What an amazing week in women’s boxing it has been for me. I had to pinch myself these past few days at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra as I witnessed something I thought I’d never see.
The women are finally being taken seriously, given a comprehensive national coaching program and benefiting from all the AIS facilities, from the dining hall to physios and dietitians and sport doctors and recovery centres. About time!
I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the national elite women’s boxing team, the Brazilian women’s team and the New Zealand women’s team by head coach Bodo Andreass, as they prepared to go to China for the world championships next month. I was there to do some fill-in sparring when needed, training and observing and I certainly learned a lot, not just from the girls but from the women’s coach Allan Nicolson Jnr, who unpacked the competition sparring in a comprehensive video analysis as each boxer tackled their opposite numbers from Brazil and New Zealand (teams pictured above).
How lucky I was to have been in this position without having to fight in selection trials to get there, and to still be allowed to play, despite my advancing years. I was so grateful for my second wind and the chance to mix it with the new generation. I can’t deny there was a tinge of envy, that I wished this had been available to me when I was coming up. But in the end, you can’t turn back the clock and I am so thrilled that there is now some enthusiasm, money and support for the women. So hopefully, no more false starts. Women’s boxing in Australia is out of the blocks.
It makes all those punches in the head count for something. Personally I always knew that the women would shine, but I also knew they couldn’t do it alone. Now they have the infrastructure and support I’m even more sure of their success since they clearly have the support of each other as well. Boxing is an individual sport but being part of a team, when you can boost each other, is also pretty special.
And these young athletes made me feel very welcome to join them, all from the Victorian flyweight Kristy Harris up the weight scale ladder to Bianca Elmir, Cherneka Johnson, Skye Nicolson, Jessica Retallack, Shelley Watts, Kaye Scott and Arlene Belncowe, who missed out on selection but proved herself to be someone to watch nonetheless as she took on the tough foreigners and impressed the coaches. All of them were warm and welcoming to me and I even managed to spar with Arlene and Cherneka. Coach Allan gave me some rounds on the pads, although it did cost me a cup of coffee. I’m sure I will be going back to Queensland before long to work with him some more. I found him to be a really calm and impressive communicator with the team, getting the message across effectively and firmly. It made me cringe at all the old school, abusive coaches I encountered in my early days, men who just liked to be bossy for the sake of it, telling you to do the opposite of what you were doing no matter what it was, just to assert their ego. Boxing is complex and coaching even more so. It was kind of daunting thinking about how I might handle it myself. But that seems to be the path I’m on.
The whole week I kept getting flashbacks to the days when I started and thought how I would have soaked up all this feedback like a sponge. And back then there were so few women it was hard to get fights but most trainers believed it was a passing fad and so were reluctant to take girls seriously, many thinking they had no place in the sport. Now here we were in Canberra, a group of young female boxers being taken very seriously indeed. Training and sparring with the women’s team from Brazil and New Zealand, being treated like boxers, elite boxers no less who would be representing their country! I don’t think there has been such a dramatic change in attitude in regard to gender as there has been in boxing since the mid 1990s when I began. And in many ways this Olympic year marks the start for the sport. I can’t wait to see where it will go.
I’d also had an amazing weekend before I left home, not just seeing Australian super featherweight Diana Prazak retain her world title but enjoying the company of some professional women boxers that included my hero and one of the women that features in my book The Sweetest Thing, Lucia Rijker and Australia’s Sarah ‘Missy’ Howett, a long time sparring partner and friend.
Diana had been training with Lucia – the most dangerous woman on the planet – in LA in preparation for her WIBA title defence.
Nat Fleischer, perhaps boxing’s most famous historian and also editor and founder of The Ring Magazine, named Rocky Marciano as the 10th greatest heavyweight champion ever.
There were flashes in Marcianao in Diana Prazak in her fight against Fatuma Zarika on March 20 in Melbourne, Australia. Zarika, in turn, was the re-incarnation of all the slippery fleet footed boxers through the ages. An evasive Kenyan with excellent skills, a little bit Mayweather, a little bit Sugar Ray with a good long jab but not quite enough fire power.
While Fleischer said Marciano was crude and lacked skill, Diana showed she had been picking up some important tools from Lucia making this her best outing as a ‘boxer’ so far, but it will always be in her nature to come forward and attack. She’s a fighter at heart who is fuelled by a desire not just to win, but to crush her opponent and she doesn’t really mind how messy it gets as long as the job is done. So far so good.
In this case it was a task easier said than executed as Zarika employed some phenomenal footwork, making herself a hard target for the Australian.
For Prazak, there was a lot riding on her shoulders. This time she wasn’t the underdog outsider trying to snatch the title from the champ as she did from Lindsay Garbatt in September. This time she was the champ. Furthermore she had a new corner, no less that the greatest female boxer ever. Prazak has always been walk-up, but now at least she does it with some dips and feints and sometimes Tyson-like pendulum swings. She was using angles, trying to work her way in with her jab, although there were also a few old Prazak-style leaps in later rounds.
Ultimately, it was her will, as always, that won the fight. Zarika had some great skills but against such a strong determination they weren’t enough
Final scores 98-90, 100-91, 98-91