Shannon Courtenay: ‘I only feel at peace in church or in the boxing ring’August 13, 2020
Shannon Courtenay has matured. Even though she says so herself, there is evidence to back it up.
Coming into lockdown, things were good. Her amateur career of 22 bouts exploded into a professional one in March 2019, leading to five wins out of five. Number six was lined up for April of this year, but the pandemic struck and it became one of many plans shelved.
She began by feeling sorry for herself. Even a bit angry. Living alone, family was off-limits to a point, and the rigorous training programme she had been going through the previous year was brought to an abrupt halt. Anxiety and loneliness took hold until her own intervention.
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“I got my head around it and thought, ‘you know what, the whole country is in the same situation, you’re not on your own’”, she tells The Independent. She gave herself a pep talk that basically amounted to “get hold of yourself” and that was that.
She had a similar conversation with herself when, with no training or fight to crescendo to, she got a bit slack. “At first you do the stupid thing, don’t you? You sit there and eat chocolate. I put away a lot. I was like, well, I’m not fighting, so I’ll have that. And then I got to a stage when I thought, just sort yourself out!”
So, Courtenay got back into as vigorous a training regime as she could on her own to maintain a base level of fitness. And the benefit of that work came to fruition when, after a handful of chats with promoter Eddie Hearn, he called with the news she had been craving.
“We had a few conversations over lockdown,” says Courtenay. “He said when fighting is back, you’re going to be one of the first fights back. True to his word, I was.”
This Friday, Courtenay will be squaring off against Rachel Ball as part of week three of the Matchroom Fight Camp on the grounds of Hearn’s estate in Brentwood, Essex.
The Walsall-based Ball, a former kickboxer, is taller and armed with a greater reach. Typical of Courtenay, none of that matters. She has her own gifts: an engaging style that is brutal up close. And having waited so long, the chance to build on the hype of the last 18 months, even simply the last week, is one she is itching to take.
Amid lockdown and the odd lapse – not with cigarettes, she hastens to add, which she binned many years ago – came a good deal of thinking. That included considered thoughts on her faith and how it guides her.
“It’s weird. I realised there are only two places in this world where I feel completely Zen and at peace where I can think clearly. That’s in church and the boxing ring.
“I can be in the middle of the 02 Arena with a thousand people around me with someone trying to take my head off, and I feel completely at peace. I feel the same when I’m in church.”
“I’m Irish so I grew up with a Catholic background. I went to a very strict Catholic school. Then when I went off the rails as I grew up, I stopped anything religious. The last few years I’ve come back in touch with my faith and I think it plays a big role in my life now, to be honest.”
Religion’s relationship with boxing is fascinating, not least because it is very common for two fighters in the ring to believe the same God is on their side against the other. There is much to unpack about the brutality of the sweet science and, maybe, the need for absolution with any victory coming at a human cost.
Courtenay and her team say a prayer before they go into the arena. When she enters the ring, she makes the sign of the cross, which she also does when she knocks someone down.
Though perhaps the gift from up high that she is particularly thankful for is boxing itself. It brought her out of a rut, bringing direction to a misdirected youth. In return, she has committed herself to the fight game and is, rightly, considered one of the most precocious talents in a field of female boxers in need of a few more thrillers.
It is something of a curse for female sports stars that they must always be “on”: in a performative sense and also clued up on how to be the best ambassadors for their sport. That manifests itself in the 27-year-old through improved technique and heightened nous.
“I have a greater understanding of the fighter that I am and I want to be. Now it’s not like throwing a left hook because I’m throwing a left-hook – but why am I throwing a left-hook? What am I trying to gain from it?
“Every fight I felt I’m getting better. I’m not ignorant enough to sit here and say I’m ready for title fights. And I’m nowhere near Katie Taylor’s level just now. But I’m getting better every day and I’m learning on the job. I’ve noticed a step-up in people’s belief towards me.”
In the last 48 hours, both fighters have peddled the “underdog” angle. Ball references Courtenay’s hype, with the counter being Ball turned pro at the end of 2017, even though she’s only had one more fight than Courtenay. Ball is also unbeaten.
The war of words has escalated as it inevitably does. Courtenay says she has lived “rent-free” in Ball’s head for the last year and claimed she had not heard of her before the fight got rubber-stamped. Ball responded saying Courtenay was “up her own a***” to not have heard of her given the pool of British female boxers is so small.
One way or another, one unbeaten run will almost certainly come to an end during the eight-round bout. For men’s boxing, where fights are more regular, a pristine record speaks volumes. That is the same to a point here, but Courtenay is not of that mind.
“Well, records are for DJs,” she says, matter-of-factly. “You can’t just look at someone’s record and think they must be good. Not in boxing. It’s about performances, especially in women’s boxing. I want to put on a performance.”
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