PART 1: Knocked Down But Never Knocked Out; The Start of Sara Haghighat-joo’s Boxing Journey
Bench warming was never an option for Sara
Grade 11 is a pivotal year in high school; you’re no longer the youngest or the forgotten 10th graders and you’re not a part of the excitement of the graduating class. In grade 11 there’s just pressure, and a lot of it, narrowing down the universities or colleges you want to apply to or figuring out where to focus that final year of high school.
As any student-athlete can attest, sports are an outlet. They provide a balance to stress, anxiety, social drama, and pressures from teachers and parents. Sara Haghighat-joo felt no differently. Being a jock was a part of her identity, one that she coveted as her parents ran her siblings from one commitment to the next. As the second oldest of four, Sara found herself somewhat forgotten. She yearned for competition and before long found her home on the basketball court.
Photographers: IG @lorenzodominic.photos and @virgilbarrow
Competition excited her, pushing her body to its limit, and being a driving force on her team only made Sara work harder. At the end of her Grade 10 year, her Coach suggested she would be wasting her time on the basketball team because all she would do is sit on the bench. She was lost. When Sara got home, tears filled her eyes for hours, she didn’t understand and couldn’t comprehend how her whole world had shattered so instantly.
Where she learned to love boxing
Watching your child suffer is painful, Sara’s dad stepped in and suggested that she take up boxing. She could go with her brother to Astoria Boxing Club in downtown East Vancouver and see what she thought. Sara needed a sport to be happy, she never wanted to fight because she didn’t want a broken nose, but it wouldn’t hurt to see what her brother was doing and check it out for herself.
Hastings Street isn’t exactly known for its champagne and caviar, in fact, it’s the opposite. Riddled with crime and drugs, a notorious skid row, this 16-year-old girl walked into the liquor store, down a set of stairs to ‘the gym’; there was an area with a few bags hanging from the ceiling and a small ring that was made of roof shingles. This is where she met Terry Cooke (R.I.P.) and, little to her realization, the beginning of her boxing career as a young female athlete.
For about three years Sara trained in the gym under the liquor store next to the can/bottle return dispenser and to the scent of stale alcohol; that only made her stronger. In fact, every time she walked down the road on her way to train, past another addict or drunk, she made the choice that that wouldn’t be her. Sara was going to make something of herself, she was going to become a champion.
Sara’s first sparring experience
Boxing seemed to come naturally. The footwork and coordination she had developed for basketball paired with having watched her younger brother in mixed martial arts and wrestling, provided her with the foundation to start training. Determined to prove her brother wrong, who always picked on her saying she only wanted to be like him or all she did was spar, Sara saw his words as a challenge rather than a put-down. It turns out this is one of Sara’s driving forces, being told she isn’t capable, can’t succeed, and should just give up.
After 3 months of training, Terry, Sara’s first ever Coach, thought she was ready to go into the ring and spar. He found a veteran boxer, in her 30’s, whom he figured would be a good first match. Typically sparring is considered very safe, but when a 16-year-old rookie lands a good right hook on a veteran, her opponent lost control. Before Sara knew it, she was being pummelled and then everything went black.
Not knowing how long she was unconscious, Sara woke up, vomited, and was diagnosed with a concussion. Her parents figured that was it, she was done with boxing and would move on to something else. Sara had other plans.
The very next day she was back at the gym, no sparring, just training. She needed to wait and let her brain heal but in the back of her mind Sara made a promise to herself, “I’m going to get her back.” Three years later she did.
Taking boxing from training to competition and into her heart
Boxing was no longer something Sara did just to get a workout in, she was good and she wanted to be the best. After her knockout, she worked harder and fought girls her own age but after two fights she was forced to move up and box in the elite open class; the competition at her age just wasn’t there. In the open class, she ended up fighting the same 30-year-old so many times that it became evident she needed to look elsewhere if she was going to continue advancing her boxing career.
In October 2013 Sara went to compete at Nationals in Regina, Saskatchewan. This is where she was spotted by her current Coach and, little to her knowledge, future husband, Stephen Bailey (Stevie). There was something to be said about a boxer who had only 10 fights to her name going against an opponent who had over 120 fights and could hold her own. Stevie saw raw talent and a month later, at a tournament in Quebec, he offered to coach Sara if she were willing to move to Ontario from British Columbia.
Sara figured she had nothing to lose, so in February of 2014, she went to a two-week training camp with Stevie and before leaving she told him she would be back in June to train full time.
Her parents were supportive but insisted that if she goes there are two conditions:
- Must be enrolled in school and studying towards a degree.
- Bring your brother.
A small price to pay in order to follow her passion. Sara transferred to the University of Guelph to study Kinesiology with her brother in tow.
It was only a matter of time before she realized training and full-time school just weren’t going to work. She knew her parents would be disappointed, but she had to follow her gut so she dropped out of school to pursue boxing.
Sara’s commitment to boxing starts paying off
No road worth travelling is ever easy, Sara learned this each time she went to nationals and lost. Get knocked down three, get up four; that’s exactly what she did. On her fourth attempt, in 2017, Sara won nationals for Canada and was awarded Best Boxer of the Tournament. Her accomplishments didn’t stop there:
- Won nationals in Canada 2 more times
- Went to Ireland and won nationals for Ireland in 2019 and 2020 (her husband is Irish so she is able to compete)
- Was awarded Best Boxer in the tournament in Ireland in 2020
- Sierra Leone Champion
- Won against Nayeli Verde on November 12, 2022, to debut her professional career
Winning on November 12th was more to Sara than having a successful pro debut. So many people doubted her; having to fight in an 8-round match against a boxer who had contended for world titles. Sara considers Ontario her home. To both fight and win at the CAA Center in front of her family, friends, and fans made all the sacrifices, blood, sweat, and tears, worth it.
Stevie Bailey and Sara Haghighat-joo
Photographer: IG @annefrazer_to
Boxing is her life
Sara’s parents immigrated to Canada to start a better life for themselves and provide their children with opportunities they may not have otherwise been given. Boxing has always been dominated by men but more female fighters are not only making it big but also getting paid for it; in local fights, in Canada, females are almost on the same playing field as men. This is the opportunity Sara has chosen to take advantage of, she does not let society dictate what she can or cannot do; that is one of the major life lessons boxing has taught her.
“Unlike team sports, there’s no one to blame but yourself. Trust the process, believe in yourself and when others are putting you down, let that fuel you. Whatever the hurdle, figure out a way around it and create your own narrative.”
In a way, Sara recognizes that, if it weren’t for her high school basketball Coach telling her she would be riding the pine, she may never have gotten into boxing. That Coach’s influence, despite it being negative at the time, really turned into a positive for her.
Sara currently trains with Stevie at West End Athletic Club continuing her journey as a professional boxer and Olympic hopeful. She’s the female boxer to beat, competition is chasing her and Sara shows no sign of letting anyone knock her out again.
Continue learning about Sara’s incredible journey in PART 2: Knocked Down But Never Knocked Out; A Look Into What Makes Sara Haghighat-Joo a True Champion and Her Future Boxing Career