Stacey Copeland speaks to John Dennen about a career that was very far from ordinary
WHEN Stacey Copeland started boxing she couldn’t fight. “As a little kid when I was first into boxing and just absolutely loved it and lived it and breathed it. And then I found out obviously it wasn’t legal,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Her father Eddie was a boxer, her grandfather ran the gym and she’d been in there since she was seven years old. Yet it wasn’t till she was 29 that she actually got to have her first competitive bout.
When she was a child she remembered another kid from Jimmy Egan’s, who’d just won the North West region, coming to their gym only for his sparring partner to fail to appear.
“‘We need sparring for him,’ [his coach said] and my grandad went, ‘We haven’t got anyone.’ I’d just been doing some little skills stuff with my mate,” Copeland remembered. “So I was on the bag and I had my headguard on and he was like, ‘What about him?’ My grandad asked who. ‘Him.’ He went, ‘Erm, let me ask.’ And he went over and said, ‘Do you want to spar, proper sparring, he’s a good kid?’”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she replied eagerly.
“There’s just one thing, you’re going to have pretend to be a boy.”
So Stacey swaggered over to the ring in the way she thought a boy would walk. “I was about 11 so you can kind of get away with it. I had short hair, I had my headguard on,” she said. “I had a top spar with him, his nose started bleeding, he got out. [After, his coach] came up and said to my grandad, ‘Who’s that lad?’ and he went, ‘Erm, it’s my granddaughter.’ And he went, ‘Oh, don’t tell him. Whatever you do don’t tell him.’
“It was mega having that experience so I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
But at that time women and girls weren’t permitted to box competitively. “Of course it was not long after that that me and my little group wanted to get carded, start having our skills bouts and all that and that’s when he said you can’t. To me I’d done everything the lads did I so just assumed I’d box lads, I didn’t think anything different. I was playing footie with them,” Stacey said. “I thought as a kid it would be fine. Because there weren’t any girls anyway. I didn’t know a single girl who boxed. That was it and it was dead confusing.”
The Amateur Boxing Association of England only lifted its ban on women’s boxing in 1996. “I couldn’t believe it when my dad and my grandad said I couldn’t box,” she said. “For me it was where I felt happiest and most myself, it was in the boxing gym and I always have. So it was just weird really as a kid.”
“By the time I got to that age I wanted to be competing and that was part of the enjoyment for me, competing,” she added. “I’d have waited years to box because even once it was legal no one was doing it yet.”
She began to play football more seriously instead, eventually becoming an international. But as the years went by boxing gnawed at the back of her mind. She kept it up for fitness, before beginning to train with a view to competing. “I had amazing experiences in football, got to go and play in America, Sweden and Brazil,” she said. “I always wanted a national title. I think because my dad had won the ABA title back in the day when it was at Wembley and he’d boxed Terry Marsh and everywhere we went people said, ‘Oh, he was the ABA champion.’ To me it was a massive thing. Obviously I used to go to the ABAs every year watching our boxers, the lads in my gym… So that was always what I wanted to do. I never lost that hunger and desire to want to know if I could do it as a boxer.”
She watched the women’s finals in Goreton and thought, “I can definitely do this and I know I want to.”
In her first ABAs she reached the semi-finals, which she won, only to be laid low by a bout of E. coli. “God knows how. I’m sure it was off my dad’s barbecue,” Stacey laughed. “I had a bit of salad, a bit of chicken and I was nearly dying. I kept training because I thought I’ve got to fight in this fight but I was just so ill I couldn’t keep anything down. I should have boxed on the Sunday and on the Friday I actually collapsed. Got taken to hospital and I was in hospital all weekend on a drip and it was just so miserable. So the girl I beat in the semi went and won the final. I was pleased for her but I had to wait then quite a while, because we had the Europeans.”
Copeland won a European silver medal and got onto the GB squad before she won the Elite national championships in 2015. “It was actually a couple of years later that I ended up being able to win. But it was special because it meant me and my dad were the first father and daughter to win ABA titles and it was lovely having him in the corner,” she said. “That ABA title meant a lot because I’d always wanted one. [It] came after the European silver medal oddly enough. So it felt like a lot of pressure. Also the day before, grandad had got diagnosed with cancer so there was loads going on at once. It meant a lot to him as well because he still came to the fight.”
But Copeland has also been bitterly unlucky. She was a successful international welterweight before that became a weight class in the Olympics. She turned pro but injury has now forced her to retire, just as the women’s professional sport is experiencing a new resurgence.
“It’s hard when you can’t be part of that. When I got my licence, there was six of us, six UK professional females four years ago that was all. You could only ever imagine bringing someone over from abroad. Now there would have been fights for me here, which would have been just amazing,” she said. “That’s all gone now but it’s hard but at least I’ve got to say what amazing opportunities I have had. That I got to box for GB at the Europeans and the Worlds, experienced being a professional and I’m always going to be massively grateful for that and for the people who made that possible for me.
“There’s lots to be really, really lucky for. But it’s an absolute sickener, isn’t it?”
Her knee had broken down time after time. She had been hoping for a six-rounder to tune up for a world title fight. “Which was obviously my ultimate dream,” Copeland said. “It was actually last summer in lockdown when it went again and it was just terrible”. Her boxing career was over.
“I was in agony. It took weeks even to get back to walking and when I saw the doctor this time he said there’s a real risk for your long term mobility. I knew I couldn’t get through a fight camp because every time I increased my training it’s gone again,” Copeland said. “It was just like massive loss. It was just like grief. I can totally understand why people feel that way when they finish, particularly sport.
“There’s not many things that consume your whole being like sport does and then it’s literally just gone. I know that nothing ever, ever will be the same as getting ready to fight, getting in the ring to fight.
“The first weeks were horrible because it was just a massive sense of loss and grief. And a part of yourself. It’s just massive. So I totally understand what other people go through.”
She might be an unsung trailblazer but she has had high points in her career. As well as the Copelands becoming the first father and daughter to become ABA champions, Stacey was the first British woman to win a Commonwealth title.
“Some people have got to be first to do stuff. Being first to win the Commonwealth title was amazing, making sure there was a belt after that for future female champions was important. So in a way I’m glad those things happened to me because it’s going to be better for the next ones coming through because of that. But being honest I’m a boxer. I want to win everything I can. I want to compete in everything I can. Missing out on the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games was always a massive sickener. Not having the belt after the Commonwealth title meant even though I had that moment I kind of didn’t,” she said. “Winning the European silver medal had a profound impact on me. That whole experience of not just getting a medal but being around the whole team and the staff and the full GB set up was a phenomenal experience.
“To come back to it all those years later, have those amateur experiences and then make my debut as a pro boxer was absolutely unbelievable and in my home city of Manchester as well, it was amazing.”
She won her Commonwealth title in Zimbabwe, another unique experience. They visited schools, a children’s home and did pads demonstrations. “It was a great experience, the people we had with us like Alex Matvienko, Nigel Travis and my coach Blaine Younis were just superb because they are coaches that put the boxers first no matter what and they’re so experienced and they remember what it’s like to box themselves,” Copeland said.
“I knew I’d won the fight. Whether you get the decision is different, we all know that. I thought I’m not in my back garden here,” she continued. “I’d go through every single thing I’ve been through in boxing to have that moment a gazillion times because there isn’t anything like it.
“For at least a couple of hours the lump on my head, the massive golf ball on my hand, all the aches in my ribs just disappeared… It’s amazing what a bit of euphoria does for your injuries.”
While she can’t compete anymore herself, she is already broadcasting with BBC radio in Manchester. “I’ll definitely be involved in sport in general because I’ve never ever changed in my belief of its power to do good. I think it’s just got a phenomenal power to have an impact on people,” she said. “Whether that’s in a charity way or a whatever way.”
“Through my sport experience I’ve been able to do that, going to the refugee camps and doing boxing and sport with the kids there, in the favelas in Brazil where we played football with some of the kids in the children’s centres there. In America I went to a juvenile prison once and attempted to set up a game of football and very quickly stopped, ‘let’s do no contact!’ Very quickly realised it wasn’t a good idea. Incredible experiences. I’ve seen sport make a massive life changing difference to people. Whatever way I can be a part of that, I will be,” she said.
“Look at amateur boxing, it’s run 99 per cent by volunteers, who give their love and energy week after week, night after night after, for free, just to help that kid along, or help the community or provide somewhere for kids to go. And then on top of that you’ve got your refs, your judges, your timekeepers, your corners. All these people that we couldn’t do it without, who all make it possible for the likes of me and everyone else to get to where we got to in the end. So it’s important to give that back. Not just whilst you’re boxing but certainly after and try and help other people have even half the experiences I’ve had or hopefully even more and do even better.
“That’s what you want to be part of.”