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“Because I loved boxing, people assumed that I wanted to be a boy”: Stacey Copeland on women’s boxing, perceptions of femininity and deciding against a nickname

Until 1997, women could not legally box in Great Britain. It would be another fifteen years before Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor would announce themselves to the world in London, as women’s boxing made its debut at the 2012 Olympics.

Six years on, there are just three weight categories for women at Olympic level – seven fewer than in the men’s event.

It explains why Stacey Copeland, the Hyde-born fighter, is far more interested in the bigger picture of her sport than merely discussing her own career. A three-time national champion and European silver-medallist at amateur level, she began March with a first-round knockout victory over Italy’s Dora Tollar. She is unbeaten in four fights since turning professional at the end of 2016.

The notion of a ‘bigger picture’ is a common theme throughout our conversation – from the continued scepticism of women’s boxing in today’s society through to the flawed misconception of traditional characteristics of femininity. It is, Copeland tells me, why she has never followed the lead of Taylor – The Bray Bomber – and christened herself with a boxing moniker.

“I just chose a phrase,” she says. “I went with ‘Pave The Way’ because it has always been more important to me to represent what I’m trying to do in terms of the bigger picture.

“Of course, I’ve got my goals and I want to be a world champion. But instead of having a boxing nickname, I wanted to show what I represent. And what I stand for is paving the way for others. Obviously, I want to inspire all people but especially paving the way for girls and women in sport. It’s a massive motivation and a passion of mine.

“It’s about that bigger picture of women having that voice and not shrinking into the background because that is what we teach them when they’re little in Disney films – be polite, look pretty, be nurturing, be caring.

“For sportswomen, those attributes aren’t really much use. Dancing around singing to birds isn’t really that useful if you want to win a gold medal. We’re starting to appreciate now that it’s okay for women to break out from that limited world that we were put in.”

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Given Copeland’s upbringing, her drive to spread the word of women’s boxing and – more widely, of women in sport, is unsurprising. Her grandfather, Roy, has run the local amateur gym for more than 40 years. Her father was Eddie Copeland, one of the most highly-regarded boxers in Britain in the early 1980s. However, a single punch in his ninth bout brought a premature end to a career that had promised so much.

The reputation of her father and grandfather did – at least – make Copeland’s presence around the gym normal at a time when female boxing was not just discouraged but actively illegal. She speaks candidly of the comfort she felt among those who had seen her box, and the juxtaposing insolence of those who could not grasp the right of women to take part.

“I didn’t feel much of a stigma in my own gym because they were all used to me,” she says. “To be honest, I don’t think they saw me as a girl.

“I think I was just Roy’s granddaughter and Eddie’s daughter. They just had nicknames for me like ‘Tiger’. It was more when we went to other places that the issue arose.

“I went to New York with the boxing gym when I was ten because granddad took a group of lads and he took me too. I was on the bag and they made me get off and told me that girls couldn’t box there.

“Anywhere we went where people didn’t know me, they objected to me. Certainly at school and outside the boxing world, people found it very weird that I was into it and I got called all sorts of names at school like ‘Shim’, ‘Shemale’ and ‘Boy’ and people used to ask me why I wanted to be a boy.”

The frequency of the name-calling and the intense interrogation into her femininity troubled her but provided much of the inspiration for her career.

“It made me question myself and ask whether that’s who I wanted to be,” Copeland admits. “I didn’t want to be a boy – I was just a girl who loved sports, but people weren’t ready to accept and understand that.

“Parents come to me and tell me what their little girls still go through even today – and I can’t believe that it still happens. But at least there’s someone there telling them: ‘Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something. You’re okay as you are.’”

For Copeland, this is the crux of the matter, and where she considers her own role as a 36-year-old female boxer. By no means a lone trailblazer in a sport increasingly popular among women, the number of women participating in boxing had risen significantly in the latest figures revealed by the Active People Survey.

With an increase in high-profile female boxers, the number, Copeland insists, will continue to rise. Adams and Taylor are both Olympic gold medallists, while Natasha Jonas was beaten at London 2012 by Taylor. All three have turned professional, while Taylor is the WBA lightweight world champion.

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The profile of the sport is worlds away from the injustice that Copeland saw as a child, unable to pursue her dream and without a female role model to act as inspiration.

“The inequality was a massive influence on me growing up,” she explains. “I didn’t have any female role models and I looked up to the likes of Mohammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. I also played football and I loved Giggs, Sharpe and those guys and I’d think to myself: ‘Why do I want to be like them?’

“People just assumed that because I loved football and boxing that I wanted to be a boy. In fact, I didn’t. I was just a girl who loved those sports. But I felt very much like I was weird for a long time. I’d question myself and ask myself what was wrong with me and why I wanted to be a boy.

“I didn’t – I just wanted to be a great footballer and a great boxer. But of course, there weren’t any great female examples of them at the time. So it’s really important for me to be the role model to girls now that I didn’t have growing up.”

Aged just six when she first started training at her grandfather’s gym, Copeland understands the scope for progression better than most. From being outlawed altogether until 1997, she speaks of her pride at her European medals and walking out into the Bowlers Exhibition Centre as a professional boxer – the zenith of a career that just two decades ago, was not even a hypothetical option for a young girl bitten by the boxing bug.

“It’s really important to me that I can act as an example of how much progress there is and how much progress can be made,” she says. “If anyone had even imagined what I’ve achieved all those years ago, they wouldn’t have even thought it possible.”

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Despite the evolution of the sport, Copeland confesses that a stigma still exists. She has been accused of hypocrisy for championing women in sport, while competing in such a violent discipline. The criticism of boxing is one that she can accept – but only while the condemnation is genderless.

“One of the things that quite a few people have said is that it’s ironic for me to be criticising others when I’m the one punching people in the face,” she tells me. “That’s just a boxing thing and I totally understand why people wouldn’t like boxing.

“However, being against women doing it is different because that’s about the way that we view women. We used to not allow women to run marathons because apparently the science told us that they would die. There was even a school of thought that the uterus would fall out.

“But if you think about those attitudes and then you see so many women now running marathons, ultra-marathons and 24-hour races, these ideas of why women shouldn’t box now will change. They have to.

“It should be up to each woman to decide what femininity means to her. If, for someone, femininity is dressing up, having their hair done, having false eyelashes and having their nails done then that’s okay. Likewise, if it’s challenging yourself and being strong and competing in a sport, then that’s up to you as well.”

However, Copeland is aware of the statistics. At the last count, there was a participation gap in Great Britain of more than one and a half million between men and women’s regular physical activity.

On International Women’s Day, Toymaker Mattel, the company behind Barbie, unveiled a Nicola Adams doll. People have responded negatively to the figure, which appears to feature none of Adams’ muscular physique, but rather focusing on the traditional body shape of Barbie. It is a wider stereotype that, for Copeland, must be eradicated.

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“For boys, sport and physical activity is almost a rite of passage and they’re supposed to want to do it,” she explains. “If they don’t, then people think there’s something wrong. The sport of boxing has always been available to them; we were banned from it.

“Then you’ve got the issue that what we traditionally admire in sport is strength and power, and men do have more of that. Like in football, we’re used to seeing a certain type of football. Women play football slightly differently and we’ve got to be able to appreciate that slightly different way of playing for what it is, rather than comparing it to the men.

“Ultimately, a highly trained elite male athlete will always outperform a female athlete when it comes to strength and power. Naturally, male bodies lend themselves to that. But we have other physical qualities and skills that we need to appreciate. These so-called feminine qualities have a place too.

“People are beginning to realise now that this manly rubbish of not talking to anyone and holding your feelings in and dealing with everything internally actually results in very high suicide rates. We need to actually say that it’s okay for men to have some of these so-called ‘feminine qualities’ because actually, it’s about survival and a better way of living.”

For all of Copeland’s passion for promoting women in sport, she speaks with the experienced maturity of a female boxer whose upbringing in a male-dominated sport has opened her eyes to the human psyche.

“It’s a shame we have to label them as feminine and masculine and they can’t just be human qualities,” she says.

“I tend not to compare women’s sport to men’s because it’s a bit like comparing curling in one country to American football in another. There’s nothing wrong with either sport, but they’re just more popular in different places.

“The point is – does everybody feel that if they want to get involved in either sport, that they can and that they’d be accepted? There may always be more males than females that want to box, and that’s fine. But making sure that everyone feels that they can access it is the important thing.”

And as Copeland emphasises as our chat comes to a close, this should be the norm. Women’s football was banned until 1971 and Lord’s had exclusively male members until 1999, but both sports have made huge strides in the years since.

“You look at those sports that had these laws against women and see where they are now,” Copeland points out. “We’ve had boxing gold medallists, we’ve won the Rugby World Cup, we’ve won bronze in the Football World Cup, we’ve won the Ashes twice, we’ve just won the Cricket World Cup. When you consider that level of progress, it’s phenomenal.

“You can’t compare it to men’s sport – it’s like starting a 100m race 50 metres behind someone else. You’re never going to catch him. But if you consider the idea that the runner was only allowed to run 10 metres in the past but is now running the full 100, that’s formidable.”

 

Featured photograph: Nigel Maitland

Nick Friend
Seeing off 500 entries along the way, Nick was the runner-up in the David Welch Student Sportswriter Competition for 2018, culminating in a night a the SJA Awards dinner alongside the very best in the industry. He has spent most of his twenty-three years involved in sport in one way or another. He graduated from Durham University with a degree in Modern Languages, having spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. The 23-year-old gained much of his experience in journalism as sport editor of the University’s student newspaper, Palatinate. During his two years in the role, he sourced and ran a host of high-profile exclusive interviews, three of which rank among the most-read pieces in the website’s history. He won the university’s Hunter Davies Prize for Journalism in 2015. Since leaving Durham, he has written for the iPaper, while contributing weekly to Sport500 – a website focused on creating concise sport opinion content. When not writing, Nick can often be heard bemoaning the fortunes of Queens Park Rangers. Beyond the Rs, he is an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, while in more delusional times, had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. He counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessary knowledge of all three.
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