Shotgun Shannon’s Last Shout
By Michael SafiDecember 5, 2012
As an amateur Shannon O’Connell could have been a contender — but the pressures of motherhood have forced her to turn pro in a last-ditch attempt to make a career out of boxing.
It’s fight night at the South Sydney Junior Rugby League Club and the big draw is Shannon “Shotgun’’ O’Connell. The flyers show a tanned woman with blonde hair in tight braids, set against exploding pink fireworks, under the banner “The most entertaining female fighter in Australia!”
She’s boxing Pimchanok Ruamwong, a 20-year-old pro who is ranked joint-third in Thailand. Ruamwong, flown in for the event, is here as what the boxing world calls a “tomato can”, an inferior fighter with a tendency to leak red when battered.
O’Connell, 165 cm, a 29-year-old mother of two, is in the changeroom, still in denim shorts. Tonight her kids, aged five and six, are with a friend. They're allowed to stay up late to hear the results of their mother’s bout.
Sharing the changeroom is a ring-girl whose job will be to hold up cards showing which round it is in the fight. She’s applying make-up in the mirror next to O’Connell, as the boxer is bobbing restlessly.
The Fight Reel
Does she get nervous before fights? She nods.
“Sometimes I get out there and think, I’ve forgotten how to box.”
O’Connell’s burly trainer, Gareth Williams, is winding thick cotton tape around her manicured hand. “You’ve worked too bloody hard to forget,” he says.
“Yeah, it’s instinct,” O’Connell agrees.
The trainer finishes wrapping. “How does that feel?” he asks.
She rubs her knuckles. “It feels like I can hurt somebody.”
By the time O’Connell is stretching in the wings of the RSL hall, waiting for the announcer to call her name, the ring-girls are down to their bikinis, and the aromas of main course — “steak or chicken?” — have filled the hall.
Tied into her white gloves and sporting a frilly, hot-pink skirt over black shorts O’Connell is no longer making eye contact; silently she’s throwing jabs and crosses at an imaginary opponent.
Williams pulls her aside. “If today doesn’t happen, the world-title shot doesn’t happen,” he whispers. “Alright mate?” She nods.
“If the knockout comes, it’s from a set-up shot,” he says, before miming a flurry of uncontrolled punches. “Not from pah-pah-pah-pah.”
“If I hurt her though, I’ll jump on it,” she says. “And if I’m losing, I’ll just bash her.”
He pushes between her teeth a mouthguard marked “K.O.”, the initials of her father, Kevin O’Connell.
Her entry music is the 80s power ballad Here I Go Again, which begins to boom through the club. “I don’t know where I'm going/But I sure know where I've been.” She mouths the lyrics silently.
The opening bell rings. Wolf whistles. Applause. O’Connell springs forward and immediately claims the centre of the mat, a position from which she can control the bout — and the point farthest from the ropes, where fighters get trapped and knocked unconscious.
She stays deep in Ruamwong's space, flicking crisp jabs into any gap she can find, feigning crosses to the head to force Ruamwong’s guard high, and then swinging hooks into her exposed body.
Looking on is Gary Mason, O'Connell’s promoter. “With the talent she has,” he says, “she could unify the major belts in the world.”
O’Connell punches in satisfying, elegant combinations, her fists meeting Ruamwong’s face as if according to well-rehearsed choreography. The Australian in the ring is clearly a class above the night’s other fighters, and Ruamwong is quickly on the ropes. The diners groan and cheer, repulsed and transfixed by the violence, in the standard way of boxing crowds.
THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF THE SPORT, governments have felt the need to legislate against women boxing. It was illegal across the United States for most of the 20th century, and permitted in Britain only from 1996.
Banning the sport in New South Wales, in 1986, the state sports minister at the time, Michael Cleary, declared: “The spectacle of women attacking each other is simply not acceptable to a majority of the people in our community.”
Women boxers, Cleary warned, ran “the risk of becoming freaks in some sort of Roman circus disguised as a sporting contest”.
Even after the British ban was lifted, the British Boxing Board of Control refused to grant women a professional licence until Jane Couch — a strong-jawed, street-fighting northerner known as “The Fleetwood Assassin’’ — took the board to an industrial tribunal. There Couch dismantled one by one the arguments against women’s involvement in boxing — including claims that blows to the breasts could be life-threatening, and that pre-menstrual tension made women too emotionally unstable to box.
But women who fight are at no greater risk than men, says Dr Saxon Smith, vice-president of the NSW Australian Medical Association. The association argues that all forms of boxing should be banned, describing the sport as “a public demonstration of interpersonal violence which is unique among sporting activities’’.
Male or female, Smith says, “it’s the same brain injuries that will be occurring”.
Nevertheless, in NSW the ban on female bouts was lifted in 2008.
A year later, the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing would be permitted, starting at the London games in 2012.
The Olympics recognition would now overshadow the sport’s world championships, where Shannon O’Connell had assiduously built her reputation. As an amateur, in 2010, the Queenslander was ranked second in the world.
If things had worked out, she would almost certainly have qualified for the London Olympics, maybe become a household name. But they didn’t work out.
Just as female boxing won its fight against decades of prejudice, O’Connell was losing her own battles: against the bills, the mortgage and the demands of single motherhood.
SHANNON O’CONNELL first wandered into an Adelaide boxing gym in 2004 to recover from a back injury. Then, she says, “I just wanted to get back in there.”
She was drawn to the ring by the challenge.
“Mentally and physically, it’s such a hard sport.
“You can’t be a normal person. I can’t go out for dinner and eat certain foods, I can’t go out with friends for coffee, I can’t have a drink after work. I can’t do most things.”
But normality had always been denied to O’Connell. Her father, Kevin, was a professional speedway racer, and in 1985, when she was just two years old, he died in a track accident. Her mother “went off the rails” and struggled increasingly with drug addiction. O’Connell was sent to live with her grandparents. “Growing up,” she recalls, “we had nothing.”
And so boxing’s harshness was familiar, but the struggle felt meaningful. “I love it. It’s how I’ve grown up. You’ve got to work hard for everything you’ve got, and you’ve got to fight for it.”
How do you rank a sport by toughness? ESPN, the sports entertainment company, tried to do it in a 2004 survey. Its criteria included nerve (“the ability to overcome fear”) and durability (“the ability to withstand physical punishment”).
Boxing ranked number one, beating ice hockey, the National Football League and marathon running.
Perhaps more than any sport, success in boxing demands an obsessive, almost spiritual devotion.
In boxing, O’Connell found a way to avenge. “My dad was really well known, mainly in Adelaide, but for his sport he was a loved person,” she says. “And after [he died], my mum dragged his name through the dirt, in her grieving. And my aim was to make my dad’s name proud again.”
Her fifth amateur fight was for an Australian title at the 2004 regional championships in Tonga, her first trip overseas. There she met Chris McCullen, a Brisbane-based trainer and boxer, who offered to take her on. She moved to Queensland weeks later, at the age of 21.
State, national and regional titles began to stack up. She had taken a break to have two children — Cooper, now 6, and Taylor, 5 — with her boyfriend, professional boxer Corey McConnell (their six-year relationship has since ended, but they remain on good terms). But in 2010, she returned to finish in the top eight at the world championships in Barbados. On points, in her division, O’Connell was the second best amateur boxer in the world.
But, increasingly, the obstacles to her success became the ones she couldn’t fight. She needed 12 training sessions every week to keep fit; she was raising her children alone, and working 60-hour weeks in office-administration jobs to keep the mortgage and bills paid.
“I would see her at times just physically and mentally burned out,” McCullen remembers. “She did it a lot harder than a lot of people.”
The struggle was worth it, O’Connell says, because it kept her in the ring. “I know what I’m doing in there, no matter what’s going on in my life outside of boxing. I could be a mess 10 minutes before the fights — but the minute I’m in the ring, I know what I’m doing. It’s my comfort zone.”
O’CONNELL would easily have qualified for the London Olympic team. But late in 2011 she discovered that the squad would be spending up to five months training and competing in Europe.
“I'm a single mum, I've got two kids, and I've got a mortgage. I can’t just drop everything for the Olympic Games,” she says.
And so her amateur career ended abruptly. To keep boxing O’Connell would have to turn professional. She quit her job and devoted herself to full-time training.
Sponsors came and went — local gyms, construction companies, car repairers — but they could never provide enough funds to keep her life afloat. The average professional boxer earns $1,200 a fight, and has to sell at least one spectators’ table to get on the card. Meanwhile O’Connell’s children were growing, with greater financial demands.
In September, she parted ways with her trainer McCullen, whom she describes as “a father figure to me, my best friend.
“I was going through a lot of hard things in my life, and lost the plot a bit,” she says. “I guess it was too much for him.”
Shortly after, in a Facebook post, she announced her retirement from boxing.
“I grew up in a situation where we didn’t have anything... and the minute I had kids, I said, ‘I’m not going to do that, my kids won’t go without.’ And I felt I was slipping into that: putting my own needs in boxing before keeping a roof over their heads, putting food on the table.”
An hour after her Facebook post, Gareth Williams called her. They had shared a gym when Shannon first moved to Brisbane, and kept in touch since then. “I explained it to him; I said, I don’t want to quit, I love boxing, but what else do I do? I’m stuck, I need money, I need to go and get a job. I was at a stage where I couldn’t pay my mortgage.”
Ten minutes later, Williams called her back with the name of a new manager, Gary Mason. Mason runs a Sydney-based barter-trading franchise, and manages public relations, sponsorship and commercial agreements for a stable of local boxers.
“She’s such a marketable product — and not just because she’s so glamorous, but because she’s a very, very good boxer,” Mason says. He jumped at the opportunity to manage O’Connell.
He is leading negotiations for O’Connell to fight for the International Boxing Organisation world title early next year, and trying to tempt World Boxing Council world champion, the Victorian ‘‘Susie Q’’ Ramadan, into the ring against O’Connell.
“We’re on a journey here that is going to make a massive return for everyone concerned,” Mason says.
Money is still an issue; O’Connell recently missed a sparring session on the Gold Coast because she was unable to afford petrol for her car. But the team has a plan for this last, desperate run at professional success, which boils down, says Williams, to one objective: “Win world titles.
“We must be at the top. If we can win an IBO world title and make some noise on the big stage, and if we can get a big fight against Susie [Ramadan], both girls putting their titles on the line...”
O’Connell seems satisfied with the arrangement. “Now it’s a business. For them to get paid, they have to get me fights, they have to get me sponsorships. I said to Gary, if you can make it work, I’ll do it.”
Six hours after quitting her boxing career, she was back on Facebook announcing her comeback. A month later, on the night of October 24, she was in the ring with Ruamwong.
“When I get into that boxing ring,” O’Connell says, “I’m a different person. I know what I’m doing. That’s where I'm the boss.”
For an “all or nothing” person like O’Connell, as she describes herself, the outside world may be ambiguous and unfair but boxing is simple: train harder, fight better, want it more — and you win.
BACK AT THE SOUTH SYDNEY RSL, the referee, hovering at a distance in blue surgical gloves, ends the fight, 36 seconds into the third round, while O’Connell is hooking and swinging at the hapless Ruamwong, who is up against the ropes. (She looks a little disappointed as the referee gets in between the two of them, putting an end to the punishment.) In O’Connell’s seventh professional fight, it’s a win by technical knockout.
“It feels great,” the victor tells the announcer. “I’ve been practising a lot of things at training, and I’ve got a great team behind me.” A loud wolf whistle rings out. “Bring on Susie!” someone shouts. And another wolf-whistle. “Hopefully by next year me and Susie will be in the ring together,” she says.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” calls the announcer holding the victor’s arm high, “Shannon… the Shotgun… O’Connell!”