‘It’ll be a part of history forever.’ Alanna Nihell fought Katie Taylor in her first bout and the first ever sanctioned female boxing match in Ireland
WHEN the time comes for Katie Taylor to reflect on her great career, she may yet conclude that Saturday’s fight against Amanda Serrano, even as the main event at Madison Square Garden, was less significant than her first.
Winning her first alphabet belt, becoming the world lightweight champion and winning Olympic gold – Taylor will know the gravity of what preceded each at Dublin’s National Stadium in 2001, on October 31.
A promising 15-year-old fighter, in the first-ever sanctioned women’s fight in Ireland, Taylor finally demonstrated her vast potential against Alanna Audley, 16, and did so in front of a passionate crowd.
Taylor had been boxing since she was 10, honing her talent but doing so without a platform or fights. Even with the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s vote in 1997 to allow women’s boxing, a very first fight required strong lobbying from her father, the influential Pete Taylor, former kickboxer Mercedes Taaffe Cooper, and ultimately a further four years.
Nicola Adams, another future Olympic champion, was among those who also fought that night against Irish opposition, but it was the fight that unfolded between the counter-punching Taylor and the aggressive Audley that is most commonly celebrated and that has stood the test of time. “It was so hard to get fights – it was even hard to get sparring,” Alanna Nihell, as she is known today, told Boxing News. “I’d had one exhibition with a girl that year. Me and Katie were on first. I’d been told I was boxing a girl from down south – it was north versus south. That was it.
“I remember walking into the stadium, Pete and Katie coming up, and I said ‘What about you?’ in my Belfast accent. I remember her looking at me, a bit taken aback, and saying, ‘What about you?’
“We had a chat; Katie was very quiet. RTE [Ireland’s national television and radio broadcaster] were there; one of us had to skip; one of us had to shadowbox, and we had to do an interview. There was a lot going on around us. The stadium was absolutely packed [the capacity remains 2,000] – it was so, so busy.
“Cause I was so young I just thrived off it and enjoyed it. I remember getting in the Olympic-sized ring for the first time and I couldn’t believe the size of it. I was buzzing, more than anything.
“I remember warming up – you can hear the crowds, the kids and people out in the stadium. That’s when you get nervous. But you walk out there – as soon as the bell goes, the nerves go. I remember standing, waiting, taking a deep breath and walking up [to the ring] – the crowd. Then the ring – Katie felt so far away from me.
“When the bell went, it was quiet. People were really focused. I was a proper tough, strong kid, and brought it to her. I remember us both going for it. Within 30 seconds you heard ‘That’s it, Katie!’, and by the third round everyone was ‘Come on!’, and cheering – they’d never seen two girls box before. Then her gumshield came out, and it felt like forever.
“I knew straightaway she was skilful. I was trying to walk her down and cut her off – she’s always had that movement and speed. She boxed the right fight, stayed away, and didn’t want to get involved.
“My mum wasn’t too well, so she wasn’t there, so my nanny came down in the minibus with us, and I remember hearing her shouting over everybody. Before they announced the winner, the reception we got – everyone stood on their feet and clapped.
“I was gutted [to lose] but because of the occasion – travelling back, everyone was talking about it – it didn’t feel like a loss. It’ll be a part of history forever.”
Taylor and Nihell developed not only a mutual respect, but a friendship that blossomed as they spent the coming years sharing gyms, rings and rooms and travelling together boxing for Ireland. Growing up in the loyalist heartlands of Sandy Row, where checkpoints and searches were common and where the bombing of a local post office left a crack in the wall of her family home, Nihell also inherited the same resolve that has taken Taylor to the top of their sport, and one they both needed as they fought so hard to resist the traditions of Irish boxing.
“Me and my cousin went up there [the Sandy Row Boxing Club] and were told ‘Girls, come back next week, the club’s busy’,” says Nihell, 36, who moved to Belfast’s Eastside Boxing Club aged 17. “I came back the following week and the coach could see I was interested.
“Some clubs wouldn’t have girls in them. Trying to get matched was so hard. My first was supposed to be with a girl but she pulled out so I had to do an exhibition with a boy.
“Nobody wanted it. Everybody thought it was a bit of a joke. In the back of my head I had, ‘Is this going to go somewhere?’, but everyone around me was so positive about it.
“My mum’s family grew up watching boxing – I remember mates and cousins coming round to watch Marco Antonio Barrera beat Naseem [Hamed], so it didn’t seem strange to my family. My stepdad [Ricky] started getting into coaching.
“But you’d be in the ring and you’d hear ‘Pull her hair!’, and stupid things like that. [Though] it never bothered me.
“When we went to the worlds and the Europeans you could watch the boys, but for years there was nothing about the girls. I remember we went away – me and Katie had new kit, and the England Girls had kit that was used from the last tournament, from the boys, that wasn’t even washed. But doors [had] started opening.”
The turning point for Nihell, even as their struggles continued, came not when she fought Taylor, but after that when, still aged 16, she fought in her first international for Ireland in Reykjavik, Iceland, presenting her with the opportunity she had long sought. She and Taylor continued to improve, later both progressing to the quarter-finals of the 2005 world championships in Russia, but it was then that their paths, for so long bound together, started to diverge.
“I was the first girl to represent Ireland internationally,” says Nihell, a corporal in the British Army, speaking from the barracks in Aldershot where Julius Francis once prepared to fight Mike Tyson. “I stopped my opponent in the first round. The only Iceland I’d heard of was at the shopping centre.
“Then Katie went away to Norway, and I didn’t go. After she came back, we were always sent away to tournaments together. We’re really, really good friends, after all these years – I always message her before she fights. To see all she’s done for women’s boxing, and where she is now – I’m extremely proud of her. She’s still the same person she was all those years ago. I still remember us sneaking out to the vending machines. We had some experiences.
“[In Russia in 2005] I lost to the Norwegian [Cecilia Braekhus] who ended up winning it. We both came back from that losing, with a wake-up call that we needed to work harder to make it to the top.
“We’d been in Norway in a training camp [ahead of the 2006 world championships in India], then had two days to get our kit together and fly out. I lived in a wee flat, and I slipped coming down the stairs and busted my ankle. She went away and won the world championships, and obviously I was happy for her, but I was so gutted. I was wounded that I wasn’t there to have my chance.”
Up to that point Nihell had resisted the growing temptation to enlist in the army, but at a time when there was no guarantee of funding, when she was told male soldiers could box and earn a wage, she signed up and relocated to England.
“I joined the day after my 22nd birthday,” she says. “I was sickened and annoyed that I didn’t get to go to the championships; my mum and dad were having to help me pay [to live]. I needed to go and do something.
“I was thinking I’d train, get it paid for, and get a wage. ‘I’m going to put girl’s boxing in the army – I’m going to set the standard for it.’ The girls and boys didn’t train together. It was segregated. The boys trained full-time; we were set up around the corner.
“It was a very male dominated area I was in. There was always more men than women, but because of my background it was second nature to me – I always had something to say and always stood up for myself. I got respect for boxing for Ireland. I [also] joined Woking [ABC because women couldn’t train full-time].”
It was while representing Woking that she won the 63kg category at the Haringey Box Cup, but the more important breakthrough that was required in her new environment didn’t arrive until their three-strong women’s team’s success at the 2010 ABAs. A new army facility was soon opened where both sexes trained together; Nihell capitalised by gradually becoming the first female fighter to win the Combined Forces Sportsperson of the Year, winning European and Commonwealth medals with Ireland, and then becoming the first to captain the Army’s boxing team. “Up until then I was training part-time,” she says, today a retired fighter but full-time coach of that same team.
“Me and my husband [retired 4-0 professional cruiserweight Chezerae] met on the boxing team in 2012. They say opposites attract, but he was like a male version of me. When he had his first professional fight [against Kent Kauppinen on the undercard of James DeGale-Chris Eubank Jnr in February 2019] I was in his corner as part of the team.
“[My brother] Lewis [Crocker, a 14-0 professional welterweight] is doing well. There’s a lot of hype around Lewis. He’s in a really great division. It’s a boxing family. It’s in our blood, and it’s what I enjoy and love doing.
“Even though I’ve retired, and Chez has retired, it’s nice to see my brother coming on. We’ve got Lewis still flying the flag and doing what he does best.
“I’m pregnant with my second son, so I guarantee they’ll have the same upbringing. They’ll not be made to box, but it’ll always be on the TV. I was brought up with boxing in the household – and we’ll be watching Katie on the 30th.
“I know there’s not as many female [as male] coaches, so with my experience, and as the world-class athlete I once was, understanding the boxers, I would love to give that back and become a coach. They’re crying out for more female coaches with my experience – I’ll be getting more experience in the army, and looking to be part of a world-class training programme.”