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Movie all the buzz at area gyms

"Million Dollar Baby," a new film starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank and directed by Clint Eastwood, is the talk of the gym these days, especially those frequented by female boxers.

"I think it's going to get a lot more women interested in taking up the sport," said Bud Lakin, who trains women and men at his Box A Round Gym in Stoughton. The movie, which met with talk of Oscar potential when it opened in a limited release last month, is playing at a downtown Boston theater and will appear on more screens starting on Jan. 28.

"We are hoping that the boxer in the movie is portrayed in a way that will help the sport grow even further than it has," said Julie Goldsticker, spokeswoman for USA Boxing.

At World Gym in Somerville last week, the handful of women in the gym and their trainers said they were excited about the movie.

Boxer Cheryl Houlihan of Norton said she was looking forward to seeing it, while her trainer, Doug Wear, said it could do a lot to promote the sport for women.

Swank's character, Maggie Fitzgerald, is an aspiring boxer. Eastwood plays a crusty, aging trainer and gym manager who takes her under his wing. Maggie, despite her inexperience and flawed technique, proves to be a natural. She eventually wins bouts against the top female boxers in the world.

While illustrating the exhilaration and glory of boxing, the movie does not shy away from the sport's darker side. It shows bloody faces and broken noses, and emphasizes the risks of more serious injury.

The movie, which opened in select cities in December to make it a candidate for this year's Academy Awards, is as much about relationships as it is boxing, but it takes women's boxing seriously. And for many years that has been the main goal of practitioners and advocates of the sport.

"Their training habits are identical to the men," said Wear, who lamented the lack of opportunities for female boxers. He said that while top male amateur boxers can get their expenses paid to participate in major fights, he must organize fund-raisers to help the women he trains go to the upcoming national championships in Colorado.

Lakin agrees that women can compete in the sport. "The women seem to concentrate and pay a lot of attention. They are very aggressive," he said.

Although women's boxing has been around since the early 1700s when they fought in organized events in London, the sport did not gain widespread acceptance until about 15 years ago. Before that, it was widely viewed as a marginal sport and sometimes treated as a sideshow.

Women were banned from USA Boxing until a landmark court case in 1993 forced the governing body of the amateur sport to accept them. The rise of women's boxing paralleled the growth of professional women's basketball and soccer leagues. In the 1990s, female boxers began appearing on televised cards, and some became nationally known.

A high point came in 1999, when heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila Ali, turned pro. Two years later, she fought Jacqui Frazier, daughter of one of her father's famous foes, Joe Frazier, in a pay-per-view bout. Ali won the spirited fight in front of 8,000 fans.

Increasing numbers of women today are taking up the sport. USA Boxing's female membership has grown from 1,872 in 2001 to 2,204 in 2004.

"They can fight just like men," said Wear, whose female fighters often spar with men. "You've got to get past the fact that they're girls because they'll take your head off."

Robert Preer can be reached at preer@globe.com.

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