Interview: The night Michelle Sutcliffe conquered the boxing world

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FIVE weeks have now passed since Josh Warrington became IBF featherweight champion of the world by defeating Lee Selby at Elland Road.

In doing so, the 27-year-old become the city of Leeds’ first ever professional male boxing world champion.

Leeds boxer Michelle Sutcliffe who was  Leeds' first ever world boxing champion when winning the world titles at the start of the millenium, pictured at Tigers Gym in Meanwood. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Leeds boxer Michelle Sutcliffe who was Leeds' first ever world boxing champion when winning the world titles at the start of the millenium, pictured at Tigers Gym in Meanwood. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

But not its first world champion.

For, 18 years earlier, Michelle Sutcliffe won women’s boxing’s World Boxing Federation flyweight title, to become Leeds’ first global champion, male or female.

Sutcliffe’s success might not have received the same international coverage as Warrington’s, nor was the size of the occasion in any way comparable.

Whereas Warrington defeated Selby in front of over 20,000 fans at Leeds United’s famous home, Sutcliffe’s success came before a fraction of that audience at Leeds Town Hall, with the former Allerton Grange High School pupil defeating Francesca Lupo on February 27, 2000.

Getting there to become a world champion was a very, very hard slog. In that time, a lot of people certainly didn’t want to see women’s boxing so promoters wouldn’t put you on shows.

Michelle Sutcliffe

Warrington was just nine-years-old at the time and women’s boxing was still 12 years away from making its first appearance at an Olympic Games, when another Leeds golden girl, Nicola Adams, won the first of her two Olympic gold medals.

Six years later, Adams is eyeing her own world titles as a professional.

Sutcliffe hopes Adams continues her amazing success story and the Leeds puncher was also thrilled to see Warrington bring the IBF featherweight belt back to Leeds.

But Sutcliffe is naturally keen that her own success should not be forgotten, especially given the tough times the mother-of-two had to endure to become a world champion.

Leeds boxer Michelle Sutcliffe who was  Leeds' first ever world boxing champion when winning the world titles at the start of the millenium, pictured at Tigers Gym in Meanwood. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Leeds boxer Michelle Sutcliffe who was Leeds' first ever world boxing champion when winning the world titles at the start of the millenium, pictured at Tigers Gym in Meanwood. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Speaking about becoming the city’s first-ever professional boxing world champion in 2000, Sutcliffe said: “The memories are still there just as if I had done it yesterday.

“It was my dream to be world champion and especially in Leeds in my home town with all my family and friends there. It was a really good moment in my life. The town hall was a sell out, the crowd were brilliant and they all got behind me.

“But getting there to become a world champion was a very, very hard slog. In that time, a lot of people certainly didn’t want to see women’s boxing so promoters wouldn’t put you on shows.

“We had to knock on one door and keep going to another and keep going down another road. It was a lot of blood, sweat and glory to get there.

Boxing trainers Michelle and Gary Sutcliffe pictured at Tigers Gym, Stonegate Road, Leeds, back around the time Michelle was winning world titles.

Boxing trainers Michelle and Gary Sutcliffe pictured at Tigers Gym, Stonegate Road, Leeds, back around the time Michelle was winning world titles.

“In the beginning I had to work at the same time but eventually I was just solely on the sports side.

“But before that I used to work as a childminder so things were pretty tough. I would have to find time to go to training and put the hours of training in which was hard and I was bringing up two children. It’s not been an easy road.”

Having already won the vacant WIBF Intercontinental flyweight professional boxing title in September 1999, Sutcliffe then went on to successfully defend her world title belt, while also adding the IFBA crown by defeating Marietta Ivanova in May 2001.

The path to glory initially began in thai boxing which the Leeds fighter only took up as a way of protecting herself after encouragement from husband and trainer Gary.

“It was basically to learn self defence,” recalled Sutcliffe, who was the second woman ever to be granted her professional boxing fighters license by the British Boxing Board of Control.

“I just got into thai boxing and I started winning fights in the ring and I just thought this looks good and I have never looked back since! I got so far up with winning fights that people just kept the girls away from me so I decided to go and get a professional boxing licence.”

The rest, as they say, was history with Sutcliffe last fighting in 2001 but still heavily involved since as a coach of both boxing and thai boxing at Tigers Gym in Meanwood.

Yet her own fighting days are not yet technically over with the former world champion lightheartedly refusing to rule out the possibility of returning to the ring.

“I have never officially retired really,” smiled Sutcliffe. “You never know – never say never.”