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Sports

Talking to the First Woman to Ever Present a Boxing Match

We caught up with BoxNation commentator Charlie Webster to talk about sexism, women in boxing, and Tyson Fury.
June 2, 2016, 6:49pm

A few weeks ago, the newly-crowned heavyweight champion of the world—Tyson Fury—faced the man he took the title from. An unamused Wladimir Klitschko joined the press conference for the pair's 9 July fight, based in Fury's home territory of Manchester, and began by announcing that his opponent should "fuck off." This precipitated a wide-ranging and often hilarious tirade from Fury. His response veered from existential woe to sudden shirt-shedding—wobbling his belly at Klitschko and taunting him for being beaten by a "fat man."

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It was amid this showboating that I first saw BoxNation presenter Charlie Webster, a lively, self-assured ringside presence. Webster is a relative newcomer to the dedicated boxing channel, joining as a broadcaster in January of this year. She hosts a weekly boxing chat show on the BoxNation site called Charlie's Web. But her repertoire as a sporting presenter is as seasoned as it is varied—from hosting live football for ESPN to women's boxing for the 2012 Olympics. In 2014, she became the first woman broadcaster to cover a live title fight. She's still the only one with that distinction.

Watching Charlie comfortably lead the post-conference interview with Tyson—a wily 6'9 bruiser with a winning smile but some truly contentious remarks about women to his name—I wondered how she navigated this macho world. We soon arranged a phone call to have a chat about her vibrant career—and all the experiences, good and bad, of being a female boxing broadcaster.

In 2010, when Charlie was breaking into fight broadcasting, she says, "The answer was a straight no. The answer was—the exact words—'I don't think the audience is ready for a woman in a male sport.' And I just kind of laughed. What was ironic was that at the time I was training in an amazing club called the Lynn, which is an amateur boxing club in London, and I was competing! It's obviously not a totally male sport."

Since adolescence, Charlie has been running marathons and training in boxing gyms. It helped her enormously as an angry teenager, she tells me. But even as a carded amateur boxer, she was often passed over for broadcasting jobs—sometimes given to men who had less actual experience in the ring. It only made her more determined.

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"I've had as many knock backs as I've had successes! It's about perseverance. […] I was really conscious of how little women were in it—I was with men all the time. Because apparently women don't know sports. That was strange to me. I was like, well of course I do. I don't understand. So I said, 'I will present in boxing.' I set that as one of my goals."

If the scarcity of women in boxing had a boiling point, it has to have been in 2012. During the London Olympics, in the first year where women were allowed to compete in the sport, Nicola Adams took home a gold medal. What better achievement was there to prove women belonged in boxing? Numbers of women-friendly boxing clubs across the UK had been rising steadily since the '90s, and finally, they exploded. There were over a thousand carded female boxers in 2012, up from only 70 in 2005.

But Charlie knows firsthand how daunting the perceived "male only" space can be. "I'm not gonna tell women who want to train in boxing gyms, 'Oh, it's fine! Just walk in!', because it can be intimidating. It really is. I've walked into so many intimidating situations where I've had to hold my head high, put my shoulders back, and think, 'It's OK! Be strong!' You almost psych yourself up before you walk in. I do that an awful lot. But I would say if a woman is interested in going to a boxing gym, do some research of where they'll be welcoming. At the Lynn in London, they have separate female changing rooms. And everyone who goes there knows it's equal, so it's very respectful."

There are still a fair share of barriers, both institutional and psychological. It wasn't until 2012 that the annual Boxing Writers' Awards even allowed women to attend—Charlie, wanting to provide coverage of the event, was refused entry the year before. Beyond that, the pressure that professional women feel—to be perfect in speech, appearance, and demeanor, and thus infallible to criticism—is significant.

"I had to be a million times better than my male counterparts," Charlie admits. And it can sometimes feel as though every appearance-related decision is fraught. Tall and slim, with a few modeling gigs to her name, it's not surprising that Charlie sends social media abuzz when she's ringside. But there's always the fear that to look too feminine is to be dismissed as a dollybird. She says, "When I was younger, I definitely altered my appearance because I was really conscious of it. I would dress down or put my hair up so it wouldn't bring so much awareness to the fact that I have long hair. So I would wear very little makeup, dress in jeans. I was really paranoid about it. Now I'm older I'm very confident in my own skin. But I do think differently when I go into boxing presentations, I think maybe I shouldn't wear heels, maybe I should wear flat shoes. But this is ridiculous, I still have to be on air. […] Now I'm just like … I look how I am. If people can't get over the initial physicality, that's their problem.

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"I have confidence in my abilities and knowledge as a presenter. I truly believe that passion comes across. As long as I show my passion and just be me, that will do the talking. That's what I'm finding now. Funnily enough, I just concentrate on that and it works, because that has changed people's opinions. I do catch myself thinking about my appearance, but then I think—no. I'm not going to change who I am, just because of old fashioned attitudes toward women. Because then I'm falling into that trap and nothing's ever going to change."

It's not news that professional boxing can be alienating to women. It's easy to conflate the sport with its less progressive figures, be that domestic abusers like Floyd Mayweather or convicted rapists like Mike Tyson. Charlie proves to be a heartening foil, working as an outspoken advocate for Women's Aid and Sport Respects Your Rights. Webster's fundraising activities for domestic abuse and anti-gender harassment charities have been heavily influenced by her own experiences.

"I was affected by it myself. I was sexually abused by my running coach as a teenager. I've seen a lot of abuse of women in my background. So one of the reasons I went into my career, I think, was to have a voice. I'm from a humble working-class background with a teenage mum, and I went through a really awful time as a teenager. So I was determined to show women can be strong and independent, and they have just as much right as any man does. That's my drive I suppose, being involved in those. I spoke at 'Sport Respects Your Rights', the big conference. I was the keynote speaker, and … funnily enough … I was speaking to a room full of men. I'm only one person, but I do believe one person can make a change, so I think I've still got to keep pushing for people who don't have a voice. Because I never had a voice when I was younger."

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Charlie continues to have that voice at BoxNation, where she credits the Frank Warren-owned channel with, "giving me a lot of free reign, as well as the position and opportunity to host world title fights. I hosted the Liam Smith and Terry Flannigan fight, where there were two world title bouts in the same night, so I did about 7 hours of live television. There was a complete trust that I could handle that and knew what I was doing."

Her position also holds the opportunity to provide unique insight as a journalist—delving into subject matter with fighters that could make male presenters hesitate. "I also did an in-depth, long interview with (middleweight champion) Andy Lee, and I think my approach was more […] emotional questions, or from the psychology side of things. Maybe as women we do think more like that, from the personal and emotional side. We all see them box, we know what they can do. But I want to see more than the gloves and the physical exterior. I want to know inside, because actually boxing is all about the mind and the heart. The motivations, where it comes from. And that's what makes it engaging as a viewer."

She'll also be live ringside at Tyson Fury's upcoming heavyweight title fight on 9 July—"interviewing him after he hopefully wins!" she tells me. Fury is one of her frequent interviewees. The boxer's reputation is predicated on motor-mouthed charm, crass unpredictability, and—yes —the occasional unhinged, offensive statement. How does she reconcile her fondness for him with some of his views on women?

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"I can say, hand on heart, he's a true gentleman, he's always been very gentlemanly with me. And some other boxers, who maybe haven't been as vocal as Tyson, have not been so. The way he acts—I've seen him with his wife, I've seen him with his kids, he's got daughters—I was presenting a fight a week ago and he was sat ringside with his daughter on his knee. The whole time he was cuddling his daughter and doing her hair. I think that is somebody who has respect for women."

"A few people have commented. 'How can you be talking to him with everything you speak about for women's rights?' And it made me think: Well, one it's my job. Actually if I'm not doing that, I'm not changing perceptions. Because I'm a strong woman, as a broadcaster, standing there and leading that show with him. By being there and showing my boxing knowledge and showing that women don't belong in the kitchen, those attitudes are starting to change. When I have done stuff with him, he doesn't look at me as a lesser person—which some other people in boxing do, because I'm a woman. So I think it's an interesting one. It's categorically wrong what he said, but I watch him and think, a lot of it is just show."

Being one of the only dedicated women boxing presenters in the country is not without its balancing acts —but Charlie's unalloyed passion for the sport is what shines through.

"Muhammad Ali taught me you can use sport for good and use it to get out of your environment. As a kid, I felt so impassioned by boxing, not just because I felt a massive release when I did it, and love doing it, but the intelligence behind it. It can do so much social good and give hope to people. Running and boxing really gave hope to me as a kid."

Things have almost come full-circle in that way. Young people who tune into Box Nation may find hope in the sport, but they'll also find the optimistic, outspoken female presence of Charlie Webster. She'll be there, toe to toe with their favorite fighters. If that's not hopeful, I'm not sure what is.