At the end of April, boxing history will be made. For the first time, two female fighters, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano, will face off at New York’s legendary venue Madison Square Garden, in a fight that is predicted to supercharge the sport’s rapid rise in popularity.
For two women to go 10 rounds at the same venue where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier – twice – and Rocky Marciano knocked out an aging Joe Louis shows the remarkable, rapid progress that has taken place in the past two decades.
It was watching women win Olympic medals using the same blend of toughness and elan as their male counterparts, some claim, while the success of the 2004 film Million Dollar Baby gave the grit and determination of female boxers the Hollywood treatment.
Whatever the reason, it is worth rememberingthe UK’s first legal women’s fight took place 23 years ago, and female boxers still experience stigma and stereotyping in male-dominated clubs.
Taylor and Serrano’s fight represents a sea change: it has generated interest on a level with male fights, with presale tickets for the 20,000-capacity arena selling out quickly.
Women’s boxing is becoming more popular at all levels, from amateur to professional. According to a Sport England survey from 2020, 17% more women boxed regularly in 2020 than in 2015, with 420,400 women involved, while Boxing England said there had been a 65% growth in female membership since 2017, despite the pandemic.
When Taylor, an Irish boxer with a UK team, began her career as a teenager in the late 1990s, she had to pretend to be a boy under the pseudonym Kay.
“When I started, women’s boxing wasn’t allowed in Ireland. That was a huge barrier I had to break down. One of the best things about my journey is seeing so many female fighters now, and the opportunities that are out there,” she said.
She believes her Madison Square Garden fight will “open up so many doors” for female fighters. “It’s great for young girls to grow up with female role models, that’s very important.”
Taylor sees the 2012 Olympics, when women’s boxing was introduced for the first time, as a turning point, especially in Ireland and the UK. She won a gold medal for Ireland as a lightweight, while Briton Nicola Adams won gold in the bantamweight category.
A new generation of boxing stars are benefiting from the platform those early champions have given the sport. This includes Shannon Courtenay, who turned professional in 2019 after crediting the discipline boxing instilled in her with turning her life around.
“When I first started boxing, I was the only female in the gym. People would raise their eyebrows when I said I boxed. They were like, ‘Really? you’re a woman!’ Now I feel it’s the norm,” she said. “Women’s sport is massively growing, but especially boxing.”
She thinks that although it is still perceived as a “man’s sport”, the stigma that it’s “not ladylike to fight” is disappearing. “It is about violence, but it’s also not: it’s an art form.”
Eddie Hearn, who promotes Taylor alongside male superstars such as Anthony Joshua, said he had battled skepticism among old-school promoters, who warned that broadcasters would never be interested in women’s fights, but when he signed Taylor “the timing was right”.
“What we’ve seen over the last six to seven years is just the most incredible rise of women’s boxing, from more and more British world champions, more female fights headlining normal cards, women’s pay increasing at an astronomical rate, and more importantly, at a grassroots level, the development of young girls saying ‘I want to become involved in boxing,’” he said.
Boxers say the sport offers skills unmatched by any other activity – from intense strength and conditioning work to skill, technique and the mental rigour needed to compete.
Another distinctive feature of boxing was the inclusive culture of many clubs, which were often based in low-income areas that other sports struggled to reach, said England Boxing’s club support officer Laura Sargeant.
“If your parents can’t afford to pay your subs they’d rather you’d be there than on the streets, causing trouble or antisocial behaviour. It’s a hard sport and hard training,” she said.
The growth in popularity of classes that combine fitness with boxing technique has also made the sport more accessible for women, some of whom go on to join clubs and compete – a route taken by British-Somali professional Ramla Ali.
Gyms such as Blok, in London and Manchester, offer drop-in classes where people can learn how to spar without the risks associated with competitive fights.
“People are looking to get a good hard workout in a short space of time because they have busy lives and boxing offers that, and because it’s skills-based it’s a bit more engaging, so it feels like you’re learning something,” said Blok’s head of boxing, Declan Taylor.
For Taylor, her fight with Serrano isn’t the end of the journey for women’s boxing. “I want those fights to be on a consistent basis, I want big mega-fights consistently from month to month just like we’re seeing with men. I want women to become the biggest names overall.”
Katie Taylor v Amanda Serrano will be aired on DAZN on April 30