Most people at 9 years old are running around playgrounds, terrorising their Year 4 teachers and making their mark as individual kids. But when Caroline Dubois was that age, she was posing as Colin, a young boy in a South London boxing club in order to bypass strict rules which forbid women the same rights to train. It was here she began making her mark on a talent circuit renowned for male dominance. Now, at just 22, she’s an Olympian and IBO Lightweight champion and determined to leave a stamp through her own talent, her own ability, and most importantly, her own name.
There’s an earnestness from Caroline during the photoshoot, which takes place before I sit down to interview her. It’s a combination of sincerity and reserve, diligently following instructions from Rashidi, our photographer. “Doing shoots? It’s different obviously, I’m used to all the boxing stuff – turning up to the gym, training. This is different, a different environment.” I prompt her, encouraging her that she won’t get in trouble if she tells the truth, and she breaks into a wide smile and chuckles. “I’m not sure I would use the word fun”, she laughs, “but it’s different, and it’s good to do different things right? I’m usually a lot more casual, a lot more laidback, so this is out of my comfort zone, and that element is cool, definitely.” There’s a warmth that radiates from her, seemingly in juxtaposition to the cut-throat fighter I’d seen on TV a few weeks prior. “People are always shocked but I love hair and nails, all of that stuff. I’d love to open a beauty salon one day.” Caroline seems wholly aware of her duality, as a woman and as a boxer, and has no issues allowing the two to co-exist.
The fight that saw Dubois become the IBO lightweight champion was a spectacular match that led the judges to vote Caroline as the unanimous winner against Mexican boxer Magali Rodriguez. As we talk, there are a few parallels I draw between us, which add to the flow of the conversation and the nuance surrounding particular topics. We’re both from south London, we’re both young and Black, we’re both women. Holding a boxing title and extending her record to 8-0 though? Of the two of us, that is something that Caroline lays an entirely unique claim to. “The main feeling is relief you know! Especially when you’re in a hard fight, and it’s actually challenging you, and it’s difficult. Everyone wants the knockout, everyone wants the knockdown, and everyone wants to do the spectacular. So when you finally get there, there’s this great sense of relief, like all pressure’s finally off your shoulders.” Her speaking pace increases as she explains her mindset ahead of the fight. “Going into this match, I wanted to make a statement. I’m very young right, I’m only 22 – and most of the girls that are champions are older than me. Katie Taylor is 37 years old for example, Natasha Jonas is 39 years old. I wanted to come out, and let everyone know, including my competition, that I’m here, I’m here to stay, and I’m a serious threat irrespective of my age, you know?”
Any profession that is high-risk, high reward, usually follows a strict routine, and unsurprisingly, boxing is no different. Caroline takes me through parts of her routine almost robotically – runs, training, pad work, and sparring. “So, Monday to Friday, we’d do a session in the mornings, 9 am-12 pm – that’ll be bags, pads, all the boxing-related stuff. Then in the evenings, it’s running, which could either be sprint sessions or a long-distance run. I do strength & conditioning twice a week across the weekdays. Saturday, I have a rest day. Sunday, just one run. That’s it.” It isn’t a list void of emotion or enthusiasm, but almost as if it’s engrained in her, recited with the ease of a seasoned actress. “And then, fight week for me is usually quite chilled. I tried to focus and get in the zone, especially for this fight, I tried to remain as calm as possible. Minutes before going out into the ring, I kept telling myself that I needed to remain calm. I always think if I’m losing energy by being nervous, that’s extra energy I won’t have in the ring! When it comes to training, I’m focused on the fight, but when I’m out of the gym, out of the ring? I try to switch off, try to relax.”
This level of commitment has been with Caroline for years now and is something she developed and honed from a young age. When she was starting out, boxing clubs weren’t admitting girls as there was no clear professional pathway for them, and so the impression was that it was a futile exploit. “I started boxing when I was 9 years old, and when I started, there weren’t many female boxing clubs. When I joined, I said I was a boy – Colin.” The absurdity of both the name and the need for disguise catch us both, and she laughs, reminiscing. “I trained there, sparred with the other boys, and I was good, so they put me up for a fight. But to do a fight, you have to have a medical, and so obviously I had to leave. I went to a different gym, and knowing we were going to run into similar problems, we just instantly said ‘I’m a girl, but watch what I can do,’ and eventually, he came around.” The excitement when talking about her professional growth is infectious, and she’s at her most comfortable talking about boxing, a sport she has made her own, despite her young age. “I did other sports before boxing – running, gymnastics, swimming. But as soon as I walked into the boxing gym, into the ring? Sounds corny, but I knew that was the one. When I’m in the ring, I feel like I’m myself, I can be myself, I can be skillful and aggressive and it’s warranted there, it’s embraced there.”
The glint in her eye continues to sparkle when she confirms her fighting style as “aggressive, someone that takes fights to people, a counterpuncher on the front foot.” She explains that this has changed slightly over the years and credits her coach and manager Shane McGuigan for honing this. “I used to be so obsessed with sparring. When I was younger, and my old coach would say ‘No sparring today,’ I would literally cry, it was all I wanted to do. I’m older now, so I definitely see the benefits of not sparring every day now – I love my brain cells, they’re great, I like them a lot!”
With the ease and confidence with which she talks about boxing, it’s easy to forget Caroline Dubois is just 22 years old. I indulge her with a snapshot of what my life was like when I was 22 years old – indulgent, reckless, and hilariously clueless about my next steps. Most would be able to resonate more so with my story, than Caroline’s, who seems to have meticulously planned out her future. “I realise that it’s a privilege to be doing what I’m doing and to have my path set out for me. I thank God every day that I figured out what I wanted to do at 9 years old, and I’m still doing it, which I know is crazy. This year, I’ve got one more fight left on my contract, so we’ll have to figure that out. My 10-year plan? In 10 years, hopefully, I’ll be out of the game! I would love to walk away from boxing, saying that I’m a multi-weight world champion, hopefully undisputed and I would like to have challenged the best. That’s what I would love.”