In another time and place there would be boxing fairy titles written about Terri Harper and her journey from the chip shop to a world title.
In February she beat the veteran Eva Wahlstrom to win the WBC super-featherweight title, a real belt, not one of the dozen makeshift pieces of gaudy jewellery that have been given to female scrappers since the 1970s. Wahlstrom had been the champion since 2015, had fought 26 times, but Harper boxed her ears off.
This Friday Harper was due a homecoming at the Dome in Doncaster, when she was scheduled to make her first defence against Natasha Jonas. The fight was called off a month ago and the pair are now waiting for a new date.
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Jonas was the golden girl of British amateur boxing in the months before the Olympics in London eight years ago. She beat the highly regarded American Queen Underwood in the opening series and then gave Katie Taylor her hardest fight of her golden campaign. Jonas really pushed Taylor that afternoon. The same summer Harper, who was just fifteen, received a letter of rejection from the GB boxing team – she would not be joining their system. Harper was gone, lost in exile from boxing. That was then, so many long summers ago and long before this present situation.
The British Boxing Board of Control first suspended boxing until the end of March, then the end of April and then until the end of May. As the dreaded day of return moved further away, promoters at all levels were made to collapse their shows, move their big fights and scratch their heads.
There is talk now – secret, delusional and desperate at times – about the end of this lockdown and the resumption of boxing shows in some form. In America the plans for basketball and football have included games on ships and in hotels made sterile by forced closure; hundreds of players and officials would all continue in an isolation of growing madness, playing game after game in an attached arena. There has been talk of the MGM casino and the venue’s grand hall in Las Vegas becoming some type of basketball centre, a hidden shrine. The public would certainly like that.
The idea of boxing shows being held in a studio at either BT or Sky, behind closed doors with just essential people in attendance, has been repeatedly mentioned. The idea is perhaps thrown about far too lightly, treated like it is the simple solution to the empty rings and television screens.
However, it sounds far more feasible than the reality. It will not be easy getting six or seven fights matched, two emergency ambulance crews on site, two trauma doctors, boxing officials at ringside and finding an emergency room to put on hold for a possible head injury. Those are the essential rules of the sport in Britain, the boring but essential stuff that every show must follow before a punter can pay to watch the fights. Testing fighters, referees and cornermen for the virus is not even being discussed. Also, the Board just released a statement saying that NHS staff will need a break after the peak; it is a grand and sensible gesture from the Board and shows an understanding and care of the situation beyond all urgent calls for the boxing to start again.
Meanwhile, Harper and Jonas stay busy in their homes, gardens and on the roads and in the hills near where they live. All that they can do is tick over solo, no sparring and no pad work with guidance. Obviously, they are not allowed to spar and that is the greatest deprivation for a quality boxer. They also have to hope that in the boredom of isolating they avoid the fridge and stay close enough to their fighting weight. They are in the same waiting group as British title claimants, skint undercard fighters and millionaires like Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, who have both had fights scrapped. Promoters of all shapes and sizes and wealth have the same problems. This waiting game is arguably boxing’s greatest leveller.
Harper was still peeling potatoes just over a year ago, buying tickets to watch her idol Taylor fight. Then, last November she was on the same bill as Taylor in Manchester; Harper had already bought a ticket. Harper was in a real fifty-fifty, matched against Viviane Obenhauf, who had lost to Taylor, but had stopped Jonas. Harper won easily.
In February, Harper, in her tenth fight, beat Wahlstrom; the dawn shifts in the chip shop were over, the Jonas fight was announced a few weeks later and then it was off. Three weeks ago she thought she had been moved to the June night at Tottenham on the Joshua undercard, but now that is gone. When it happens, and it will happen, Jonas will be a real test; pride will make it a fight whenever it happens. It is also the first all-British female world title fight.
“We are still preparing for Natasha,” said Stefy Bull, who now trains Harper at a distance. In 2017 Bull spoke to Harper and got her fighting again; rejection in 2012, exile, a return, skivvy in a chippie and now a world title after just ten fights.
That is a boxing fairy tale, make no mistake.