Coach Amir Shafiy Pour training fighter Suad Salimova at The Champion Club, JLT, Dubai. Photo: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: Four years ago, Stephanie Banawa couldn’t throw a punch without following it up with an apology.

“Whenever my group would spar, and I would hit my opponent, I’d always say ‘sorry!’, because I was afraid he or she would get mad at me.” Today, those apologies are a distant memory, as Banawa, a communication executive based in the UAE, throws sets of ten punches in a row during one of her classes.

But it’s not just her boxing skills that have gotten better. She said: “Boxing has changed the way I see myself. I realise that I’m not weak, and I can actually do it. I became proud of myself as a woman to have these skills.”

Banawa, a 36-year-old Filipina, is one of the many women in the Emirates, who have turned to boxing for fitness, and gained so much more. Over the years, the sport has gained popularity. In the beginning, however, acceptance wasn’t so easy. The history of women’s boxing has always been a fight against stereotypes. Female boxers were denied licenses, and matches were banned in several countries since men didn’t approve of women fighting. It took decades for minds and rules to change.

Boxing’s popularity, however, couldn’t be stemmed. In the UK, the number of registered female boxers grew from 70 in 2005 to over 900 in 2009. It seems this trend has trickled down to the individual level, as amateur boxing has hit the mainstream.

So why are more women taking up boxing in the UAE?

Rasham Khan, who’s from Pakistan, said: “First, it starts out with physical benefits, but the mental benefits soon come in. I became more passion-driven and disciplined. Boxing became more than a workout; it was my release, a way to get rid of the stresses of the day. I even started craving it in my everyday life.” Now, she trains four times a week, and has been boxing for four years.

It seems boxing classes are cathartic. Negative emotions get purged from the body with every punch. Frustrated at work? Punch. Argument with your partner? Punch. Financial worries? Punch. Once that’s done, pent-up negativity has been replaced by a rush of endorphins.

Watch video: Women turn into boxers at The Champion Club, Dubai

Despite the sport’s many benefits, there are still those who question its suitability for women. Khan’s mother, for example, was doubtful about her training: “My mum used to tell me, ‘You’re a girl. Why are you boxing?’”. Still, the 27-year-old businesswoman was persistent and decided not to listen. “The two main things I do with complete dedication: work and boxing. Because of boxing, I’ve become more dedicated in achieving my goals.”

Tamara Omel, a female boxing instructor from Turkey, also had her detractors: “When I started, I had friends telling me it’s a man’s sport or it’s too tough a sport for women. I didn’t mind. I was in love with the sport, and I was focused on its physical and mental benefits.”

Perhaps it’s the challenging nature of boxing that sustains its attraction. It gives people an ‘I’ll-prove-them-wrong’ kind of attitude. They translate the confidence into their daily lives and things don’t scare them as much.

Amir Shafiy Pour, winner of three world titles in kickboxing and Muay Thai, agrees. Six years ago, the Swedish fighter co-founded The Champion club with his wife, who is also a boxer.

“Everyone experiences fear,” said Shafiy Pour. “It doesn’t matter how tough you seem to be. We still get the feeling of fear in our everyday lives. Boxing helps women diminish that fear. When your confidence levels go up, you’re more inclined to try new things and face challenges.”

His wife, Manelia Ghaemi, also noted how her self-belief improved: “Boxing makes me feel powerful. My self-esteem goes up, and that impacts how I deal with my family, husband, and friends. In martial arts, it’s all about focus and discipline. Learning to develop that is bound to boost your confidence.” Now 41, Ghaemi has been boxing on and off for 15 years. Her daughters, aged 13 and 11, are also learning how to box, with the encouragement of their parents.

For fighters, every class is like an accomplishment. One of Tamara Omel’s trainees, Hamda H.M., a 20-year-old Emirati student, has been training for four months and already feels a difference in the way she handles herself. She told Gulf News: “I went into boxing for health and fitness reasons, but it’s given me confidence. When I finish my session, I don’t just feel physically stronger, but emotionally and mentally too. It feels like an achievement.”

Clearly, boxing’s benefits go beyond the ring. Rooted in the principles of martial arts, the element of self-defence adds to the sport’s appeal.

John Barakeh, a Lebanese-Filipino boxing coach, said: “I got into boxing because I was being harassed and bullied by someone I knew. He broke my car window and once showed up at my door yelling threats. That’s when I decided to learn how to defend myself.” Even though Barakeh straightened it out with the harasser, the lessons of boxing stuck. “I’m completely against violence. I got into boxing purely for self-defence. But it’s empowering to know that you can defend yourself, which gives you confidence. It’s your armour against fear, and I can see why women are tapping into this feeling as well.”

Barakeh, started a boxing group with a friend in 2012. Now, he estimates that 35 out of 50 members are women. The group meets at Za’abeel Park twice a week.


Want to learn? Here’s what to expect

What should you do to prepare yourself for boxing class? It turns out, not much. According to coaches, the important thing is to just do it.

“Don’t be scared,” said Manelia Ghaemi, co-founder and coach at The Champion Club. “Injuries are a part of any sport or even physical activity, but you can avoid them if you train with the right people.”

However, just remember that boxing is not a light activity: “Boxing burns about 800 to 1,000 calories in a single workout,” said coach Tamara Omel, explaining why the sport produces fast results when it comes to weight loss.

MMA Fitness Center trainer, Milos Petrovic, added: “It’s a very high intensity workout that covers all muscle groups.” Petrovic also mentioned an inevitable consequence for one of his students: coming into work with a black eye.

While punching might appear easy, there’s more to it than meets the eye. John Barakeh, coach of Team Carnage, offered a reminder: “Form is key. You could injure your elbow if you throw a punch too far. Some people also hurt their wrists if they draw power from their fists. Strength doesn’t come from your arms or hands, but your entire body.”

Punches are all about the knuckle. In boxing, it’s not your fingers or your first that make contact; it’s your knuckles. The sport has four primary punches, and they’re classified by the direction and motion of the strike. There’s the jab, cross, hook, and uppercut.

For women who are thinking about picking up the gloves, Milos Petrovic offers his advice: “I say, just start and give it 100 per cent. Once you start, it’s up to you to determine how much you’re going to invest in yourself.”

Ann Uvero, a boxing student, on the other hand, kept it simple. “Just enjoy the pain,” she panted, having finished a round of sparring with her teammates, sweaty and smiling.



Five most notable female boxers


• Elizabeth Wilkinson is considered to be the first female boxer. Born in London, Wilkinson was a bare-knuckle boxing champion and active from 1722 to 1728.


• Lucia Rijker became the first female inducted into World Boxing Hall of Fame. This Dutch fighter was dubbed ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in the World’ and remains undefeated to this day.


• Ann Wolfe impressively won world titles in four different weight classes, all in the same period. Considered to be one of the hardest punchers in the sport, this American has won 24 of her 26 fights.


• Christy Martin’s brutal fight with Irish boxer Deirdre Gogarty in 1996 is still considered to be one of the best fights in history. In 2012, Martin survived an attempted murder by her own husband.


• Mia St. John is a Mexican-American boxer who won her first professional fight in 1997 by knockout in just 54 seconds.


- Information Courtesy/Boxing.com and Sporteology.com