'There will be fireworks': Hannah Rankin interview
Ahead of Saturday's world title challenge in New York against WBA super-middleweight champion Alicia Napoleon, Hannah Rankin speaks to Garry White about being blocked on Twitter by Claressa Shields and the prospect of becoming the first Scottish female professional world champion...
Hannah Rankin has been on a whirlwind of a journey.
In the space of just 14 months she has progressed from partaking in a few white collar fights for charity to preparing for a world title tilt. Her upcoming title fight will be only the 28-year-old's seventh professional contest. Even in the traditionally fast moving women’s game, this is still a remarkable achievement. That it follows less than seven weeks on from her capturing of a WBC silver belt is all the more laudable.
Rankin, who effectively manages divergent professional commitments as both a prize fighter and a classical musician, is a stranger to the word 'average'.
The London-based Scot does everything at full speed but with an unstinting dedication and focus that has allowed her to deliver exemplary results in both of her chosen spheres. Behind her articulate, polite, and hugely likeable persona remains an inner core of immovable steel. A state of being which is revealed by her admission that she has had her eye on a world championship prize “since day one”.
There are those in the sport that have dismissed such notions as naivety, foolhardiness or something much worse. Either from a viewpoint of dunderheaded gender bias, or stunted via a myopic assessment of her unconventional background in classical music, via the Royal Academy.
Others have also sought to categorise her comfortable rural upbringing as empirical evidence that she is not cast from the right traditional constituent parts required to make it in the hardest game. Rankin’s profile isn’t that of the 'average boxer' and it is a classification that she is willfully focused on avoiding.
On 4 August the Luss-born fighter will step into the lion’s den of the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale New York, on the undercard of the Andre Berto vs Devon Alexander headliner. The Coliseum is the current home of the New York Islanders NHL team, and is therefore used to big nights of sporting drama. In the other corner will lurk current WBA super-middleweight champion Alicia Napoleon, the local New York favourite, whose exotic surname combined with her nickname of ‘The Empress’ conjures up images of a Bond movie villain rather than a prize fighter.
In conversation with Boxing Monthly last week Rankin did not betray even the remotest scintilla of nerves as she happily revealed how the opportunity to land the title shot came about.
“Well, I actually had a week off just chilling following the WBC silver win. Then, I got a phone call from Cecilia Braekhus asking me to go out to Kiev to do some sparring as part of her camp. I obviously wasn’t going to turn that opportunity down. The second week I was there, I got a call to see if I would be interested in fighting Alicia Napoleon.
“To get offered a world title fight in New York and live on TV [FOX Sports] is pretty much the dream for every boxer. So, I immediately said, ‘Yes. Let’s do it.’ I really couldn’t ask for anything more. Alicia was someone that was on my radar already. She started out at super welter like me.”
Napoleon secured the WBA belt in her last contest back in March against Belgian Femke Hermans. On paper an excellent win against a respected opponent with an unbeaten record. Interestingly, Rankin is of the opinion that Hermans froze. ”I don’t think she showed up. I think she was overwhelmed by the whole American stage and everything.”
Rankin is certain this will not happen to her. “I don’t mind that it will be in her home city. I’ve always wanted to go to New York and have never been to America before. I don’t mind being the underdog either. I’m Scottish after all. We are used to being underdogs. I’m not worried about the pressure either. It is something I thrive on.”
Rankin has been in full training camp mode since she received the call from Napoleon’s management whilst in Kiev. The pride taken in being part of Braekhus’ camp ahead of the Norwegian’s victory against Inna Sagaydakovskaya in Moscow is self-evident. “It’s something that I can look back on in 50 years and say I was there.”
The big fight preparation has seen Rankin decamp from her familiar training base at GymBox in Farringdon to the focused environs of Churchill's Gym in Lambeth North, headed up by Samm Mullins. It's a move designed to ensure that full preparations are made and all distractions are eliminated - a status that is not always easy to achieve within the more commercial environment of her usual training base.
Rankin intends to travel to the US on the Monday preceding the fight and is certain that the match-up has all the makings of a thriller.
“I am very confident. I think our styles are well matched. She has a little more of an American style. Apparently she used to be a salsa dancer. So yeah, she’s got a different sort of rhythm and will be a new puzzle for me to work out. I think the two of us will put on a great show and it will be a great fight for television.”
“We are both aggressive, come forward fighters. So, it definitely won’t lack anything. There will be some fireworks for sure. She likes to start fast, but I have a got a good game plan and am totally ready.”
Rankin, who goes by the ring name of the ‘Classical Warrior’, has improved her profile significantly on the back of her WBC silver title victory at middleweight. The fact this belt was secured in front of a home crowd at the Paisley Lagoon on an MTK Scotland show remains a source of unwavering pride. Her decisive points success was also achieved despite a late change of opponent – Finland’s previously unbeaten Sanna Turunen stepping in – and a move up in weight - all pointers to Rankin’s unflappable resolve.
Memories of this night are predictably fond. “It was amazing. The fight was a total war and all credit to my opponent. I mean she got cut in the second round and just kept on coming forward. I had to step up to middleweight at what was her natural weight. It was just so amazing to win in front of a home crowd.
“It meant a lot to me after having to come off two back-to-back camps, following the Commonwealth title fight being cancelled. I had put everything into it both personally and financially. So, when I won there was also maybe a feeling of relief. But, mostly just a very proud moment.”
The 28-year-old attributes her meteoric ascendance up the rankings to not only her own personal “commitment to improve and to learn” but also to the determination of her team. Noel Callen focuses all of his attention on Rankin in his role as coach and the towering presence of Derek 'Sweet D; Williams occupies the manager's remit. The same trio have remained together since Rankin took her first tentative steps into boxing following her earlier involvement in Muay Thai. In fact, Callen pushed for his own professional trainer's licence solely so he could be in Rankin’s corner physically as well as metaphorically.
For all this effort and conviction to culminate in a fully-fledged world title next month would provide a fitting reward, but it will by no means be the end of the journey.
For Rankin there are no self-imposed limits on how far she can progress in the sport.
“I am not the kind of person that will win and take six months off. It’s not going to be like that at all. I like to continuously work on things and have lots that I want to prove as well. It’s all about the mission and the challenge. Every opponent is different, so there are always a myriad of things to work on, adapt and solve.
“There are plenty of people that I want to fight and things I want to set up. You have to be active and ready to go in the female game.”
One future opponent that is definitely not being ruled out is twice Olympic Gold medallist and unbeaten two-weight world champion Claressa Shields. The pair have undergone a public social media spat following Rankin’s support of her great rival Christina Hammer. Perhaps an entirely natural position to adopt when one considers that Rankin is a regular sparring partner of the five-time world champion.
However, it didn’t stop the American from blocking Rankin on Twitter and this continues to be something that the Scot can’t help but see the funny side of. In any case, she is in good company with Shields allegedly having done the same to the legendary Serena Williams following a perceived slight at the 2016 Olympics.
So, is Rankin ready to call out her social media nemesis?
“Blocking me on Twitter was a little bit childish. But, we are not really very similar people and we don’t see eye to eye. I have the opinion that Hammer would beat her when they finally fight. So, I think she cut me out just for saying that.
“She will obviously be watching the fight, because I know she tried to get a fight with Napoleon before. For me it’s a great scenario. The fact that we don’t like each other should make for a great fight. I have absolutely no qualms about fighting Shields at some point.”
But before Rankin can do any of that she needs to overcome the more immediate challenge of Alicia Napoleon in a battle of classical vs salsa. If the Latino beat can be subdued by the orchestral manoeuvres of the ‘Classical Warrior’ then Scotland could soon be celebrating its first ever female professional boxing champion.