- in In Pictures
“I was a heavy smoker, drinker and party animal.”
For many, quitting those addictions and vices can take time.
But for British boxer Shannon Courtenay, her whole approach to life changed from the moment she stepped foot in London’s Finchley Amateur Boxing Club five years ago.
The 26-year-old from Watford is now unbeaten in five professional bouts, has featured on the undercard of York Hall and O2 Arena fight nights and trains alongside world-class boxers at Adam Booth’s gym.
Her journey into boxing is far from typical; she is a latecomer to the sport, did not navigate through the youth ranks or Great Britain’s amateur set-up, nor is she living out a lifelong dream.
“But I found boxing – and boxing found me – at the perfect time,” she tells BBC Sport.
‘I threw my cigarettes in the bin’
In 2015, Courtenay was working in a pub, smoking up to 40 cigarettes a day and, more often than not, her evening meal would be a takeout curry or pizza.
She headed down to Finchley ABC for one purpose.
“I just wanted to lose weight,” she explains.
“After that first day at Finchley, everything changed. I walked out of the gym and threw my cigs into a big blue bin next to the door.”
She has never smoked a cigarette since.
“I drove home and had a chicken salad for dinner, which was unheard of for me,” she adds.
“The next day I woke up at five o’clock in the morning and went running. I kept doing it every day and before I knew it I was winning titles.”
‘I knew my face would fit the pro game’
Despite her inexperience, Courtenay’s raw power and aggressive, come-forward fighting style was soon being noticed by fans and promoters alike.
She was, fittingly, given the nickname ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ by a boxing journalist after an amateur bout.
Three years after her first fight, she signed a professional contract with Matchroom Boxing.
“I knew my face would fit the pro game,” she says.
“My style is fan-friendly. I don’t mind taking a dig to land two more. You don’t really see women fight like that. Although that isn’t always the best way to go about it.”
Women’s boxing has been on a high in recent years through the success of Ireland’s Olympic gold medallist and world champion Katie Taylor, the most decorated female fighter active today, and Britain’s now-retired Nicola Adams, the first female to win a boxing gold medal at an Olympic Games.
Courtenay, while appreciating that other fighters have paved the way, believes that being relatively new to the sport will work in her favour.
“My body is still fresh, I don’t have that much wear and tear like others may have. And because I have only been in the sport for four or five years, I am loving every second of it. Whereas other women fighters may be getting sick of it,” she says.
‘Social media can be a nasty place’
It is not just Courtenay’s boxing ability which is proving popular.
“I’m just myself. I don’t put on an act. I don’t pretend to be a character which I then have to play for the rest of my life,” she says.
“And it’s worked well because people can relate to me.”
Being relatable with the public stems from her upbringing; her mum was a pub landlady and Courtenay has grown up in and around that environment since the age of four.
“I am used to the banter and I can dish it out as well,” she adds.
“I’m easy to talk to because I’ve grown up around a vast variety of people.”
But even with her light-hearted nature, Courtenay has experienced the “vulgar side” of social media since turning professional.
“When I first turned pro, everything suddenly changed. I went from being a nobody to people taking pictures in supermarkets and suddenly social media blew up,” she says.
“It got a bit difficult for me at first. Some people on social media can be nasty.”
Courtenay does hope to use her online presence to inspire young girls, starting first with her younger sister, although says she was not too comfortable with the ‘role model’ tag at first.
“I’d laugh at the thought of it,” she says.
“But now I get messages daily from people saying that because of me, their daughter took up boxing or they’ve gone for a run.
“I’ve got a 13-year-old sister and I know there aren’t that many role models around. I see models on Instagram who are filtered to the nines.
“I tell my sister that these women aren’t perfect. They’re photoshopped. I’d rather she be inspired by athletes who are doing things.”
Retirement and starting a family
Courtenay was scheduled to fight in Doncaster on 24 April, a bout which was postponed because of the ban on sporting events in the United Kingdom.
This setback has not dampened her spirits or ambitions.
“I want to be a two-weight world champion,” she says.
Although she is reluctant to state when she will win a first world title, Courtenay is adamant that she must be “fast-tracked” in professional boxing, so that she can retire and start a family.
She says: “I will probably stop boxing at about 32 or 33 so I can have children. If you’re a male boxer and want to start a family, it doesn’t affect you in any way.
“But it’s difficult for a woman. For me, I would have to take about two years out of the sport. So by the time I’m ready to have a family, I’ll probably have to retire.”
Likeable, a ticket-seller and an explosive boxer but it is early days and time will tell how much the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’ achieves over the next six or seven years.
She jokes that her alias may need to be shortened should she go on for any longer, saying: “I might have to get some botox because otherwise I’ll just be known as ‘The Assassin.’”