Natasha Jonas: “Katie was the reason I could turn pro. When I said goodbye to the amateurs I was saying goodbye forever.”

Natasha Jonas: “Katie was the reason I could turn pro. When I said goodbye to the amateurs I was saying goodbye forever.”

Natasha Jonas has been boxing for 17 years and in that time the sport has evolved far beyond what it was all those years ago. Back in the day opponents were few and far between, Jonas fought her friend Amanda Coulson way too many times to keep count. It was a different time, a sport still finding its feet. Over Zoom, Jonas told FightPost just how thin the ranks were in those primitive early days:

“Basically I was boxing the same person all the time, and if you didn’t move weight categories you wouldn’t have anyone to box. I had one fight to get out of Merseyside & Cheshire like a regional type of thing. When I won my first ABA title which was the most I had ever boxed, I fought three times to win that.”

It is only in the last few year’s women’s boxing has gathered any kind of momentum. Even when Jane Couch bravely took on the establishment and tried to change prehistoric like opinions of women’s boxing, nothing really changed. Couch won her right to fight, but there was still much apathy, indifference, and hate even from many in the sport. Even Jonas was aware of certain perceptions of women in sport in her teenage years.

Jonas was always a tomboy growing up, an early interview relaying her proud achievement of outjumping some boys she was playing with on a flight of stairs. There has always been an attitude with the now world champion that if someone tells her she can’t do something, she will do it just to prove them wrong. Those boys witnessed an early sign of that determination, yes, Jonas smashed her face on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, but she had proved her little friends wrong.

But when her skydiving days were over, Jonas, always a lover of sports, turned to football and when a knee injury ended any hopes of a career on a football pitch, Jonas eventually turned to boxing. Sport, especially boxing, is littered with stories of women hiding from their true selves for various reasons. But I have interviewed many a fighter who has told me that boxing gave them an identity, somewhere where they belonged. Jonas was no different, fighting as many battles outside of the ring as in it:

“I do think there was a stigma to women’s boxing, I think there still is, to be honest. But we are definitely changing the stigma and stereotypes around it. But female sport in general around that time was viewed as manly or masculine. I can remember in school hiding the fact that I was good at sports because it wasn’t the cool thing to do.”

When Couch won her historic court battle with the British Boxing Board of Control in 1998 the stigma with women actually wanting to box largely stayed intact. The Fleetwood native told of her fierce struggles within the boxing inncer circle in her brilliantly in-depth, incredibly honest and thought-provoking autobiography, in many ways, her fight was just beginning in 1998. Couch had started the evolution but it very much needed a revolution, and that came in 2012 when women’s boxing was allowed in the Olympics for the first time. Jonas was at the helm of that new beginning. For her, it changed everything:

“The decision that women’s boxing would feature in the 2012 London Olympics was made in late September in 2009 and that’s when a Team GB was formed for women. We obviously had to have an assessment and there was only funding for three boxers per weight. The assessments were at the back end of 2009 but we started to get the funding from 2010.

“On Team GB that’s when we thought we were it because we had our own kit. We got our own boxing boots and we could afford to spend other money because we had our funding. That’s when we realised how good it was.”

Having your own kit should have been a given not a luxury, even boxing for England changed very little. Fighters having to rely on sponsors on friends to help pay for kits for touraments. In training, they even had to share unwashed kit:

“It was horrendous. A few of us had been in the England set-up for a couple of years and we had like an old kit. We were going to the World Championships in China and everyone had a different kit. All of us were representing England but none of us had the same kit.”

But with the Olympic spot now guaranteed and the the subsequent formation of Team GB Jonas and the other members of that early brigade would reap the benefits. Their sport started to get accepted and the much-needed momentum was starting to pick up pace. The importance of the Olympic place isn’t lost on Jonas:

“It was huge because the girls could see it and you got people crossing over. People like Chantelle Cameron started crossing over, she came from a kickboxing background. Chantelle had the opportunity to be in the Olympics so she crossed over. We had people who were considering leaving the sport changing because they potentially had that Olympic platform. It was just more recognised. Every sport has that moment. Netball had it, and football had it in their World Cup.”

When Jonas retired from boxing through injury in 2015 there was little or no scene for women’s boxing in Britain. But when Katie Taylor turned professional in 2016 with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom, there was suddenly life and hope. Taylor had the gold medal from 2012 and with it a platform to make a difference. Make no mistake, that was the moment that inspired the new generation of talent:

When you get it you have to ride the crest of that wave and build on it and Team GB and boxing did a good job doing exactly that. In 2016 people knew who the boxers were, and after 2016 when Katie Taylor turned pro, people then had the option of turning over themselves. If Katie hadn’t had that kind of amateur career her turning over wouldn’t have had the same impact. There were lots of pros before Katie, but people only recognise it from Katie onwards. There were a lot of female boxers before Katie turned pro, but she made a lot of the other elite amateurs think I can do that too.

“We had Jane Couch and Cathy Brown but I don’t ever remember watching them box. I can remember the court case against the British Boxing Board of Control, and I can remember thinking good on you girl. Obviously, all those years later that affected me in different ways of course. As she was from the North West as well I can remember Jane being on our Granada TV or the BBC regional shows. I can remember her being on Barrymore, but I can’t think of a fight of Jane’s I can remember seeing.

“Katie turning pro definitely set the scene in this country, and more so how seriously the promoters were then willing to take it. Certainly, the bigger promoters were not willing to take the women on, Katie changed that. I can remember discussing with some of the other girls would you turn pro, and we all said we’d have to move to America to make any money out of it. And now if you don’t get on Team GB you can just turn pro because what is the point of staying amateur.”

Taylor turning professional also gave a new lease of life to Jonas. There was the story from 2012 where Taylor beat Jonas in the Olympic Quarter-Final, a promoters dream angle that was always going to be exploited, Jonas herself thought she was done with the sport for good, but in 2017 she was back:

“Katie was the reason I could turn pro. When I said goodbye to the amateurs I was saying goodbye forever because there was no pro scene, there was none of that. And then because of Katie, there was then an opportunity and a space in the market. I then thought I can go back but before that, there wasn’t an option there.”

The uptake was still slow, even someone with the talents of Taylor had a hard time winning the hardcore and hard to please boxing fraternity over. With a wafer-thin talent pool Taylor was very much the big fish in a little pond, and Jonas understands that was part of the problem in the early days:

“It took a while to catch on, sometimes Katie is her own biggest downfall she sets such a high standard. At the start, people thought she was winning these fights so easy and this is how women’s boxing is. At that time not enough elite fighters had turned over. But now you are getting the experienced fighters turning over who maybe didn’t get to that elite level.”

But everything needs that moment when suddenly everything falls into place. That hook that pulls you in. There was the inaugural Fight Camp, which included Jonas and Terri Harper in that terrific behind closed doors world title fight. But Jonas herself thinks it was when Taylor went to war with Delfine Persoon in New York in 2019 that started to change perceptions of women’s boxing:

“I think it was the first Taylor/Persoon fight. When you get two good evenly matched fighters at elite level I think people appreciate it more. It’s not just women’s boxing but how many times do you turn on the TV for a show and 90% of the card you know who’s going to win because it is so one-sided.”

There is still much to do to continue the progress of the sport. A recent Area title fight, the first for female fighters, shows progress but with no British title currently available for the women, this would seem a logical move to make, Jonas agrees:

“I understand why they didn’t do it for the first crop of female fighters because there wasn’t enough depth. But I think it is important now for the next wave that are coming through.”

True equality will probably never be reached until the issues over pay are resolved and the ongoing two-minute or three-minute rounds debate is finally decided. The shorter but quicker paced fights does give the sport a unique identity, and at least in the short term has helped with women’s being accepted a little quicker. But it will need to be resolved sooner or later, it does seem inevitable that the women’s side of the sport will fall into line with the men and the rounds will become extended at some point in the future. But there is a rather uncomfortable viewpoint that if you extend the rounds to three minutes that will bring more knockouts, Jonas isn’t sure that is what people really want:

“There are people that say women’s boxing will be more exciting if there were more knockouts. But then you get the Terri Harper scenario when she was stopped by Alycia Baumgardner when others were saying I didn’t like that, that was horrible to watch. I sometimes think do you really want to see that. Thinking it is one thing but the reality of it is another. You are asking for someone to be knocked out. I do get both sides of the argument, it’s exciting and you have to win the round in two minutes and that is what makes it exciting. If you go to three minutes, yes you will see the skills for a bit longer. It becomes like a different sport and a lot of results would have changed if they were three-minute rounds. It would definitely suit some boxers and others it wouldn’t.”

There has undoubtedly been much progress since 2016, a now thriving professional scene, the ranks have far more depth now, and that will improve further in the coming years. Jonas understands the sport can’t rest on its recent success, there is still work to be done:

“Pay is still an issue. Visibility is key for everything. It’s not just about seeing them in the ring, it’s about seeing them in adverts, in the paper, reading about them in interviews. The UFC has shown how combat sports can be done. It’s the same with tennis or athletics nobody questions it, it is just accepted it is just the same. It is getting better. I know Sky have got a big drive on women’s sport full stop not just in the boxing. I know Sky and Boxxer are signing a lot more females because they want a fairer platform.”

2022 is an important year that looks set to solidify women’s boxing and take it to a level we have never seen before. Taylor will take on Amanda Serrano in the biggest female fight to date. Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall look set for a big grudge match in the summer. Mikeala Mayer and her American rival Baumgardner seemingly trade insults on a daily basis. A fight that shouldn’t be lost. And even Jonas has a potential unification fight with Hannah Rankin to look forward to later this year. Jonas feels there is even more to come:

“There will be big domestic clashes as well. Someone put out the other day that they wanted to see me and Terri Harper again and then you have Chantelle Cameron and Sandy Ryan. Then you have the younger ones like Chloe Watson and the likes of Nina Hughes, Lisa Whiteside and many more.”

Gone are the days of being refused entry into boxing gyms and sharing dirty kit, women’s boxing is belatedly finding it’s rightful place in the boxing landscape. This year is an important one, great fights, rivalries forming, more and more talent entering the fray. The future looks more than bright.

Jonas has been at the centre of that progress. A big advocate of not settling for what is initially offered, and being paid what you are worth. Inside the ring she has had many an iconic night. The decibel blasting night in 2012. The eerie almost silent nights in the different variations of Lockdown with Harper and Taylor before the deafening roar that greeted her when she finally claimed that elusive world title in Manchester earlier this year. A special night.

Jonas is an important figure in her sport and will continue to be even when her gloves are finally hung up for good. But the Liverpool fighter isn’t done yet, a hometown show as a world champion is the least she deserves. But once Jonas has left for pastures new, her sport will continue to thrive and not just survive. Women’s boxing is in a good place, this is no false dawn. What Couch started, others will finish.

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