Rachel Ball: “I’ve always appreciated the opportunities I have been given.”

Rachel Ball: “I’ve always appreciated the opportunities I have been given.”

The night before our Zoom interview Rachel Ball was in Sheffield to cheer on her friend and stablemate Katie Healy on her professional debut. Ball came prepared for the Yorkshire weather, the size of the umbrella would have allowed for sharing, but she was in no mood for such pleasantries, the umbrella firmly gripped, the only protection from the elements. The weather lashed down as Healy made a successful debut, Healy slipped at times, even the ring no solace from the rain, but she navigated her opponent and a few extra obstacles to get her career up and running, Ball was impressed by what she saw:

“Katie did really well. I made my debut against Claudia, she’s very experienced as an away fighter, she knows what to do, how to frustrate people. So with all the circumstances, the wet canvas, we thought that the fights would get called off at one stage, I thought she did very well.”

After a whirlwind 2020, two big wins on Matchroom promoted shows, 2021 has so far been a tsunami of disappointment and frustration. Ball caught Covid earlier in the year, and despite being at the peak of physical fitness, the recovery was long and worrying. Days turned into weeks and then months, a scheduled rematch with Shannon Courtenay for the vacant world bantamweight title had to be put on hold while Ball recovered. It was a time of concern, a professional athlete can’t function or perform with such a dilapidating condition. A career was very much at risk.

Dr Michael Gonevski at the Midlands Diving Chamber in Rugby made contact with Ball and told her about a trial for Long Covid sufferers. Ball agreed to participate in the trial and for two weeks, seven days a week her ritual was 90 minutes in a Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber. Recovery has been swift and dramatic and Ball is now back in the gym in preparation for her return to the ring in the summer:

“Last week and this week I have been full on training. Hopefully, I will be fighting in the summer so my fitness is where it should be at this stage. My strength has come back really quickly so I have just got to get fitter and fitter now and get my weight back down.”

The time out has reignited her hunger, and she is a fighter determined to make up for lost time:

“I’m a lot more hungry now after all the time out. It’s made me a lot more driven now.”

Ball has always been the type of fighter to fully appreciate everything that has come her way over the past year or so. Coming from a background of needing to sell enough tickets to get paid, something she didn’t always manage, Ball understood better than most life in a pampered Matchroom bubble. But the serious health issues of the last few months have brought a new meaning to the previous highs:

“I’ve always appreciated the opportunities I have been given, fighting on Fight Camp and everything else. When I fought in November Eddie Hearn made a comment that I always seem so happy to be here and said when will this be your reality. But I always understood how fragile life is so I have always appreciated things, so I have always been really grateful for everything. Looking back I am so glad that I was really excited to go into the bubble and embracing every moment. So even if I don’t get to see it again I can say I really enjoyed my time there.”

After beating Courtenay last August, Ball returned in November on another Matchroom card and it should have been her crowning moment. Ebanie Bridges was the original opponent for the vacant WBC world bantamweight title, but when Bridges withdrew with a shoulder injury, the search commenced for a last minute replacement. Jorgelina Guanini replaced Bridges but couldn’t make the weight as the fight neared, and Ball had a stressful fight week not knowing if the fight was on or off. Eventually, the match was given the green light, but only for the vacant WBC interim super-bantamweight title. Ball put the week’s problems to one side and impressed in winning by a wide margin on points, but in many ways, it was a week from hell for her:

“I was still pleased with my performance, I think I improved from my fight in August. All the other stuff with my opponent’s weight was out of my control, at one point the fight was off so I was just glad to still have a fight in the end. But it was a bit of a nightmare week to be honest with you. My kit didn’t come until the day before the fight which really stressed me out. All my photos had me in my old kit which had different sponsors on so it was a complete nightmare and along with the whole weight issue as well.”

Courtenay recently beat Bridges to claim the vacant world title, Ball this time the unlucky fighter who had to pull out of the scheduled fight, and Bridges came in late to benefit from the misfortune of Ball. The likelihood is that Ball will now fight Courtenay again later this year, a fight both need, to move on from each other:

“We are just waiting for the details to get finalised but it will probably be in the summer, but nothing has been confirmed as yet. When people talk to us, we constantly get asked about each other, so I think we need to nip it in the bud really. God help us if it ends up being a draw, I think we will both be happy to move on.”

The fight last August was another great advert for women’s boxing, Ball dropped Courtenay in the opening round, and won a close decision much to the frustration of the Courtenay camp:

“Their party wasn’t happy about the decision but that was out of my control. I went there as the away fighter and I still got the decision, and that doesn’t always happen. I know that doesn’t make the home fighter very happy, but that’s boxing. I knew it was going to be a risky fight going there as the away fighter, I’ve done that previously and I’ve gone away as the person who has lost a close decision. I did it gracefully and I don’t keep talking about it. You just have to get on with it, it’s boxing, sometimes you win sometimes you lose.”

Ball showed big improvements in the November fight and is the fighter who has the look of a fighter who could improve further still. Ball probably could have used her height and reach advantage to greater effect in the first fight, and if she manages that in the rematch with Courtenay, next time the Trojan fighter might leave no doubt. Ball is still improving and says she hasn’t seen many signs of improvement in her probable next opponent:

“I haven’t really seen any improvements in Shannon. My fight in August and then my fight in November there was a stark difference and I think everyone saw that. I am driven to improve. Obviously, it was a different fight and a different style for me but there was a lot of improvements for me and I didn’t see that in Shannon. But we’ll see what she brings if and when we meet again.”

Ebanie Bridges has become a friend of Ball, and being a possible future opponent hasn’t stopped the friendship from developing. The Australian stayed in the UK for a number of weeks and went up and down the country visiting gyms, and ended up in the Midlands to meet up with Ball one Sunday afternoon last month:

“Ebanie is a great person I really like her. I really enjoyed spending the day with her. She took time to speak to the public, the fans and the kids at the gym. So I was really grateful she came down. We went and had some food it was lovely. Ebanie is very driven, she has a lot of energy and has a lot of time for other people. She is very extroverted and I really admire her for that. I would love to share a ring with her.”

Women’s boxing has gone to another level in the behind closed doors shows of recent times. Eddie Hearn deserves his due for giving opportunities on his platform, a real showcase for the fighters to shine. But it does mask a wider problem, Hearn is leading the way, but is largely the only player in town, a fact not lost on Ball:

“We think women’s boxing has come a long way which it has, but only with certain promoters. Dennis Hobson has just started with Fightzone and he has picked Katie up and I am glad about that. I put a tweet out which some liked some didn’t, you can watch Matchroom and Sky and you can see that they are really endorsing women with their presenters and they are pushing equality and people are represented on their TV shows and you click on other shows and you don’t see that. Women’s boxing has come a long way thanks to some promoters but not with everyone across the board. BCB Promotions have been promoting women for years but it has been difficult, we have had to take away fights. But it is brilliant it is finally getting the recognition it deserves.”

There is no doubt Covid left her career hanging in the balance, and this observer had major concerns when listening to Ball in other interviews elsewhere, explaining how badly she had been affected. But it appears Ball is now back firing on all cylinders, healthier, hungrier and more driven than ever. The break might in the end do Ball more good than harm, and when the seemingly inevitable rematch happens with Courtenay, the ‘away’ fighter this time, might end up being a more resounding winner and even Team Courtenay might have to concede and admit defeat.

Photo Credit: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

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