Caroline Dubois and Shane McGuigan: ‘She has that X factor, that wow factor’

The 21-year-old Briton is the ‘the best female boxer I’ve ever seen,’ says the trainer before her first professional fight

As the lights dim and the noise booms around her Caroline Dubois will walk to the professional ring for the first time with her trainer, Shane McGuigan, on Saturday night in Cardiff. Her debut in front of a packed and fevered crowd will continue one of the most intriguing collaborations in British boxing. Dubois, who has just turned 21, is the most promising young female fighter in the country while the 33-year-old McGuigan has established himself among the world’s best trainers.

Her fight against Vaida Masiokaite, a Lithuanian journeywoman who has had 20 pro bouts, is third on a bill headlined by athe grudge match between Liam Williams and Chris Eubank Jr. It is yet another significant boost for women’s boxing that the chief support features Claressa Shields, the formidable American, and will be preceded by Dubois’s highly anticipated entry into the professional ranks.

Boxing is finally back in Britain, after the sport has been in lockdown since Christmas, and female fighters will play a more prominent role than ever. On 30 April, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano will headline the first promotion that is likely to make both boxers more than $1m each when they meet at Madison Square Garden.

Today we are a long way from New York in an engagingly stark boxing club that adjoins Leyton cricket ground in east London. All nine of McGuigan’s stable of fighters – including the world champion cruiserweight, Lawrence Okolie, and Caroline’s brother, the heavyweight Daniel Dubois – are here. It is a cold and murky Tuesday but, inside, the gym hums with purpose and resolve.

As other fighters stretch, skip or hit the heavy bags dangling from the high ceiling, McGuigan wraps Dubois’s hands with care. She will soon spar with Hannah Rankin, an experienced 31-year-old who recently won the vacant WBA super-welterweight world title. But there is little doubt that the coming star is the prodigiously talented Dubois.

When he worked at the BBC, Mike Costello, the renowned boxing commentator, said: “I’m tempted to call Caroline Dubois the best female boxer I’ve ever seen.” Dubois was 17 then and, four years on, her confidence is obvious. “Hannah is well known,” she says of her sparring partner. “I’ve sparred with her twice before and I did very well against her. It’s important because I’ve been sparring boys and now we do the fine-tuning with girls like Hannah.”

Dubois’s first senior amateur competition was last year when she beat the venerable Mira Potkonen who had defeated Taylor at the 2016 Olympic Games. Dubois sealed her own Olympic qualification and travelled to Tokyo last August with high hopes of winning the gold medal. After two convincing victories, she narrowly missed out on a medal when losing a tight decision in the quarter-finals.

“I was very upset and angry with myself and I wanted to avenge it [at the Paris Olympics],” Dubois says. “The GB coaches said: ‘Stay with us. It’s not long until 2024.’ But when I came home my dad was like: ‘You won the Youth Olympics and you’ve got a European silver medal and boxed at the Olympics. You’ve done enough as an amateur. Now do your learning as a pro.’

“It took some thinking but it was the right choice to turn pro and learn with Shane.”

McGuigan helped build the careers of outstanding world champions in Carl Frampton and Josh Taylor, and has a deep and profound knowledge of boxing. He stresses the sheer talent of Dubois while explaining how much she has improved since she joined his gym. “She is super-super-talented but we’ve had to make Caroline aware that this is a high-tempo sport. She’s got all the skill in the world and loves to pick her shots but at the top level you have to work super-hard to draw the lead and the counter.

“But I’ve seen a huge improvement since she began training here because they don’t teach technique up there [at the GB National base in Sheffield]. They don’t tell you how to punch properly. Caroline’s right-footed and right-handed. Her base was all wrong and she was spending all the time on the right side. That sets her up for a jab on the right hook, but she had no backhand. Since we’ve changed her stance, she’s getting hit less and she’s hitting a lot harder. I’m super-excited.

“The one thing that worried me in the Olympics was that girls were able to push her back and bully her a little. She has done lots of sparring with boys and she needs that pressure. She’s so talented that if she’s not being matched in terms of skill, she feels she can do anything. But it’s different when a physically strong young lad is pushing you back. He’s making it horrible because you’re hitting him with good shots and he is not backing away.

“But in sparring they’re using big 14-ounce gloves and he’s wearing a head guard. When she is in the pro ring she will be boxing with eight‑ounce gloves and she will hurt her opponents. So it’s important she doesn’t get discouraged because we’re conditioning her to meet the elite in women’s boxing. We’ll start with her challenging for a lightweight title but if we do it properly and she keeps working hard I believe she will become a multi-weight world champion.”

McGuigan used to train Chantelle Cameron, who is now the WBC and IBF light-welterweight champion. He makes a striking comparison with Dubois. “I worked with Chantelle and she became the IBO lightweight world champion and then we parted ways. But the difference in their skill level is remarkable because Caroline has so much more ability. Chantelle is very tough, durable and determined and she can punch. So can Caroline, but Chantelle joined me as a fully fledged woman. She had been in the GB squad a long time and was in her mid-20s. Caroline’s still only a baby. You don’t usually get that strength until you’ve filled into your physique.

“I’m much more excited about training Caroline because I knew every fight Chantelle had was going to be quite hard-fought. Caroline has the skill set to make things easier at the top. Katie Taylor can also make fights easy because she is so skilled. She doesn’t sometimes because Katie loves a tear-up. But, like Katie, Caroline has that X factor, that wow factor. You watch her sparring sometimes and go: ‘Hang on a sec!’ It’s amazing because she’s got so much skill.”

Does he expect Dubois to be fighting for a world title in the next two years? “Probably sooner. She genuinely can whack so she’ll get quite a few girls out there early. But it’s about saying: ‘What happens when you’re matched for skill? How do you hold up after six rounds?’ Those four rounds are the ones that win or lose championship fights. If she can get comfortable during the hard fights she will be very special. It’s about conditioning and experience but she’s a clever girl and gets boxing. We’ll know for certain after three or four fights how fast we move.”

Dubois says: “I’m learning new stuff every day from Shane and I’m getting fitter and stronger and sharper. For this fight I’ll be pretty good but for the next one I want to get better. And for the one after that I’ll be even better.”

On Saturday night she will be boxing before Shields. “It’s going to be crazy and interesting. I’ve never met Claressa so it would be good to see her and have a little chat because she’s a great fighter. You watch so many world champions in female boxing and you’re like: ‘No, they’re not that great.’ But then you get Claressa Shields, Amanda Serrano and Katie Taylor. Those two, Amanda and Katie, will give us a great fight.”

Does Dubois also believe that, in a few years, she will fight at this exalted level: “Definitely,” she exclaims, her face lighting up with a dazzling smile.

She and McGuigan come from two large and well-known boxing families. Shane’s father, Barry, is the former world champion featherweight who united warring factions in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles in the 1980s. Thirty years later Barry and his three sons set up their own promotional company with Shane, still in his 20s, training Frampton and Taylor to multiple world titles. An acrimonious fallout with those fighters was dwarfed by the death of Shane’s sister, Danika, who was lost to cancer in 2019.

“I’m still processing it,” McGuigan says, “because such a loss doesn’t sink in instantly. But you’ve got to enjoy life in the moment. I always used to look ahead and think: ‘In five years I’ll be here, in 10 years I’ll be there.’ I’ve now been in this game 11 years. I’ve had world champions but it’s been a very tough couple of years. If I hadn’t had boxing I’d be in a very bad way.”

McGuigan sinks his head against the wall in an empty changing room at the back of the gym. “I just wish I’d had more time with Danika at the end but I had big fights then – like preparing Luke Campbell for Vasyl Lomachenko. I didn’t understand the severity of it all because we lost Danika just five weeks after the diagnosis. I remember coming from the gym and she’d already lapsed into a coma. That’s my only resentment.

“Danika had leukaemia when she was a little girl and we all went up and said goodbye to her. Can you imagine saying goodbye to your sister at the age of nine? But she just made an unbelievable turnaround and got better. Since then everything else is a blessing. Losing her at 33, which is now my age, was terrible. But you need to reflect on those amazing memories we had together.” An unconventional background distinguishes the Dubois family because Caroline’s father, Dave, has brought up his seven youngest children largely on his own and often opted for home schooling.

Caroline and three of her brothers, most notably Daniel, attracted interest for their considerable boxing potential only for painful defeats to offer reminders that nothing in life ever runs totally smoothly.

After his loss to Joe Joyce in November 2020, when he suffered a worrying eye injury, Daniel is thriving again under McGuigan. Caroline’s enthusiasm, meanwhile, burns inside her just days from her debut.

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