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The darkness women’s boxing had to emerge from

Sue Atkins and Jane Johnson in the Ring
The sleazy demands that female fighters had to deal with in the not so distant past

BOXING in a mud pit, on a stage, with gloves like pillows and topless were just some of the options for women in Britain in the late Eighties. Long before the amateur authorities gave permission for women to box and long before the professional pioneers had to fight for a flimsy living overseas, there were others battling an absurd front of resistance in Britain.

It is a bit of British boxing history that is barely traceable, a slice of our fight game that was covered in great detail by soft porn magazines; the magazines published spreads on fight nights held in boozers and flop hotels from about 1988 until 1993. There are few survivors from those nights, veterans of fights where the imported German opponents were topless and the British women wore vests. Well, most of them.

Deidre Gogarty, the Dublin bruiser, was told in 1991 that fighting topless would get her some exposure; Gogarty had no chance in Ireland at the time, but she was not stripping even for her chosen life, her fighting dream. “It’s a sport, not a freak show,” she argued. However, at that time it is debatable.

In 1993 Gogarty did fight in London on a show that was a confusing half-way house of titillation and sport, the women trained to fight, the men came for some other fantasy. Make no mistake, this was a dark, forgotten little period. I was writing about boxing at The Daily Telegraph then and was sent magazines and photo-copies of previous shows from this underground movement. In the regular bundles that arrived, there was also truly disturbing articles about little girls boxing in Texas from the early Seventies, small girls of six and seven dressed like pageant queens with pink gloves on. It was called the Missy Junior Boxing Gloves. That stuff was tricky, to say the least, but it was legitimate, written about in quality papers; the topless boxing and wrestling – packaged as female combat and catfights – appealed to another sordid market.

At the boxing shows in London in the early Nineties there was no foam, no smeared chocolate and bras were kept on, but the action was still reported in intimate detail on the same pages as the freak fights. Great detail was given in the ringside reports in Amazons in Action and Aggressive Women; two titles that I decided not to search for. I was spooked by the fear the search would haunt me one day and also by the dread that somehow they still exist.

The live audiences at the fights had that sweaty look, they were what we called the Grubby-Mac brigade, dirty aficionados of the Amazons in Action circuit. Men that knew a good mud wrestler when they saw one. It was a struggle and that was boxing for women in Britain in 1990.

The real force from the start of the Eighties until the early Nineties was Sue Atkins. She used the ring name Catkins. She was a gardener from south London. She operated in a scene so mysterious, distant and murky at times that just about everybody in it has now vanished for good. Perhaps some of the organisers had their hearts in the right place, but their minds in the wrong place.

Atkins was part of a women’s self-defence class in Earls Court in a decrepit building in the early Eighties. An old army fighter started to introduce some boxing sessions; Atkins was soon looking for a fight. It was about 1986 or 1987 when Atkins made her debut at a hotel in Watford on a show put on by a German company; all the German women on the bill fought topless – it was not their first time. Atkins refused to fight topless, but her opponent was topless. Atkins won very quickly. The German woman was called Karen Hech. It’s hard to invent this stuff, trust me. I think you can guess what the crowd looked like. Still, it was how pioneers start, they battle extremes, they conquer barriers, they bury myths, they often have to do things they don’t want to do. Atkins remains the greatest British female boxing pioneer.

Atkins founded the British Ladies Boxing Association and in 1992 she was putting on shows. In 1993 Gogarty fought on one of the BLBA shows at a pub called the Foresters Arms in Tooting, south London. Atkins wanted to be respected, recognised, but her pure boxing ideas never had a chance. The full report of the Tooting show was in Amazons in Action. It is said that none of the women boxing on the show knew they were going to be in a soft porn magazine, nobody gave permission. However, one of the BLBA boxers appears elsewhere in topless fights. This was a borderline business, make no mistake, and, make no judgement.  

It was also filmed by a company called Festelle Video and their brochure had the Atkins show in Tooting advertised as FV 103; there was also FV101, Sabine in London. She was a ‘mean wrestler from Austria clad only in a tiny thong.’ And FV102 was a five-fight card called Topless Tournament. There were, so it says, some ‘superb close ups.’ That is where Gogarty and Atkins ended up that April, part of a seedy world: Sabine, thongs and the BLBA.

Gogarty did make it to Las Vegas, she fought 23 recorded times, I saw her lose to Christy Martin on a Mike Tyson undercard in 1996, Atkins faded from the scene, back to gardens and obscurity. The Missy Junior Boxing Gloves is a bad dream, but it also happened. Women win gold medals now, make millions boxing. It is sport, Gogarty was right, but it was hard to tell at times back then.

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