Sarah Mahfoud: The fight against Covid-19

“I respect the Coronavirus, but I’m not nervous,” says interim IBF featherweight champion Sarah Mahfoud.

The 30-year-old female boxer and trainee nurse is talking about her laudable decision to enrol as part of the temporary healthcare workforce at a hospital in Bispebjerg, one of the ten official districts of Copenhagen, Denmark.

“I had no doubts at all,” Mahfoud continues. “In fact, I feel like I was obligated to volunteer in this situation because of my education and because I can’t box at the moment. I like to work with people and make a positive difference. I’ve volunteered because I want to be able to do what I can. Plus I’m not good at staying at home and doing nothing.”

The evening that she speaks to Boxing Social, Mahfoud has just completed a full shift in the emergency room.

“It’s very strange because I have to put all this protective gear on,” she explains. “Until we know whether someone has the virus or not and we wait for them to be tested we have to be very careful.

“I’ve worked in a hospital before as part of my training but today was a very different working routine. I’m pretty tired right now.”

Mahfoud has joined the fight against Covid-19. Photo: Sarah Mahfoud.

Like pretty much every other nation around the world, Denmark’s fight against Covid-19 is at a delicate stage.

A strictly observed and swift lockdown in the northwest European nation of around 5.6 million inhabitants has kept infection numbers relatively low to date – at the time of writing there had been 10,927 confirmed cases and 547 deaths. Indeed, so successful has the Danish lockdown been that the country has been able to relax some of its rules, with children of 11 and under having returned to school and nursery a month ago, and children between 12 and 16 returning this week.

However, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has admitted that the balance between trying to re-establish a semblance of normal existence and prevent a renewed wave of infections is something of a “tightrope act”.

As for Mahfoud, at this juncture she isn’t thinking too far ahead. She is also refusing to become resentful about the fact the considerable momentum she has recently acquired in her pro boxing career has been halted by a global pandemic. Her ability to stay grounded and put boxing into its proper perspective is refreshing, and symptomatic of an impressively level-headed persona.

“I can’t train in the same way as usual and I don’t know when the next fight is going to be, so of course for my boxing it is frustrating,” she says. “But because what is happening is so damaging and people are dying, I don’t think that boxing is the most important thing to think about right now.

“Boxing will still be there when we get out the other side. The focus right now is to get rid of this virus so people can live their normal lives and we don’t have to be scared for the old or for the weak, for those people who can’t afford to get this illness.

“I know that when this is over, I’ll get a good fight again, I’ll train hard and I’ll get the right sparring and so on. But none of that can happen right now. So I’m just waiting.”

Once boxing does resume, Mahfoud (10-0, 3 KOs) is primed to become a major star within the fast growing firmament of female boxing.

On 1st February this year she won the IBF’s interim world title at featherweight courtesy of a convincing points win against Brenda Carbajal of Argentina.

Mahfoud is an emerging force in a lively featherweight division. Photo: Henrik Christensen.

The 126lbs class is one of the stronger divisions in women’s boxing, with Canada’s Jelena Mrdjenovich (WBA and WBC) and Puerto Rico’s Amanda Serrano (WBO) among the current title-holders. The full IBF title, meanwhile, is held by Jennifer Han from the United States, who returned to action in a non-title contest on 15th February after a near two-year break from the sport during which she had a baby.

Although she is playing a waiting game right now, Mahfoud undoubtedly possesses the assets to become a crossover star. Highly intelligent, with an engaging personality and a winning smile and sense of humour, she certainly doesn’t resemble the mental image many people have of a prize fighter.

“[When I fought Carbajal] everyone said to me, ‘oh she looks so tough’, like they were afraid on my behalf,” she laughs. “Well, maybe I smile a lot and don’t look so tough, but I’m tough in the ring.”

Mahfoud also possesses a fascinatingly eclectic family background. Her father is Syrian and her mother is a native of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing and geographically remote island chain located in the north Atlantic. 

“They met while studying in France,” Mahfoud explains. “I was born in the Faroe Islands and lived there until I was about four years old. Then we moved to Denmark, so most of my childhood was spent in Denmark.”

Although they are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands are an autonomous territory with their own language, parliament and Prime Minister.

Mahfoud is part of an exciting new wave of talent in women’s boxing. Photo: Frank Lohmann

As described by Mahfoud, the rugged beauty and serenity of the Faroes are a world away from the bright lights and gaudiness of professional prize fighting.

“They fish a lot there,” she says, a wistful note evident in her voice. “There are a lot of sheep and really beautiful nature. It rains a lot but the mountains and the ocean and the air are just amazing.

“Whenever I feel that things are going a bit too fast here in Denmark or in Copenhagen, I love to go to the Faroe Islands, it’s cosy and I can relax and see nature wherever I go. There’s something about it that I really love and enjoy. I miss it when I’m not there for a while.”

Mahfoud admits she feels a deep connection not only to the Faroe Islands, but also to her father’s birthplace of Syria and to Denmark, the country where she has lived for the majority of her life.

“I feel Faroese, Syrian and Danish just the same,” she says. “All the places where my family lives are my home and feel like home. I speak Danish and Faroese, not Arabic but I want to learn it some day when I have the time.”

In contrast to the sleepy peacefulness of the Faroe Islands, Syria has been a nation long rocked by instability. Shockingly, the bitter civil war that began in 2011 has claimed the lives of an estimated 400,000 people – more than have perished worldwide thus far during the Coronavirus crisis.

“The situation there is changing all the time,” Mahfoud says of Syria. “But my family are doing well, they’re okay. My father speaks to them everyday Of course, the country is pressurised because of so many years of this [conflict].

“I went there many times before all this broke out. I would go every summer from when I was a little girl. We had a nice house with big orange and lemon trees. If we were hungry, we’d just go out and eat the fruit. It’s a very beautiful country.”

It is from Mahfoud’s father that she has inherited her love of unarmed combat.

“My father did a lot of fight sports when he was younger,” she says. “That influenced me a lot. I started with karate when I was small.

“One day I was at a sports event where there were some boxing coaches standing around, I worked on the pads, started boxing the day after and have never stopped since.

“Now I couldn’t imagine not boxing, it’s really a part of me now. I love it because it’s so tough. It’s all or nothing. You have to think about everything – how you eat, how you sleep, how you drink. The psychology of boxing is also fascinating to me – you have to prepare yourself to get into the ring against an opponent who you know will do anything to beat you.

“My brother is also a pro boxer although he has a hand injury right now, so it’s a really big part of my family.” (Sarah’s brother Allan is 3-0 as a pro, but hasn’t fought since January 2019).

Mahfoud enjoyed a successful amateur career, winning three Danish championships and twice being crowned Nordic champion. She also fought for Denmark at the 2012 World Amateur Championships in China (“I lost my first fight, so that didn’t go too well. But I was there!” she says, somewhat self-deprecatingly).

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t Mahfoud’s amateur excellence that proved a springboard to a pro boxing contract – rather it was winning the Danish version of TV programme Dancing With The Stars in 2016.

“Yeah I won it – that was crazy!” she laughs. “When Dancing with the Stars first called me I thought: me? why? I was just an amateur boxer, but I was Danish champion and Nordic champion and they thought I qualified to be in the programme.”

Originating from the British TV programme Strictly Come DancingDancing with the Stars is a bona fide worldwide phenomenon, with dozens of versions of the show being produced in countries around the world. Boxers such as Evander Holyfield, Floyd Mayweather, Victor Ortiz, Laila Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard have participated in the US version, while Joe Calzaghe, Anthony Ogogo and Audley Harrison appeared in the UK version.

However, none of the aforementioned fistic figures have matched Mahfoud’s feat in winning the whole competition.

“When I began I thought if I could get halfway through the show that would be fine,” she recalls. “There were so many other celebrities on the show who I thought would get many more [public] votes than me.

“But it went really well, and I went all the way. My boxing experience really helped. Working with your body was something I was used to from my boxing and I was also used to training hard. So it wasn’t hard, it was just a different kind of training.”

A crossover star, Mahfoud won ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in Denmark. Photo: Frank Lohmann

Mahfoud’s elegance, grace and athleticism on Dancing with the Stars made a particular impression on legendary Danish fight promoter Mogens Palle, who dropped her an email after watching an episode inviting her to contact him if she wanted to turn pro.

“I didn’t hesitate for a second,” Mahfoud recalls. “I knew it was an opportunity I had to take. I just jumped in and said ‘yes’. I’d always dreamed about it – I think the goal for any boxer is to turn professional and box for the big belts and titles.

“I’m 30 now and I was 27 when I turned pro. When an opportunity like this comes along, you have to take it and see how far you can take it.”

Palle, who has been credited with singlehandedly keeping boxing alive in Denmark, is now 86 and runs ‘Team Palle’ alongside his daughter Bettina. 

Under his expert guidance, Mahfoud’s shot at the interim IBF featherweight title arrived in just her 10th pro bout when she took on Brenda Carbajal.

“It was such a crazy day,” Mahfoud recalls. “I could feel my heart pumping every time I thought about the fight, even though I felt confident and sure of myself because I’d trained so hard and I knew I was ready.

“That day it was like time didn’t exist, it went so fast and also so slow at the same time! It was everything I’d dreamed of, everything I’d worked on. Now I had to go and prove I could do it. 

“I remember in the first round I hit her and I could see in her eyes that she didn’t like it. Then I felt more confident, I felt I had more power and this was going to be my fight. I could feel it. I knew it. When the fight ended I was like: I’ve got this. I know I’ve got this. And when they raised my hand up, yeah… it was like a dream but it was real.

“I left the arena at 3 o’clock because there were so many people afterwards saying congratulations. I was still in my boxing clothes and didn’t fall asleep until 6 o’clock in the morning.”

A few days after the fight, Mahfoud headed for the Faroe Islands where she received a hero’s welcome.

“They are really proud and celebrated me a lot when I went there. The Prime Minister invited me to have coffee and chocolates with him. In the shopping mall in the capital they had a day where I signed autographs, and a lot of people came.

“I visited schools to sign autographs for the children and answer their questions. I had my belt with me and it got dropped two times! I was thinking ‘oh no, the belt!’ But all the children wanted to hold it and have pictures with it.”

Mahfoud received a hero’s welcome back in the Faroe Islands. Photo: Henrik Christensen.

After a pause Mahfoud adds, with a touch of introspection: “It feels so long ago now because of all of that has been happening with the virus…”

The sentence is left hanging, but the sentiments are clear – in the world in which we live in today, present day concerns often seem to subsume our past achievements. Boxing doesn’t matter right now – nothing does except existing, getting through another day and surviving.

But when the darkness clears, as it surely will in the weeks and months to come, something tells me that the name of Sarah Mahfoud will make quite an impression on the pugilistic universe.

Main image: Ditte Mathilda Joensen.