Monday 11 December 2017

Fighting fit... Irish pro-fighter Christina McMahon

Christina McMahon talks about winning that world title and why she feels better at 40 than she did in her 20s

Christina McMahon, who won the world boxing title at 40. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Christina McMahon, who won the world boxing title at 40. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan
Christina McMahon shows off her world title. Photo: Pat Byrne.
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

On the same night as the richest fight in boxing history was taking place between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas recently, Irish pro-fighter Christina McMahon was busy becoming the world's latest boxing champion.

Christina (40) from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan not only took the Interim WBC world female bantamweight title by defeating Catherine Phiri (22), but she did it on Phiri's home turf in Zambia.

Christina started boxing when she was 32 and never lost an amateur fight. However, she was forced out of the amateur sport by age limitations. So at 36, feeling fitter than ever, she decided to turn professional.

"I felt fit and well and wanted to keep going," Christina explains. "My coaches and my husband encouraged me to go pro and I thought 'No way!'. There was no one here doing it, but I did eventually and it really has paid off, which is fantastic."

Christina is very proud to be living proof that age really is just a number when you train and eat well.

"It's an absolutely lovely feeling and I love the positivity it has brought," she says. "We can be very judgemental, but that's human nature. Mayweather beat Pacquiao the same night and he is 38. I'd love to see an amateur stand in with Mayweather at the minute. Before I went pro, I would have thought that it was for boxers who are not good at boxing, but I learned very quickly it is just a different level and a very, very tough level," Christina laughs.

Christina's journey began at 20 years of age when she first took up kickboxing. She quickly rose to the top of the rankings both in Ireland and the world, taking the World WAKO Championship title in 2007 amongst numerous other World Cup Kickboxing Tournaments wins. Boxing was next on Christina's agenda.

"I started boxing because I wanted to develop my kickboxing at first," Christina explains. "The girl I had fought in the 2007 final was the girl to beat and she was an extremely good boxer - boxing was winning it for her and because I had joined boxing the year before to develop my hands, I was able to match her and beat her at her own game."

Christina's love for boxing soon outgrew her passion for kickboxing.

"I had given kickboxing everything I had and came home with bronzes, silvers and golds for years. I felt I didn't have any more hunger in it and that I could retire from sports altogether at that stage," she admits. However, boxing still held some promise of a challenge.

"I just felt fit and well and the opportunities kept coming up," she says. "Every time I thought of leaving, something else would come up and I would win it and that brought me to another stage."

Christina was also excited to be one of the 10 women on Ireland's first amateur boxing team set up in 2006 for development, which included Katie Taylor.

"It was so interesting to be involved at that time and it was hard to pull away then. I was sucked into it," she says.

"To be making history on the first Irish women's boxing team was great, so it was very hard to leave it, when I was actually finding it easy."

Another huge fitness motivation in Christina's life, besides her obvious love for sport, has been the fact she suffers from an underactive thyroid.

"The symptoms of an underactive thyroid are obesity, coldness and tiredness - so really I should be feeling extremely tired and obese, and if I wasn't on medication I would probably be all of those things," she says. "But on the medication there are side-effects. While it is curing one problem, there are other side-effects and it is very hard to cope with at times. So one of the things that helps thyroid patients is exercise because it lifts our moods and it keeps us well; I need exercise more than your average person and that would have been one of my major motivations."

Doctors diagnosed Christina with an underactive thyroid when she was just 27.

"It was just after my honeymoon, but we knew there was something wrong, my body could turn a completely different shape for no reason and when I was getting ready for a competition trying to make weight it would be unnatural that you couldn't sweat out a pound or two and I would have great difficulty with that - I could even go up a pound or two," she says. "When your body doesn't react properly, there is something up. Some mornings I would want to get out of bed, but it was just beyond tiredness, your muscles would be gone to sleep and you couldn't lift yourself up. So I just wanted to feel well after that. I didn't care what I looked like."

Christina has learned to live with the issue by eating well and exercising regularly.

"That's when I realised that how you eat and how you train is how you feel," adds Christina, who is also a personal trainer and fitness instructor.

"I decided as I was getting older that I would design my own training programme along with my husband. So I have 10 boxes that I tick and get done each week because I have heard so many times boxers saying they did runs at six o'clock in the morning or three hours or four hours in the gym and I was saying to myself 'I am not doing those hours, but I am still winning. So what is wrong here?'

"I worked as a manager in a leisure centre before and I was an extremely busy person because I was doing my personal training outside it too. So instead of putting myself under this ferocious pressure thinking 'oh that's another day lost,' I decided by the end of a week, on the Saturday afternoon, I would have all of my training done and all of those boxes ticked. Then I have a Sunday rest and really enjoy the day with my family.

"So I might miss a day and train twice the next day, but once I had all of those boxes ticked by Sunday it was in the bank. It's important not to put too much pressure on yourself, but get the work done at the same time."

It has been two years since Christina has had sugar.

"I cut out desserts, chocolate and sweets," she tells me. "I was a chocoholic in my 20s and I was eating chocolate until it came out my ears; I'd have six bars eaten in a day no problem. It just became pure habit and the only way I could deal with it was by just stopping it altogether. I know myself that my body is like a young person's body because of that. I have no doubt. I feel better today in my 40s than I did when I was in my 20s.

"I was never really fat because I exercised, but I would have had weight on me. I'm definitely not the same shape now, but it was more important for my mind. My mind was fuzzy with sugar. I can think straight when I am not eating it."

Christina does not prescribe to any particular diet. She eats 'a little bit or everything' except sugar of course. "Fats are very important, protein is very important and your carbs are very important," she explains. "People should not be giving up carbs. I have bread, but I have it in proportion and I have vegetables. The only thing I have given up is the sugar because sugar has no benefit to the body. When you starve your body of a particular food like carbohydrates or fat it craves those things and your body becomes unbalanced.

"I think many of the diets are good for a certain amount of time but it comes back to simplicity - can you sustain them over a long period of time? No you can't.

"A treat for me is a Chinese or a bag of chips, but I still wouldn't touch the sugar because I could leave the chips tomorrow and not eat them again, but if I eat sugar I'd be back on it because it is so addictive and it is the hardest one to give up."

Christina credits her eating and fitness habits with giving her a positive outlook on life and confidence, both mentally and physically, which is something she would wish for other women, of all ages, to experience.

"I think that everybody has their own walk in life and with any difficulties, the only thing that can get you through all of that is how good you feel from the inside, not how good you feel on the outside," she says. "People said to me recently that I looked great on a TV interview, but I honestly don't think about that - I felt great from the inside and that means more to me. I am not here to be a model. It's how you are and who you are that people like and that's what I would love to get out there to people."

For Christina, positivity is a key element in a healthy life.

"I have been criticised for smiling too much in the past," Christina laughs. "That's the honest truth and only last week somebody said 'she's great, but she's no children and you can't have both'. They were looking for a problem - if I can outweigh that with good and positivity and then eventually do, you know what those people will do? They will jump on the bandwagon and realise that the negativity isn't working for them. It is great now, I have so much support from the people around me and in my area, it's really overwhelming and just makes you want to go out and do more.

"Next up we want to go after the No1 ranking in the world; the weight I fought at recently was bantamweight, it was 53.5kg and I made it easily. I'd love to fight the weight under it. I'd love to fight the super-flyweight so there are two Mexican girls - one holds the bantamweight title and one holds the super-flyweight title and I would take either of them!" Christina smiles.

"I don't want to leave the sport without testing myself. So I'm going to get ready - I'm going to prepare my head, rest a while and get back into training in the near future."

Fitness diary: 10 boxes Christina  ticks off each week

1. Pad work technical session

2. Bag work fitness training

3. Sparring practice ring work

4. Heat room shadow box

5. Altitude training

6. Long runs for endurance

7. Shuttle run sprints

8. Strength training weight programme

9. Fast twitch muscle training with weights

10. Circuit training (boot-camp style) and core work

Food diary:


Morning: Eggs and

toast, black coffee

Mid-morning: Noni juice

and a handful of almond nuts

Lunch: Goats cheese salad and herbal tea

Mid-afternoon: A red apple or pineapple

and plain yogurt

Dinner: Steamed basmati rice, salmon or turkey and vegetables (carrots, celery, peas, spinach, broccoli), olive oil or

Newgrange camelina oil and black coffee

Evening: A homemade nutrient shake with soluble Vitamin C, raw super food gluten-free protein, noni Juice, natural yogurt, flaxseed and a teaspoon of cider vinegar

Food diary:

Morning: Eggs and  toast, black coffee

Mid-morning: Noni juice  and a handful of almond nuts

Lunch: Goats cheese salad and herbal tea

Mid-afternoon: A red apple or pineapple  and plain yogurt

Dinner: Steamed basmati rice, salmon or turkey and vegetables (carrots, celery, peas, spinach, broccoli), olive oil or  Newgrange camelina oil and black coffee

Evening: A homemade nutrient shake with soluble Vitamin C, raw super food gluten-free protein, noni Juice, natural yogurt, flaxseed and a teaspoon of cider vinegar

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