HISTORIANS are fond of discussing epochs. Those stitches in time where civilisations crumble and cultures fade to be replaced by something new. Boxing has been toying with its own ‘new dawn’ for a while now, and it is one understandably viewed with a sense of trepidation by many. Fights for one of the sports myriad world titles can take place in arenas liberally sprinkled with empty seats, whereas a contest between two social media ‘influencers’ -as close to top-level boxing as a Sunday League kickabout on Hackney Marshes is to the Premier League- can fill vast stadiums. It is an incongruity that is becoming increasingly hard to wrestle with.

‘The great white heat’ of a new era may be upon us, but surely it is a false one when many boxers are shivering outside in the cold. What makes it worse is that boxing has mostly brought this situation on itself; instead of trying to rise above the ‘Influencer’ abomination it has chosen to ape it and double down on its crassness. Welcome now to a world of press conference ruckuses, X-rated weigh-ins, and the hurling of WWE-style pantomime insults to both camera and social media. Regrettably, we live in a world where even if somebody has nothing worthwhile to say, there will always be somewhere they can say it, and an audience ready to hear it. 

Nina Hughes has a black and gold WBA world championship belt at 118lbs. She is bubbly, polite, and modest and has now at the age of 41 realised that none of these things will get her anywhere in boxing’s latter-day culture war. “Being quiet gets you nowhere,” she admits. “I felt like I had to get on social media. People had been telling me to do it for ages because at my age I can’t hang around. But it’s not something I enjoy. I really wouldn’t post anything if I didn’t feel I had to. When I am finished with boxing, I’ll just delete it all and forget about it.”

Hughes, who only turned pro in December 2021 secured the WBA title in just her fifth professional contest. Detractors might point to this as evidence of the thinness of the women’s divisions, but such comments would be manifestly unfair. Hughes was part of the initial intake of female boxers into GB Boxing in 2009 and would almost certainly have gone to the 2012 Olympics but for the misfortune of competing in the same weight class as future double-gold medallist Nicola Adams. 

Her victory last year over the tough-as-teak Jamie Mitchell – an opponent hardened by a childhood lifted from the darkest of nightmares – amidst the palms and grandeur of the Dubai Hilton deserved far more airtime than it received. Hughes entered the fight almost completely unheralded against an opponent that had earlier silenced Shannon Courtney in her own backyard to win the title and had previously paid her dues searching for undercard opportunities on low-rent shows in Mexico.

Mitchell was an outsider who when given her chance to challenge the heavily promoted golden girl, did so, and won a fight she wasn’t meant to win. Few thought the Nevada resident would surrender the belt anytime soon, and many, perhaps even Mitchell herself, would have expected a similar level of domination to which she exhibited against Liverpool’s Carly Skelly in her previous defence. “She [Mitchell] definitely underestimated me, but then again everyone was doubting me and thought I’d lose,” comments Hughes. “I think she thought I’d come forward in straight lines and she’d just walk through me. But we’d done our homework, got loads of the right sparring in, and on the night found a way to win the decision.”

Hughes credits her opportunity to an uncharacteristically direct appeal to Mitchell on social media. “I heard that she was complaining online about being inactive and promoters not getting her a fight. I just sent her a message saying, ‘Give me a shot then’. That’s how the fight ultimately came about,” but not before the familiar seamier edges of the online world reared their ugly head. “She got really abusive with it all, to be honest,” recalls Hughes. “I had her threatening to break my neck and all sorts. Some horrible things were said in the build-up as well about how she was going to take my health and stuff. It was all a bit weird and unnecessary really.” For a fighter like Mitchell who possessed a version of a world title but little in the way of profile, perhaps she could be forgiven for thinking that this was the only mechanism available to her to gain some attention and sell the fight. But if so, it forms a miserable indictment on boxing and society across so many levels.

Nina Hughes fights Katie Healy at OVO Arena Wembley on June 10, 2023 in London, England (Warren Little/Getty Images)

For Hughes, who only took up the sport to keep fit in her mid-20s and found herself competing for Great Britain within two years, boxing has proved to be an on-off love affair. “Being part of the whole GB training squad was a great experience,” she remembers, but it was not without its downside. “Eventually I’d got as far I could with my age, and so leaving the set-up was absolutely devastating. I went from training full-time to having to go and get a job again. Returning to normal life wasn’t easy. I tried to carry on boxing, but eventually, I stopped for three years because going from that level to club shows just didn’t motivate me anymore. 

“It was only after I had my first child that I started again just to lose the weight. I quickly found that I really started enjoying it again. But it was all about just doing it for fun. I had no big goals or anything.”

However, despite Hughes’ initial lack of ambition, she still went on to win the ABAs for a fourth time. But with her 40s fast approaching and with nothing left to achieve in the sport had reluctantly made the decision to retire. “It was only lockdown really that sparked my interest in turning pro,” she explains. “I had considered it way back but decided it would be too much of a nightmare with trying to sell tickets and stuff. But there suddenly seemed to be loads of women’s boxing on television. One night I was watching Carly Skelly vs. Amy Timlin for the Commonwealth belt and I thought I could still beat them. I felt I had to give it a go.”

Turning pro at the advanced age of 39 was not without its pitfalls. “No one wanted to know,” says Hughes with a smile. “None of the big promoters were interested; they just couldn’t see past my age. I also thought that even if I did get a licence, I’d struggle to get any fights and that all the big names would just avoid me until I was too old.” Eventually, Hughes was picked up by MTK and following her victory over Mitchell is now promoted by Matchroom. She continues to have a tight team around her with manger Lee Eaton and trainer Kevin Lilley being with her since the beginning.

Despite Hughes’ heady progress, which included a Commonwealth title in her third fight, age is still very much a key consideration. Fighting five times in her inaugural year among the pro’s, culminating in that WBA title win, the 41-year-old has defended her belt only once in 2023-a routine points victory over Wolverhampton’s Katie Healey- and is concerned that time will defeat her before she has had the opportunity to deliver on her goals. The Essex-based fighter is currently preparing for a mandatory defence later in the year, but nothing is yet confirmed. Standing in the opposite corner will be her old foe Jamie Mitchell, but Hughes would prefer it to be a unification matchup with the divisions WBO belt-holder Ebanie Bridges instead. Victory there would set up a longed-for undisputed battle against Denmark’s Dina Thorslund for all the belts at 118lbs.

If ever a boxer was the antithesis of Hughes, then it is Bridges, the self-styled ‘Blonde Bomber’. The Australian has pursued attention with a salivating relish since first appearing in a British ring in 2021. Scantily clad weigh-ins and titillating social media posts designed to elicit Sid James cackles have culminated in an avalanche of clicks and a headlong rush into the murky fleshpot of Only Fans. 

Bridges would most likely call it empowerment, and there is no doubt that she is a savvy operator in a sport struggling for airtime. But Hughes has other ideas, “Well all the bikinis and sexy underwear and that – I get it. But her last one [weigh-in] against Shannon O’Connell made me cringe. Yes, it gets followers but I’m not sure these followers transfer over into actually watching her box. Do they buy a ticket? Or are they all just perverts?

“To be honest, If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want her looking up to all of that,” says Hughes frankly. “But sadly, everyone seems to be copying her behaviour now. Recently she has said she wants to box Avril Mathie because the weigh-in will be good. It’s all a bit sad really. But she has got to where she is by doing what she does and making the most of her opportunities. Those opportunities probably wouldn’t have come if she didn’t do these things.”

Nina Hughes with her belt (Warren Little/Getty Images)

And maybe that’s the hardest piece of this puzzle to contemplate. Perhaps we need to look less at Bridges and a little harder at ourselves. To stare for a moment into the mirror and ask why is this the desired way to get ahead for some. Why is it such an effective way to get attention, opportunity, and financial reward? Why do the promoters and the paying public set the bar so low? Collectively creating an environment where ability by itself is not enough unless it is accompanied, or worse overshadowed, by a grotesque saucy seaside postcard pastiche.

Meanwhile, amongst this mayhem, Hughes continues to plug away in the background still mostly unknown. Her drive and talent deemed insufficient to steal the flashbulb away from Bridges and her latest revealing pose. It wasn’t that long ago that the 41-year-old had to contribute from her own pocket a large chunk of her opponent’s purse for a defence of her Commonwealth belt. She laughs that acquaintances think that she must be loaded now that she can call herself a world champion. “If only they knew boxing,” she muses.

Instead, each day brings the twin challenges of fitting in training around her two boys and an office job. It is a world of hard slog, little financial reward, and one driven purely by an insatiable desire to prove to the world how good she really is. It is Something that can only be calculated by the winning of belts; and predicated on the opportunity to fight for them.

“I know it’s going to come to a point where I’m going to feel my age. I know time is going to run out. That’s why I have to keep chasing these fights on social media. I need to get these opportunities before it’s too late,” she admits.

As boxing increasingly invites influencers and other social media types into its inner sanctum and docilely places them on an equal footing, there is a feeling that this could be a pivotal moment between the purist’s chasing titles and acclaim for their performances in the ring and those that are using the sport purely to project their image or to collect a quick buck. On this, Hughes readily agrees.

“So many of them talk a good game,” she says of this new breed of ‘fighters. “But they don’t behave like real fighters. It’s a joke now. Boxing is just being used. Without being disrespectful, someone like Ebanie is probably more interested in doing her other stuff and just wants easy fights. The title boosts her profile for the other things she is involved in and boxing appears to be secondary. If that’s what she and others want, then fine. But stop calling yourself a fighter. It’s frustrating because all I want is the opportunity to do things properly and to have my chance.” 

And with that final plea, the WBA bantamweight champion politely exits our interview to pick up her two boys from school.