Fighting for her life

With boxing having given Safiyyah Syeed a reason to live, she is now determined to fight the stereotypes keeping women like her out of sport

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Boxing loves a nickname. “Prince” Naseem Hamed was self-appointed royalty, “Marvellous” always preceded any introduction to the legendary Marvin Hagler, and Muhammad Ali, well, he was simply known as The Greatest. Safiyyah Syeed may be some way off equalling their records in the ring, but when it comes to catchy aliases she wins by a unanimous decision.

“The Hijabi Boxer is good, isn’t it?” says the petite 21 year old who has been making waves as one of the first Muslim women to enter the sport. ”No one is going to remember Safiyyah Syeed, but they will remember the Hijabi Boxer. To me, the hijab is just another piece of clothing. I don’t even think about it, but I do understand that it makes me different.”

She kept details of her first fight a secret until a few days before, and even then only confided in her mum

Religion is not the only thing that marks Syeed out. Her route into the ring was also unusual. While most amateur boxers were introduced to the sport in their early teens, she first walked into a gym aged 19, having spent the previous two years bedridden and battling an eating disorder when her weight dropped to just four stone.

“There were days when the only thing I ate was a banana,” she admits. “For a long time I couldn’t see a way out. I had no energy, no purpose and that’s when I decided to write a bucket list.”

On it were the usual things like travel the world and learn to dance, but, written in neat letters Syeed also added learn to box. She puts the addition partly down to the channel surfing she did from her bed and partly down to her childhood growing up in Bradford.

“I have one brother and three sisters,” she says. “My sisters were really girly and I was the tomboy. I played football with the boys and all my early memories are of a hyperactive child who lived for sports day.

“When I was ill, I lost that energy. I isolated myself from the world and from everything I had previously enjoyed. Occasionally though, I would watch a fight on the television and think, when I am well I would like a bit of that.”

It was around the same time that she began following the career of Irish boxer Katie Taylor, who had just turned professional after winning gold at the London Olympics in 2012.

Often credited with changing the face of women’s boxing, Taylor had also survived the trauma of seeing her father shot in the chest during a random attack on the boxing club in her hometown of Bray in County Wicklow. He survived, but one of the two other victims was not so fortunate and the incident cast a long shadow over both the town and Taylor.

“She had been through the works and yet in the ring she looked so composed and the way she talked was really inspiring. My illness meant I had lost most of my friends and I had so much anger in me. I looked at her and thought maybe boxing would give me a way to channel all the negative thoughts I had.”

While Syeed may have initially regarded boxing as little more than therapy, it quickly became her focus.

“Honestly, I had no intention of competing, but boxing brought something back alive in me. I was completely out of my comfort zone, but I liked it.

“Of course there were people who took one look at me and thought I’d be a pushover – they still do, but I don’t mind. I like proving people wrong.”

Although Covid inevitably disrupted her training schedule, Syeed has again refocused her ambitions in the wake of the pandemic. Having relocated to Manchester, where she is also in the second year of a law degree, she has recently appointed a new coach and adopted a new training regime.

It means she now has half an eye on the Olympics, possibly Paris in 2024 or maybe Los Angeles in 2028, but she also recognises that the road to the Games is a tough one.

“The Olympics and then turning professional is the big goal, but this year it is about working out the smaller steps I need to take to reach it.

“Originally when I was the only girl at training, I had to work really hard to break down stereotypes, but eventually that passed and I became comfortable.

“It felt like my training had hit a brick wall. I wasn’t the same person I had been a year earlier and I needed a new challenge. The team I have now makes me feel like I did when I first walked into a boxing gym. I am out of my comfort zone both physically and mentally. It is slightly terrifying, but it is what I need.”

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Previously Syeed also juggled two jobs alongside her studies and her training, but recently gave up paid employment to allow her to concentrate more fully on the sport.

“A boxer’s career typically isn’t very long. I want to give it my all, but I also want to enjoy it. There was a time whenI was training two or three times a day and I realised that I was going to wear myself out.

“Now I train every day, but the sessions are much more focused on strength and conditioning. Boxing isn’t one of those sports where you can train one day and be ready to fight the next, but I feel like I am now physically and mentally ready for whatever opportunities come along.”

Next is a 12-week training camp in Mexico. Widely considered the home of boxing, the country has produced more world champions than any other nation and Syeed knows it will be a real test of her talents.

“Honestly, the fighters there are a different breed,” she laughs. “They have a special power and aggression that you don’t see anywhere else – it’s a do or die mentality. What I can learn in a couple of months there would take me years to learn over here. I can’t wait, but it’s going to be tough – no family, no friends, just me and the ring.”

Three months in a foreign country where the only thing guaranteed is a daily pummelling might sound daunting, but Syeed is used to making sacrifices. At the very start of her boxing career she kept details of her first fight a secret until a few days before, and even then only confided in her mum.

“My opponent had about 30 people there to support them – I just had my coach,” she says. “Coincidentally a few people from school happened to be working at the venue. They couldn’t believe it when I said I was on the bill. To be honest, neither could I.”

These days her corner is always occupied by best friend Hadeesa, who she describes as one of the most important people in her life. Her mother, though, has not yet seen her fight.

“Mum has been really supportive but she can’t bring herself to watch. Just before my last fight she called to say: ‘Saf, I have seen the girl you are fighting. Please don’t hit her that hard – she is only tiny.’ That’s not the kind of encouragement I need!

“She has the same concerns any mother would, but from my experience the sport is really safe. We have a medical before every fight and they are very strict about health and safety.

“One day I do want her to experience the atmosphere of a fight and almost have a day in my life.”

It should prove one to remember.

In February, the International Boxing Association resolved a long-running issue when it announced that female Muslim boxers would be allowed to wear hijabs during international competitions. For Syeed, it means she does not have to compromise her religion for the sport she loves.

“I have had to break the mould but my community has been really supportive,” she insists. “People often want to talk about my religion and are curious how I can both train and fast during Ramadan, but that’s fine.

“It’s important to talk, but what I want to show is that no matter what you wear and what you believe in, you can do what you want. I want to show that you can come out of a dark place and achieve your dreams.”

While Syeed is no longer beholden to the eating disorder that blighted so much of her life, she admits that she will never be completely free of it and recognises that has been part of her recovery.

“There are days when it doesn’t cross my mind at all, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t blips in the road. Just recently, I had a really bad chest infection and there were days when I didn’t eat at all.

“I completely lost my appetite and I was really worried. I rang the GP but I was told that the next appointment was in two months’ time. I was fine, but a few years ago I might not have been.

“The waiting list for mental health services can be up to three years, which is a complete scandal. Eating disorders are so common and we need a better system in place.

“I like to use the platform I have to talk about these issues. I am a great believer that the bad times are what make you grow as a person.”

Syeed is definitely proof of that, and as for that list penned in her bedroom all those years ago, it is just about complete.

“I must dig it out, but I’ve been horse riding, I have my own YouTube channel – in fact I think the only thing on there I haven’t done is skydiving.”

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