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Dublin: 5°C Thursday 6 May 2021

'We're wearing a string-top and shorts. The men are boxing topless but nobody says anything!'

Irish model Judy Fitzgerald believes those calling for ring card girls to be banned from combat sports are missing the point.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH ring card girls amounts to brief glances up from ringside to see which round number they’re holding aloft before immediately averting my gaze back toward the screen on my lap.

This is largely due to the nature of a boxing writer’s job – the 50-or-so seconds for which these professional models strut their stuff in the squared circle coincides with the optimal opportunity to update an on-the-bell fight report – but it’s also for fear of inadvertently becoming some sort of pervy internet meme or GIF, such are the joys.

That’s the world we live in, but contrary to the claims of the usual ghouls who cry foul at political correctness in comments sections or, you know, on Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge, it’s still not that difficult.

It was inevitable that ring card girls – or at least the very concept – would one day be propelled into the public firing line by the conveyor belt of outrage; equally inevitable was the eventuality that, unlike darts and Formula 1 – which last week abolished so-called walk-in girls and grid girls respectively – boxing wouldn’t budge, not because it’s ‘the red light district of sports’ as once aptly coined by Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Cannon, but because it has no centralised governing body or promoter, and therefore is a sport not conducive to achieving consensus.

Its chief protagonists – female stars such as Katie Taylor and Claressa Shields notwithstanding – wouldn’t really be famous for their progressive views. Even its most gender-blind major facilitator, Eddie Hearn, who promotes the former, could scarcely be described as a feminist; he’s just not a complete misogynist either.

As Hearn recently told The42: “You’re still dealing with, I dunno, 20 or 30% of people who go, ‘[pulls face, puts on voice] Eugghh, women should be in the kitchen!’ And listen, I’m not the most politically correct guy ever, and you’re not going to see me campaigning for women’s rights, but don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about women’s boxing and men’s boxing. Just watch Katie Taylor.”

It’s hardly shocking, then, that contrary to the Professional Darts Corporation, of which his father, Barry, is president, Hearn has already set out his stall for all future Matchroom Boxing shows in light of this recent discourse: “From a boxing point of view, we want to keep the traditions of the sport going and in my opinion it has nothing to do with sexism or feminism,” he told GQ last week.

“It is just a part of boxing until we are told otherwise.”

Petitions bedamned. Tradition, be grand.

But what of the women who step in the ring not to trade leather but to be whistled, cheered and leered at? Their gig is safe where their darts and F1 colleagues weren’t so fortunate, sure, but as a last bastion of sorts, their position is bound to be judged more harshly now when viewed through the prism of feminism, or most strands of it.

Judy Fitzgerald is a qualified nurse, fitness instructor and lifeguard from Limerick who, through her modelling career, moonlights as one the leading Irish ring card girls in both boxing and MMA.

Both Irish fight-goers and the fighters themselves likely know her to see or to speak with; rarely over the past two years has there been a professional card in either sport which hasn’t featured Fitzgerald carrying cards between stanzas.

Having won Miss Bikini Ireland in 2014, Fitzgerald began her association with the fight game when she was voted to become a ‘BAMMA Belle’ by Irish Daily Star readers, making her professional debut of sorts in Dublin’s 3Arena at BAMMA 26.

“And then any time the Irish Daily Star needed ring girls, they’d get me in – essentially just to wear their logo,” she explains.

“Like, the outfits are always made with the logos on them. So I would have been a ‘Buzz Babe’ as well for boxing cards that were sponsored by the Irish Daily Star, and the outfit would have had the Buzz logo on them.

“Basically it’s like promo modelling – that’s all it is. Like, you’re just going around promoting brands. It happens plenty outside of boxing and MMA, as you know.”

“With all this stuff going on”, Fitzgerald adds, “and all these people giving out about ring girls, I put it up on my Instagram just asking people, you know, ‘what do ye think?’

“And one guy was like, ‘oh, it’s a pointless job.’ But it’s not: you’re wearing sponsors’ logos on your outfit, and when you hold the card up with the round number, there are brands that will have paid to have their logo on the back of the card.

“It’s a job, like. It’s fun. Going to all these events, people might ask, ‘oh, why do you do it?’ But it’s fun: you get to go watch a fight while you’re working, and you’re getting paid to do it as well.

“I really enjoy it. Like, we really look forward to the shows.”

And not unlike the combatants whose footsteps she retraces as they draw breath on their stools, for Fitzgerald, fight night is merely a culmination of multiple weeks’ work; neither she nor her peers can expect to merely turn up and perform to the peak of their powers.

Her night, just like the fight around which it revolves, is won or lost in the gym. But the fight game has opened doors aplenty for the 27-year-old Shannonsider – both professionally and personally. The hard yards and perspiration have paid dividends.

“We train really hard, too – people probably don’t realise that,” she says. “It’s like a goal that we have – you’re always working towards the night when you’re walking out in front of a huge crowd. We eat really healthily, we train hard.

“So, for example, I have a show now on the 3rd of March which is televisedLast Man Standing in the National Stadium – and then I have another one for Leonard Gunning [Boxing Ireland Promotions] on the 24th of March: Celtic Clash 5.

I’m looking forward to both of them, and it’s not as if the preparation is easy: I’m eating really healthily and will be for the next few weeks or months. I’m in the gym every day, training for both of them. But even with all that training, I can’t wait to go out there and do my job.

“On the day, it’s great craic – everyone looking at you and all that. We’d often get in the papers as well. It’s all good, like.

“I get my hair and makeup done, go in, get ready, and we just set up for the night. I’d usually be working with other girls as well, so there’s a social aspect to it: I’d see different girls at different events, and I meet new people at each show.

You make loads of work connections – not just from the modeling perspective. You make loads of new friends. I’ve made so many friends through boxing or MMA events that I’ve worked at. I just don’t see where the ‘bad’ in all of that is.

It would be unfair to suggest that the literal thousands calling for the abolition of Fitzgerald’s role believe there’s a downside to its social element. Instead, they take umbrage at what the role represents within a sociological context and, in many cases, the manner in which it’s represented in what remains a male-dominated sport.

And as convenient as a ring girls’ card might be for the frantic fight writer across the ropes, not to mention the tens or hundreds or thousands in attendance (as Fitzgerald explains: “Guys always ask us, ‘what round are we on now?’ They don’t know because they get so immersed in the fight”), it could surely be argued that their carrying cards to signify the upcoming round is a sinecure task in this day and age.

Fitzgerald’s own argument is that the entire issue – or non-issue, as she perceives it – is not particularly labyrinthine, and that as a general rule, people should tend to their own business before getting involved in hers or that of her colleagues.

“I just think feminists can be very narrow-minded,” she says. “I wouldn’t comment on someone else’s job – as long as they’re happy doing it leave them to it, like. I don’t read into anyone else’s life. I honestly don’t know why people do that.

“Surely the point of feminism is for women to be free to do what they want and wear what they want? Not to be shooting women down for doing something that they enjoy.

One person made the point that it’s the equivalent of strippers, but it’s not at all. We’re wearing a string-top and shorts in the ring; the men are boxing topless but nobody says anything about them, do you know what I mean?

“It’s a sports bra and shorts – it’s not like I’m prancing around the ring in my underwear or prancing around naked. Half of the people complaining would wear similar gear to the gym on a Wednesday evening.

“Do you know models? Like, Victoria’s Secret models? They’re prancing around in their underwear. I haven’t heard anybody calling for Victoria’s Secret models to be banned. Vogue will have women posing naked in their magazine, but again, there’s not a huge deal of controversy about it.

“So I just feel the people who have kicked up a fuss about models in darts or boxing are picking and choosing. They’re contradicting themselves.

“It can be jealousy as well, I think – just people who don’t do it or can’t do it trying to cause trouble. Maybe they’re bored.

“The darts girls as well, like: putting them out of work? These people who are up in arms about what they do don’t realise that a lot of these women might not have another job. That’s really bad.

They should just focus on their own lives and stop worrying about other people’s lives. They should stop trying to put people out of work. How is that empowering women?

All of this said, it would be negligent not to point out that in Fitzgerald’s east-coast gig (she works as a nurse in Limerick having graduated from UCC, but commutes to Dublin for modelling), she encounters ample oafish conduct from vocal fight attendees: cat-calling, wolf-whistling – the type of behaviour that, for most bystanders who have read literally anything over the past couple of years, makes for no more comfortable viewing within the confines of a fight arena than it would if one saw it take place on a public street.

Where ‘tradition’ is concerned, old habits – however frowned upon now – naturally die harder.

Fitzgerald, though, embraces the attention, however unwanted it would doubtless be for most. In the looking-good industry, she maintains ‘looking goods’ and swit-swoos come with the territory.

“We’re providing entertainment, really,” she says. “When we go in the ring, people would be cheering us on, standing up and clapping and everything; little kids always come up to us afterwards and get photos with us. We go around with the belts on, taking pictures, that kind of thing: it just brings a bit of entertainment to the show after fights.

We’re models, you know? We know what we’re getting into, and we probably like that whole element of attention. It means you’re looking well, like, or you’re doing a good job. It’d be worse if you went in and they started booing!

“You’re training so hard… You have to be fairly sporty. People might not like it, but the truth is that if I was really heavy and I walked in as a ring girl I’d be booed.

Cheering or whatever, from the crowd – it’s just like they’re recognising that I look well, which is the result of me working hard for weeks to get fit. If I’m looking physically fit, I’ll be cheered on. If people are saying ‘you look good’, I don’t see what the problem is.

Niamh Fitzgerald Judy Fitzgerald at Dublin Racing Festival, Leopardstown Racecourse Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Such is her unwavering stance, I ask Judy if there has ever been a moment – be it in the boxing ring or the MMA cage – during which she has been made to feel uncomfortable.

Sure enough, she throws a bolo punch in response:

Yeah. From girls, you’d sometimes get looks. If there’s a boxer and he asks to get a photo with you, you might get a few looks from his girlfriend, you know? But that’s about it.

Suffice to say not everyone shares her viewpoint, not that she’s particularly perturbed. Indeed, even within her own social circle, there can be cordial differences in opinion:

“My good friend is a passionate feminist”, Fitzgerald says, “and she’d be really into all that. I just don’t take any notice of the criticism. I don’t criticise anyone else’s profession; I don’t criticise what they do with their time.

“She’s never really said anything about ring card girls because, I suppose, it’s more of a sporty thing, so she’s fine with that. But when I started, I did bikini modelling: she didn’t like that at the beginning.

“She said that it was setting a bad image and that it was objectifying women.

I don’t think it is. I don’t think bikini modeling objectifies anyone. You could wear a bikini to the beach, you know? Like, I’m a qualified lifeguard. I’ll wear a bikini while I’m doing that. Am I objectifying women or am I just there to potentially save someone’s life?

“Again, it’s not as if I’m naked. Some people are just very narrow-minded.”

Image-14 Ryan Burnett and Judy Fitzgerald

Before she heads back to her nursing shift, I ask – for the sake of argument and/or equality – if women’s fights should see a male equivalent carry cards into the ring between rounds – as one famously did during a Katie Taylor exhibition amateur bout many moons ago.

“I wouldn’t say no to it!” she replies. “I have a friend who used to be a ring card man, like. It has been done, and people didn’t say anything to them. People generally don’t comment when a man poses in shorts and no top.

“My friend who did it would be into modeling and fitness, similar to myself, and actually he was supposed to be fighting on the card at the time but he got injured, so they just made him a card boy.

“He did a good job of it! Maybe more ring card men might keep all the people who are complaining happy.”

Maybe not.

“They obviously have nothing better to do with their lives,” Fitzgerald adds. “I actually don’t have time to be worrying about them.

As far as I’m concerned, women should be free to do whatever makes them happy without having narrow-minded people judging them.

Almost half of people don’t want to ban ‘ring girls’ from Irish boxing matches

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