Barbara Buttrick: The woman who boxed to the top

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Media captionBarbara Buttrick went from typist to boxer in 1950s Britain

When Barbara Buttrick started boxing in the late 1940s, women in the sport were regarded on a par with gamblers and prostitutes. However, the 4ft 11in Mighty Atom's career took her from the fairgrounds of Yorkshire to the boxing rings of the United States and - ultimately - the world title.

It was a chance encounter with a scrap piece of newspaper that led to Buttrick abandoning her job as a typist.

"I was trying to get a soccer team together and there weren't very many girls that would play soccer in those days, I'm talking about the 1940s," the 87-year-old grandmother said.

"One day I read an article about a woman that travelled with boxing booths and I cut the article out and said I'm going to try it."

That article, about prize fighter Polly Burns, was printed on newspaper she had been given by her mother to clean her boots with.

Image copyright Dana Goldstein
Image caption Barbara Buttrick started boxing in fairground booths around England in the late 1940s

Her parents in Cottingham, East Yorkshire, reluctantly gave her permission for her to take up boxing and she began getting work at fairgrounds, where she would challenge women to fight her in brightly-coloured sideshow booths.

Now confined to history, these had been popular attractions for more than 200 years and had launched many successful boxing careers.

After some time developing her skills, she headed to London in search of a trainer and female sparring partners.

It was there, at Mickey Woods' gym, that she found a trainer in Leonard Smith, whom she later married.

At the time, she was something of a minor celebrity, telling a TV interviewer: "Girls aren't the delicate flowers they used to be. Anyhow, my boyfriend doesn't mind."

Image copyright Pathe
Image caption Buttrick said in a 1950s interview: 'Girls aren't the delicate flowers they used to be'

However, opportunities for a female boxer were limited in 1950s England where it was regarded as an exclusively male sport.

"It was even hard to get in the gyms, you couldn't work out in the gym, they were really against anything like that," Buttrick said.

"It was girls don't do this and girls don't do that. I was just interested in it and I figured I should be able to do what I wanted to do, the same as any boy."

It was "on a par with getting drunk and with gambling and with prostitution", said Kath Woodward - a sociology professor who researches gender and diversity in sport.

"Boxing goes with being big, with being strong, with being brave - all these things which make up our ideal of masculinity," she added.

"But femininity is not made up in those ways, so for Barbara to have boxed was seen as threatening, because boxing is associated with all the things that go with being a real man."

Attitudes were more enlightened in the United States, though, and Buttrick and Smith decided to move there in search of promoters willing to put on her fights.

"The Americans were more open-minded about it, you couldn't do anything but box on the booths in England," Buttrick said.

Image copyright Pathe

She travelled around the US and - when they got to Miami - she began training at the legendary 5th Street Gym, where she met boxing greats Muhammad Ali and his trainer Angelo Dundee.

"He was Cassius Clay back then and he was just starting out," she said. "He was just a young lad."

Antonio Tarver, a former world champion light heavyweight who trained at the 5th Street Gym and featured in the 2006 Sylvester Stallone film Rocky Balboa, said it would have been an intimidating place.

"When I come here it's like hallowed grounds, I feel something special about the 5th Street Gym," he said.

"For Barbara, it had to be hard but she found her way, she made her path. A world champion, I can only imagine the things that she has seen, witnessing and watching the greatness. Her story needs to be told."

Buttrick fought more than 1,000 exhibition matches in the States, winning 30 professional fights, drawing one and losing just one before retiring in 1960.

It was in 1957 that she fought Phyllis Kugler, and won the Women's World Boxing Champion title.

"There was one fight that I lost, with Joann Hagen," Buttrick said. "But she was so much taller than me."

Image copyright Julia Bryson
Image caption Buttrick won the world title in 1957

After her boxing career, she stayed in the sport - founding and becoming president of the Women's International Boxing Federation in the mid-1990s.

She was recently the first woman to be inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.

Now she is returning to her roots as part of Hull's 2017 UK City of Culture celebrations.

A play inspired by her story is being performed there, focussing on a group of Hull women who put on an unlicensed fight night, aptly called Mighty Atoms.

Buttrick will also appear at Hull City Hall for a talk on Saturday, as part of a series of events called Wow Hull (Women of the World).

Her legacy in the sport is likely to be felt for many decades though.

When women's boxing was finally included in the Olympics at London 2012, Buttrick was there to see Nicola Adams win the flyweight gold for Great Britain.

"It's because of women like her that's made it possible for me to box today," said Adams.

"It was quite tough for me, women's boxing wasn't really accepted so I can't even imagine how hard it must have been for her to keep pushing, keep training and try to be taken seriously.

"I've got to say a big thank you to Barbara for paving the way."

You can see more on BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire on BBC iPlayer.

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