Ladies relish a fight to lord it in the ring, says London 2012 boxing hopeful Amanda Coulson

You might expect a grimy, dimly lit room dripping with sweat and crammed with testosterone. A home for split bags and split lips.

There are no old bags here though. The L-shaped room is vast and modern, with pale blue walls and a shiny red floor. There is branding from sponsors, a Union flag and the words: 'The home of GB Olympic boxing'. Sleek, black and white photos of ring kings like Amir Khan and David Haye, many of whom have trained here since it opened in 2001, peer from the walls. But this is now the home of the Queens of British Boxing.

They are serious athletes in a serious sport. Their support team includes a coach, lifestyle adviser, nutritionist, psychologist, video analyst, strength and conditioning coach and a physiotherapist.

Girl power: Olympic prospect Amanda Coulson will be hoping to make the cut

Girl power: Olympic prospect Amanda Coulson will be hoping to make the cut

'It Could Be You' is written in large letters beside wall mirrors. Across the gym, a wiry young woman is shadow boxing in one of the five rings. We are a world away from the raw aggression of the old male-dominated gym, but something very impressive is happening here.

Amanda Coulson is pounding her fists at the pads coach Nigel Davies is holding. She is one of seven women in the squad, although only three can box at the Games. Early next year, performance director Rob McCracken will pick one boxer each in the flyweight (48-51kg), lightweight (56-60kg) and middleweight (69-75kg) categories. They must then reach the last eight at May's World Championships in China to qualify - although one spot is guaranteed to the host nation.

They all moved to a hotel beside Sheffield's English Institute of Sport last month and train there full-time. Right now, Davies is focused on Coulson, who skips and jabs with agility while bulging bags and mirrors whirl around her.

'Taste the power,' instructs the burly coach.

Hard hitting: Coulson (left) and Natasha Jonas fight it out in the ring

Hard hitting: Coulson (left) and Natasha Jonas fight it out in the ring

The sport in this country banned women until 1996. But since the decision in August 2009 to admit women's boxing to the Olympics, the number of registered female boxers has increased from 642 to more than 1,000. Coulson only discovered it when she read about the two 13-year-olds involved in Britain's first female boxing match in 1998, described by the manager of Lennox Lewis as 'a freak show'.

The striking blonde rang every gym in her hometown of Hartlepool until the Catholic Club reluctantly took her on, warning her she would be treated just like the boys. They'd had a girl before, they told her. 'She came, she saw, she left.'

But Coulson was hooked from the start, growing up as an equal among the boys at the club, while working in a police call centre. Now she has her biggest shot, after £950,000 was pumped into funding the burgeoning sport, and Britain's seven women left their jobs to embark on a punishing training regime.


TEAM GB’s youngest recruit is Savannah Marshall, 19, the country’s only female middleweight contender who won a silver medal at the World Championships in Barbados last

Marshall who is 6ft 1in, joined Hartlepool’s Headland Boxing Club at the age of 12, the rival gym to that of
her role model Amanda Coulson,
because she had ‘nothing else to do’.

She studied for a BTEC national
diploma in Sport from Hartlepool FE
College and was set to start a degree in the subject before this opportunity came along. Her elbows are damaged at the
moment, and she receives regular celluloid injections and wraps them in binding before sparring with men,
as there are no women with whom she can compete at her weight.

Having won 30 of her 33 career fights, she is ranked No 2 in the world at 69kg, but she is working with the nutritionist
and performance lifestyle coaches to
raise her weight to 75kg for the Games.

Coach Nigel Davies calls her ‘a bit special’, but Marshall seems a
little uncomfortable with the attention.

Coulson will scrap for the lightweight place with team-mate Natasha Jonas. The two fought in the first televised women's fight in November, when the GB Championships were shown on the BBC and Coulson won by recovering a two-point deficit in the final 20 seconds.

The women insist their love of boxing, with its undeniable risks, is not about violence or aggression. 'It's an individual sport, so what you put in, you get out,' says Coulson. 'You can be part of a team and if you have an off day you just hang around at the back, it doesn't really matter. Here, you're the one with everything at risk, you're the one with punches getting thrown at you, so if you don't put in the preparation you may get hurt. It's all down to you.'

There are male boxers who have come out in opposition to the women's side of the sport. Vitali Klitschko said it made him feel sick, and Olympic silver medallist Khan admitted: 'Deep down I think women shouldn't fight.' Promoters Frank Warren and Frank Maloney have said they would never represent women. 'I don't like watching women fight for the same reason I don't watch male synchronised swimming,' said Warren.

'They are not built for it. I find the idea of allowing women to be put in harm's way troubling.'

And former world featherweight champion Barry McGuigan once suggested it might 'attract unsavoury elements and appeal to voyeurs'.

But these women seem pleasant, not vicious. A punch to the breast considered unsporting, much like a low blow. They apologise for misdirected swipes as they train, and Davies chuckles that he has not heard one of them swear in the year he has been working with them.

'The girls are diligent,' he says. 'The men want to kill each other. For the girls, it's more like a game of chess.'

Whether it is that innocuous is more difficult to accept. Bradford-born flyweight Nicola Adams, one of Britain's hopes for gold, looks formidable as she spars. Aged 28, the two-time world silver medallist is described as 'exceptional' by Davies: 'I've no doubt she'll qualify and win a medal. She's got the boxing brain. I've trained Frankie Gavin, James DeGale . . . she's up there.'

High rising: Coulson continues her preparations at the GB training centre

High rising: Coulson continues her preparations at the GB training centre

Adams, who coaches children and has worked as an extra on Coronation Street, is fast and strong. It looks like she is performing a skilful dance, rather than an attack  calculated to inflict serious damage, but it is intense. These women are tough, focused and hardworking. Their sacrifices have made them all single-minded.

That evening they may visit the shops and on Friday dress up for a cinema trip. None drink much. There is little time for relationships. One of the newest recruits, 20-year-old Londoner Ruth Raper, recently broke her nose, without realising until she had left the ring.

'Because of all the training, if you didn't have a boyfriend already, you wouldn't meet anyone while you were here,' she says.

There is clearly much more at stake.


CLINTON McKENZIE'S INSIGHT: Women bring back the skill

Big fan: Former British & European champion McKenzie

Fuelled by ego and the need to attract the paymasters of  television, the fight game is now more about going
toe-to-toe than ever before.

It’s easier to sell tickets for bloody warriors than artists who want to move around the ring. Avoiding being hit, staying
out of trouble, picking your punches, the skill of dance-and-move all seem to be qualities from another age.

Not for the women. For them, boxing is not about power and knockouts by brute force. Women’s boxing is a sport of
skill. Fought over two-minute rounds, it is about graceful movement, quick feet, waiting for an opening and then
landing a counter-attacking blow to score another point.

I have as many women attending my gym in south London as men because it is a popular way to stay fit.

One of my catch phrases is: ‘Get fit and avoid being hit.’ They are taught to move, watch, move again. Stay out of trouble, look for an opportunity to advance.

They can strike, too, at speed. We will be seeing three British women going for a medal in London next year as the
Olympic movement recognises the female version for the first time. There will be detractors, but you might be surprised and enjoy how different it is.