When you’ve been in boxing as long as Alex Morrison has been in boxing, you think you’ve seen it all.
Then comes the call: “There’s a wee girl from Kiribati who’s competing in the Commonwealths and wants to train at your place. And have you got any women she can box? She’s never fought one of them before.”
Not only had Taoriba Biniati only ever boxed men, until she arrived at Morrison’s Glasgow gym last Monday she had never been in a ring. The Kiribati boxing club consists of a punch bag hanging from a breadfruit tree.
Morrison is the manager of former two-weight world champion Ricky Burns and has been promoting boxing in Scotland since the 1970s. In short, he is made from girders. Albeit soft ones. When he first saw Biniati, he wanted to adopt her and take her home.
“Unfortunately, I’ve already got five kids, eight grandkids and two great-grandkids,” said Morrison. “But I felt sorry for her. She looked kind of vulnerable, but I think she’s harder than she looks.”
Biniati flew out of Kiribati with only the uniform she was wearing and a pair of trainers. When Morrison saw what she and her two male team-mates had on their feet, he sent one of his boys out to buy proper boots.
Alas, he couldn’t find a woman for the 18-year-old to spar with, so Biniati had to spar with more boys instead.
Kiribati is a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean with a population of a little over 100,000. It is beautiful, but it is also disappearing. Scientists believe that, within 30 years, it could be submerged by the rising sea.
Derek Andrewartha is a former Hampshire police officer creating a boxing legacy for Kiribati. A short legacy, it would appear, but one that will live long in the memory.
“We advertised for a female boxer to join our club and maybe compete in Glasgow,” said Andrewartha, who visited Kiribati as a volunteer 47 years ago, fell in love with the place and never left.
“We laid on food and drink and thought there would be queues of girls, but we waited and waited. A couple of weeks later, a government minister turned up with this little girl and said she’d like to box.
“I hit her in the face – not hard – and said: ‘How did that feel?’ And she said: ‘Fine’. She comes from a very poor family, but she’s a lovely person.
“She has to spar with the boys and the problem is they’re too shy to hit her. I wish they would sometimes, it would wake her up. But she does the best she can with what she has and trains as hard as we want her to.”
Biniati’s coach is Tarieta Ruata, who represented Kiribati at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, losing his first-round light-heavyweight fight to Welshman Jermaine Asare.
Also in Ruata’s team is middleweight Andrew Kometa and light-welterweight Toaua Bangke, who lost their first-round bouts on Saturday.
But for the old boys in Morrison’s gym, some of whom witnessed a cocaine-addled Mike Tyson spark out two sparring partners in one night before his fight against Lou Savarese in Glasgow in 2000, it was only ever about Biniati.
When she wasn’t sparring, she flitted around the gym, wide-eyed with curiosity. Every now and again, one of the locals would sidle over and pat her on the head.
Biniati has a smile so sweet she makes Nicola Adams, Britain’s Olympic champion, look bitter and twisted.
“When we first arrived, we all went to the supermarket for some shopping and she kept wandering off,” said Andrewartha.
“Then when we first came to Alex’s gym, she disappeared for ages in the ladies’ changing room. When somebody went to find her, she was standing in front of all these mirrors, mesmerised.
“She was a little bit nervous when she first arrived, as was I. This part of Glasgow has a reputation for being tough. But everyone made us welcome. It’s amazing how kind and generous people can be.”
The day before last week’s official weigh-in, Biniati was more than two pounds under the lightweight limit and Morrison, worried she might get hurt, was secretly hoping she’d miss it.
“I hoped she wouldn’t make the weight and be pulled out,” he said. “But I think she was hiding a bit at the start out of shyness, because she’s got a lot better. She’s capable enough.”
After bulking up with protein drinks, Biniati made the required 67kg. And then came the fight, against rangy Mauritian Isabelle Ratna. Bright lights, whirring cameras, two thousand people. Fingers crossed.
I had hoped this would finish with a fairytale ending – and in a way it was. Biniati was outclassed over four two-minute rounds but fought gamely and made it to the final bell. Not bad for a kid who learned her trade on a punch bag hanging from a breadfruit tree.
“She’s just a bit sad,” said Andrewartha afterwards, as Biniati wiped tears from her eyes beside him.
“She’s done a great job for her country in her very first fight and her hope is that more girls will come after her. I thought she was awesome.”
By Ben Dirs
BBC Sport in Glasgow