Sarah Shephard: “Hopefully, that has opened a lot of people’s eyes to how good women’s boxing is.”
By Chris Akers
The end of 2020 brought good news for Sarah Shephard as Born Fighter, the autobiography of former Muay Thai world champion, now professional boxer Ruqsana Begum, which she co-wrote, was nominated for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.
The process by which it came to be published is involved a lot of perseverance, faith from others in the work, and is a lesson for anyone wanting to publish their own book in the future.
“A mutual friend put us in touch, as she knew that Ruqsana wanted to write a book and that I had written a few books and had an interest in fight sports,” explained Shephard. “She thought we would make a good match. So we met up for a coffee. She felt like we got on well, which was great. Put a proposal together, which is a draft chapter, a chapter outline of how you saw the book going, and we worked with a literacy agent to try and get a book deal. That didn’t happen for a year.
“Eventually the first literacy agent gave up after trying to get that deal. I sat on it for a while as I was busy working and I didn’t really know where to go next with it, I approached another literacy agent who I know and trust. I showed it to her and said ‘Be honest with me. Do you think this is worth still perusing?’ She read it and said ‘Yeah. I know a few people who I’d want to show this to.’ So I left it with her and she managed to get a deal with Simon & Schuster. The first literacy agent had also got to Simon & Schuster, but to a different editor there.
“That’s how fickle the publishing world can be. You just have to get it in front of the right person, because even if it’s the same publishing house, if it’s a different person and it doesn’t pique their interest for some reason, it can make such a difference. But this editor, it resonated with him for several reasons and he got it. And that is all it took.”
And soon after that book received richly deserved accolades, Shephard has written another book, this time aimed specifically for children, about Serena Williams. How did that come about?
“I loved doing that book,” she says, the enthusiasm for writing it clear in her voice. “So that was through the same literacy agent that got the deal for Ruqsana’s book. What happened is the publishers went to her and said that they want to do another book in this series. They already had this series called A Life Story, with various scientists like Stephen Hawking and other people who have made a real impact in terms of the world we live in.
“They said that they want to do one on Serena Williams, do you know anyone who could write it for us? And the literacy agent knew that I’d covered tennis a lot in the past. I’ve interviewed Serena a few times, and she came to me and asked if I’d be interested. And I thought that I’d love the opportunity to introduce Serena to a whole new generation of kids, who might have seen her on TV now, but won’t know where she came from or how hard she worked to get to where she is, and the whole story of her and Venus. So I love the idea of being able to do that. It’s a real privilege and I loved doing it. It allowed me to get stuck into her career from the very beginning and go back through it all, which is such an amazing story.
“I enjoyed writing for that age group, nine to twelve-year-olds. So I’d love to do more of that if the opportunity arises.”
When asked if there are any more books in the pipeline, that currently is not the case and that her focus is not her day job.
“At the moment, I’m focusing on The Athletic. It’s difficult writing a book with a full-time job because writing a book is a full-time job,” she laughs. “It means that you lose any downtime that you may have had and that’s quite hard. So I decided I’ll probably have a little time off now before the next book, as I’d definitely like to do more books.”
A few weeks after this interview was conducted, the UK government announced a map out of the lockdowns of the last twelve months. However, some of the effects of this pandemic will linger in the short to medium term. Concerning boxing, what does Shephard think will be the long-term effects of the last year on the sport?
“My hope will be that we see less of the passing time fights because boxers realise that time is of the essence and they need to make the most of their time in the sport. So many of them have lost a year of their career. So I would hope it’s that. Also, maybe the money side of things will level a little bit because I think Eddie has admitted that purses had got a bit out of hand, although in the next breath he’ll say that Fury-Joshua is a £200 million fight!” she says amidst laughter. She circles back to women’s boxing and how the last year has helped popularise it to a wider audience.
“Hopefully, the way women’s boxing has come out of the pandemic, some of the most memorable fights of last year were women’s fights. Hopefully, that has opened a lot of people’s eyes to how good women’s boxing is. It’s just boxing. It’s not a different sport. I know the rounds are shorter and there is lots of debate that can be had around that. But it’s very entertaining. Often the fights are just as entertaining as the men’s. Just like men’s boxing, there are fights that are less entertaining. That’s the sport. So if you enjoy boxing, then I don’t know why some people say they don’t like women’s boxing. It’s just boxing.”
Boxing is as popular as it has been for a while. But it is not perfect. So as a final question, what is the one change Shephard would like to see in boxing which no one is talking about? She pauses, before touching in part on a point that was made in the second part of the interview, about the opportunities fighters receive.
“I would like to see structure in terms of who gets opportunities. In other sports, you work your way up a ranking list. You get to a certain place and then it makes sense for the top two people to compete against each other. Just simplify the sport in that respect, so that people who deserve opportunities to fight for a world title get them. They can’t be written out of the scene because they haven’t got the right promoter or the right follower. I would like to see it be more of a meritocracy. I know it’s highly unlikely, but in a dream world I’d like to see it happen.”