Lani Daniels and Geovana Peres are fighting for the prestigious World Boxing Organisation (WBO) Light Heavyweight World Championship title on March 30th, in Auckland, New Zealand. Peres won their first encounter by split decision. For those who aren't fight fans, that means two judges scored in Peres’ favor, and the third scored the fight for Daniels, so it was a close bout. The rematch is being held at Auckland's Sky City City Convention Centre and promises to be explosive. Despite the promise of a great fight for fans, and the fact that two New Zealanders are fighting for a world title at home, Promoter Bruce Glozier told me that he'd found it hard to garner a lot of media interest in the event. We had a quick chat about the state of affairs when it comes to women getting recognition in the fight game, and I promised to connect him with a few friends who might help him get some mainstream coverage. It helps when your partner is an, grown up actual journalist on television.
The conversation got me thinking that female athletes, and indeed women’s sports in general, have long lacked the public attention garnered by their male counterparts. While this is slowly changing, public awareness is still primarily focused on men who dominate the sporting world.
While there are notable exceptions, such as Ronda Rousey or perhaps Holly Holm, this is true in combat sports. Outside of fight aficionados, women are rarely household names the way Joseph Parker, Connor McGregor or Mark Hunt are. New Zealand has produced some elite female strikers such as bona fide world Muay Thai champion and 100 fight veteran Michelle 'Pressure' Preston, or Commonwealth medallist and Olympian boxer Alexis Pritchard, but their hard-earned achievements often go unnoticed by the wider public.
I was a fighter myself in one martial art or another for 20 years, and now work as a trainer in Muay Thai, kickboxing and boxing. I've seen first hand that while women who are warriors put in as much actual blood, sweat, and tears as men in the fight game, not only do female fighters achieve less public recognition, but they also tend to receive less in terms of sponsorship deals and prize money.
So, thinking about all this, I gave my old trainer John 'The Rebel' Conway, who now coaches Daniels, a phone call. We had a quick talk about the fight, and he invited me down to do some sparring with Daniels herself. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to not only get some training in but to see what Lani thought of the state of women's boxing.
We met up at the gym of New Zealand's former IBF World champ, 'Diamond' Daniella Smith, in Newton, Auckland. Lani had a busy night of sparring ahead of her, staying in the ring continuously for ten rounds with a fresh sparring partner swapping in and out every two or three. Trust me, that shit is hard. I took the middle rounds and was glad I had been doing my road work, because, despite the constant stream of fresher sparring partners, Lani was relentless in her attack and had some serious power in her hands. Punching someone you've never met before in the face a bunch might seem a weird way to the break the ice, but once the sparring was over, we sat down and had a relaxed conversation.
30 years old, born Te Arani Moana Daniels, she grew up in the small town of Pipiwai, 40 minutes from Whangarei. Lani works as a mental health nurse for the District Health Board, like her mother and sister. She works with young people, trying to help them learn coping strategies to manage their challenges. She’s been there herself: after her brother died from illness when she was young, she says she went “a little bit haywire” with drinking and smoking to cope with the grief. She thinks that experience helps her to 'connect with the kids a bit because that's some of the struggles they go through.' Boxing is also part of the process of engaging the youth she works with. When asked if she'd had her own struggles with mental health, Lani paused and said, "I think we all have moments in our lives where we just struggle with stuff and, you know, you've just got to get back up. And boxing kind of helps me do that."
Lani has only been boxing for six years. She didn't start out chasing titles, just wanting to lose weight while she was studying. It wasn't until dropping 40 kilos (88 pounds) through her training that Lani considered competing. She started in the amateurs, competing extensively locally and abroad, before turning pro in 2017. To date, Peres is the only loss in Daniels’ pro career. Weekly training is taxing, juggling work and her sporting commitments, so her father built a gym in the family home to make things easier. She trains there Monday to Thursday before driving to Auckland every Thursday night to train with coach Conway twice a day Friday and Saturday, before heading home on Sunday. It’s not cheap driving to Auckland she jokes. Do you have any sponsors I ask her? “No, but I’d like some!” she says, breaking into laughter.
Talking with Lani, I comment that she doesn't seem to mind the clear and massive gap between men and women's fight purses and exposure, that she just seemed to be in it for the personal satisfaction. She smiles and says, "Yeah. I think it's fun."
I've been acquainted with Geovana Peres for years; we’ve often seen each other in the gym and had a bit of small talk here and there, so I flicked her a message to chat about the upcoming fight. We arranged to meet at City Leegar gym before her organized training session, where Geovana's coach Terrance Bachelor runs his corporate, amateur and professional boxing team alongside the Leegar gym's stable of Muay Thai fighters.
Geovana had a happy childhood in Brazil, and always had an interest in sports, going on to earn a Bachelor's degree in Physical Education and working as a personal trainer. She's had a long interest in first kickboxing, and then boxing, but didn’t start her competitive career until comparatively late. She had only two corporate fights and one amatuer fight before turning forty, which means under amatuer regulations you're not eligible to compete any longer. Coach Terry saw her potential and suggested she go professional, and two years later she's now in the position to fight for a bona fide world title.
Geovana still works a full-time job before heading to the gym every evening. When asked, Geovana says she finds the lack of exposure is frustrating. "We have so many good women boxing in New Zealand. You can see they are hungry to do this sport, but sometimes it's hard because we don't have the support we need. And we have many talented girls here. [Lack of exposure means] It's hard to get sponsorship." Do we still have a stigma around women fighting here? "I think a little bit," she replies, "But we are getting there, we need just need more exposure. Especially in boxing, but maybe people still think it's a man's thing."
Given the struggles, little recognition or financial rewards, I asked Geovana what motivates her. "I wanna be the motivation for people, I wanna be someone who inspires them to think that anything that they want is possible. I want to empower women, I want to be [an] example, I wanna be an inspiration for them to chase their dreams. And of course, raise the [profile of] women's sports in New Zealand. You were asking me about money before, but there's something that money doesn't buy. One of the things is when someone comes up to me and says 'one day I want to be like you.'
Both fighters expect it to be a hard night in the office and have prepared accordingly and emit a quiet faith in their fitness and ability. There’s no bragging or posturing, just evident mutual respect for one another. And an obvious love for the sport of boxing.
Geovana Peres and Lani Daniels compete for the (WBO) Light Heavyweight World Championship title this Friday, 30 March, at Skycity Convention Centre. For tickets, contact the Promoter here.