When boxing dreams become real: Amy Andrew

I first met Amy Andrew, 32, as a coach. I knew she had started her boxing journey in a one-off charity fight just like me, but this had created a passion which eventually led to her quitting her job and becoming a full-time amateur boxer. Amy, who is at Haringey Boxing Club, is a ball of energy in the ring, super fast and aggressive and exhilarating to watch. Her story had something of the fairy tale about it for me. As much as I love all our male coaches, there is something special about seeing a girl you know reach those heights. It connects you and on some indefinable, metaphysical level, you are there doing it with them. It made me understand why men especially like to say “we” about their teams. The tougher the sport, the more we as spectators need to see people like us doing them, to vicariously live out those heroics. Amy has had 31 bouts since that first white collar fight a few years ago, and now she is off to the World Championships in India, after which she will officially receive a ranking. It’s an important moment as she is now poised to enter the hall of fame at a time when women’s boxing is growing so fast. I interviewed her.

Why is women’s boxing such a great community?

It’s a movement. Boxing is part of it, I think because it’s fashionable and popular, and sport and exercise are fashionable and popular. The way women see themselves has changed, with this “fit not thin” thing… it’s part of this shift where being strong is really important.

I’ve not done kickboxing or other combat sports so I can’t really comment on them, but I know that in boxing, I’ve found a sisterhood that I haven’t found anywhere else. I’m friends with a selection of people, from all different walks of life, all different ages, from 10 to 50 years old and upwards, and even people that I compete with, people that I am going to the World’s against, at my weight. I’m friends with the person I had my first ever white collar fight with. You have a connection because you understand how much it takes, and why you love it so much. It’s like a shared passion. A lot of the time, women don’t want other women to succeed, because they worry it takes away from them succeeding. But some of the women who come down to my boxing class, it just blows me away how supportive they are of other girls. And I do think that boxing brings that out.

It’s crazy that it is in such a male-dominated sport that women have managed to find this. It must attract like-minded people. And it’s not even just the girls. I didn’t have that many male friends before, I automatically gravitate towards other women. I like other women’s company because I feel more comfortable. But now I’ve got guys who are friends, again because I think it attracts a certain type of person. You obviously have something in common straight away, I just think in general the boxing community is good.

When you signed up for that first white collar fight, what made you do it? Had you ever done any boxing before?

I had no interest in boxing then. I always did a lot of sport when I was growing up. I did sports science and English at Loughborough University, then I went off to do a journalism masters. In the journalism world it’s very boozy, and you work long hours, so just keeping up sport was hard. So I signed up to a couple of marathons but I didn’t train for them. So then I thought I would do a fight. I randomly saw it and thought it would be fun. I thought I don’t know the sport, so I’ll have to train. As soon as I started doing it, I fell in total love with it. I do love running but I probably wouldn’t do it without an end goal. The fight gives me that focus, but I love the training anyway, I love sparring, so there is enjoyment in the process, it’s not just about the end goal. I was hooked straight away.

What was your first fight like?

It was brilliant, really fun, the whole thing. The other thing about boxing is having this whole community thing, it’s such an ego trip. You go out there and everyone shouts your name, and you’re having crowds cheering for you every time you do something, and in the lead-up to it it’s all about you. You have to concentrate on it I guess, in a way that you don’t in other parts of life as a woman because it’s not the done thing to be that self-obsessed. When I found boxing, it was the first thing which was actually just 100% about me, and I could legitimately say this is important, I have to focus, or rest, I can’t go to that thing, because I’m doing this, and I like that. Leading up to the fight it was terrifying, scary and really fun, and it was at York Hall, so it was a really cool venue. Lots of my friends came and I can remember every moment of it.

What was your style like?

It was a bit shit. I think I ran away a lot, though in my head I was amazing. I gave her a bloody nose and I was incredibly proud of that. I just remember both of us, because we became friends as we trained together, just being up in those bright lights, and those moments of stillness where you look into each other’s eyes and think ‘my God, I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ It’s mind-blowing. I basically boxed rubbish, really loved the whole experience, couldn’t wait to do it again.

Did you decide straight away you wanted to do it more seriously?

After that, I didn’t box for maybe three months. It was the summer and I went on the piss with my friends. Then the girl I boxed against said ‘come down to my gym, I’ve found a new gym.’ It was called The Ring. Eventually I went down and did some classes, and signed up to another fight.

At what point did you decide it was going to be a career?
It’s been really gradual, and I think that’s why it’s so random now to be where I’m at, as it’s always been something which I just loved doing and been a hobby. One minute I was just doing it for fun and then getting pissed afterwards or whatever, and then the next minute I’m going to the World Championships. After I did the white collar, I was working as a journalist but I was looking for a new career anyway. I briefly worked for This Girl Can at Sport England, which I loved but it wasn’t quite for me working in PR. I was like, I’m always at the gym, I may as well just do that. That was kind of a big moment I guess, being like, I want to work in boxing. Maybe a year after that, it was more, wow, I am actually starting to do well, and I’m finding myself up against decent people, and maybe I should take this a bit more seriously. And that was another moment where I thought, you know what, you either do this, or you do it as a hobby, but you can’t be in between.

Do you think boxing is a bit of an all-or-nothing sport?

You have to train properly. There are a couple of fights last year where I realised you have to take this seriously or you don’t do it, because once you start fighting against really top people, but you’ve been prioritising other things in your life, while you might say that’s normal, you realise if you are going to box these people you have to train like an actual athlete, not just do it for fun. There was a fight I lost in Milan, and I thought ‘that’s it’. I quit one of the gyms I was working at, I was working at three, I work at two now.

How old are you now?

32 – old for amateur boxing, but what’s age? It’s something people talk a lot about, but I’ve only been doing amateur boxing for two years. Maybe it just means if you are a bit older, you can put the rush on it. And anyway, my fitness is up there, I don’t think there’s anyone fitter than me.

When you decided to make this your career, did you face any opposition from family and friends?

No, my family is very supportive. I took up amateur boxing, it coincided with a break-up, and people were probably like ‘there’s a lot of change going on’, because I changed my career at the same time. But also people were quite supportive, because I was 30 at the time, and a lot of people would like to change their career, but they don’t do it. And it is very tough- it wasn’t that I didn’t like journalism, I had just come to the end of my road in it. My parents are just amazing, they are always really supportive. It’s hard when you change careers, because you don’t have any money. You are used to being in a certain place in your profession, and then suddenly you are having to work from the bottom again.

Did you feel like the support was there for women’s boxing in general?

Everyone that I’ve met has been really supportive. Obviously, there have been a couple of comments every now and again, but I’ve never really taken that seriously, because they are just sexist jokes, probably. There are a few people who will say they don’t think women’s boxing is any good, I wouldn’t want to watch my daughter box. And I think that’s fair enough, I wouldn’t want to watch my brother box. When you care about people, or people have a particular attitude towards women, that’s fine, that’s up to them. But it’s never been a barrier to getting into the sport thanks to the work of people like Terri Kelly. I almost think there are more opportunities for women right now.

What about in terms of the funding and structure?

It’s getting there. It’s definitely a long way behind. There are some great volunteers like Terri Kelly, she works in London Boxing, and she does so much to give women opportunities. Grassroots boxing doesn’t have a lot of money, but it’s not expensive to do so kids from any walk of life can get involved.

What about coaching? Do you think there’s a special importance in having female coaches, and do they bring something different to the table?

Of course. Women’s psychology is different to men’s. Women box in a different way, they respond in a different way. The old-school mentality of boxing is very much ‘I’m the coach, you do what I say.’ Women don’t respond well to that, they just don’t. If you look at Durrant’s for example, how many of those girls aren’t putting 100% in? They work so hard. They’re already really hard on themselves, in a way that men – and this is a massive generalisation – but in a way that men usually aren’t. So men will often come to boxing with some sort of experience of fighting or maybe they’ll have seen fights more often, or they watch them on youtube. They’re a little bit more confident as men tend to be, so I do think that when approaching women you don’t need to be harsh with them because they are already very dedicated, and want to learn, and can see that they have areas for improvement. And I’m not saying that some men aren’t like that, it’s just in general. When I’ve had coaches who have been really hard on me, I haven’t taken it very well. Also with boxing, as a female coach, you know the female body, and you want a coach who can go into the weigh-in with the girl and all this sort of stuff. That said, I’ve got male coaches and it’s not that I don’t learn a lot from men as well. These are massive generalisations and I think it is good to have a mixture of both.

What about anger and aggression? I hear a lot of female boxers around me say they don’t like punching someone, but they like the technical side of boxing, as though it isn’t acceptable in a woman. Do anger and aggression feature as part of your game?

Well, I’m a very aggressive person it turns out [laughs].

Did that surprise you when you got into boxing?

You know what? Not really. I guess one of the reasons that I like boxing is it’s a massive outlet for emotions. I’m quite an emotional person, so having an outlet means that I’m quite a calm person now. I hit hard, so obviously I am aggressive. When I’m sparring, I do really think about technique, but I get satisfaction when I land a shot. I didn’t when I started off, I found that probably the hardest part. I’d feel guilty if I hurt somebody, but honestly I don’t really care anymore. I wouldn’t do that with someone who was of a lower standard, but at the end of the day, if you’re doing boxing, you’re ok with that, and it’s part and parcel of what you’ve chosen to do. I would never want to hurt someone for the sake of it. That’s me, other people are different, and that makes them really good boxers I’m sure.

Which fighters do you admire?

Katie Taylor is incredible, she’s just vicious. I really like Shawn Porter, he’s really fit, just jumps in, really aggressive. I like watching him because I feel like I can learn something for my particular style. I like Clarissa Shields.

What are your strengths as a boxer?

I think it’s that aggressive thing. As you were saying, it is something people are slightly uncomfortable with, with girls being aggressive. I’m very fit, so I put people on the backfoot. That’s it really.

How do you deal with losing?

I cry. It’s devastating! Normally I know why, you know why you lost. It’s not just about being in the ring, it’s about all the lead-up to it. I don’t have that anymore, because I always give it 100%, but from that [experience] I learnt that maybe I hadn’t done enough fitness at the time. I lost a fight and was really depressed for three days, then you snap out of it and you move on, and you learn what you have to take from it next time.

What about the nerves before a fight? I’m partly asking for personal reasons, as I find that really hard to deal with.

I find that really hard as well. I started seeing a sports psychologist. I didn’t know how to handle not only the nerves, but all the emotion around it. I do think it’s the case with a lot of girls, that I’m not worried about being hurt. It doesn’t even cross my mind, it’s more like what if I get up there, and I make a dick out of myself. What if I’m out of my depth? It’s not even about the winning or losing. I desperately want to win, so that’s without a question. But everyone’s different.

It sometimes seems like some people don’t give a shit…

Of course they do, I think it’s just an outwards-inwards thing, I can’t imagine that people don’t struggle with some sort of performance anxiety at some point. That’s part of it, and that’s why I think it’s so exhilarating, because you’re facing up to something about yourself before you get into the ring. Facing your fear, and getting in anyway. That part of fighting is why a lot of people don’t do it. When we do the white collar bouts or in general fights you’ll have a few people drop out two weeks before. People shouldn’t fight if they don’t want to fight so I’m not belittling them, but it takes a lot of courage to get up and fight, and I’ll always have an injury. I’ll have a cold, or I’ll have hurt my wrist, or something. That’s part of training, but also mentally you think, ‘oh, this is wrong,’ because you get nervous. Sometimes there are genuine injuries, and not taking away from that, but for those people who overcome that and get in, go past that, get your mates down, still get in, whether you win or lose, that’s amazing.

Is that what you love about it?

No, I love sparring. It’s so much fun. Fighting – I love winning, and I’m very competitive, I want to push myself as a boxer and go against different people, but I love going to a gym – any gym, I’ a massive gym slut, like I’ll go to Manchester or Newcastle or Italy or wherever it is – meet new people, jump in the ring, and spar. No pressure, just spar.

I suppose it can be like a kind of play.

Definitely. And then again as a woman, you’re not really meant to punch people in the face.
That’s fun, it’s like an animalistic, aggressive thing, but also you have to be clever.

What is your training like when you are preparing for a fight?
I train maybe two or three times a day, and part of that is pads, part of that is sparring, part of that is sprints, part of that is long runs. I’m not very good at doing strength and conditioning. I find it boring and I tend to get injured, but I know that’s just an excuse. It literally doesn’t interest me at all [laughs]. I love running, because I like being outside. I’m starting a running club for running for boxing, because some of those things like hill sprints are hard to do on your own.

What’s next for you?
My family is from New Zealand – my mum’s Kiwi, my grandparents and cousins and everyone lives there. I went there to box in some competitions, while I was seeing my family, and I am now going to represent them in the World Championships, which is really cool. This is where you get ranked. I don’t really know. We’ll just see how that goes.

Amy has a fundraising page for the World Championships here. On this occasion, the target was reached, but check back for future challenges.

The disappointment of my second fight – and no, I didn’t lose it

These clinches were tougher than I expected

Before I go into this, I want to mention that I often made the error as a journalist when I found the intricate details of something fascinating of assuming the reader wouldn’t feel the same. I usually skimmed over that part. While training for my second fight, I discovered that one of my faults is my tendency to rush or panic when trying to get things done. How you do one thing is generally how you do everything. I really had to learn to stop and think this time around. With that in mind, I am going to go into the details which were important to me about this fight and have faith that someone else might recognise something pertinent in them too. As a reader, I often like these details.

After the first bout, I felt so strongly that I had laid a ghost to rest. Rightly or wrongly, my success in that fight had come to symbolise a victory over my abusive ex, and proof to the world I wasn’t some kind of victim. It delivered. I won, I felt strong, people said I was an aggressive and intimidating fighter. Right from the beginning of training for the second one, I was nervous about who my next opponent would be. No one had any expectations of me for the first fight, and my opponent and I were two beginners. Not so this time around. Any time I trained with anyone who had fought before, I became filled with anxiety that we would be matched for the fight and that I would struggle to get another victory. I think it must be this way at all levels in boxing or any other combat sport: you are torn between the fear of losing and the natural desire to challenge yourself.

I probably trained a lot more, having a baseline of fitness and skill which was higher than it was when I first started training to fight. This Girl Can Box ran a four-hour workshop, in which I learned the joy of the screw jab, for example, and during sparring sessions I would get feedback for the first time on what I was doing wrong and what I could do to fix it. Private classes were especially useful, and I often felt I had been given the key to what had seemed like an unsolvable puzzle. During the first fight, I hadn’t been able to escape when my opponent stood in front of me, hitting me with the left and then the right. Straight punches which I stood there and took. Now, I could duck and roll, move to the side, move my head or move in towards her. The possibilities were multiplying, and it felt freeing and exhilarating.

As fight night drew closer, I was increasingly anxious. The way it works in white collar matches is that you don’t find out until very close to the fight who you’ll fight (a week before, in this case). Completely different to professional fights where the entire prep is based around who you will be fighting. The fighters are not professionals and it is imperative that they do not get badly hurt due to a mismatch, or have a bad experience. It is impossible to control entirely since getting in the ring is tough and some will hate it, but promoters and coaches try to be as fair as possible and tend to spend a lot of time over the decision.

I was especially scared of two of the women in my group. Our main coach noted that there was an “edge” to this group, partly because one of these women did not modify her power at all during sparring, so that total beginners got flattened, and became angry or upset. This collided with other tensions and created a moody atmosphere. In the end, the two I had feared fought each other. I was matched with a woman I had sparred with once before, who was slightly heavier and stronger but shorter, and had an aggressive style, moving very close and throwing a volley of punches, so that it became overwhelming.

My defence had been offence before, and now I was faced with someone I couldn’t just stand opposite and fight. I had to get out of the way.

The big night arrives

On the night, we were operating about an hour late as usual, during which time I had swallowed so much Red Bull and was brimming with nerves. I was going to the toilet so often, I was going back in as soon as I had gone out. Because the first fight had been like being in a tunnel and I had had no awareness of the crowd, I took it for granted that I would feel the same this time, but it wasn’t like that at all. The wait to go on was the wrong side of unbearable. I came on after my opponent, and as I stood in my corner, I felt the fragility of being up there. I could see people, the light on their faces in the dark, I could see my Dad, and my body felt so light I wondered if I would be able to move it or if it would collapse when the time came.

When the bell rang, my corner shouted at me a lot that I had to move around and move out of the way. It didn’t feel natural to me. I tend to face conflict head on, not seeing any other way to do it. I thought I would be able to beat my opponent if we got into a clinch as I am taller, but she was so strong we cancelled each other out every time we got that close. The only thing for it was to wriggle free, throw a combo of punches and move again, in the hope that she would get tired before I did.

As the rounds progressed, I started feeling more confident about doing this, with the result that I landed more than I took. I was able to free myself from her clutches and move back to the centre of the ring, controlling the fight from a defensive position. I can’t even recall now if I knew all along what the result would be, but at the end of the third round, I was declared the winner.

The end of ego

Fighting from a position of control meant that I never tapped into my rage. I used force and aggression to some extent, though far less than before. In some ways, the more you learn in boxing the more ego has to be set aside and you have to submit to the importance of technique, tedious repetition, meticulous observation of your opponent. A surrender to something bigger. The win was a relief, but it didn’t lead to any high. I was left with the feeling that I wanted some kind of recognition I could never achieve. Mine was just another fight on a night of amateur fights of varying quality, over in a flash and praised by some but not necessarily even the most entertaining.

The next day this calm gave way to a feeling of emptiness. I only knew how to solve it by signing up for another one, which I am beginning the process of training for now. I understood why heroin addicts say they are always chasing that first high. Along with chasing the feeling I had in my first fight was the awareness of it all as a spectacle, and even though I had won I felt chewed up and spat out. Was this because there is still – and always will be – such a huge gap between the elite sportswomen and my fights? It can’t only be that, as I recently read both swimmer Tom Daley and former judo fighter turned MMA champ Ronda Rousey said they felt bleak after winning Olympic medals. I think it is part of the paradox that you can only hope to win by giving the training and the fight your all, but when you do that, there is no way the payoff can be big enough. My ghosts long dead and laid to rest, I was out there in the world again, still exposed to its indifference to my existence. The only thing you can do then is carry on fighting.