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This is 50: Record-breaker Alicia Ashley on the key to longevity

Alicia Ashley, then the WBC super-bantamweight champion, poses in 2016 (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
Alicia Ashley, who boxed until she was 50, reveals the secrets behind her success to Oliver Fennell

MOST boxers who turn pro in their 30s don’t get very far. Alicia Ashley, despite claiming boxing was only ever a hobby, became a two-time WBC ruler, set a world record and earned a place in the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame.

Her August induction into the Hall’s Class of 2021 recognises her status as the oldest female titlist – her second WBC super-bantamweight reign lasting until she was 49. She is also the only Jamaican woman to win a belt.

“Bear in mind I didn’t turn pro until I was almost 32,” says Ashley, 55 in August, when asked to explain her longevity. “I didn’t even box amateur until I was 28. I wanted to be a ballerina. I danced from a young age, from eight to 19, but I got injured [a torn meniscus in both knees] and couldn’t dance anymore, so I switched to karate and fencing. Then I followed my big brother Devon into kickboxing.”

Ashley would compete in kickboxing for a few years – including, for a while, in tandem with boxing –but it was her first kickboxing match that provided the catalyst for her transition to the sport in which she would win belts and a Guinness World Record.

“My first [kickboxing] match was against a good boxer,” she says. “I won by the skin of my teeth, keeping her on the outside with kicks, but every time she got past my legs, she was great with her hands.

“I started training in boxing to improve my hands for kickboxing. But if I train, it’s got to be for competition. Training for training’s sake doesn’t do anything for me.”

It was this drive for progression that led Ashley to turn pro in 1999, after winning three New York Golden Gloves tournaments and two USA Nationals (she holds dual Jamaican-American citizenship, having moved from Kingston to Brooklyn when she was 11).

“I had no expectations in boxing,” she says. “Turning pro was just to get to the next level of competition. I had a job [as a computer technician] and a degree. Sport was just for pleasure. I didn’t have a goal; I didn’t think there was a lot you could do in women’s boxing anyway.”

Back then, female boxing had nothing like the popularity it enjoys now. For a woman without major promotional backing, the opportunities were even fewer. Accordingly, Ashley fought wherever and whoever she could. Her 37-fight ledger (24-12-1) shows appearances in seven weight divisions (super-fly to super-light) and 13 countries.

Typically for a road warrior, there were instances where a decision might have gone a different way in a different location. “Seven of my losses were split or majority decisions in somebody else’s hometown,” she says. “I asked each of them for a rematch, but they never wanted to.”

She concedes she was well beaten by Laura Serrano (“the best I fought; a complete fighter”) and Chevelle Hallback (“a really hard hitter; it was just about survival”), but amid those results and the disputed defeats were victories over the likes of Elena Reid, Alesia Graf and Chanttall Martinez,
two over Kelsey Jeffries, a draw against Layla McCarter and a 2-1 series with Marcela Acuna.

Ashley competed in Canada, the Virgin Islands, Austria, Guyana, Germany, China, Panama, Denmark, three times each in Mexico and Argentina, twice in Haiti and around the US, but never was her open-mindedness more apparent than in October 2005, when she boxed a North Korean in North Korea.

“I was like, ‘we’re going where?’,” she says. “But I was willing to fight anywhere. People thought I couldn’t go because they wouldn’t let Americans in, but I travelled as a Jamaican.

“It was scary when I arrived because nobody had told me at the airport you have to give up your cellphone, your laptop, a handler collects your passport, and you have to travel with a group at all times.

“It was very restricted; you couldn’t do anything or go anywhere. There was no gym I could go to, so I stayed in my hotel room, skipped rope and hit pads. I just wanted to fight and go home.”

The fight, against Myung Ok-ryu in Pyongyang for the WBC super-flyweight title, unsurprisingly went the local’s way. “When the judges declared her the winner, the referee apologised,” Ashley says.

This was followed six months later by another disputed defeat, against Xiyan Zhang in Chengdu, China. “I really did not have a good experience with that fight,” Ashley says. “It was a little town, really undeveloped, and the fight was crazily rigged. One of the judges was the wife of the promoter.”

Despite not having much luck competing in the Far East, Ashley now lives in China, where she has worked as a boxing coach since August 2018 – five months after her last bout.

“I knew my career was coming to an end,” she says of the reason behind the move. “I’d been fighting with injuries and knew I’d have to give up boxing. So, when the opportunity came to go to China, I jumped at it. It would be a different environment, so it would help me accept it was time to retire.”

Ashley started out at Zou Shiming’s No.1 Sports Center and is now the head boxing coach at UFC Fit, both in Shanghai.

“The last five years, I was fighting at 70 per cent because of my knee problems [which had persisted since her dancing days],” she says. “The doctor said other than a knee replacement, there’s not much they can do, and I wasn’t going to go through that.”

With Ashley’s final match at age 50, it was hardly a career cut short. She’d claimed two WBC 122lb titles – the first tenure lasting more than three years through her mid-40s – and secured her legacy on October 29, 2015, when she regained the belt by dominating Ireland’s Christina McMahon. She was 48 years, two months and six days old, and would reign for almost a year.

“I didn’t really think about that [record],” she says. “I was in boxing because I love competition. I still think of myself as a dancer, a performer, all eyes on me.”

Records and titles may not have been Ashley’s motivation, but winning both against McMahon came on a rare stage – her hometown. Ashley’s own Brooklyn fans cheered on her defining moment.

“It was funny, because it took me a while to get used to having a crowd behind me,” she says. “I’m used to the crowd being silent, because that means I’m winning.

“That time, when I heard the crowd screaming for me, I was like ‘Oh, this is what it feels like!”

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