When Michele Aboro first fell in love with combat sports in the 70s, a trainer told her it was no place for girls, advising her to go do something else instead. She was nine years old at the time.
Nonetheless, the young Londoner of Nigerian descent punched her way through to five international titles, four European titles, and six British titles in kickboxing and Thai boxing. At 25, her pro boxing career kicked off in Germany, and she went on to win two more world titles.
Aboro retired undefeated in 2002. Today, she gives back to the community through the Aboro Foundation and Boxing Academy in Shanghai – but not before having had a career in the music industry as well.
On GamePlan A, the living legend who just celebrated her 50th birthday recites key moments from her journey and how they have shaped who she is: creative athlete, confident entrepreneur, and a philanthropist with a huge heart.
You’re passionate about women in sports. Can you explain how your credibility as a boxer was questioned due to your gender?
I put my heart and soul into being the best female boxer, technically, that I could be. Most of my sparring partners were men, and when I got into the ring, I knocked out 90 percent of my opponents.
On the flipside, people would say, “Why are you fighting girls? You should be fighting guys.” They would question my gender. It made me feel a bit like a circus act. As an athlete, it was only natural I would have muscles. I was constantly being criticized about the way I looked, who I was, how I fought.
The body of a female athlete is under constant scrutiny. What kind of coping strategies did you develop?
I was always open about my gender and my sexuality. Also, my mom was a single parent with seven mixed-race children; we’re Irish, Scottish, and African. From a young age, we were picked on because of our color, and because my mom was a white woman with all these black children.
We grew up to have a thick skin, and I learned to take in the negativity and push it out with positivity. I was basically extra nice to the people who were slandering me.
Transitioning to life after sport can be a challenge. What happened after you retired?
Well, I always loved music and I played the bass guitar for a long time. For three months, I was working on the door of a famous Amsterdam club called Paradiso. While there, one of the head engineers encouraged me to study sound engineering, so I did. The opportunity came organically across my path and I just followed it. For seven years, I got to tour the world with Joan As Police Woman and Antony and the Johnsons. I also gave the artists boxing lessons on the road.
When I was competing, I always had a trainer, a manager, and a promoter who looked after me. As tour manager and sound engineer, I learned how to serve other people. This humbled me in a big way.
In 2010, you moved to Shanghai and started a charity and a boxing academy. What sparked these endeavors?
I was training in local gyms when a stream of kids started coming in asking me to coach them. Much like in the West, a lot of kids that get into boxing come from impoverished backgrounds and have problems on the street.
In the end, I had 21 students. Naturally, only very few were able to make it to the top. I encouraged them to either get an education or become coaches through pursuing certifications so they could build sustainable careers.
Can you share a success story from the kids you’ve coached?
One young man, Yi Feng, competes on a professional level and has become one of the most sought-after coaches in our gym. He has transformed his life around 100 percent.
Another boy I trained, Tao Tao, has a gym in Suzhou, and he’s part of the World Boxing Organization as a referee and a timekeeper. A young lady called Xu Chun Yan went on to become international WBC champion. And we also have a boy who’s a WBO Asian champion. So we have quite a few success stories.
As a gym owner, what skills have you taken from boxing to entrepreneurship?
When I was younger, I wasn’t confident at all. It was boxing that gave me confidence, and that’s what I brought into running my own business.
Entrepreneurship is about believing anything is possible. I’m prepared to do the hard work, surround myself with the right people, and believe in myself. In the end, however, it’s a team sport. That’s the way we run the academy.
In your pro boxing days, you were driven to win. What motivates you today?
Very much the same things but at different extremes. When I was younger, I used the sport to show everybody I was worthy: worthy of being there, worthy of being somebody. As I grew up, I realized I was worthy and my confidence grew.
I still have the same twinkle and drive to win. Whatever I do, I give it my all. With the Academy, I aim to be among the best. And with the Foundation, I want every child to walk away with something valuable sport has given them.
Your partner is a photographer, and you have a background in music, so art and sport mesh in your life. Is there a relationship between creativity and boxing?
The best boxers are highly creative: they look at what’s in front of them, ascertain it, and make it into something of their own. In the ring, I used creativity to manipulate my opponent.
People tend to think the only goal of boxing is to hurt somebody, and they miss its grace and creativity. Just look at boxing movies: you’ll see it’s essentially a beautiful sport.
Talking about boxing movies, what’s your favorite?
Raging Bull. It’s so melancholic and heart-rendering, but that’s how boxing can be – sometimes boxers are their worst enemies. They destroy themselves, not only in the ring, but outside of it.
You are an undefeated world champion. Does that badge of honor come with any baggage?
When I was competing, I had a continuous pressure to perform. I remember going to bed at night with heart palpitations before fights. But after I retired, I actually felt sad because I had accomplished so much and then it just stopped.
However, I’m proud I managed to retire undefeated. I’m proud I was able to get to the level I did in a country I wasn’t born in. I’m proud of my achievements at a time when women weren’t recognized as boxers.
Today, I’m delighted to see women’s boxing in the Olympics and big promoters signing female athletes. More and more women are getting a platform and using it to highlight what they’re capable of.