Although she can easily pass for 20-something, Alicia Ashley is nearer to retirement age than she is to the legal voting age. The five-time world champion and current Guinness Book of World Records holder for oldest professional boxing champion didn’t even start her boxing career until she reached her early 30s.
"Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are," a quote, attributed to the late, great, Muhammad Ali, encapsulates the mindset of Ashley, the reigning WBC World Super Bantamweight Champion. For the 48-year-old prize fighter, age is just a number.
“I feel like I’m just now a teenager in the sport,” grins Ashley. “I started out as a dancer, and when I got injured, my brother was doing karate at the time so I got into martial arts. I always tell people I love performing -- the dancing aspect of it -- so I’d go to a lot of tournaments, and it was like, ‘What’s next? Can I do something more?’”
Ironically, it was Ashley’s first kickboxing match that propelled her into the world of boxing. During the fight, her opponent moved in close and began throwing punches, leaving the inexperienced Ashley bewildered.
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“I really didn’t know what to do. I pulled out a win, but I was like, ‘OK I need to get my hands better,’ and that’s when I started getting into boxing.”
Sturdy and toned, the 5-foot-5 Ashley is unassuming in nature. That is, until you realize what she does for a living.
“Early on, when people used to find out, they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re too pretty to box.’ But now it’s a little more mainstream.”
The Jamaican-born fighter is quick to point out that she never felt intimidated occupying space in what is essentially a hyper-masculine, testosterone-driven world.
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“I come from a matriarchal family,” her smile widens as she reminisces. “Women are really strong, they’re always telling you what to do. So being in a male-dominated sport never fazed me. I do feel like I am a strong, individual woman in a strong, individualized sport.”
We are sitting in a back office of the iconic Gleason’s Gym, in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where Ashley is currently training for her upcoming title defense against Yesenia Tovar, set to take place in Santiago, Chile, in the summer of 2016. The bout will be broadcast internationally via Claro Sports.
I ask her if she’s ever been to Chile. “My first time,” she replies.
There’s something heartening in the fact that female fighters are flying across the globe to ply their trade on international television, just as their male counterparts do. Maybe women’s boxing is on the rise.
No one can doubt that women’s combat sports are experiencing a "cultural moment," with the rise of UFC fighters like Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate. Female MMA athletes can earn seven-figure payouts per fight, and their celebrity statuses garner even bigger bucks outside the ring, through sponsorships and merchandise deals. One would assume there would be a natural spillover effect to the women of boxing, but Ashley isn’t so optimistic.
“Because UFC and MMA are showcasing women so much, it’s going to pull the women out of boxing.”
Her reasoning is not unsound. More air time means higher pay for athletes, which in turn means more fighting females are likely to shirk boxing altogether and flex their muscles inside the UFC octagon.
“It really shouldn’t be a competition,” says Ashley. “But more female boxers that I know are drawn into MMA because they’re getting shown and getting paid.”
So far, boxing has yet to match the UFC in terms of showcasing its female fighters. So while big time male boxers like Saul "Canelo" Alvarez and Gennady "GGG" Golovkin rake in the big bucks, the lack of brand awareness for female boxing is reflected in the fighters’ salaries.
“As a female, even as a five-time world champion, I’m not getting paid what the guys are getting paid. Not even a tenth of the amount,” laments Ashley. “It’s the love of the sport that’s kept me in it.”
Ashley, for her part, credits her discipline, lack of alcohol consumption and avoidance of red meat as factors in her longevity. She’s also quick to credit her genes.
“Thank you mom and dad!” she beams.
I ask about her plans for the future, assuming, you know, she won't still be boxing in 20 years. She says she wants to own her own gym to train others to fight and mentor them to become world champions.
I wonder if she bears any enmity towards a sport that has failed to reward her with the requisite fame and money her male counterparts have received. But Ashley strikes that notion down as quickly as she jabs an opponent in the ring.
“You really have to love the sport to continue in it,” she deadpans. “I mean, you’re getting hit in the face.”
Photo Credit: Deviant Art