Rhiannon Dixon: “You are only young once. I have got to try and give it everything.”
By Garry White
With two fights in as many months at the backend of 2019, Rhiannon Dixon was looking forward to a busy 2020. However, where the unwelcome advance of coronavirus may have stalled all progress between the ropes, it has instead placed undue pressure on other aspects of her professional life.
Outside of the ring, Dixon’s day job as a Pharmacist in an NHS hospital has led to her being directly on the front-line in the battle against Covid. The tagline might state that “Not all heroes wear capes,” but that should be extended to record that they don’t all wear boxing gloves and shorts either.
It is the modern way to eulogise sportspeople and their successes recorded within the strict parameters of games and their outlined rules. Success is routinely writ loud across television and social media, but for the last 12 months as the country has descended into a form of eerie silence, those whose vital efforts were once taken for granted have been thrust into centre stage.
Coronavirus has proved an elusive adversary, the battle a long one and in boxing parlance, it continues to be a war over the old 15 round championship distance, but with a complete absence of the Queensbury rules. The virus acknowledges no restrictions and fights dirtier than a thousand Rocky Marciano’s.
Amidst this unsettling mayhem, Dixon has stuck keenly to her task. Boxing by necessity has been placed on the back burner until hopefully, the green shoots of recovery bring with them new opportunities as winter finally gives way to spring. But before then there is still work to complete.
“I’ve been on Covid wards for quite a few weeks,” Dixon tells FightPost. Loads of people have been going off and there have been staff shortages. My manager has been good and knows where to put people in order to fill the spaces.
“We’re now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine and everything. Hopefully, we are starting to get back to a bit of normality soon. Our hospital cases are going down, we’ve got less than 200 in the Trust now, and one of our Covid wards has recently shut.”
This recovery mirrors the progress that is being recorded across the rest of the country as we all pin our hopes on the vaccine, to not only make us safe but as the only effective route to break through the ongoing isolation and to restore normal life again. But Dixon’s memories from the frontline are tinged with sadness, as the 25-year-old recalls the very real danger that NHS staff have looked squarely in the face for so long now.
“There was a husband and wife who worked for the Trust; they both had Covid and came on to my ward. It was shocking how they both deteriorated really fast and got sent to another ward for help with their breathing.
“It’s just mad. You can go and talk to a patient when they first come in and they are completely fine; just a bit breathless, and a few days later you can see them on palliative meds – and you think: ‘How has that happened so fast?’ People can just deteriorate so quickly.
“But you try not to dwell on things like that. You’ll just be upset all of the time and you won’t be able to get any work done. You just have to put it to the back of your mind and deal with it when you get home.”
There is a touching decency and modesty to the girl from Wigan. Smiles and laughter frame every aspect of our conversation. The serially unimaginative may suggest that she lacks the necessary ruthlessness to make it in the hardest of sports, but those bovine attitudes forget that boxing matches are not won by tough words and intense stares, but a willingness to push on every day step-by-step and round-by-round towards a target: physical or otherwise.
Late to the sport, the unbeaten lightweight has no amateur pedigree and has instead come up through the unlicensed white-collar boxing route. It is a route that those entrenched in the more familiar pathways of 11-year-old kids performing drills in dusty halls, sometimes find difficult to accept or comprehend. But equally, it is the same route that took Hannah Rankin to an IBO strap and a world title shot with self-proclaimed female GOAT Claressa Shields.
Dixon’s debut against Vaida Masiokaite was an impressive one. Screened live on Channel 5, she does though admit to some pre-fight nerves. “I hated the ring walk. It was horrible. The spotlight was on me and I had no idea when I was meant to walk. When I watch the fight back now, I just fast-forward through that part” she recollects, amidst more laughter.
But those nerves were quickly dispelled when the real action commenced. In a furious opening Dixon connected liberally with her outgunned opponent before dropping her with a fast-handed combination. Masiokaite ultimately recovered and saw out the four-round distance –a shutout in favour of Dixon- but it was an impressive debut that showcased her hand-speed, power, and slick footwork. The latter all attributable to a background in ballet, tap, and modern dance.
With just two fights under her belt the 25-year-old maintains high hopes for the future, but in the short term is desperate to have at least one fight this year. With positive covid tests causing fighters to drop out at short notice and the current difficulties in foreign fighters travelling, Dixon remains ever vigilant should a last-minute opportunity present itself. “I am ready for any opportunity,” she says. “I know I need to be ready at the drop of a hat, should one come up. I feel like it could happen any time, so I have to stay ready.”
It is a change in mind-set that she credits to new coach Anthony Crolla. The former WBA lightweight champion has been instrumental in completely changing her approach and outlook. Dixon recently opted to switch to ‘Million Dolla’ following a parting of ways with her old coach, whom she had been with since her white-collar days. “He has taken my training to a completely different level,” she says.
“He pays so much attention to detail; watching you on the bag and stuff and how you punch. He will pull you up on things he sees and suggests improvements all the time. Whereas in the past I was just left on my own to do whatever and was never corrected.”
Dixon has also developed her skillset by sparring women of the calibre of Natasha Jonas and current WBO and IBO super featherweight champion Terri Harper. Along with the now-retired Commonwealth titlist Stacey Copeland, she refers to them all as “amazing”. The respect that she has for them is self-evident, with the obvious goal to emulate their careers in due course.
Despite the overriding ambition to take her career to the next level, Dixon is modest about where she is now, the talent pool around her, and what she needs to do in order to move forward. “I’m probably going to be the underdog. But I enjoy that, anyway. The feeling that people are underestimating me,” she says.
“Girls move fast though and you see people fighting for titles after seven or eight fights. Hopefully, I can be in a position like that one day. But there are lots of really talented girls in the pro game; at lightweight and super featherweight there is much more depth in the division.”
It is this overall lack of depth that is so often used by detractors to knock the women’s game. No one can question the ability of the likes of Katie Taylor or Claressa Shields at the elite end, or Britain’s own current world champions: Chantelle Cameron, Savannah Marshall, and Terri Harper; but easy shots can be fired at the sports soft middle. It has necessitated fighters moving from novice prospect to championship contender with little to challenge or develop them in-between. A lack of experienced gate-keeper-type opponents has led to some horrible mismatches as boxers have been positioned for world title contention on televised shows. This has at times diluted what should be a highly marketable product.
Ironically, Covid and the challenge of bringing in fighters from overseas has led to some extremely competitive domestic match-ups, which otherwise may not have been made. Matchroom’s ‘Fight Camp’ series has especially led the way in positively showcasing the talent that exists in women’s boxing. “It [Fight camp] has been amazing for female fighters,” confirms Dixon.
“If you’d watched Terri [Harper] vs Tasha [Natasha Jonas] or Shannon Courtenay vs Rachel Ball – they were unbelievable fights to watch; so fast-paced and no one took a backward step or took their foot off of the peddle. They were amazing adverts for women’s boxing and it made a lot of people who previously didn’t like it change their mind.
“It’s a really high standard and they are amazing athletes to watch. On every Matchroom show there now seems to be a girl on the undercard or maybe as a co-main event. It’s great to see more girls on shows.”
Rhiannon Dixon is all too aware that if her ring career develops in the way that she hopes over the next 12-24 months that she may need to make some difficult choices. The life of a professional boxer and working on the frontline in the NHS are both demanding and not necessarily the most compatible of bedfellows.
However, you get the sense that the 25-year-old would be reluctant to ever fully turn her back on her current day job and the opportunity to quietly make a critical difference in people’s lives. “I spent too much time at Uni studying for my degree to just leave it. I love my job and helping people. I would love to try and stay doing it, but on the flip side, I don’t know if I’d be able to if I was fighting for a world title or something,” she admits.
“I don’t want to look back and think: ‘If only I’d put more into training, but I was too tired from work to give it my best shot.’ But I’d still keep up my registration. You never know what will happen after boxing. But I might need to have a little career break and focus on boxing.
“You are only young once. I have got to try and give it everything.”