Rudderless, running wild and 32kg over her current fighting weight, Shannon Courtenay remembers excusing herself midway through her first boxercise class six years ago on the pretence of needing the loo. “I was hungover,” she recalls. “I was so unfit and I just couldn’t wait for the hour to be up. I told the instructor I was going out for a wee but I actually went out for a cigarette and got sick.”
She was aged 20 at the time and had gone along with friends from Abbots Langley, near Watford. Her instructor noticed that for all her shortcomings in the fitness department, Courtenay packed a particularly ferocious punch and recommended that she present herself at the Finchley boxing gym, where another wayward youth by the name of Anthony Joshua first laced up his gloves for further tuition in the sweet science.
“For three months I thought nothing of it then I plucked up the courage to go,” says the bantamweight. “I was the only girl there but the minute I walked in it changed my life dramatically. I knew it was where I was meant to be. I walked out of the gym, threw my cigarettes in the bin, got up at 5am the next morning and went running. My life changed that day and I’ve never looked back.”
Before then, Courtenay had no idea where she was meant to be. Her father had walked out on the family when she was 10, while her mother ran a pub and gave driving lessons to support her daughter and son. A teenage tearaway, Courtenay kept her own hours, many of them forever lost in a drunken haze. “I was really unhappy and I had no direction but suddenly I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “Boxing made me happy and the weight started falling off because I wasn’t smoking or drinking any more. I realised what I was doing was going to turn my life around.”
And how. After 22 bouts as an amateur, Courtenay has won five out of five as a professional, the first of them in March last year. Now aged 26, she fights out of the gym in Redhill, Surrey, run by the trainer Adam Booth, who is plotting her career path along with the promoter Eddie Hearn. Because of the Covid‑19 crisis, she spent the day of what was supposed to be her sixth fight training in isolation, attempting to mow her lawn, and talking to the Guardian. If she is disappointed she hides it well, her conversation punctuated by constant self‑deprecating laughter, never more so than when she is discussing her gardening misadventures. “I tried to cut my grass this morning,” she says. “And I now have one stripe in the middle of my lawn which is all I got done before I mowed over the cable. I cut it in three places so there’s no fixing it now.”
At first, Courtenay found life in lockdown difficult. “I really struggled with it because I’d gone from being in camp for a year, being really active, to suddenly not being allowed to go to the gym,” she explains. “I live on my own, which is obviously a bit boring, but then I got a punchbag delivered two weeks ago and I’m absolutely fine now. I’ve been going out running during the day and then doing the bag and weights at night so I’m coping absolutely fine, but at first it was very, very tough. I’m still training really hard so when we are allowed to fight I’ll be ready.”
Talk of her fitness regime, work ethic and apparently iron will calls to mind the old Muhammad Ali quote about fights being “won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”. Is it a view to which Courtenay subscribes? “100%,” she says. “I’ve always said this and I stand by it – I am not a talented fighter. I am where I am through purely hard work. I don’t have that raw talent that the likes of Katie Taylor has; I am where I am because I work so hard. That’s why I continue to push myself so much to continue to improve myself because I’ve so much to catch up on because I was so late to the game. I make sure that I constantly give 110% in everything I do.”
She must have some talent? “Well, obviously, there must be a little bit there because I’ve got where I am so far but I don’t think people understand my work ethic,” she says. “Even if I’m not physically training, I’m sitting there studying fights, writing things down, rewinding it and going over it again and again looking at everything because I just want to be the best I can be.”
A lively and amusing presence on social media, Courtenay cites Twitter as “a nice way to interact with my fantastic, loyal fans” but wearily concedes that, as a woman in a predominantly male world, she inevitably attracts the attention of plenty of weirdos. “It bothered me at the beginning,” she admits. “I didn’t know how to deal with it and it troubled me. For every 100 comments there might be two nasty ones and they were the ones I focused on. But now I look at it and I think that if somebody’s sitting there behind a keyboard, living in the box room in his mum’s house and he feels the need to slate a young girl, then it says a lot more about him than it does about me.”
With her career on hold until elite sport is given the green light to resume, Courtenay has little option but to remain patient. “I spoke to Eddie last week and he’s got a feeling there’s a chance we might be able to fight at the end of June or July,” she says. “That’s wishful thinking but what we do know is that it will be behind closed doors and there won’t be any audience for a while.” While far from ideal, at least it will mean a return to dancing under those lights.