“People always say that ‘If you can piss, you can paint’. What they don’t understand is the hard graft that goes into the prep before it gets to the stage of painting. Carrying big 10 litre tubs of paint about all day back-and-forth, roller scuttles of paint, constantly up-and-down ladders, hop ups, customer’s stairs, that’s not even including the carrying of equipment up-and-down. Sanding walls, scraping off things. It’s constant all day.”
This weekend, Lancashire’s Hannah Baggaley will walk to the ring in an unfamiliar football stadium in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. Listening to the professional debutant and flicking through her social media accounts provides conflict. Yes, she has asked Australian fighter Ebanie Bridges for bikini tips ahead of her weigh-in, but she knows more about hard graft and doing things the hard way than most. Muscles aching, hands and feet blistered, and with another four days of work to follow, the life of a tradeswoman isn’t exactly compatible with that of a combat athlete. But boxing is what she wants – she knows that.
Before linking up with current trainer Arnie Farnell just a few months ago, before signing with manager Alfie Warren when making the decision to turn professional, or before agreeing to travel North for her chance (eventually), Baggaley squared off and stared down multiple, difficult decisions. Speaking to Boxing Social just a few, warm days before trading punches for real, she explained her introduction to boxing and the transition from Southern to Northern hemisphere.
“I’d been expelled from my high school, put into a ‘naughty school,’ so to speak. But they felt I was too academic and too well behaved to be in there; I was just a boisterous, misunderstood child who needed a chance. Playing high school sports gave me that chance and my dad said I needed to focus on something to get rid of that unspent energy and keep out of trouble. So, we decided we would try boxing. I was 14-years-old at this point, I only ever trained for a couple of years; didn’t really fall in love with it as the training was so hard and I’d found a new social life due to moving schools, so I stopped training for a few years.”
The one thing that stands out from brief interactions with Baggaley is her use of the word ‘we.’ Boxing, often pigeonholed as a lonely sport, becomes primarily independent with its focus on one person’s performance. But for the former White Collar fighter, whether it’s her father, her partner, or her new trainer, she retains an element of reliance on the team. That doesn’t suggest the passing of blame; it doesn’t hint at a mental weakness, but more confirms the importance of trust in a sport where fighters can be thrown to the dogs. In fact, she alludes to trust and faith in her setup – one supposes that is far easier at the beginning of a tumultuous journey.
“From the age of eight or nine-years-old, I’ve just lived with my dad and before him and my mum separated, I was very much like my dad’s little clone,” Baggaley explained, while sunbathing in the garden with her old man, evidently just as pivotal now. “We were always attached at the hip, so naturally you start to become very alike and enjoy the same things. My dad always encouraged me to be athletic, and I left school originally wanting to join the army and become a combat paramedic but went to college to get a degree first in public services. I hated the core subject, so I told my dad I needed a new path. He said: ‘What do you want to do?’ And at the time, my friend – who is now my partner – had moved to Australia and it looked amazing. So, I told him I wanted to move there.
“I ended up getting back into boxing for fitness shortly after and ended up having a charity fight when I was 20-years-old. I lost. Shortly after, I moved to Australia by myself under a working holiday visa. I did my first year there then came back to the UK with my partner for a bit. I took him to the gym I’d trained at, and we decided to box together; we ended up boxing round the UK [for White Collar promotions] and had around 10 fights in eight months. We were unbeaten for that time, and I was absolutely loving it. When we went back to Australia, I felt empty from the first month. Boxing wasn’t the same there and I was missing it so much. About four months late, I spoke to someone about turning professional to pursue it as a career and they said, ‘You will only know if you try.’ I spoke with my partner, and I booked a flight that day and left a week later. I left everything there: him, the apartment, my residency, the lot.”
And there lies the sacrifice. Leaving her other half in Australia in the extremely slim hope of becoming a female, world champion boxer, Baggaley had ticked the first box – self-belief. She features on this weekend’s Kynoch Boxing card – screened via FightZone and hosted at the stomping ground of Scottish football team, Hamilton Academical. Funnily enough, when her originally scheduled professional debut was delayed last minute, Baggaley would square off with former IBO world champion Hannah Rankin for an exhibition bout, giving her the experience of making the walk. That fight wasn’t competitive – both women knew that – but it was extremely valuable and acted as a nod of support from one of the best female fighters in the UK.
“I’m feeling a bit more confident because I know what I’m doing now when I get in that sort of scenario. I’ve already had a free run at it, so I’m not really feeling nervous at all but I’m sure that will probably be different on the night. However, the build-up’s gone really smoothly; I’ve had a great couple of spars, and I’ve had my last spar [this week]. That’s all the hard work done and, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I’m still feeling a bit hesitant about getting too excited about it [happening] because what a let-down I had last time. I don’t wanna get my hopes up this time because you just never know.”
Baggaley continued: “In the next 12 to 18 months, I just want to have five fights. [I want to] perfect my strengths and improve my weaker points. I would like to get a few sponsors on board that can help with the costs of my training, so I don’t have to continue killing myself working full-time as a painter and decorator and then slugging out training. A manual job like mine alongside being a professional athlete really expends more energy than you can afford to when you’re trying to invest your all in the process of eventually becoming a world champion. Given I’m so far behind in my skill set and given my lack of experience, I really need to be able to give my all every single day without the worry of finding money for bills and working myself to the bone, to be honest.”
Fighting isn’t easy; fighting and working a physically demanding job must be harder. But those aspiring professionals who commit themselves to the craft without significant medals or media coverage know that – they just dream of better, less strenuous days. This weekend in Hamilton, Hannah Baggaley will dip her toe in the water, but despite female boxing’s shallow pool of talent, this is the baby pool. It’s a long, arduous road, and it’s one beset with obstacles. It wouldn’t feel the same if it was easy, right? Sam Kynoch has presented an opportunity; Baggaley needs to grasp it aggressively with both hands. With trainer Farnell, himself a decorated, talented former professional, the pair believe they have what it takes to scale boxing’s mountain. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t.
“I just walked into the gym and felt like this is where I belong,” admitted the raw, Lancashire talent. “We are so close already. I can trust him [Farnell] fully with my life in and out of the ring, and I think that’s hugely important when trusting that person to guide you through the ropes as essentially, they quite literally have your life in their hands. He’s been amazing from the get-go. I know hand-on-heart he believes fully in me because he knows how dedicated I am and that I always give 110% to him. I do feel honoured that he’s willing to put the time and effort in that he does, because he really does. He takes a lot of time out of his schedule to wait for me to travel down after working hours, he takes me sparring, gets girls in to spar, travels with me to any significant meetings. He really is the best and he makes the sessions fun.”
Victory this weekend would vindicate her decision to relocate solely on a hunch. Ask yourself, how many inexperienced, unproven fans of the gym would pack up and leave their careers and their loved ones, travelling to the other side of the world for a spot on the small hall? Not many. But that’s what is required; that’s what she needs to do. Talking to Baggaley, you get the impression she’s extremely keen on proving herself to boxing’s naysayers, but one wonders if she’s just as keen on proving herself right. Australia remains an entire day’s travel away, far, far from Hamilton, Scotland, but it’s in the bonnie New Douglas Park, segregated and far from home, that she’ll realise her dreams, not on a sandy beach, sipping a cocktail in soaring heat and toasting to the good life. Everybody’s different.
“I actually prefer it when I’m isolated; I like my own space and I enjoy not having to constantly have my social batteries charged. I’ve partied hard in my younger years before I started taking boxing seriously, so I’ve done it all anyway. I do get really nervous before every fight. Because, like you say, there is always that chance that you could be knocked out or you could lose. I wouldn’t say it feels like a lonely sport to be honest; I haven’t felt that way since being with Arnie. I would just like people to think of me as a girl who didn’t grow up with money; didn’t have the best start in life or childhood, who made mistakes but struggled through and made something of herself in boxing, and hopefully that could inspire other girls maybe less fortunate to do the same thing.”