The Classical Warrior: Hannah Rankin interview

Garry White
14/06/2018 1:20pm

Ahead of fighting for the WBC Silver belt on Saturday, classical musician / boxer Hannah Rankin spoke to Garry White about her unconventional career path...

A couple of days after I met super welterweight contender Hannah Rankin, ahead of her shot at the vacant WBC Silver strap, she contacted me to let me know of a late change of plan.

Due to fight on Sam Kynoch’s latest promotion at Paisley Lagoon this weekend, her scheduled opponent – twice former world title challenger Katia Alvarino – had failed her medical. With some last minute wheeling and dealing a new opponent in the form of Finland’s unbeaten Sanna Turunen was sourced. The WBC Silver title continues to remain on the line but at the middleweight mark instead.

It’s a late change that Rankin isn’t fazed by, particularly given her frequent sparring sessions with unbeaten WBC and WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer. Just last week Rankin travelled to Dusseldorf for some quality ring time with the German-based Kazakh.

Rankin is sanguine about the routine travails that she has faced since joining the paid ranks a little over a year ago. Her last contest, back in April, for a Commonwealth title was postponed at the eleventh hour due to issues with her opponent’s visa. Finding competition and ensuring that they turn up for fight night is a routine problem within the sport but further magnified within the more sparsely populated pool of female boxing. But it’s an issue that Rankin won’t allow to dull or diminish her optimism or self-belief.

I met up with Rankin at a coffee shop in London’s Leather Lane, sandwiched between the famed jewellery district of Hatton Garden and the in-between land of Holborn. A place that isn’t quite the City or the West End – a metaphor perhaps for the individual known in the ring as ‘The Classical Warrior’ by virtue of her day job as an orchestral Bassoonist and music teacher. An unfamiliar skill mix that can confound many in the more unreconstructed confines of the fight game.

Everything about Rankin, when viewed through the sometimes myopic lens of boxing, is unconventional. Yet this is appealingly contrasted by the straightforwardness with which she eagerly responds to every question.

Rankin’s classical music career marks her out as ‘alternative’, while her early life in the Scottish village of Luss, a rural idyll, is also a world away from the usual stereotypical image of urban decay and untamed youth that permeates boxing.

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “My family farm is three miles off of the main road. At my local school there were only 27 kids. But, I’ve always loved people and knew I wanted to go and live in cities. But I wouldn’t have changed my upbringing for anything. I got so much freedom living there.

“I always say that I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world than the place I live in Scotland – if it is sunny. But unfortunately that is only 5 or 6 per cent of the year!”
Rankin comes from a musical family and was a keen flute player. She took up the bassoon only after one was donated to her school. Her rationale being that everyone played the flute and she “wanted to do something different”.

Rankin proved so adept at the instrument, one that like boxing was traditionally a male preserve, that she went on to study at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and London’s Royal Academy of Music. There are certain parallels between her introduction to the bassoon and her path into boxing. Both happened slightly by chance, but once identified were pursued with uninterrupted and single-minded determination. Rankin initially participated in Taekwondo as a youngster.

“When I got properly into music my Mum said ‘maybe you should drop combat sports as they aren’t safe.’ So, I stopped until the last year of my undergrad in Glasgow where I did started doing some Muay Thai. When I moved to London I continued with the Thai boxing and then my trainer left and introduced me to Derek Williams.

“He taught me how to box and I fell in love with it. Derek then introduced me to Noel Callan and we did some training and white-collar fights. The three of us have been a team ever since.”

It was this chance introduction to former European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion ‘Sweet D’ Williams that was pivotal in getting everything started. The man that was once Mike Tyson’s sparring partner and fought Lennox Lewis now acts as Rankin’s manager with Callan fulfilling training duties out of Farringdon’s Gymbox.

I ask the 27-year-old if when she was studying music or first learning the rudiments of boxing whether she ever imagined that one day she would turn pro or be rated ninth by the WBA.

Her answer is candid and honest.

“No. Basically what I was doing was white-collar boxing to raise money for charity. Mostly, because when I do something I like to compete at it. I did four or five fights and there was nobody really for me to fight. I turned up once and walked out to fight and my opponent wasn’t there. She’d just gone!

“I spoke with Derek and the next step if I wanted to still compete was to join an amateur boxing club and go down the long-term route to the Olympics or to take the pro route. I really wanted to stay with my team so I thought I’ll go pro. Also, my style probably wasn’t suited to the amateurs, so it would have involved lots of changes and relearning.”

On the face of it there is a gaping cultural chasm between classical music and professional boxing, although I am sure that the likes of Paul Gallico or Norman Mailer would not have needed to search too hard to find some connection.

Rankin can see certain parallels concerning how one manages to complement the other.

“There are some real positives doing the two together. Both are about performing. When I am on stage I still get that adrenaline. I really used to suffer with nerves and performance anxiety. When I got into boxing it put everything into perspective and made me think that playing my bassoon on stage wasn’t so hard. An orchestral crowd doesn’t tend to shout at you or the instrument fight back!”

In her short boxing career, Rankin has made rapid progress. Notching up a record of four wins from her first five contests, including an inside the minute stoppage of Klaudia Vigh in her last encounter. The sole defeat on her record occurred in a four-rounder against Sweden’s Joanna Ekedahl on a huge pay-per-view card in Norway, where local legend Cecilia Braekhus topped the bill.

Although Rankin fondly recollects the exposure provided by this contest, she struggles to hide some disappointment concerning her points reverse.

“I personally feel I won that fight and so did most of the people there. My team felt I’d won it. I was actually announced on Swedish television that they thought I had won the fight and they had to re-announce the verdict.”

It’s a blip on Rankin’s record that she is keen to avenge.

“We have asked her team for a rematch quite a few times. But so far we have been ignored. She hasn’t fought anyone in her own weight class since me. So once I get this title I am going to put the request out their publicly for a rematch and we will see if she wants it. But I don’t think she wants it over ten rounds.”

In common with many prospects, Rankin has discovered a familiar downside to the treadmill of boxing concerning promotion, ticket sales and funding. Areas that came as something of a surprise to her when she took her first steps as a professional.

“There’s loads of things you don’t know about when you get into boxing; like the cost of things. It’s been expensive. I have put everything into it. Not having a promoter to pay for my opponents and having to pay for their purse, travel and accommodation does put a strain on things. But the thought process is to put everything into it and work really hard. This WBC Silver belt should help me get to where I need to be.”

Rankin is an articulate and engaging individual. Someone with the potential to positively reinforce the image of boxing and promote the accessibility of the sport to a wider audience, especially in the women’s domain.

It is these characteristics that have helped her secure solid sponsorship deals with the likes of city finance investment firm Schroeders. This type of sponsorship is a world away from the usual construction outfits and carpet fitters that generally support emerging professionals.

After some gentle teasing on this point Rankin offers up an illuminating retort. “As a female boxer, building firms and carpet fitters don’t want to sponsor me because I’m a girl! They sponsor the lads because that’s kind of cool for them. A lot of times Derek or Noel have phoned people up and said ‘we have got this great boxer. Oh … and she’s a girl.’ Suddenly, they are not interested. It’s disappointing.”

Rankin’s background and identity is something we return to several times in the course of our conversation. She is clearly extremely secure in her own skin and confident in her own ability.

However, there is a feeling that she doesn’t quite feel accepted within the sport yet. This is partly gender based – female boxing has been slower to develop in the UK compared to the US, Scandinavia and continental Europe - but also due to her upbringing and late entry to the sport.

“Because I grew up on a farm in Scotland and come from a comfortable background, people find it a little bit different. I haven’t come from a regular boxing background where I joined a club at eight years old and did the amateurs etc. People think I shouldn’t be able to do what I can do right now. I know that can be frustrating.

“But I work really, really hard because I know I don’t have that background in boxing and don’t have that schooling and pedigree. I know I have to work twice as hard as anybody to prove I deserve to be where I am.”

Rankin knows very little about this weekend’s opponent but is confident that she will walk away the winner from her first outing over ten rounds. The plan is to follow this with another bout in London or a US fight night. Above all, she is 100 per cent confident that she could become a world champion.

Whether she accedes to the level of world champion or not, ‘The Classical Warrior’ is certainly different and perhaps unique. There cannot be many other fighters on the scene that plan to follow their next ring appearance with an orchestral tour of Austria.

If Rankin can keep on winning then those voices of dissent will be permanently hushed.