AROUND three years ago, Stefy Bull, the Doncaster manager, trainer and promoter, sent a text message to one of his former amateurs, Terri Harper. It read: “Have you 100 per cent finished boxing now? Wondered if you would be interested in turning pro? Women’s boxing is taking off big time and it would be a shame for your talent to go to waste. I’m very confident I can make you a little star.” That is how it has turned out for Harper.
In February, she became the first British female to win a WBC world belt when, at 23, she took the 130lbs title off Eva Wahlstrom. The Finn had reigned for five years and lost only to Katie Taylor, up at 135lbs, in 26 previous fights (two draws). Next is a defence against Liverpool left-hander Natasha Jonas in the back garden of Eddie Hearn’s Essex mansion on Friday night (August 7). It’s the first all-British female world title fight.
There are 13 years between the champion and her 36-year-old challenger and has everything to fight for. The winner looks set for a fight against WBO boss Ewa Brodnicka. The ultimate goal is a match with Katie Taylor, who denied Jonas a medal at the 2012 London Olympics by outpointing her in the last eight. Harper regards Taylor and Jonas as inspirations, fighters who raised the profile of women’s boxing with their amateur achievements and paved the way for fights such as Friday night’s bill topper. Jonas was national news after becoming the first British woman to qualify for the London Olympics by winning World championship bronze in China. She also put European bronze (2011) and silver (2014) on her amateur CV before making her pro debut five days after her 33rd birthday.
Harper has taken a very different route to Friday night’s historic fight. She first went to the gym at 11 and won silver at the European Juniors in Poland in 2012 before drifting away at 16.
“It was heart-breaking,” said Bull, who is from the same village as his fighter, Denaby Main, South Yorkshire. “I tried to keep her in the gym, but couldn’t keep her motivated.”
The text Bull sent to Harper in July, 2017 got her back in the gym, she turned over at 21 and was a world champion just two years and three months after her pro debut. The question ahead of the Wahlstrom fight was whether Harper’s nine-fight apprenticeship would be enough against the 39-year-old champion? The fight looked to be in the balance at the halfway stage, with Harper scoring with jabs and Wahlstrom landing counters when she tempted her challenger to over commit.
The fight swung Harper’s way from the sixth. Wahlstrom was distracted by a cut that opened over her right eye in that round, took a count in the seventh and ended the eighth on rubbery legs after Harper got through with some clean blows. After that, Harper didn’t take too many chances and ran out a unanimous points winner by scores of 99-90 (twice) and 98-91.
Jonas has won her last three – two inside – since she suffered a shock defeat. Viviane Obenhauf (12-4) had proved to be no more than a stubborn opponent for Chantelle Cameron in her previous fight and the expectation was she would give Jonas rounds in Cardiff in August, 2018. In a sizeable upset, Jonas was dropped three times and stopped in the fourth. There was nothing very complicated about what Obenhauf did. She just ran at Jonas pumping out punches – and Jonas couldn’t get out of the way. Obenhauf chased her to the ropes and smashed her with right hands. She looked to be on her way to the floor for a fourth time when trainer Joe Gallagher threw in the towel. That loss has been put down to overconfidence and perhaps Obenhauf’s tactics surprised her. Jonas has done a lot of boxing in amateur internationals under the points scoring system and it’s hard to envisage anyone at those tournaments rushing her the way Obenhauf did.
Obenhauf provides a form guide to Friday’s fight. Fifteen months after she upset Jonas, she was outpointed over 10 by Harper. Results against other common opponents indicate that, of the two, Jonas has more pop in her punches. Monika Antonjk and Bojana Libiszweska heard the final bell when they fought Harper, but were stopped in one and four rounds respectively by Jonas. Bec Connolly was beaten inside the distance by both, Harper getting the job done earlier.
Gallagher insists that his charge is in the form of her life, training better than ever and energised by this huge opportunity. Jonas, who is posting new personal bests in camp, has won her last couple early and will take encouragement from the way Wahlstrom was able to walk Harper onto punches that she took well.
Jonas, who has been sparring Chantelle Cameron, will fancy she punches harder than the Finnish veteran and with her wide southpaw stance, she will surely look to make the champion reach and fall onto her punches.
Perhaps Harper was in the right place at the right time in Sheffield in February? After all, Wahlstrom was approaching 40, was not regarded as a heavy puncher and the blemishes on her record had come when she boxed outside Finland. Presumably Jonas, only beyond six rounds once and not remotely fancied by the bookmakers, will be telling herself that the best result on Harper’s record flatters her. Harper won that fight with her sharp boxing and movement and if she sticks to her in-and-out boxing, she should outpoint Jonas. But the term ‘live underdog’ suits Jonas well in this one.
Also on the show, Poole cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith (10-1) defends the Commonwealth championship against Cardiff’s Nathan Thorley (14-0) in what has the makings of a fan-friendly fight. Both are tall – Thorley an inch taller at 6ft 4ins – well schooled boxers who brawl. That was the story of Billam-Smith’s title-winning effort in November. The 29 year old fought at the shorter Craig Glover’s (10-2) range for much of the fight for the vacant title and took more punches than trainer Shane McGuigan would have liked, but still outslugged the Liverpudlian for a fifth-round stoppage.
Billam-Smith made his breakthrough late in the fourth and opened up to send Glover down just before the bell. He was over twice more in the next. That result made amends for Billam-Smith narrowly missing out on landing the vacant British title. He thought he did enough to outpoint Richard Riakporhe (9-0) – and Thorley agrees with him.
Thorley made Riakporhe his target before this chance came up. The 27 year old turned over after an amateur career that peaked with Commonwealth Games bronze in 2014 and has won Welsh honours at 175lbs in the pros.
There have to be concerns over how well Thorley will take a shot up at 200lbs. Emmanuel Moussinga (4-13), a journeyman who fights mostly at middleweight, dropped him, he was stopped as an amateur and he does leave his chin hanging out sometimes. Billam-Smith can crack – nine early wins – and can keep his title with a stoppage.
The Verdict Good to see a quality domestic rivalry being showcased in women’s boxing.