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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Night at the Fights

It is perhaps the world's oldest sport. Two warriors face off in a test of strength and stamina. The Moscow Times looks at the newest variant on an ancient art.

Story by Chloe Arnold.

Photos by Huub Golsteijn

It promised to be an evening of light entertainment. According to a spokesman at the Russian Boxing Federation, this branch of the sport is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among 15- to 25-year-olds. Music, beer, a little sport -- what better way to spend a relaxing Sunday evening in Moscow?

Upstairs, the maintenance men are knocking the ringside posts into their slots. The referee stubs out his cigarette and taps his microphone. In the cramped dressing room downstairs, the team goes through their practice routine a final time.

"OK girls. We're almost ready to go," shouts their trainer. "And remember, give it all you've got."

Once a month, Masha, Dasha, Inga, Oksana, Ira, Katya, Sveta and Lena put away their books, slip on their gloves and head down to the Sports Bar on Novy Arbat for the only all-female boxing competition in the capital.

"I do it for self-defense," says Lena, adjusting her emerald G-string. "It's a really good way of keeping fit."

Behind her, Masha and Dasha, both 15, are fixing their eye shadow, and Oksana, who studies nuclear physics at the Institute of Energy, is squeezing her ample bust into a shred of sequined lycra.

"Please don't talk to the girls," says their trainer. "They need to concentrate before the match."

Sasha, 33, is tall and scraggy, with arms that seem to reach as far as his knees. His lank hair is pulled back from his pockmarked face with an elastic band.

Meanwhile, there has been a slight hitch because the DJ has not arrived. The girls lounge on the rows of empty beer kegs that line the basement walls, ignoring a pool of vomit in the corner. Sasha paces the corridor, cursing into his mobile phone.

"I told him 10 o'clock," he hisses. "What about the audience? Have we got many? They're not fighting unless the room is packed."

Forty minutes later, the girls are still there.

"Sasha says we shouldn't fight to half a crowd, because we don't get as much encouragement," Inga says. When she isn't in the ring, she studies aerobics and boxing at the Physical Training Institute. Masha and Dasha have stopped performing the Heimlich maneuver on each other, and are now fighting to stay awake. They have school in the morning.

At 11 o'clock, Sasha makes a decision. He picks his nose with a long, bony finger, drags it along the clammy wall behind him and calls the girls to attention.

"Right, we're on," he shouts, and the girls follow him up a spiral staircase for the showdown.

Hans Klepper, a service manager at Trane Air Conditioning, is talking shop with a client at the bar. Behind him, Masha and Dasha are already into their fourth round, but Klepper is more interestedin his pint.

"That's not real boxing," Klepper says. He should know. Twelve years ago, he was a boxer in Amsterdam. "In any case, women shouldn't box. I love women. They shouldn't hurt each other."

Interest in the match is flagging. As the Hungarian businessman and his Belgian colleague leave the ringside, Sasha frowns.

"Get these two off," he whispers to the fat referee. "Let's try Oksana and Inga."

If this were Phat Phong, Bangkok's red-light district, the girls would be hemmed in by tourists, who would climb the walls for a better view. But this is Moscow, the girls half-think they are in the competition to win, and the nightclubbers are, frankly, bored.

"I've been here once before when they had boxing," says Dido Harran, a Lebanese student in his final year at the First Medical Institute. "It's sort of exotica, but the girls should be better at what they are doing. They aren't getting into it enough."

At the climax of the show, Sasha pits Inga against one of the girls from behind the bar. This time, however, it isn't a predetermined match. The bargirl is three times Inga's weight, has thighs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and clearly wants the title.

The crowds stirs to watch the fight.

"Come on, girls," shouts the fat referee. "Are you going to bite each other? Hey, everyone out there, do you think they should bite each other?"

The boxers lined up on the bench behind him, makeup smudged across their faces, cheer for Inga. Sasha is bouncing on the balls of his feet. Only now is he beginning to relax.

In the ring, Schwarzenegger holds Inga in a half nelson. She tries to kick back, but the grip is too tight. Schwarzenegger pushes her onto the floor and punches hard.

"Shall we call it a day?" the referee asks Sasha. He muses for a moment. "Wait," he says. "Let's give it a couple more minutes."

Afterward, the girls file back down to the basement and climb into their ordinary clothes. The youngest of them get paid 30 to 40 rubles ($5 to $7) a night.

"Sasha says it all depends on how active the audience is," says Masha.As they gather up their bags and head for the last metro, Sasha pats each of them on the shoulder.

"Good work, girls," he tells them, pulling on a long, black overcoat. "Sleep well, and see you all next time."