Fighter: Why we’re seeing more female boxers on stage and screen

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Kasia Burke

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Libby Liburd (pictured with a young member of the motivational group Fight For Peace) writes and stars in Fighter

In a small theatre in Oval, south London, rehearsals are taking place for a new play about boxing.

We try to enter the studios quietly, without disrupting any of the cast who are going over their scenes.

“Don’t worry, if you get in the way they’ll just punch you,” the play’s publicist says breezily.

Fortunately, we remain uninjured as a tea break is called and we sit down to talk about Fighter with its writer and star, Libby Liburd.

The rehearsals might be taking place in Oval, but the play actually opens in Stratford – a fitting location given that’s where the Olympics were held in 2012, the first year the tournament recognised female boxing.

“I think the Olympics very much elevated the sport and created a swell of interest,” Liburd tells BBC News.

“The fact they were in London was super important, there was a lot of ownership in the UK – ‘this is our Olympics’ – and then we had our UK female fighters going out and winning gold.”

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Nicola Adams won a gold medal for the UK at the London 2012 Olympics

That surge of attention is one factor which has arguably facilitated the new play, but its director points out the human story at the centre of Fighter is its main focus.

“It’s really about one woman and being told she can’t do something because she’s a girl,” says Julie Addy, the play’s director.

“And that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She’s being underestimated in all areas of her life.”

Liburd stars as single mum Lee in the play, whose life changes when she steps into a gym run by Tommy (David Schaal, well known for playing Jay’s dad in The Inbetweeners).

“I was a boxer before I was a writer,” she explains. “I start from the point of lived experience. So Lee is a great character for me because she kind of says the things that I never felt able to say.”

The relationship between trainee and trainer has been the plotline of many a sports movie over the years – although most characters in such stories have been male.

But recently, more stories about women stepping into the ring have been making it to stage and screen.

Female fighters on screen

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L-R: Alison Brie, Hilary Swank, Jessica Hynes and Florence Pugh

Million Dollar Baby – Perhaps the most famous example, this Hilary Swank film took home the Oscar for best picture in 2004. Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman also appeared in the film, the ending of which didn’t shy away from some of the dangers and consequences that can come with boxing.

The Fight – This film, released last year, was directed and written by Jessica Hynes, who also starred as the main character. Tina turns to boxing as a way to escape the anxieties of her life and improve her self-worth. The Evening Standard said it was “brave and smart to leave her comfort zone” but added the movie “could do with a bit more punch”.

Fighting With My Family – Wrestling’s biggest breakout star, Dwayne Johnson, served as a producer on this film, which told the story of a young woman named Paige (played by Florence Pugh) who lands the opportunity to try out for WWE over her brother Zak. Critics praised the unusual plotline but Empire said: “Sadly, it never punches through the tropes of the standard sport biopic.”

Glow – Netflix’s series about female wrestling stars Alison Brie and Kate Nash and has been praised for how it portrays women in the ring. “When has TV ever depicted women of every shape and hue throwing off all vanity and slamming each other into the floor with abandon?” asked The Guardian.

“I think audiences have always been interested in boxing films, you’ve got all the Rocky films, Creed, Southpaw and all of those,” says Liburd.

“So I think audiences are generally interested in boxing as a metaphor. They’re interested in the drama, they’re interested in the excitement behind it.

“And I just think that now they’ve decided to become interested in women’s stories as well. So the two kind of go together.”

She adds that the existence of so many films about men boxing has resulted in the idea becoming somewhat stale.

“I love those films, but it’s a bit of a tired formula, so people are looking for something that is fresh, that is exciting,” she says.

“In a traditional boxing film, you will see women sitting at ringside, and that is it. And maybe they cry, and say ‘I want to give up boxing!’ but we don’t see the other side, we don’t see the story of the woman that goes in the ring.”

Away from theatre and film, female boxing as a sport is attracting more interest.

The week we speak, the biggest fight in women’s boxing history has just taken place – with Claressa Shields beating Christina Hammer.

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Claressa Shields (right) became a four-belt world champion after beating Christina Hammer

“Women’s boxing is on fire,” Shields said after her win. “I cannot wait to see the next super fight, whoever it’s between.”

Britain’s best-known female boxer Nicola Adams has previously told The Telegraph: “If we could get these sports on TV more, we could inspire more kids.”

But there are plenty of people who actively don’t want children to be encouraged to get into sports like boxing, because of the dangers involved.

‘Barbaric’

Writing in The Mirror in 2016, writer and broadcaster Dr Miriam Stoppard said: “I have always thought boxing is barbaric. Is it socially irresponsible to allow it to continue? In my book, it is.

“As a society, we deplore violence yet it’s ­justified in the context of boxing when it would otherwise be considered a crime.”

But Liburd argues: “What we see on the TV is not a reflection of what boxing is. We see these huge pay-per-view fights that are very much controlled by money.

“And we see the blood and the guts, but actually, most boxers, spend their days running and training.

“You have to have a high level of mental discipline and physical strength to keep going with the training.

“It’s incredibly technical as well… a huge amount of it is about the footwork, learning how to move quickly on your feet. That’s why we do so much skipping.”

For director Addy, the most exciting aspect of Fighter is the fact that real-life boxers from Fight For Peace will be having real fights on stage as part of the narrative.

The London-based group, which works with young people in communities affected by crime and violence, has teamed up with the production to supply extras for the show.

As a result, young boxers will be seen fighting or training in the background of scenes on stage.

“They’re boxers, they’re not actors,” Addy says. “So what’s extremely exciting for me as a director is that we have that authentic world, Libby’s authentic experience, and then the possibilities that are afforded by theatre.

“I’m still enjoying sort of pushing at that and seeing where we can, you know, where we can meld those worlds together.”

Fighter runs from 25-27 April at Stratford Circus.

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