Staying strong: Shannon Courtenay interview

Danny Flexen
07/01/2020 9:03pm

Photo: James Chance/Getty Images

Across Christmas and the New Year, Boxing Monthly is presenting some of our most memorable features from 2019. Today we go back to our August issue, when Shannon Courtenay explained to Danny Flexen how her steely inner core continues to galvanise the ‘Babyface Assassin’...

It is her 26th birthday but Shannon Courtenay, having already trained at Adam Booth’s busy gym, is now delaying the start of the modest celebrations to accommodate your untimely author. If this seems a rather strange way in which to mark a special day, the role of her mother, Jane, in orchestrating the festivities seems altogether more appropriate, as she clarifies takeaway orders and chips in with an occasional anecdote from the periphery.

While boxing observers are understandably keen to afford maximal credit to the sport for ‘saving’ Courtenay, now a 3-0 pro bantamweight, her stepfather Lee and, most significantly, Jane, are the unsung heroes in this story. Indeed, as the Matchroom prospect recounts a childhood ostensibly untouched by the tumult haunting its background, there is no question regarding the origin of Courtenay’s typical grit and determination.

“Our real dad left us, my older brother and myself, when I was 10,” Courtenay reveals, apparently without any lingering bitterness or sorrow. “We were in quite a shitty situation, so mum was working 18-hour days while raising me and my brother, but we always went to school with the nicest coats and newest trainers; she was struggling to pay the debt we were in but she stayed strong for me and my brother even though she was going through hell herself.

"We lived in a pub, so mum was running that alone, and worked as a driving instructor. She’d get home from work, make sure we had dinner, tucked us into bed, then managed the pub till midnight, then up again early the next day to get us ready for school. She’s an amazing woman, when I box I’ve got that aggressive, ‘take-no-shit’ streak, and that’s because she taught me to always stick up for myself.

“Lee came along when I was 11, and he taught me a lot about morals and how to apply myself correctly, and to start respecting my mum more because I was putting her through hell.

“I was always short for my age, so it would be easy for people to pick on me, and there was the heartbreak of my dad not being there. I was getting in trouble with the police from 13 – I had been drinking on private property, a golf course at midnight – and they both stood by me. Lee took me on when he didn’t have to and I was a naughty kid, always in trouble in school, but he has his own business now and is the most amazing role model; they’ve both done really well for themselves.”

That parental support afforded Courtenay a semblance of stability when her life began to spiral out of control as a teenager growing up in Abbots Langley, near Watford but, despite being a gifted footballer and dancer, it would require the discipline lent by boxing to complete the positive transformation.

Significantly overweight, desperately insecure and a heavy drinker and smoker (see sidebar), Shannon stuck steadfast to a self-destructive path, before a chance visit to a boxercise class in 2014 opened the errant youth’s eyes to an alternative route that would ultimately change her life. She struggled to complete a simple sit-up and having divided the session with a cigarette break, it would be another few months before Courtenay took boxing seriously, joining the Finchley club that had given rise to one Anthony Joshua, among many others.

Spells at Hoddesdon and Islington followed in a brief but fruitful amateur career that encompassed around 22 bouts, a Haringey Box Cup gold medal and an appearance in the national elite semi-finals.

From very early on, Courtenay, an aggressive box-puncher and huge admirer of Roberto Duran, had her focus on turning pro. She began training at the Redhill gym managed by the esteemed Adam Booth, a big Four Kings fan himself, a year before her paid debut, which took place in March this year.

“Adam and me started talking on social media,” Shannon recalls, as if she still can’t quite believe the man she now regards as a mentor is the same sage who guided David Haye to victory over Nikolai Valuev in the first contest Courtenay ever watched. “I had posted a video of me doing pads and he followed me, then messaged me all the things I was doing wrong! I said, ‘Would you ever train a woman?’

"He said no and I was gutted. Then I told him I’d been offered a pro contract and wanted his opinion on it, so we went for a coffee at the weekend. It was meant to be half an hour but we talked for ages, and he said I was more than welcome to come and train at his gym. I thought, ‘He’s left the door open, so I’ll show him I’m gonna come as often as I can.’ I called in sick to work a fair bit. I thought I was a pretty annoying pest, but he said I was one of the most determined people he’s ever met.”

That embryonic relationship soon became a full-time arrangement, under both Charlie Beatt and Booth himself, last September, as Shannon jettisoned a good job as a chef to hone her raw skills alongside such amateur luminaries as Ryan Burnett, Michael Conlan and Josh Kelly.

While the rapid rise of female boxing was a key factor in Courtenay not competing for longer as an amateur and gaining more valuable international experience, it quickly became apparent that despite its admirable notions of equality, the sport really was different for girls. Competitive sparring has proved hard to come by and the chasm that exists between novice and world level, due to a comparative lack of depth in female boxing, remains a serious concern – two issues to test that characteristic Courtenay resolve.

“Good sparring for me is like gold dust,” Shannon admits, a hint of exasperation evident in her voice. “Good, competitive sparring, especially with women, is very difficult to find, but we make the most of what we can. There is no depth in women’s boxing yet, so we have to start travelling for sparring, so I can work with people a lot more experienced than me. If that means sparring people who are technically a lot better than me or taking more punishment, then that’s what I’ll have to do until I get to world level; otherwise it’s too big a jump.

“It is more competitive sparring men. For my last fight I travelled quite a bit to Kent for an amateur boxer, a lad from the Army, I sparred Luke Pearson who is a new pro and a girl came down from Team GB. As well as Adam and Charlie, I also get a lot of advice from the boxers in my gym, especially Ryan Burnett.”

There is another problem that disproportionately affects female boxers and it is one aspiring girls are unlikely to be warned about when they first lace up a pair of gloves or don their amateur vest. Courtenay, and she is not alone in this, finds herself subjected to a litany of vulgar messages on social media, alarming both in their volume and the often graphic nature of their content.

The only ‘crime’ committed by Courtenay and her peers is to be attractive ladies pursuing a vocation that retains a predominantly male fanbase. As a man embarrassed in this case by his gender, it is tempting to briefly address this epidemic with uncomfortable laughter before swiftly moving on, a strategy employed by Shannon herself with aplomb, but imagine it was your friend, wife, or daughter.

It is testament to her mental strength that Courtenay is able to ignore the unabashed filth that comes her way both in private messages and, rather more brazenly, on public forums.

“It happens on a daily basis and I just laugh it off,” she reveals, although she is notably not laughing now. “If you let it upset you, then I just think you’re not built to be in the limelight. There are gonna be weirdos along the way, I just find it really peculiar when I get a really filthy message from a guy then I look at his profile picture and he’s posing with his wife and kids. Quite often me and my friends have a good laugh about it.”

It cannot be easy, having to contend with the myriad obstacles associated with a career as a professional boxer – injuries, weight-making and selling tickets, to name but three perennial examples – but when added to those barriers which are individual to women fighters, it must require a robust constitution to endure.

Shannon can take inspiration from her gym-mates past and present – Charlie Edwards came back from a punishing defeat to win a world title while former champion Burnett has overcome a severe-looking back injury to resume his career – and of course her parents, Jane especially. Boxing for a female in 2019 can be a journey fraught with challenge and prejudice but, just like her mother, when the going gets tough the ‘Babyface Assassin’ gets going.

Starting with the woman in the mirror
Shannon Courtenay explains why she used to hate herself before boxing helped change her perspective
“In school, by year 8 or 9, you’re trying cigarettes, alcohol and boys; all sporting things go out the window. I started gaining weight rapidly, going to house parties, I was so insecure in my own body I’d overcompensate by becoming really loud and cocky. I’d have an attitude when I was up town, I’d see all the girls looking stunning and I’d be so fat; I literally despised looking in the mirror.

“After leaving school, I had a problem with my kidneys and wound up in hospital through poor choices; they said if I didn’t change my lifestyle I would end up with sever illnesses at a very young age.

“I started boxing aged 21 weighing 82kg and from June 2014 when I first went to Finchley, to my debut that November, I lost 23.8kg. I changed my entire lifestyle. I used to go out every night, but now I ran every morning, stopped smoking and drinking. Before, I was eating takeaways every single night or not eating at all for two-three days where I was out; the weight dropped off me.

“After my first session at Finchley, I threw my fags in the bin and I’ve touched none since. I’ve got an addictive personality, so now I’m addicted to doing well for myself.

“I’ve just signed a deal with W Modelling Management. I’d recently done a big campaign for Reebok, enjoyed it and it’s another string to my bow. To be someone who five years ago wouldn’t look in the mirror and cried herself to sleep because I felt so fat and ugly, I’m so proud of myself.”