'I won’t be a secret any longer': Hannah Rankin interview
As she prepares to face Claressa Shields for the WBA, IBF and WBC middleweight titles, Scotland's Hannah Rankin is in confident frame of mind and relishing the big stage...
Hannah Rankin takes to the ring this weekend with the opportunity of becoming that rarest of things, in the modern fight game at least, a unified world champion. Standing in her way is the formidable presence of double Olympic Gold medallist Claressa Shields.
The American, unbeaten in six professional contests, will be defending her women’s WBA and IBF titles. Also on the table will be the WBC’s famous green and gold championship belt, recently vacated by Rankin’s good friend and regular sparring partner Christina Hammer.
Success for Rankin, would not only make her Scotland’s first ever female world champion, but would also qualify as one of the great British away day boxing victories, particularly when one considers the bounty of prizes on offer and the undoubted pedigree of her opponent.
But the London-based Scot is level-headed and not letting any of the hype faze her.
When she caught up with Boxing Monthly from her training camp in a damp and windswept London last week, Rankin’s anticipation was self-evident. “I am really excited,” she said.
“I have to smile about these kind of things. Two years ago I would never have dreamed that I would be fighting for the unified middleweight championship of the world. Back then I was about to have my last ever white-collar fight.
“It’s really crazy, but you just have to enjoy the moment. I have worked incredibly hard and have received an amazing amount of support from my team, friends, family, supporters and sponsors.”
Rankin, who works by day as a classical musician and music teacher is already experiencing some of the novelty of being a headline act; flying out to New York recently for a weekend press conference, and sharing the platform with Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, Jarrell Miller and others. She describes it as: “an amazing experience, very surreal”.
Her opponent, Shields, the self-styled ‘T-Rex’, is one of the stars of women’s boxing. Her perfect record and formidable countenance has brought forth the suggestion that she is being assiduously avoided by the division's leading contenders. A rumour that Shields does little to dispel via her vocal and sometimes confrontational social media presence.
Rankin herself has not been immune to catching Shields' ire on Twitter, largely due to the Scot’s continued support for her great rival, Hammer. It was Hammer’s withdrawal, due to sickness, that actually opened up this opportunity for Rankin. But the current WBC Silver champion, suggests that her meeting with Shields was somewhat inevitable. “We have been on a pathway to connect at some point. She took an automatic dislike to me when I said I was supporting Christina,” she discloses.
“A lot of people get asked to fight her and say ‘no’ or that the money or the time isn’t right. I am not saying that and I am fed up with Claressa saying that no one wants to fight her. I have actually accepted a fight with her once before, but the whole show was ultimately cancelled.
“We are very happy with the deal. So, let’s do it,” she says confidently.
Saturday’s encounter will be Rankin’s second appearance in front of a US audience, following the disappointment of her unsuccessful challenge for Alicia Napoleon’s WBA super middleweight title back in August. On that occasion, Rankin lost a unanimous decision, but one significantly more competitive than the virtual shutout that the judges’ cards suggested.
Rankin provides some additional context: “I found out later that I had a 2 to 3cm tear in my right bicep. In hindsight it made perfect sense why I couldn’t get as much going from the fifth or sixth onwards. It hindered me the rest of the fight so I can’t be too hard on myself about not winning.”
However, Rankin credits the experience that such a title challenge has delivered. “It was my first ten-round title fight,” she says. “No matter what you prepare for going into it, there is just a different pressure and feeling. It’s all about learning to cope with that pressure and how to pace yourself and adapt.”
Along with her ever-present coach, Noel Callen, Rankin has identified the following key improvement areas to take into Saturday’s fight: “I have been working on speed in general and also my footwork; cutting off the ring better. All of this will stand me in good stead.”
But of probably equal disappointment to Rankin concerning that summer night in New York, was the sheer lack of television and media interest in what was after all a world title contest. Her frustration is evident when she reveals, “they put on a swing bout following Andre Berto vs Devon Alexander and then just turned off the television cameras after that was done. A good chunk of the stadium just walked out, thinking it was the end of the night, before we had even come out. Lou Di Bella [the fight promoter] was raging, but it was all down to the TV companies.”
It is easy to find sympathy with the 28-year-old, as even locating a detailed fight report proved no easy task in the days following the match-up. For someone like Rankin, that seeks to be a positive role model for bringing more girls into the sport, this attitude of indifference from the established media must be especially galling.
However, the situation will finally be redeemed this weekend, with her title challenge going out live on DAZN and SKY Sports. Rankin jokes: “Finally, I won’t be a secret any longer. It’s my first chance to actually publicise myself on screen.”
Fight night will actually take place in the 3,500 seat Kansas Star Arena, in the perhaps less than familiar boxing locale of Mulvane, Kansas. A sleepy suburb of Wichita containing a population only slightly greater than the capacity of the fight venue. This may appear a leftfield setting for a world title fight, but one not without appeal.
For anyone on this side of the Atlantic it is difficult to separate the state of Kansas from Dorothy and Toto’s adventures in the classic movie 'The Wizard of Oz'. This is something that isn’t lost on Rankin: “I am tempted to get some red shoes,” she laughs. “Or at least some red sequins on my boots.”
But Rankin rather politely doesn’t bite when I try to position her in the Judy Garland role and suggest her opponent may perhaps suit a pointy hat and a verdant complexion. “We are just different people that’s all,” she discloses.
“I don’t understand her need to go on social media and constantly shout about stuff all the time and be argumentative. I am not going to get involved and massively waste my energy on it. I can see that it drains you, and mentally and physically you tire yourself out through it.”
Sharing the bill will be colossal top-ten heavyweight Jarrell 'Big Baby' Miller, in what should be a routine outing against unbeaten Romanian Bogdan Dinu. Elsewhere on the card is Kansas-born warrior Brandon 'Bam Bam' Rios, who will undoubtedly electrify his home town crowd against Mexican Ramon Alvarez.
So, how does Rankin plan to contend with an opponent that has been priced up with the rock solid odds of 1/100 by some UK bookmakers?
“I am not underestimating her skill and she obviously has a fantastic resume. She’s aggressive and her stamina is good,” the challenger concedes. “But I hit harder. It will be a new and interesting experience for Claressa. Yes, she throws a lot of shots and will keep throwing them until she is stopped, but we have various plans to work with that.”
Then Rankin adds mischievously: “I don’t think the power is there. She has to set her feet, but I won’t give her the time or opportunity. She is used to bullying people, but I won’t let her bully me.”
It is difficult not to be swept along by Rankin’s exhilarating journey from white-collar to world championship contender. She embodies a hugely appealing mixture of professional focus and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Her fast-track progress, unconventional route into pugilism, and the additional life options that her accompanying orchestral career provide, could be identified as a potential source of frustration for Shields and others.
For those that have sweated in the gym from childhood and chased the bloody trail of boxing, as a single one-way path to better their circumstances. They are possessed of no plan-B. But Rankin cannot be blamed for this and her dual career and lack of amateur background, has in its own way been faced with a form of reverse discrimination, by some that are fully absorbed in boxing’s traditional vacuum.
But make no mistake, if the Scot can overturn the odds and secure those coveted belts, then it would be an achievement worthy of consideration alongside British boxing’s greatest overseas title triumphs.
Can Hannah Rankin join the likes of Ken Buchanan, John H. Stracey and Lloyd Honeyghan? We will soon find out.
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