Pushing boundaries

People ignore women's boxing because it makes them nervous

At New York's Madison Square Garden recently, Muhammad Ali's daughter broke her opponent's nose in the fourth round with a carefully placed left-right combination. "I always break noses. I love breaking 'em," the world super-middleweight champion Laila Ali explained.

Laila, who likes knocking 'em out even more than breaking their noses, has a lithe, light-on-her-feet, athletic boxing style that reminds you of The Greatest. Laila, who takes great care to be glam as well as strong, is the number-one female fighter in the world.

And yet, unless her father turns up ringside, there's not huge coverage of her bouts. Why? Because women's boxing makes people nervous.

No matter what you think of boxing, male or female - and even I who am greatly in awe of physical courage have my reservations - you will surely allow that female boxers, regardless of whether they want to be, are smack on the front line known as the gender boundary.

This is a frontier that all female champions must somehow negotiate on entering Sportworld. Gymnasts and beautiful tennis players get their passports stamped with the least hassle, but boxers? Well, theirs is still regarded as a "manly pursuit".

Bet you didn't know (I didn't until quite recently) that women's fights started in the 1720s in London. These were mauling, no-holds-barred events in which there were many injuries. The women would punch and use their feet and knees to kick their opponent's body anywhere, and the injuries were severe. A mere 270-odd years later, in 1998, women's professional boxing was licensed when Jane "the Fleetwood Assassin" Couch took the British boxing authorities to court and won.

As the advert says, we've come a long way, baby - and not just in boxing. In 1896, at the first modern Olympics, sport was deemed unsuitable for females. "Women have but one task: that of crowning the winner with garlands," said the insufferable founder of the modern Games, Baron de Coubertin.

Two world wars and half a century later, at the 1948 London Olympics, Fannie Blankers-Koen won gold medals for Holland in four events, including the 100 metres. The headline in the Daily Graphic read: "Fastest woman in the world is an expert cook".

Today, increasing numbers of women compete at top level, and women's sport has ushered in a revolution in how women look and feel and what they dare to do. In 2007, it is hard to imagine a world in which Ellen MacArthur had never set sail because she'd promised to do the washing-up, the marathoner Paula Radcliffe had stayed indoors to avoid catching a chill, or where Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams had stuck to doing embroidery.

Serena, the new Australian Open champion, explains that playing to an opponent's strengths is more satisfying "than if I beat them going to their backhand or whatever. I guess it makes me feel macho or something."

Every female sports champion I have ever met denies that she is a feminist. But there they all are, crossing that frontier. Like Hillary and Ségolène, who are running for the presidency of their countries, boxers like Laila and tennis stars like Serena are not just fulfilling their own ambitions: they are stretching the boundaries that limit all women's lives. There is a move now to get women's boxing into the 2012 London Olympics. I hope it succeeds.

Hunter Davies is away