The punch line: She gets a kick out of boxing
Michele Aboro, a British boxer of Nigerian descent who retired as seven-time world champion without a single loss, is as unbeatable outside the ring as she was in.
Now living in Shanghai, Aboro has established a charity and set up two boxing gyms. Her mission: promote boxing, gender equality in sports and healthy lifestyle for children.
Born in 1967 in London into a mixed-race, single parent home with seven children, Aboro came in contact with boxing for the first time at age 9, but one trainer at the time told her it was no place for girls. That didn’t stop Aboro, and by age 16 she had taken up the sport.
“I was fascinated when I saw it for the first time,” she says. “The fascination was not in the violence but in the interaction between boxers. Someone doing something to get someone else to react.”
Women weren’t legally allowed to hold professional boxing licenses in the UK until 1996. “Fortunately, I had an open-minded mother who told me that I should pursue whatever I really wanted to do,” Aboro says.
She started boxing in London in the late 1980s before moving to the Netherlands, where she worked with trainer Johan Vos in 1993. In 1996, Aboro moved to Germany to take advantage of a strong women’s boxing environment. Signed by Universal Boxing Promotions, she went professional.
It wasn’t always easy, Aboro admits. In her early years, she had to overcome fear and lack of self-confidence when entering the ring.
“The sport is full of possibilities and teaches people to control their natural aggression,” she says. “It taught me to believe in myself. The boxing ring became my world.”
Despite a highly competitive environment, Aboro struck up friendships with many ring rivals, including American boxer Leona Brown.
“Actually, I didn’t like her at first because she was so rude,” Aboro says. “But we were pursuing our passion. We connected through punch and jab.”
Aboro hung up her gloves as an undefeated world champion in 2001. Her strong passion for music led her to study sound engineering, and she traveled with several bands around the world.
“Music, sports and arts are the three things that fascinate me because they are not about gender, color or money,” she says. “They enable people to empower themselves.”
While visiting her friend, Chinese-Dutch photographer Yilan Yuen, in Shanghai in 2009, Aboro fell in love with the city. During her stay, she was surprised to find a dearth of gyms for boxing training. So she and Yuen decided to open their own.
In 2012, Aboro was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. That led her to create the Aboro Foundation, which aims to inspire physical and mental wellbeing through fitness and nutrition education.
“I am not sure what will happen,” she says of the caner. “But the foundation and gym give me the fortitude to fight this disease.”
The foundation’s work relies on about 40 volunteers. More than 500 students have participated in its philanthropic projects.
Aboro says it’s a constant battle to knock down the common perception that boxing is related to violence.
“Many schools refused our overtures because they misunderstood boxing,” she says. “What we want to do is not just popularizing the sport, but promoting the spirit of boxing and healthy lifestyle.”
When Xiwai International School finally agreed to work with the foundation, a successful sports day was held, where students were exposed to “bubble” boxing, yoga, twisters and other physical exercises to improve their mobility and balance.
In 2014, Aboro and Yuen opened a boxing gym on Changhua Road. It’s called the Aboro Academy. A poster on the wall proclaims that the academy is more than a gym — it’s “an open community.”
“It’s a place that welcomes people from all walks of life, no matter who they are or where they are from,” Aboro says. “The academy is a family.”
Aboro conducts two free classes every week for children between the ages of 6 and 14. This year, she says she plans to focus on the children of migrant workers.
She says classes in “women’s boxing” aren’t really unnecessary.
“There is no need to have classes specifically targeting women,” she says. “There is no gender in sports. But the fact is that many women feel more comfortable in an all-female environment.”
Aboro is deeply committed to children. At the end of her interview with Shanghai Daily, she proudly showed off a stroller she had just bought for her baby daughter.
Tomorrow, the Aboro Academy celebrates its fourth anniversary by offering free classes to the public. On March 31, the academy will hold “The Knockout 8,” a charity event. Boxers — professional and amateur — from all walks of life are welcome. The pre-sale ticket costs 100 yuan, with 150 yuan at door. All the proceeds will go to the Aboro Foundation. For more information, check www.aboroacademy.com.