The Sportsman delves deeper into the world of professional boxing to uncover the stories away from the bright lights of fight night. The personalities involved in the sport and their tales ‘Outside the Ropes.’
The biggest fight of Natasha Jonas’s life is nearly upon her – a chance to win all the belts when she takes on Irish superstar Katie Taylor. But every day is a battle for a single mum juggling professional boxing with the number one job – caring for her daughter, Mela. The fighting bit following weeks of training sounds almost easy compared to the everyday logistics of life in camp with a five-year old.
“You’ve got to do what you do. I have to still work, and she knows that. She always knew what I did, but she didn’t really understand it. She knew I went the gym, but now she knows what happens in the gym. She’s experienced a lot and seen a lot,” Natasha says with the brightest of smiles. She is sitting at the table in the Liverpool flat she shares with ‘the baby’ and their French bulldog Roly. Mela’s artwork adorns the fridge, her toys are scattered across the sofa. A wendy house is positioned outside the patio door, at the top of steps that lead down to a communal garden.
The pandemic has presented added challenges to the work/life balance and proved problematic as ‘Tasha’ prepared for last summer’s all-domestic world title fight with Terri Harper. The behind-closed doors event in the garden of Matchroom headquarters, did not disappoint. Going into the contest as underdog, the 36 year-old scouser put on an eye-catching display but had to settle for a draw. Many believed Tasha deserved the nod, but regardless, there was no WBC belt to bring home to Mela.
“She said to me after the Harper fight, ‘Mummy, did you win?’ I didn’t know what to tell her. I said, ‘no babe, but I didn’t lose.’ She was like, ‘ok’ and she gave me a kiss on the eye because it was cut. Then, when they went back to school, a couple of weeks later, she came back and said, ‘Mummy I’ve got you a medal for the one you didn’t win’. I was like, ‘ahh, she’s cute! She’s cute – sometimes!’”
With English schools only reopening last month, and then closing again for the Easter holidays, Mela has been a familiar figure during Tasha’s training schedule; be that at the boxing gym in Bolton with coach Joe Gallagher, during her strength and conditioning work with Jonny Reynolds or the running sessions at the track.
“It’s been tough in one way but eye opening in another,” she explains. “It sounds terrible, but I’ve actually learned loads about my own child. When the schools closed, I was with her 24 hours [a day]. I wasn’t in a bubble with anybody, so she was coming to every single session with me. Then we were coming home, and we were spending all this time together.
“Before [Covid], one of the things I struggled with was I felt I didn’t have enough time. Getting her dressed and fed for school, then rushing to sessions and back to pick her up at five o’clock and then you’ve got two and a half hours to have fun, feed her, undressed, washed, then bed. I was struggling with that at first, thinking, ‘I’m not getting enough time.’ Then I spoke to other working mums and they were having the same problems, so I knew it wasn’t because I was a boxer. It’s the same stresses most mums have. Then with the pandemic, you’re 24 hours with your child and that’s a whole different experience!”
A stellar amateur, Tasha famously shared the ring with Katie Taylor, losing at the quarter-final stage at the London Olympics in 2012. Time away from the gym and then the arrival of Mela appeared to have ended her fighting career. But boxing has a way of luring people back in and she joined the pro ranks, four years ago. Initially, Tasha encountered some hostility.
“When I first turned over there was a big commotion about, ‘oh, she’s a mum and she’s boxing.’ I’m just like any other working mum, but my job’s a little bit different! Socially, it’s still there, but I do think it’s getting better, and we’ve broken down a lot of barriers. It’s moving positively forward and that’s what we need to do, as a sport and as a generation.”
It is mid-April, the business end of training camp. Each working day begins the same with Tasha coaxing Mela out of bed, then breakfast, a walk for the dog then in the car for the 45minute drive from Wavertree to the Amir Khan Academy, Bolton, to hook up with trainer Joe Gallagher and the rest of his stable of fighters.
The Academy – a spacious unit on a small industrial estate on the edge of town – has an entrance for the boxers at the side of the building. Once inside, turn right and down a flight of stairs and through a door that leads straight into the gym. A heater positioned on the wall immediately opposite the door whirs and churns out hot air that hits you immediately. Fight night posters – most featuring Khan – hang all around the walls. There is a ring to the right of the room opposite bags hanging in front of mirrors and an area for weights and other pieces of kit.
Mother and daughter walk in to be greeted by Joe, who immediately shows his softer side, chatting away to his ‘number two’ coach, Mela. Tasha moves away to get ready for the session while Joe turns his attention to former bantamweight world champion Paul Butler who is sat on the ring canvas – the pair chat about last night’s tv, specifically the ‘Louis Theroux – Shooting Joe Exotic’ documentary. In the far corner of the gym, middleweight Marcus Morrison, who faces Chris Eubank Jr on the same bill as Taylor v Jonas, is lifting weights. The May 1 stacked pay-per-view Matchroom card is headlined by heavyweights Derek Chisora and Joseph Parker.
Mela comes back into Joe’s view and the pair are having a back and forth. Watching on, Tasha smiles as she wraps her hands. “Mela thinks she’s the boss in here. She’ll say, ‘come on Joe, we’re going the shop’, and he’ll take her to the shop. That’s the side no-one sees of Joe. He understands I’m here to work and any stresses that I’ve got he tries to take them away and help me out. He knows that sometimes the baby’s calling me, and I’m distracted so he’ll take her out or give her a job to do so I can get on with the session.
“I’m a mum first before I’m Tasha the boxer and Joe gets that. Obviously, he’s got children of his own, but I’m the primary parent for Mela so if something can’t be arranged, she has to come with me. That’s the be-all and end-all. Joe understands that.”
Dressed in a black ‘Gallagher’s Gym’ t-shirt, arms folded, Joe watches on as Tasha shadow boxes in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Always ferocious in his support of his fighters, Joe has a particular admiration for Tasha – his first female fighter.
“What I hope for this fight is that a lot of people put a bit more respect on Natasha Jonas and what she’s achieved in her career as an amateur and as a professional up to now,” he says. “She may be getting older in calendar years, but she’s still improving like a red-hot prospect.
“You cannot knock what Katie Taylor’s done for boxing as a professional. She’s won all the belts, undisputed. She’s a great athlete. Katie’s been involved in an awful lot of fights and the pressure’s been on from day one. It’s going to be interesting. It’s a great fight, we should celebrate what we’ve got, and I think it’s the biggest female fight in world boxing at the moment.”
To land the dream fight against Katie, Tasha has stepped up a division to lightweight. That was always the plan, and with a longer training camp than the Harper fight, all appears to be on track. Training is meticulous. After an hour of S&C work with Reynolds (aka Jonny Velocity), which includes an array of plyometric exercises, weights and some brutal spells on a bike and a vertical climber, it is on with the gloves, into the ring and a session of technical pads with Joe.
In between rounds, when the clock beeps and Joe calls ‘time!’, Mela has her head between the ropes with the water bottle in an outstretched hand for her mum. When the work is done for now, Tasha climbs out of the ring and as Joe rips tape from the gloves to free her hands, she opens up about the task in hand.
“I know the aura Katie has and the presence she has, but I’m not fighting all that, I’m just fighting the human in front of me. When fight night comes, it doesn’t matter who she is or where she’s been, it’s all about the person she presents on that fight night. She is only human, she makes mistakes, she has her faults, same as everybody else. There are things we’ll look to capitalise on.
“I don’t mind if people favour Katie, the main point is they’re invested, they will be watching, they do want to tune in for the women’s boxing and they know it’ll be a great fight. That, for me, is enough, regardless of who they think will be the winner. The fact they want to see this even happen, is massive. The fact that the first thing people are saying is ‘why isn’t it top of the bill?’ goes to show how far forward women’s boxing has come.
“More than anything, financially, whatever, it’s the peace for me. There was always something bringing me back to boxing. As good as my amateur career was, I felt like there was something I hadn’t done, and I needed to do. This just draws a line in the sand, so for me, it’s more about that. Then I will see what happens next, because then I’ll have peace.
“I’ll have revenge and all that, but for me I’ll have that intrinsic thing that no one else can see or touch. I’m going to present the best version of me, I’ll expect that she’ll do the same. That makes for a good fight and may the best woman win.”
With that, Tasha heads for the changing room. As ever, her number one priority is by her side.