I didn't think I'd make it through watching my first boxing tournament – the GB Amateur Boxing Championships at York Hall – without slamming my eyes shut, but not once did I act “like a girl” and resort to peeking through my fingers.
Even though amateur boxing – unlike pro boxing – is more about skill and precision than knocking out your opponent, it's perhaps not as ladylike to watch two men get hit in the head and torso as say, a trip to the ballet or a nice game of tennis. So, if you're not a ringside mother or girlfriend, what's the appeal for women?
It's obvious why men go to tournaments: they wish they were in the ring. I'm wildly generalising here but men like a good fight whereas women would rather everyone just talk things over. Yet there are plenty of female fans of the sport.
Looking around at the women making up about a quarter of the audience at the Bethnal Green venue, I found it hard not to assume that the women were turning up to matches to fawn over muscly boxers who can “take it like a man” just as much as to appreciate the timing and agility of the competitors.
Boxing clubs might even be the new hunting ground for a burgeoning breed of young heartthrobs, an antidote to the all-too-common city-dwelling metrosexual. In her latest video, Rihanna took a shining to Hackney model and ex-boxer Dudley O'Shaughnessy, who was the welterweight champion in last year's Amateur Boxing Championships at York Hall.
She handpicked him to star as her love – or rather, lust – interest in the video for her latest single We Found Love, best described as three minutes of sex, drugs and RnB.
O'Shaughnessy might throw Rihanna around the bedroom in her music video but boxing matches aren't just brutes on parade – let's give boxers and their fans a bit more credit. What woman wouldn't be intrigued by the guy who has a tougher, darker side but with the discipline to play by the rules most of the time? When the matches finish the boxers are complete gentlemen, but during rounds it can feel like all hell is about to break loose up there. Watching the bouts, the shouting crowds and testosterone-fuelled atmosphere were, for me, a pretty satisfying jolt to a schedule of the same-old "civilised" activities in London.
“It gets your adrenalin going, especially when you know what's at stake for the individual boxer in each nine-minute bout,” says one female fan, Lucy, who watched this year's Championships with an all-male group. “I do sometimes sneak a glance at their biceps or back muscles. Men look at sportswomen's bodies so why shouldn't we do the same?”
I found just as much drama and tension in boxing as any other competitive sport. Add to that the larger than life characters and well-trained bodies to look at and suddenly you don't have to be an airhead or a complete tomboy to enjoy it. And there are plenty of places you can experience the sport too. If pin-ups like O'Shaughnessy have made you think twice about the boxer stereotype or you missed out on tickets for the now sold-out boxing competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games, York Hall and Bethnal Green are good places to experience the sport as it has a long tradition in the East End. Otherwise, amateur boxing clubs are dotted all over the capital – from Earlsfield and Angel to South London's T47 where King's College Amateur Boxing Club and other student clubs compete in the tunnels of London Bridge. Just be warned – it might get you itching to go a few rounds yourself.