By Robson Sharuko
Harare - She has shared the stage with some of world sport’s biggest names, including English international footballer Eniola Aluko, whose claims that she was bullied and racially abused by former England head coach Mark Sampson led to the gaffer’s axing by the Football Association and turned her into a beacon of resistance in women’s football.
Stacey Copeland, at 36, will fight for the Commonwealth boxing title in Harare after a journey which took her from the football fields, where she enjoyed considerable success, and into the boxing ring, which she now wants to conquer.
The English footballer-turned-boxer is part of a boxing festival set for the Harare
International Conference Centre dubbed Africa versus UK which will feature boxers from Zimbabwe, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Britain.
Organisers say the festival will be broadcast into more than 50 million homes across Africa, courtesy of Kwese Sport, and there will be more than a combined audience of 108 million viewers, making it one of the biggest sporting events – in terms of viewership – ever held in this country.
The impressive card will feature a World Boxing Federation International super welterweight title between Congolese boxer Emmany Kalombo and UK’s Samuel Antwi over 10 rounds.
Then Copeland, who left a career as a footballer to become a professional boxer – something which former Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand could not do despite his best efforts to make the transition – will also battle South Africa’s Mapula Ngubane for the vacant Commonwealth welterweight crown over 10 rounds.
Not since Alfonso Zvenyika won a Commonwealth title in Harare 20 years ago, has this country staged a Club title fight and Copeland is an athlete with a huge international profile.
"I am delighted to be part of the UK vs Africa show, it is a fantastic opportunity for all boxers involved to showcase our sport,” Copeland, who will captain Team UK, said.
“I am honoured to be team captain for the UK team and I hope that during our stay in Harare we can inspire others to take an interest in boxing or sport in general.
“On a personal note, to visit such an incredible country and also fight for the Commonwealth title is like a dream come true, we’ll all be ready to put on a great show for the spectators to enjoy.
“I want this Commonwealth title more than anything! Can’t wait to get there, we’re ready to rumble.”
For one of the female athletes with the biggest profiles in the United Kingdom to describe Zimbabwe as an “incredible country,” is a massive vote of confidence in the nation’s spirited efforts to charm the world as it embraces a new political dispensation.
On Monday, she posted a picture of herself at the International Conference Centre, where the boxing festival will take place, revealing she had travelled through three countries on a 30-hour trip, which also took her to Dubai in the Gulf, to get to Harare.
The 36-year-old Mancunian played for England Under-18s and Doncaster Belles before changing sport codes to plunge into the brutal world of the boxing ring and now she has a chance of going back home to England with the Commonwealth title in the bag.
She is considered a powerful and inspirational sportswoman, who has been preaching to enhance the cause of female athletes, and has shared the stage with the likes of English international footballer Aluko whose claims that she was bullied and racially abused by the then England national women team coach, Mark Sampson, ended with the gaffer losing his job.
Copeland wants female boxers to be accorded the same respect, and attention, which is now being given to female football stars and she is on a crusade to change perceptions.
“Our own governing body is only just coming around to the fact that we’re there,” she told the Press Association. “We’re all individuals trying to do things in our own way.”
“I’ve spent that many years waiting for things to change and being told, ‘It will change, just wait, it’ll come, it’ll come’.
“And I’ve realised that it doesn’t happen unless some of us make it happen. I don’t want to be quietly waiting for other people to do something. I need to be one of them.” But why did she decide to become a boxer, a sport that is synonymous with brutality, and which has been dominated by male athletes for generations.
“I don’t know exactly what made we want to be a boxer, my dad was a boxer and my granddad runs our gym, and from the first time I went in the gym as a six-year- old I just loved it,” she recalls.
“At that time, it was illegal for women to compete, so eventually I went into football as there were no opportunities in boxing for me back then.
“However, things have since changed, and when I returned from playing football abroad, I knew I wanted to pursue my dreams of becoming a boxer.
“I can’t explain why I love boxing as it’s just a feeling which runs deep in me for the sport, but I know what I like about it – the fact that it tests you on every level as an athlete and a person.
“It gives me purpose and goals, and it has presented me with so many opportunities to grow in ways that go beyond sport.
“I also enjoyed watching boxing as a kid, whether it was the pros on TV, or the lads from our gym in the local amateur shows. I didn’t have any female role models as there weren’t any at the time, but I was still inspired by the male boxers and that also led me to want to fight as well.”
Copeland and his crusade are in Harare this weekend and it’s a show which some boxing analysts say it’s like no other which has been staged in this country for some time now.
Zimbabwe is reviving its romance with boxing, which had faded when some of its star attractions like Langton “Schoolboy” Tinago, a three-time Commonwealth champion, retired and others, like heavyweight king, Proud “Kilimanjaro” Chinembiri, passed on.