North's only female pro Cathy McAleer has her sights set on world boxing title
Belfast boxer Cathy McAleer has always been focused but as she sets out to conquer a world boxing title in her 40s, she tells Gail Bell you need to box clever to achieve your goals
LOOK out for a door with boxing pictures outside it, she said helpfully, but, while attempting to locate the nondescript entrance to Breen's Gym along a cold corridor inside Westlink Enterprise Centre, I hear the sound of boxing before I see it.
To untrained ears, these are the acoustics of pain: indecipherable shouting, a dull sort of thumping and the occasional screech, yet, in boxing terms, it seems this is merely motivational 'talk' inside a boxing ring. Fortuitously, Cathy McAleer, Northern Ireland's only professional female boxer, emerges bright, unbloodied and on bouncing form when she jumps from the ring following another high-octane training session with legendary Belfast boxing coach John Breen.
The petite 41-year-old has already conquered the world of karate and kickboxing and is a successful trainer herself – she runs two karate schools in Holywood and Belfast and also works as a personal trainer – so a boisterous pep talk now and then has always been part of her work ethic, particularly so when being fast-tracked to a world boxing title.
Although a relative newcomer to the sport – the Belfast bantamweight only took up boxing less than two years ago – this is the end goal for McAleer, whose first bout of 2020 will be next month in Birmingham under the direction of her new manger, Kellie Maloney.
The fight in Aston Villa Football Club's Holte Suite – enticingly billed as the 'Havoc at the Holte II' – is against an as yet unnamed opponent and will mark the signing of a two-year sponsorship deal with online car insurance brand its4women.
It follows a sensational debut in the sport in 2018 when the local woman won all three of her professional bouts and became the first female to fight in the Ulster Hall for 18 years.
"I literally can't wait," she says. "Kellie's aim is to get me over to England, have some fights there and get my name out, and then take me home to fight for a major title here. I love fighting at home; there is so much support and the atmosphere is amazing.
"Having said that, though, there is a good crowd coming to support me in Birmingham, including my mum – so long as she isn't called into hospital for a knee operation that she's been waiting for. My dad still can't bear to watch me fight, but he'll ask my brothers and sisters for a video of it afterwards."
We are sitting in a small room opposite the gym and McAleer is nothing like the stereoptypical fighter you might expect. She is quick-witted and authoritative, but there is a gentleness and empathy there too, alongside a genuine respect for people – whether inside or outside the ring.
Focus and determination are never in question – she is a former world karate and kick-boxing champion, after all, and has worked as general manager of the former Virgin Active gym in Holywood before opening her own business – but she hates to think she might seriously hurt anyone in the name of sport.
"I have respect for the other person, so I'd be the first over, checking they are OK," she says. "I'd hate to ever hurt or injure someone. People think boxing is about aggression, but it's not. It's two skilled people in the ring, doing a sport they are passionate about. It's about being smart, tactical, waiting and only moving or blocking when the time is right. If you're aggressive, you'll burn out and never last the rounds. A smarter fighter tends to be the one who wins."
Cathy McAleer has always played 'smart', whether wheedling her primary school PE teacher for a chance to play on the boys's football team (he gave in eventually and let her join the boys-only team at St Michael's PS on the Ravenhill Road) or working her way up to management level after joining Virgin Active as receptionist following a degree in Sports Marketing at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
A "very, very shy and timid child" at school, she first turned to karate after being beaten up for "wearing the wrong uniform in the wrong park" as an eight year-old. It was a traumatic experience which lefts its mark literally (half her hair "was missing" afterwards) and has made her even more passionate about helping young people in her karate school to fight back against bullies in 2020.
"After that incident, my wee brother went to karate lessons and I wanted to go too, but my dad – who is very 'old school' – initially said, 'Girls don't fight'," she recalls. "I was always very sporty, although my mum tried to get me into tap dancing with my sisters, but it didn't work out. I was the one at the back of the class with no rhythm and not having a clue what was going on."
She still doesn't dance today, but loves getting dressed up and going out – much to her surprise, she found herself at 'beauty school', learning how to do facials, primarily as an extra dimension to her fitness brand, Mac Fit, which she runs from her Knock Road home and where facials, including microdermabrasion, are popular choices on the treatment list for clients.
"I never saw myself as a beauty therapist," she says, laughing, "but clients were asking about massages after training, so I learned to do them. Then they asked, 'Do you do facials?', so I thought I should maybe offer them too... In beauty school, I was the only one in a tracksuit and stuck out like a sore thumb, but I did enjoy the work and it has proved a good fit with personal training."
An interest in make-up is something McAleer now shares with new promoter and manager, Kellie, formerly Frank Maloney, the renowned boxing promoter who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2015.
"I have great rapport with Kellie, who I only met for the first time when she was having her make-up done before the BT Sports Awards in London in 2019," the boxer reveals. "I had had a few disappointments, with fights being cancelled and being let down by promoters, and I had randomly tweeted Kellie to see if she could offer any advice... or if she would even consider making a comeback in boxing as my manager.
"She phoned me back 48 hours later and said she had applied for her manager's licence. I was jumping around the kitchen. Then, three weeks later, she phoned to invite me to the awards and to say 'Our journey begins...'
Today, while McAleer is embracing the challenge of another world sporting title, she is also quietly helping children and adults achieve goals of their own.
"I do a lot of work with people who have eating disorders or depression and with kids who have been involved with drugs and whose parents ring me up for help," she says.
"Whatever the problem, I find that when someone hits the boxing pads, they de-stress and get rid of anger and aggression. They often just need a focus – if you have a goal and challenge you'll just do it. I love seeing people better themselves and have a better life."