Nina Hughes: ‘No-one wanted to sign me because of my age’, says new world champion

Nina Hughes
Nina Hughes took to the ring in her mid 20s following boxercise and kickboxing classes

She may not be the oldest person to win a world title – Bernard Hopkins was 46 when he beat Jean Pascal in 2011 and George Foreman 45 when he stopped Michael Moorer in 1996.

But Nina Hughes has a story to equal theirs after winning the WBA bantamweight title in only her fifth pro contest, and less than a year after her first.

The 40-year-old from Billericay, Essex became champion by winning a unanimous points decision against previously unbeaten American Jamie Mitchell in Dubai.

And the elation of victory was made all the sweeter because of the satisfaction of answering the doubters.

“Ever since I decided to turn professional my age has gone against me. No-one wanted to sign me because of my age. At first they said I wouldn’t get a licence,” she told BBC Essex.

“It has been hard trying to get people to believe in me. But I found my team, my manager, my coach, they did believe in me and I pushed on.

“Even the night before [the fight] when I was reading people’s comments, everyone wrote me off, no-one gave me a chance, everyone thought Jamie was going to beat me. It just gave me more fire to prove everyone wrong.”

It was a different story 10 years ago when the then Nina Smith – who first became interested in the sport at the age of 25 when she attended boxercise classes with a friend – made the preliminary Team GB squad for the London 2012 Olympics.

“I got to train full-time on the GB boxing squad up in Sheffield, we travelled all round the world to different training camps, it was great experience,” she said.

But that story did not have a happy ending as eventual gold medallist Nicola Adams was selected ahead of her in the flyweight category.

Adams – now retired – and London team-mates Natasha Jonas and Savannah Marshall all went on to win world titles as professionals but after missing the Games, Hughes took a break for a few years and had the first of her two children.

She eventually stepped back into the ring, primarily in order to lose some weight, and intended to compete in one more amateur championship and call it a day – but Covid brought about a change of plan.

“During lockdown I thought I’m definitely retiring now. But I was watching the girls on the TV turning pro, and taking off in the pro game and thought ‘I’ve got to give it a go’ and joined a pro gym.”

She had her first paid contest against Claudia Ferenczi at Bethnal Green’s York Hall on 3 December 2021 and was later matched with Luton’s Tysie Gallagher for the vacant Commonwealth super-bantamweight and WBO international titles, which she won by a majority decision.

Cut forced change of tactics

Nina Hughes
Hughes beat Mitchell on points – the judges scoring the bout 97-93, 96-94, 96-94 in her favour after the 10 rounds

In October she retained the Commonwealth belt with a second-round TKO of Flora Machela and just 42 days later found herself across the ring from Mitchell with the world title on the line.

“The fight went really well. I was comfortable, I was ahead throughout, but I did get cut in a clash of heads in round six or seven, so we had to change our tactics a bit,” she said.

“The tactics were to pressure her but once I got cut I opted to box on the back foot so I didn’t get injured any more. Both plans worked and I got the job done. It still doesn’t feel real.”

It has all been a bit of a whirlwind for Hughes of late, and not just because of her ring career.

“I still work three days a week as well, so it’s not even my full-time profession. Juggling work, my kids, and boxing, I just don’t have any time left at all.

“For my last two fights in this country, my eight year old walked me into the ring and he really enjoys it. They come to gym all the time with me.”

Her next in-ring assignment has yet to be decided – but fellow champions Yulihan Luna (WBC), Ebanie Bridges (IBF) and Dina Thorslund (WBO) are potential opponents if she wishes to add to her collection of belts.

“I don’t feel my age and I started late, it’s not like I’ve been doing it since I was 10 years old. I think it would be a lot different on my body if I had,” Hughes said.

“Now I’ve won, it should open many doors for a lot of big fights so I’m looking forward to seeing what offers I get in the new year.”

Nina Hughes was talking to BBC Essex’s Sonia Watson

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