Monday 19 February 2018

Meet the mother-of-two who shed the pounds through white-collar boxing

Mother of two Sharon Burke was 46 and overweight. But then she discovered white-collar boxing. By John Costello

Sharon Burke in her boxing gear. Photo: Dave Meehan
Sharon Burke in her boxing gear. Photo: Dave Meehan
Sharon Burke with her daughters Sarahjane (15) and Louise (11). Photo: Dave Meehan
Sharon Burke in the ring

John Costello

Sharon Burke was putting on weight, eating badly and feeling out of shape. But rather than heading to the gym to shed the pounds, the married mother of two decided to lace up a pair of boxing gloves and get ready to rumble.

"Did I have second thoughts? Yes, for about a minute," she says with a laugh. "I was almost 47 years old and overweight. My brother and sisters live abroad and were all planning marathons, and here was I was planning my first fight! So, was this my mid-life crisis? Maybe."

While Sharon had always been a fan of the sport, she truly caught the boxing bug after taking a Box Fit class at Westwood Gym in Clontarf. It was there she heard some of the guys talking about white-collar boxing. So, she decided to discover what they had been talking about.

Former pro-boxer and Olympian Cathal O'Grady has been involved white-collar boxing in Ireland since 2005 and offering everyday Joes and Janes the chance to train like pro-boxers and test their skills in the ring. Over 300 contests have been stage, and there has been a steady stream of wannabe world champions lining up to transform themselves from rookie to Rocky, while the number of women showing an interest has been on the rise, thanks to the exploits of Katie Taylor.

"Growing up there appeared to be very few women interested in boxing," says Sharon. "It is not like nowadays. Now we have Katie Taylor, who has done so much for the sport. So, I think people should put on the gloves and give it a go whether it is in their local gym or whether they sign up for a white-collar course."

Sharon Burke in her boxing gear. Photo: Dave Meehan

The eight-week white-collar boxing programme, run by O'Grady, costs €250 and classes are held twice a week. After a few weeks of intensive fitness and skill training, students finally climb into the ring to practice what they have learnt. Once inside the ring they wear extra safe headgear, over-sized 18oz gloves (to minimise the power of punches if they connect) and are guided through their paces by professional boxing coaches.

"It is the ultimate physical challenge," says O'Grady. "It is phenomenal the shape people get into. But you are not only battling against yourself but the guy standing across from you in the ring. And the fitness levels people achieve are extremely high. We were doing high intensity interval training before they became the new buzzwords in the fitness industry."

But while thrill seekers may love to experience the cut and thrust of life in the boxing ring, safety is always paramount.

"There has to be a realness because that is why people sign up," says Cathal, "but we do everything to minimise the risk factor. Both the trainers and referees first and foremost protect every participant. But the fact is you are going to get hit and there is a small chance of injury because it is a contact sport. You have to feel the shots to make learning the skills we teach you worthwhile."

But despite some trepidation before stepping into the ring, throwing and taking punches proved a real rush for Sharon. "I remember taking a few hits to the head in training and I thought 'Oh wow! This is what you have trained for,'" she says.

While some just sign up to train purely for the fitness benefits, most choose to step into the ring at the end of the course and pit their skills against their opponent. And Sharon always trained with this end goal in sight.

"The night of my fight I thought to myself, 'You are mad!'" she says. "But the other side of me knew I had put everything into the training, so what had I to be worried about. The sparring really does prepare you for fight night. The build-up was brilliant and the trainers give you a great pep talk beforehand. I had a guy working my corner for me, giving me advice. Everyone is there supporting you.

"I won my fight on a split decision. There was one other female fight that night. The rest was the lads. And I know I certainly could not have done all of it without the support of my husband Malcolm and my daughters, Sarajane (15) and Louise (11)."

Sharon Burke in the ring

After stepping out of the ring ,Sharon was elated with her effort and victory, but the results of her training lasted much longer then the pride she felt from her efforts. "I lost almost two stone during the programme," she says. "I dropped two dress sizes, and felt 15 years younger. I was back in my early thirties! I was on fire. I won't stop my gym work but when it comes to ever fighting again – watch this space."

While an increasing number of women are realising the benefits of boxing, when it comes to obtaining the body beautiful, others know it is just the thing to get their partners back in shape.

"I was always a big fan of boxing. So for my 30th birthday my wife Dolores, who was then my girlfriend, bought me the training sessions for white-collar boxing," says David Coates, originally from Newbridge, but living in Dublin. "I think she was calling my bluff to see how much I really loved the sport!"

The 34-year-old eBay employee was 16 stone and was eager to get back in shape.

"I dropped to 12.6 stone after 12 weeks of training," he says. "You eat well and I gave up the booze completely. I stopped smoking. I knew I would not be able to get in shape for the fight if I was smoking and I had been trying to give up for ages. So it was just the motivation that I needed."

But while many may balk at the idea of such hardcore training, the only factor that would probably exclude you from taking the challenge is attitude, according to those in the know.

"We have a girl that does boxing training with us and she is in a wheelchair," says Cathal. "She is paralysed from the waist down. She trains with us an hour a week and does different drills to provide her with a challenging training session. It is phenomenal for her. She wants to do this and has the courage to do it. So, if she can benefit from the training, anyone can. It is just a matter wanting it."

For more information on Cathal O'Grady's white-collar boxing visit

Irish Independent

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