DON’T tell Denise Castle what she can’t do.

Don’t tell her she can’t switch sports in her 40s and fight champions. Don’t tell her she can’t train through pregnancy and fight just eight weeks after giving birth. And most definitely don’t tell her she can’t fight at 51.

Because, whatever you think of her doing these things, she will find a way to do them, with or without your blessing.

On August 31, two months before her 52nd birthday, Castle will travel from Bournemouth to Bangkok to fight Japan’s world-rated Sana Hazuki. If she wins, there will be just one item left on her bucket list: to box at home.

Castle, though, is not licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) and, given her age, it is unlikely she ever will be. Still, she has satisfied the requirements of the governing bodies in Thailand, Japan, the Czech Republic and the United Arab Emirates, where she has boxed, as well as the WBC, who have attached a belt to her 10-rounder with Hazuki, and who have twice before approved her as a ‘world’ title challenger.

Castle’s entire boxing career has unfolded since she was 42. She was not a latecomer to fighting, though. She moved into boxing after an 18-bout career in muay Thai, having won a WBC ‘world’ title in that discipline, which led the sanctioning body to offer her a shot at their boxing equivalent.

This would come against atomweight [102lbs] ruler Momo Koseki in Tokyo in August 2014, following two warm-ups in Bangkok to sharpen her new toolkit.

Castle applied for her British licence, assuming it would be a formality given she was already an experienced combat athlete, had secured a licence with the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC), and had a WBC fight lined up. But it would be the first of three exercises in frustration.

“I had always been interested in boxing, because I favoured my hands in muay Thai,” says Castle. “But I couldn’t hold boxing and muay Thai licences at the same time, so I thought I’d wait until I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve in muay Thai, and then move over.”

The WBC title and other belts and accolades, such as a British championship and also being named the WBC’s Most Inspiring Female Athlete in 2013, was enough for Castle to close that chapter. There was also the quirk of conducting a fight camp while heavily pregnant. Even for a woman who likes to do things differently, that was an extreme – but she insists she knew what she was doing.

“Through my profession, I could keep my fitness up safely,” says Castle, who is also a performance coaching coordinator at Bournemouth University and PE teacher at Bournemouth School for Girls. “I knew what things not to do, and how to be smart and adjust.”

Of course, among the things not to do was sparring. For the ensuing fight, a five-rounder against American Patti Teran in Manchester just 57 days after the August 2006 birth, she said, “I wasn’t lacking in fitness, just ring time, having not sparred for almost a year.” Castle lost, but she went the distance – “was so glad I did it” – and, after a more conventional training camp, would win a rematch 13 months later.

Clearly, Castle knows her own body, and believes her British licensing attempts are being unfairly judged. The first time she applied, “even then, they touched on age,” she says, “and they asked silly questions, like ‘you know boxing is a tough sport; are you ready for it?’.

“They wanted me to do a test spar, but the woman they arranged it with was ill on the morning of it. We already had the fight in Tokyo confirmed and the JBC said fine. I couldn’t wait for the test spar to be rearranged, and if I could be licensed through other countries, it would be silly not to go for it.”

She went for it, but was repelled by Koseki in eight rounds (“She did win convincingly, but they were close rounds… I thought if that’s top level, I’m near that”), and thereafter four years of inactivity followed. This was not by choice, simply “nothing came about, but I was always active, sparring, making sure I was only a few weeks away from being ready to fight”.

Meanwhile, she applied again in 2016 for a British licence, and says she was told “we’ve never issued a first licence to a 44-year-old”.

She pressed on regardless, and after Koseki retired and vacated the belt, the WBC again offered Castle a shot. She travelled to the Czech Republic in September 2018 to fight local Fabiana Bytyqi.

By now Castle was almost 47, but she satisfied the requirements of the Czech Union of Professional Boxers. Though beaten by a woman 24 years her junior, Castle fancies she could win a rematch – especially if it was at home. Which brings us, again, to the question of BBBofC licensing, and a third attempt, aged 50, which was, predictably, turned down last year.

Castle’s husband (and coach) Lorne sought an explanation. “I phoned [BBBofC Southern Area secretary] Dennis Gilmartin and he told me Denise’s age was a significant factor, as well as her inactivity,” he says. “But she’d fought in Dubai just three weeks before and gone to a split decision in a WBC Silver title fight. I said, ‘She’s not inactive; she fought three weeks ago,’ and he told me, ‘Unfortunately, she wasn’t 20 years younger three weeks ago.’”

Mr Gilmartin explains the decision to BN: “All applications are considered on their individual merits. We look at a combination of age, quality of opposition, amateur credentials and activity.

“I can’t speak about Denise Castle’s first application, as it was before my time, but I do know she didn’t present any amateur credentials in boxing. Whatever she’s achieved in other combat sports, that’s great, but they are different sports.
“Her next application was four years later. By now she’d had three fights, beating a 3-2 girl and an 0-2. To get a WBC title fight off the back of that, that’s possibly a conversation to have with the WBC. I don’t know how that works. But when she fought someone with a winning record, she got stopped.
“The next was another five years later and she’d only had two more fights. There was a four-year gap, she boxed for the same title again and got beaten again. Then she took another year out, boxed for the WIBA title in Bangkok, which she won, against someone who was 4-6. Then she had another two-and-a-half-year gap. Even taking Covid into account, inactivity is massive consideration.
“She has had written confirmation of why she was refused and I’ve had several phone conversations with her husband about it. Age is not the only reason, but it’s a very real part. It’s a medical fact, the risk of injury increases as you age. Health and wellbeing is the absolute priority.”

It is a difficult call and one can appreciate both sides. Castle is a fit and capable competitor, so her frustration is understandable, but the Board know that, should they license her, and she got hurt, they would be criticised. Even Castle concedes this, to a point. “If I get knocked out, the first thing people will point to is my age,” she says. “I know that.

“But if it happens, it will be because it was against was the better fighter. It can happen to anyone. Ramla Ali just got knocked out and she’s 33. Nobody says she shouldn’t box. I’ve never been knocked out [she was stopped on her feet against Koseki].”

But anybody can talk a good fight. I decide it’s best to see for myself how Castle looks in action, so I attend one of her training sessions.

Castle, under husband-coach Lorne, works out with Kayleigh Pingarelli, an amateur who boxes for Dorset Police. Pingarelli is a 22-year-old lightweight, so it is no surprise she hits the bags and pads harder and faster than her 29-years-older, 40lbs-lighter gym-mate. But it is when they spar that Castle’s experience counts. Her defence and accuracy are both superior and she handles the pace better. Pingarelli is panting after the three rounds and left nursing a bloodied nose.

It is, perhaps, an indication of the difference between a professional and an amateur, but as the younger woman catches her breath and dabs at her nose, she concludes: “Denise is awesome; she’s fit as a fiddle. She’s fitter than me and a lot of people, and others at the club.

“It’s a shame she can’t get licensed to fight here. It’s age discrimination. It should be based on fitness and health and if you pass a medical. It’s a shame not more people know her story.”

Maybe they will, if whatever remains of Castle’s career goes the way she’d like it to: beat Hazuki in Bangkok and then rematch Bytyqi – wherever that may be – in a fight where victory would make her the oldest boxer of either gender to win a major sanctioning body belt.

Most will say she can’t do it, and many will say she shouldn’t even try to. But make no mistake, Castle will try, with or without your blessing.