“I’m relieved boxing has come out of the Stone Age”: Nicola Adams on the rise of the women’s sport

The Leeds-born fighter conquered the amateur scene and now has her sights on a world title.

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Nicola Adams is always upbeat – even while sidelined with a shoulder injury that led her to postpone her fight with Mexican boxer Arely Mucino. The injury is frustrating, she admits, but at the end of the day, “your body is your boss – if you push yourself, even with a minor injury, and that makes it worse, you’re facing months out of action, rather than weeks. I’d rather be patient and take my time with my recovery, than risk it all.”

For the fighter widely credited with bringing women’s boxing into the British sporting mainstream, Adams’s first steps into the ring were a matter of chance. When Adams was 12, her mother Dee took her two young children to an aerobics class. “It just so happened there was a kids’ boxing session on the same day, and the rest is history,” Adams tells me over the phone with a chuckle.

Growing up watching “re-runs of Muhammad Ali” and during the Box Office pomp of prize fighters such as Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson, Adams became “hooked” on the sport and its wider spectacle. “I loved all the press conference stuff, the glamour.”

At the time, women’s boxing was practically non-existent. While it had appeared at the 1904 Olympic Games in an exhibition match, it was not formally introduced as a competitive event until 2012.

“It’s mad that it was that recently,” Adams says. In England, women’s boxing was banned until 1996, when the Amateur Boxing Association of England (now England Boxing) allowed women to compete and join its affiliated clubs. The British Boxing Board of Control did not grant women licences to fight competitively until two years later, having previously denied them on the grounds that premenstrual syndrome made them unstable.

Despite its legalisation, women’s boxing still remained a niche pursuit – in part due to institutional stigma. Adams had her first fight in 1996, which she won, but had to wait another four years for her second. “There weren’t many girls to compete against.”

Does women’s boxing still struggle against its male equivalent?  “I think it did, back then. I don’t think it should… sport is sport and I don’t understand why anyone would want to say who can or can’t do it. If the sport is good, if you think boxing is good, why would you want to limit it to just one set of people?

“I could never understand why a girl shouldn’t be allowed to pursue a sport that she enjoys. It’s taken a lot longer for boxing [to launch a women’s field] … it’s come out of the Stone Age now. I’m relieved that it has.”

While Adams views the Olympic Games in 2012 as a turning point for women’s boxing, she says the struggle had been ongoing. “It was a long fight [to get the sport ratified], and it was the result of years and years of campaigning. It wasn’t just us [Team GB], it was the women’s boxing teams from all over – India, Russia, China, America… it became harder for them [the Olympic board] to say no. But even after we got it [ratification], there was still a problem. Making it an event was one thing, but then we had an added pressure to go and win it, to make a success of it.”

Compared to the men’s, women’s Olympic teams were significantly underfunded – yet the expectation of winning medals on home turf still existed, Adams says. “Whenever I went to tournaments as an amateur, I felt that I was fighting on behalf of women’s boxing as a whole. It was life or death. We didn’t have the same funding as the guys to go and do loads of training camps; we didn’t have the same facilities. But we had to win medals [at London 2012] to prove that we were worth investing in, which was a Catch 22.”

After the two other fighters in Team GB’s 2012 women’s boxing team, Savannah Marshall (middleweight) and Natasha Jonas (lightweight), were eliminated from their respective quarter-finals, the hopes of a medal on home soil lay with flyweight Adams. She won gold, defeating China’s Ren Cancan in the final.

“The pressure I felt then was pretty unique. Obviously now having turned professional, the pace of the sport is different and there are loads of new challenges, but back then, I was fighting to make sure that women’s boxing would definitely have a future.”

Four years later at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Adams won gold again, defeating France’s Sarah Ourahmoune in the final to become the first British boxer, of any gender, to defend an Olympic title in 92 years.

That Adams had set herself the target of winning an Olympic gold medal before women’s boxing had even become an Olympic event is characteristic of her ambition. “I didn’t want to take no for an answer.” That she went on to win two consecutively is indicative of her ability.

Adams turned professional in 2017 and has since won all five of her bouts, with three of those victories coming via knockout. Her fight against Mucino, the WBO flyweight champion, was due to take place on 8 March (coinciding with International Women’s Day).

Her current injury, Adams says, is a setback but won’t cause her to lose focus. “I’m obsessed with winning a world title. This is my first chance to do it. That’s my goal now. Muhammad Ali was an Olympic champion and a world champion, so that’s what I want to do too.”

As a black, bisexual woman in boxing, Adams is setting her own precedent – but she is a woman striving for benchmarks set historically by men. “To be honest, more so than race or my sexuality, I’d say the biggest challenge I’ve had in boxing is being a woman. That’s what the sport seemed to have the most trouble with. The fact that I was the first woman to do the things I’ve done was hard, but I was very determined.”

Adams doesn’t really like labels, though. “I’d rather be known as Nicola Adams the boxer, rather than as a female boxer, a bi boxer, or a black boxer.” While she says it was important to be open about her sexuality, Adams concedes that she doesn’t want this to be “the first thing people think of… that should be my performance in the ring”.

“But if my being open [about being bisexual] or my being black, or my being a woman, means that another girl who is any of those things has the confidence to go to the gym and pick up a pair of gloves, then yeah that is a very happy side effect,” she adds.

In a previous interview, Adams told the Daily Telegraph that she intended to become “the first woman to headline Las Vegas”. And she insists it’s still a realistic ambition. “I’m pleased to see how the interest [in women’s boxing] is picking up. We’re getting there. I don’t see why a woman, if she’s good enough to box at the highest level, couldn’t draw those big crowds and fill a big stadium.” 

If Adams wins her first world title, she says, the next step will be to “win another one, and another one… I’d want to unify the division… IBF, WBO, WBC… I want them all.” This confidence, though, should not be confused with complacency. Adams’s career is an advert for hard work and dedication. She remains respectful of her opponents, “because as women in boxing we’ve all had a long journey to get here”, but doesn’t see the sense in playing down her want to win.

“When I retire,” Adams says, “I’d like to have a trophy cabinet that I could look back [at] and be proud of. I want to be able to watch the Olympic Games and see female boxers coming through. I want to see women headlining big events. I want that to be normalised, not a novelty.” 

Nicola Adams will challenge Arely Mucino for the WBO flyweight title this summer.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman