Caroline Dubois was born with boxing in her blood. She comes from a family with a rich boxing history dating back centuries, but her journey to the top ranks was a fight of its own. At the age of nine she was forced to disguise herself as a boy named “Colin” to get her foot in the door as boxing gyms didn’t allow girls to train.
She didn’t let prejudice get in the way of her dreams and has become one of the most exciting talents that Britain has produced.
“At the time, I didn’t really care whether I was Colin or Caroline, as long as I could fight that was it, I was loving it,” she tells ESPN. “Looking back at it, I realised how hard it must’ve been on the people around me and I look back and say thank God that I actually stuck with it.
“Imagine if I went and something bad happened or I got discouraged but I’m just happy that I was a bubbly character who didn’t care what anyone said. I’m just so grateful and if I could do anything, I’d go back in time and say thank you to that little nine-year old girl who did it.”
The lightweight plans to compete in her first senior Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer, but she will need to get through the Paris qualifiers from June 4-8, which begin with a bout against 2016 Olympic bronze medallist Mira Potkonen.
Dubois won her first senior bout against Ala Staradub in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic led to postponements and slowed down her momentum, but she is used to overcoming adversity.
The 20-year-old has dealt with the loss of a supportive presence as a result of the Grenfell Tower tragedy but her boxing family, who’s ancestral links with the sport date back to the 18th century, has played a huge role in helping her stay focused. Inspired by America’s Claressa Shields, as well as Ireland’s Katie Taylor, and England’s Nicola Adams, Dubois wants to stamp her mark on the sport.
“I don’t really want to be remembered as a great female fighter. I’ll like to be remembered as a great fighter, period. If I go out and people say that’s a great woman fighter, she’s really good for women’s sport then I know I’m really not that good. But if they say I’m a good fighter then I’ve done something.”
Growing up in London, Dubois was a fan of “Sugar” Ray Leonard and the late Marvin Hagler but the biggest influence was her older brother Daniel, a current heavyweight title contender. She would watch him bring back boxing medals and picture herself doing the same in the future.
“I can only speak for myself and I know I look up to my brother a lot,” she says. “Everything he has done from amateur days, nothing has been handed to him on a plate, it has actually been an easier ride for me than it was for him. I really look up to him and what he has managed to achieve and he has proven so many people wrong.
“I don’t ever look at him and be jealous or anything, I get so much inspiration and to just watch him go out there to perform is amazing and I’m really proud to be his sister.”
Watching her brother whet her appetite to step into the ring but the 2012 Olympics in London helped her dream even bigger. It was the first time in history that female boxers competed at the Games and Caroline Dubois was taken aback when watching the talents of Shields, Taylor and Adams.
From then on, she started her quest to step into the squared circle with the help of her father David, who has been a supportive rock. Dubois is one of David’s 11 children and the only woman out of four to box. Her brothers Daniel, Prince and Solomon are also involved in the sport. Her father understood it would be a bigger challenge for the world to accept Dubois as a professional but was prepared to help his daughter overcome the sexist barriers.
“I didn’t really notice or care what other people said but I know that it would’ve definitely affected my dad,” she says. “Back then, a lot of places would’ve said they don’t want me there because I’m a girl and that would’ve affected him and maybe anyone else would’ve said: ‘Knock this on the head, I’ve got two sons in boxing so let me just stick with them and focus on them, they’re going to make more money out of it because there was no Olympics, nothing really.’
“My dad didn’t and he stuck with it and he took me to different clubs and pushed me to get into the ring and when coaches were saying she’s a girl and she can’t box, he was saying at least watch her spar and see for yourself. When I sparred, they were like come back on Monday and let’s go.”
Her family history with fighting goes all the way back to the 1700s. Ancestor Sylvia Dubois was an African-American slave and a bare-knuckle fighter in New Jersey. She earned her freedom after striking back at her slave mistress in an act of defiance and this generation’s Dubois uses her story to remain humble.
“It’s mad to think there’s such a connection there,” she says. “She stuck up for herself and didn’t allow anyone to boss her around. The people who owned her were having a go at her and instead of cowering away and allowing herself to be pushed around, she beat her up.
“Back then, if you did something like that you would get lynched or killed straight away but the man who saw it was so shocked by her bravery and her courage to do something like that, he set her free and because of that, her family was too.
“She’s obviously a big inspiration because it just makes what I have to do small in comparison. It’s good to know that there were strong women that did those things and continued to fight and didn’t care what anyone else thought.”
Dubois’ boxing story began at the Repton Amateur Boxing Club where her father came up with the idea to disguise his daughter as Colin. Everything was going to plan until she was booked to fight another boy and a medical would reveal the truth.
They decided to test her talents at Dale Youth which had produced British greats James DeGale and George Groves. The club was also reluctant to take on a girl but after David convinced them to watch her spar, they had no other choice but to open their doors.
Dubois looks back at her time there with joy and gratitude but also a hint of sadness as one of the most influential figures from her time there sadly died on June 14, 2017. Former cornerman Tony Disson was one of the 72 people to lose their lives when a fire broke out on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, an apartment block in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London.
Dale Youth, which was housed on the bottom floor of Grenfell Tower, was also destroyed. It was Disson’s words of encouragement in Dubois’ first ever bout that left a mark.
“I remember he was in my corner and he always used to say to me that I was going to go to the Olympics and there was no Olympics even happening for girls,” she remembers. “So, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about but he also said I was going to go to the Olympics and he was going to put a bet on it. It’s crazy to think of what happened but I’m just grateful that there were people like that in my life who supported me and inspired me to do things. There would’ve been no Olympics until he said it.”
Dubois has done everything in her power to fulfill Disson’s prophecy, becoming four-time European Youth champion, World Youth champion, and won gold at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Argentina which she describes as her proudest career moment to date.
Dubois is targeting nothing short of Olympic gold at Tokyo this summer and she puts this inner confidence down to how boxing has the unique ability to bring the best out of its competitors.
“People don’t realise how hard it is to actually be a boxer. I feel like when you have to make weight, it’s so hard and that definitely helps build your character. Knowing you have a certain amount of weight to lose and a certain amount of time to do it, you have to be the one with the plan, you’re going to be the one doing it.
“Obviously, a coach can help you and be the person to bring you to the hole but you’ve got to be the one to drink the water. It’s all down to you and that puts a bit of pressure on yourself but it helps build you so I feel that’s how champions are made. It teaches you to overcome adversity, to train hard, be disciplined and fight under pressure and deal with pressure.
“When you get in the ring, everything is on the line, your record, your pride, everything.”
Dubois’ Olympic chase contrasts with brother Daniel who decided to skip the Games and go straight into the professional ranks. The heavyweight tasted victory in his first 15 fights but endured a damaging defeat to fellow Brit Joe Joyce last November. He suffered a fractured eye socket in the loss but drew criticism from former boxers after he knelt on the canvas.
At the time, his promoter Frank Warren told ESPN that the critics were unwarranted and his sister also agreed that some of the comments, especially from ex-fighters, were out of order.
“I think it was a bit ridiculous,” she says. “People love to see other people fail and I don’t know why because they’ve been in that position themselves and they’ve had losses themselves and they’ve been beaten so I think it’s a bit immature to be like that because as professionals, they should be trying to uplift the upcoming fighter who has dreamed to succeed and he may have fallen short but at least he dreamed.”
Daniel (15-1, 14 KOs) will have a shot at redemption on June 5 when he returns to face Bogdan Dinu for the WBA interim heavyweight title at Telford International Centre.
One fighter who continues to dream and acts as a role model for her fellow competitors is Shields. The self-proclaimed “Greatest Woman of All Time” made boxing history last March with a win over Marie-Eve Dicaire to become the first fighter — male or female — to be undisputed champion in two divisions in the four-belt era.
The American also won back-to-back Olympics golds and has now set her sights on MMA, and Dubois has nothing but admiration for her career.
“She was only 17 years old when she went to the Olympics and she was fighting grown women and beating them too and that was crazy, it just blew my mind,” she says. “When I was 19 and going to the Olympic qualifiers, I was really nervous but then I was thinking how could she do it when she was 17.”
Shields (11-0, 2 KOs) has also been an advocate for equality in women’s boxing and recently talked about the need for the female professionals to fight the same number of rounds as their male counterparts, and Dubois agrees.
“I think it’s a bit ridiculous personally. For UFC, they have the exact same for the men and the women and UFC is way more brutal than boxing. I think it will eventually turn when more fights start turning pro and more talent starts getting shown and people will get more of a buzz for it and more willing to see it.”
Women’s boxing is thriving now and although Dubois singles out Taylor (18-0, 6 KOs), Shields, Amanda Serrano (40-1-1, 30 KOs) and Savannah Marshall as the best around, she is confident that the best crop of fighters is still coming through the amateur ranks.
“I feel that’s where the best female fighters are right now. Once they start making the change from amateur to professional, that’s when it will really start to really kick in. There’s already a few fighters like Sandy Ryan and Ebonie Jones and when these girls start to fight, then people will start to see how good it can be and I can’t wait to be a part of that.”
In the same vein as she plans to reach the top of the boxing tree, Dubois has already mapped out her exit strategy from the sport as she understands the damage that boxing can have on the body.
“I love boxing but I feel at the end of the day, human beings aren’t meant to be getting pummelled, training so hard, pounding their legs on the treadmill and making weight all the time. I feel that it’s better to leave the sport early rather than leave it a year or two years late where things start to go wrong.
“I’d love to be able to retire, have kids, have a beautiful husband somewhere and be living life and relaxing and doing things that I’ve never done before. There’s so much more and boxing will just open that door. I have a lot of respect and love for boxing because it’s taken me around the world which I never would’ve been able to do without boxing. The plan is to have the kids running around and get fat.”
The time will come where Dubois will be able to look back on her successful professional career with “her husband on a beach somewhere,” but she has already paved the way for a future generation of girls to feel accepted in boxing gyms and not need to disguise themselves as boys as she had to do.
“Right now, I don’t think there is any club in England that doesn’t allow female fighters so that tells the difference right there. Back then, they said that women couldn’t fight and it wasn’t just now that women have been fighting, it’s been happening for years.
“If you date it back, the native American women were fighting, women in Africa were fighting, women in Japan were fighting so that already disproves that fact. I think people have begun to enjoy it and UFC have really had a big impact and pushed it on and showing people how good they can be.
“The likes of Nicola Adams, Katie Taylor, Claressa Shields, Amanda Serrano, they’ve helped to stick at it, they’ve been the people to open the door for the people behind like me and other girls so everything is down to them. A lot of respect for them and I can’t wait to join them.”