The patrons of East End Park Working Men’s Club had no idea that the teenager peeking through the curtains in front of them would blaze a trail for minority sport. Twenty years ago, when she fought as an amateur in modest surroundings and thick cigarette smoke, Nicola Adams’s dreams were gently ridiculed. Women’s boxing at the Olympic Games? No chance.
It was a rare time in her life when Adams was able to box in Leeds. Opponents were in short supply or short of the required ability. At East End Park she squared off against a fighter by the name of Claire Newton. Can she remember the result? “Yeah,” Adams says. “I won.” Her amateur career was rarely any different, although The Yorkshire Post’s archives record a points defeat to Salford’s Mikaela Jones at Leeds Irish Centre in 2000.
Tonight, at the First Direct Arena and on the undercard of Josh Warrington’s bout with Kiko Martinez, Adams will have a home crowd around her again, vastly increased from the small gathering who watched her as a 13-year-old.
“There might have been about 100 people there,” Adams says of her first bout. “They hadn’t (banned) smoking by then so my lungs were burning at the end of the rounds. It was totally different compared to boxing in an arena.
“It was my first-ever fight in my home town. I had all my friends and family there. My coach was telling me to sit down and stop running around, but I was watching through the curtains trying to see the ring, watching everyone else fight. It was an exciting moment. This time around it’s going to be even more exciting.
“I always wanted to box in Leeds, but there weren’t enough female boxers around. I had to box in London, in Newcastle – everywhere around the UK and the rest of the world, except for Leeds. I can’t wait to get in there and get going.”
I always wanted to box in Leeds but there weren’t enough female boxers around. I had to box in London, in Newcastle – everywhere around the UK and the rest of the world, except for Leeds. I can’t wait to get in there and get going.Nicola Adams
Adams, who won her first professional bout in Manchester last month – a points win over Argentina’s Virginia Noemi Carcamo – comes back to the city with every amateur title of note on her record and a plan to become a professional world champion before the end of this year.
Two Olympic gold medals, won in London in 2012 and Rio de Janiero in 2016, made Adams a household name, with golden post-boxes in Leeds and an OBE to show for it. Her mother, Dee, beat the drum in her younger years, pushing tirelessly for media coverage and support of Adams’s potential.
Lottery funding was made available for women’s boxing in the UK only eight years ago.
Adams always felt her accomplishments were possible.
“Back then I really thought I’d be an Olympic champion one day,” she says. “People must have looked at me and thought ‘you’ve got no chance. Women fighters being Olympic champions?’ But hey, things change. I’ve proved that anything’s possible.”
A few years ago, while Adams was training in Miami, she bumped into Barbara Buttrick, the Yorkshire-born ‘Mighty Atom’ who won a world title in the USA in the Fifties. “She was a really nice lady,” Adams says. “She thinks highly of what I’ve been trying to achieve.”
Adams, now 34, is one fight into her professional career yet potentially within reach of a world title of her own. Her promoter Frank Warren wants her to fight for one in the flyweight division before the end of 2017.
Adams, in keeping with her habit of breaking new ground, is trying to convince the world’s governing bodies to increase the length of women’s rounds from two minutes to three. She and Mexico’s Maryan Salazar will contest four three-minute rounds in Leeds this evening, in what Warren claimed was a first for the sport.
Adams failed to stop Carcamo on her debut, blaming two-minute rounds for limiting her chances to finish the fight early, and made no promises about knocking out Salazar.
Her 18-year-old opponent has six fights and five wins behind her. All of those contests have gone to points. “If (a stoppage) comes then it comes but I’m not going to force it,” Adams says. “Every time you try and force a stoppage it never happens.
“Until I get to the stage where I’ve got the basics of the pro game sorted out I’ll be practically living in the gym, but I’m learning how to defend myself better and how to get rid of little habits I had before.
“There’s a lot more thinking behind (professional boxing), which I like. I’m a chess player, a tactical thinker.”
Warrington is a crowd-puller, a featherweight whose Leeds United connections help sell tickets for the First Direct Arena by the thousands. He recalled this week how he and Adams sparred together as amateurs and how Adams “used to beat me up”.
“Not many people will know that we started off in the same gym,” Warrington said. “What she’s done for women’s boxing is unbelievable.”
Adams expects to feel nerves tonight, but does not expect to be bothered by them. “I get nervous for every match I’m in,” she says. “I’d be more worried if I wasn’t nervous. I’d feel like I wasn’t taking my opponent seriously.
“It’s going to be important to keep my composure, but I’m capable of doing that. I’ve been under pressure at the Olympic Games finals. You know you’ve got expectation on your shoulders and you know you’ve got lots to achieve. I know what it’s like.”