FIVE years ago few people outside of Leeds and the boxing fraternity had heard of Nicola Adams.
But the London 2012 Olympics changed all that. Adams was one of the heroes of the Games after writing her name into the history books by becoming Britain’s first ever female boxing gold medallist.
Since those heady days she has cemented her reputation as one of the nation’s greatest (and smiliest) sporting stars and having won every major title available to her – Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth – she decided to turn professional earlier this year.
She might stand just shy of 5ft 4ins tall in her bare feet, but the Leeds-born fighter has an iron will to succeed and, like her idol Muhammad Ali, has shown she can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Last weekend she defeated Mexico’s Maryan Salazar in only her second contest as a professional boxer in front of almost 10,000 raucous home supporters at the First Direct Arena.
With chants of “Yorkshire” and “Leeds” tumbling from the packed stands, the thrilling atmosphere was in stark contrast to the smoke-filled working men’s clubs where she made her boxing debut as a 13-year-old in 1997.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post just days after the fight she’s full of praise for the fans who lifted the roof off the venue on Saturday night. “It was amazing, I couldn’t believe the support I had. It was really nice to have friends and family there and to be in my home city.”
Tomorrow she’s in Waterstones in Leeds to launch her autobiography, Believe, which charts her remarkable, and unlikely, story.
Why, though, did she want to tell her story? “Nobody really knows much about me apart from my boxing career and Olympic medals and I wanted to talk about the hard work that got me here.
“I chose the title because I’ve always had belief in myself and my ability. I think that comes from my mum because she always told me to believe in myself, work hard and be dedicated.”
Adams grew up in East End Park, on the frayed edges of the city centre, where she lived with her mother and younger brother and says she was a ‘happy’ kid. “I was ok at school. I was good at the subjects I liked… maths, science, PE and drama.”
But what set her on course for sporting stardom began through happenstance when she was 12. “My mum was going to an aerobics class and she couldn’t get a babysitter for me and my brother, so while she went to aerobics I went to the boxing club and absolutely loved it.”
The club, in nearby Burmantofts, became a second home for Adams. “Some of the people there went to the same school as me and I made a few friends. I just loved the training and when one of the coaches asked if I was interested in doing competitions I said ‘yeah, I’ll give it a go.’”
Adams remembers her first-ever bout and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a pre-smoking ban working men’s club. “There might have been about 100 people there. They hadn’t (banned) smoking by then so my lungs were burning at the end of the rounds.”
Life wasn’t easy for Adams when she was growing up. “My mum got meningitis when I was 13 or 14 and she ended up in hospital for a couple of months and I had to take care of my brother. It was really tough, I had to get him ready for school and sort out breakfast and make dinner in the evening.”
It was experiences like this that gave her the mental strength to cope with the prejudice she occasionally encountered from people who felt the boxing ring was no place for a woman.
“I had people saying things like ‘why don’t you go and play tennis?’ and there were a couple of girls that boxed who said they had been refused from some gyms.”
However, Adams says such outdated attitudes have all but disappeared these days. “It’s changed massively, especially since the London Olympics, and boxing clubs are much more open to girls now.”
It’s something she and her peers didn’t have when they were younger. “Now they have a goal they can aspire to. We didn’t have that path we had to create that ourselves so that the next generation can follow in our footsteps.”
In the early days when Adams was starting out opponents of suitable quality were few and far between and she rarely fought in Leeds, and instead often had to travel to places like Newcastle and London.
Nevertheless, she persevered and in 2003 became English amateur champion for first time, retaining the title at the next three championships.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Athletes have to deal with injuries and Adams has suffered more than her fair share, including a serious back injury.
“I tripped over my bag strap and fell down the stairs on my way to a competition and damaged my vertebrae. That was my biggest low point. If you break your ankle you can still get around but with this injury I was out of action for a year and I couldn’t go and see my friends, so that was really tough.”
She recovered from this setback and then came the London Games, which proved to be a turning point in her career. “That was a huge moment for me to become the first ever British female Olympic boxing champion and to get that medal for my country.”
It’s a vivid memory she still cherishes. “It was a home Games and for once it wasn’t America, or China, or Russia winning, it was Britain,” she says.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable. People said it was like a jumbo jet taking off and it wasn’t just me they supported it was all the athletes.”
By the time the Games had finished and she returned home to Leeds she’d become a household name and her new-found fame took her by surprise.
“All of a sudden I wasn’t able to do normal things like going to the supermarket. I walked to my corner shop which would normally take me five minutes and now it was taking half an hour because people kept stopping me in the street to talk to me.”
Adams followed up her victory in 2012 by becoming world champion and four years later reclaimed her Olympic title. “That was even harder,” she says. “It’s hard getting to the top of your game but it’s even harder staying there because everyone’s coming for you.”
Boxing remains a contentious sport in some people’s eyes and there will be parents who have misgivings about letting their child get into a ring. “Every sport can have its dangers and I don’t think you should stop anybody from doing what they enjoy. Boxing teaches you discipline and it’s good for your all-round fitness.”
Adams has become a high-profile ambassador for women in sport and the 34 year-old, whose partner is fellow female boxer Marlen Esparza, is happy to be seen as a positive role model for young people. “It’s nice to be able to inspire the next generation and for them to have someone to look up to,” she says.
Her latest victory takes her one step closer to a shot at the professional world title and a chance to emulate Ali.
“That would be up there with anything I’ve achieved. To win a world title like he did? Wow, I’d be blown away and it would mean I’ve achieved a lot of good things in life.”
Believe by Nicola Adams is published by Viking, priced at £14.99.
Thursday’s event at Waterstones in Leeds starts from 6.30pm. Tickets cost £15 (including a copy of Believe) and are available from Waterstones on Albion Street and www.waterstones.com/events. For further information call the bookshop on 0113 244 4588
The rise of a sport superstar
Nicola Adams was born in Leeds on October 26, 1982.
She started boxing at the age of 12. Her nicknames include The Lioness and The Smiling Assassin.
In 2001, Adams became the first woman boxer to represent England and two years later she became English amateur champion for first time.
She became Olympic Games gold medallist (51kg) in 2012 and retained the title at Rio in 2016 – the first British boxer to defend an Olympic title in 92 years.
Adams has worked with a number of charities and strives to raise awareness of young people in sport.
In 2013 she was awarded an MBE for her services to boxing and received an OBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours.