walsh who believes it has come on the back of Katie Taylor’s successes.
Twenty-something females are attracted by the fitness and conditioning element of the sport, while clubs are also seeing an influx of younger young girls from the age of nine or 10.
Over the past eight years Mick O’Brien of the Cork County Boxing Board has noticed a steady growth in the number of women in both urban and rural clubs taking up boxing as a sport
“This year Cork won 20 all-Ireland titles and four or five of those were won by women representing the city and county. Katie Taylor has been a major influence — young women are attracted to the sport because of her,” says O’Brien.
Females now make up about 20%-25% of overall membership throughout Cork — eight years ago that figure would have been about five per cent, says O’Brien, whose board represents 31 clubs throughout the region,
“That’s a very big jump, and central to it is Katie Taylor,” he says.
Girls usually start from around the age of eight, when they concentrate on ‘shadow’ boxing, which is primarily about learning the moves and using the gloves before entering competitive boxing from about the age of 11.
Andy Kerrins, head coach and founder of the Bantry Boxing Club which guided female champ, Nadia Barry, through to the 2005 Irish Intermediate Middleweight title, says some mums do worry initially.
“ Mothers are often quite concerned about injury but it’s not really an issue because boxing is a very controlled sport so injury is very rare with younger members.
“When mothers come and see how the kids are trained, the environment in which they are trained and the people who train them, they know they’re in safe hands.”
Jane Finch was a bit taken aback two years ago when her eight-year-old daughter Emily, voiced an interest in the sport.
“I was worried she might get hurt, but for the first few years she was in the younger group and it was all about training. There was no physical contact — they were just using the punchbag.”
Emily joined Bantry Boxing Club and has progressed into the older age group which trains twice a week. She will soon start sparring, says Janet.
“I haven’t seen her in the ring yet. You do worry,” she says adding that it will be a year or so before she starts fighting competitively.
“I’m a bit nervous about that — you have this picture of heavyweight boxers and teeth flying. But it’s very well regulated; they wear head-gear and the gum shield and they’re trained very well. I have faith in the club.”
Emily who is one of just three girls in her male-dominated class loves it.
“My friends know I’m a boxer. When they first heard about it they were a bit surprised but they’re used to it now. In our group boys and girls train together.”
Injuries are rare, says O’Brien. “They don’t get hurt because they have the head gear and a gum shield and are well protected so parents aren’t worried.
“Parents can come into the gym and see what’s happening. The children are well protected and enjoy the sport. The girls really enjoy it.
“They love the buzz of boxing, they love the competitive edge, and they enjoy what goes on in the ring. Boxing is a far safer sport than camogie or rugby, for example.
“They are attracted primarily because they already come from a sporting background such as camogie or football. We have a lot of GAA players who are also attracted to boxing.”
Heather Jacobs’ 14-year-old daughter Ellen has played soccer, tennis and enjoyed horse-riding — when she showed an interest in boxing, Heather cautiously agreed that the teenager could give it a try at Dunmanway Boxing club.
“There seems to be great discipline in it, and they are well prepared. They’re trained how to defend themselves,” she says.
The same rules apply to both male and female boxers, O’Brien says, though women are advised not to participate if they are menstruating or pregnant.
Women between the ages of 20 and 40 figure prominently on Cathal O’Grady’s client list — yet less than a decade ago in 2005, when the 10 times national champion started his White Collar Boxing company, female boxers were a rare breed.
Now a female in the ring is a “commonplace” sight.
“We have all sorts of people from solicitors to teachers and graphic designers. They’re people who are interested in fitness and in learning a new sport.
“Boxing is very skill-orientated and they recognise that and appreciate it,” says the 37-year-old.
“Boxing training is one of the toughest forms of training. It involves cardiovascular training, punch bag, strength training, skipping, pad work and technique, it’s physically and mentally demanding and is a great system of cross-training.”
Originally a fan of Thai Boxing, Maria ‘Mafer’ Gonzalez from Aghada in East Cork was introduced to boxing when she signed up for a White Collar Boxing charity event last year.
The 39-year-old enjoyed it so much she continued to box and is now the only female member of St Coleman’s Club in Shanagarry, where she trains twice a week.“I felt the boxing suited me. It is very controlled, very well-regulated and it leaves you very energised and positive. It’s not brutal, it is a sport and a discipline and you gain in precision and determination. I have participated in 11 fights and never been hurt or knocked out.”
Some boys sneer, but this girl’s boxing clever
When they hear her hobby is boxing, some guys challenge her to a fight — but this 5’10”blonde merely smiles. Christina Desmond doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody.
The 18-year-old, from Kilnamartyra, is a World Youth silver medallist, and has 10 Irish titles, including an intermediate, an under-22 and two under-18s. She came fourth in the Youth Olympics, in China, last August, and also holds a bronze European medal. Desmond started at eight, after watching her twin brother, Michael, in the local boxing club. “Michael and I always did everything together, so I went along to see what it was like,” she says. She won her first All-Ireland medal at 13.“Many people cannot understand why a girl would box,” says Desmond.
While family and the boxing community are supportive, she’s experienced negativity. When she was 15, some boys sneered. Some still do. “They’d be offering to fight me, but I just laugh at them; I don’t rise to it. The boxing community really respects me. It’s usually just fellas outside the community who seem to want to take me on or put me down. I think they feel a bit threatened — I don’t generally get it from boys I know. It’s more from fellas I don’t know”.
The benefits of the sport are fantastic, she says. “The fitness and the discipline are marvellous — boxing requires you to be really fit and you learn good defence skills. It’s also a great confidence booster. I’m strong and confident about myself. I’d recommend boxing for girls, not just for the physical fitness, but it’s very good psychologically — if you have a bad day, you can take it out on the bag.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved