Shelly Barnett wins her first fight as a pro boxer.Photo by Amber Williams, Madre Criatura Photography

Shelly Barnett, age 33, lives and works in Evanston, and her daughter, Avery, is a student at King Arts School. And as of last month, Ms. Barnett is also a professional boxer, probably the first Evanston female to become one.

An amateur for the last five years, Ms. Barnett has been passionate about becoming a professional boxer. She says she feels this effort has made her a good role model for her daughter – by showing Avery how to put one’s mind to something and make it work, and how much hard work that can take.

Female Boxing Background

Many women are attracted to boxing for conditioning, self-defense, and empowerment. Very few amateur boxers, especially women, become professionals. Amateurs have more opportunities to box.  Since female boxing became an Olympic sport at the 2012 Summer Olympics, more women have been competing at all levels.

“These ladies had to work really hard to be in this kind of condition and to throw these kind of punches.  You just don’t get off your couch and do this.”

Ms. Barnett originally started boxing because she thought male boxers “were cool,” and she wanted to lose weight. Her former 214-pound frame is now down to 115 pounds. She stays in shape by running and training for several hours a day, six days a week. 

In order to become a pro boxer Ms. Barnett had to demonstrate what her accomplishments as an amateur had been. To qualify for a pro fight in Illinois, the boxer needs to have had 20 amateur fights and passed various physical exams – eye tests, blood test, EKG, CT scan. As a super flyweight fighter at 115 pounds, Ms. Barnett often needs to gain or lose weight in a short period of time. 

Even with about 40 amateur fights over five years, Ms. Barnett always thought she would do better as a pro. She says she thinks her style works better as a pro. “As a pro I think I will have a good go at it,” she says.

Amateur boxing wins are based on judges’ giving points to each boxer. Pro boxing wins are also based on a scoring system, but style and power matter more. More points are given for power shots.

Although pros do not wear protective head-gear, they do use mouth-, hip-, and chest-protectors. Pro gloves are smaller, at 6-10 ounces, instead of the 10-12-ounce gloves that amateurs use. Because head gear is not worn, defense becomes as important as offense in pro fights.

Ms. Barnett says she “does not really worry about concussions,” though she admits it is true that pro boxers get more head butts than amateurs because of the lack of head protection.

As an amateur, Ms. Barnett won the 2016 Chicago Golden Gloves match.  A commentator for that match noted on Aug. 1, “These women have really progressed in their technique and their skill sets, and they box every bit as good as the men, without doubt.  Years ago it wasn’t so. …These ladies had to work really hard to be in this kind of condition and to throw these kind of punches.  You just don’t get off your couch and do this.”

 Her First Pro Fight – the Win

Of her first fight as a professional, Ms. Barnett says, “I knew I was going to do good, but I did not know I was going to do that good.”  “Good” meant everything came together. She says, “I felt like I was walking into my dream.”

That first pro match took place on May 27 at the Hammond, Ind., Civic Center. She says she felt she was in her element and was more relaxed than she had expected to be. Many friends and relatives traveled from Ms. Barnett’s native Canada to join Avery and watch Ms. Barnett win.

There were four two-minute rounds in Ms. Barnett’s first pro fight, and she won it by a unanimous decision of the judges. The length and number of rounds will change as she gets more experience as a professional.  A female championship fight will have 10 two-minute rounds. Men’s rounds are three minutes each.

“Two minutes feels like a long time now,” Ms. Barnett says.

After her debut as a pro boxer, Ms. Barnett was ranked with pro boxers on the website In her flyweight division, she is ranked 48 out of 121 worldwide, and 2 out of 4 in the U.S. She is second in the super flyweight division.

Teacher, Coach, Trainer, Manager

Ms. Barnett’s current coach, Ewan Jackson, prefers to be thought of as her teacher. Mr. Jackson has coached Ms. Barnett since early 2013 and will continue to coach her now that she is pro. 

 Mr. Jackson, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 11, has also fought as an amateur.  He has 85 fights under his belt, and although he received his pro license, he did not use it. He describes himself as “patient” – he used to run his own home day care center.  He describes Ms. Barnett’s attitude as “gutsy.”

Ms. Barnett is the first female boxer, and second pro boxer, he has coached. From the beginning, he says, “she fought like a pro.”

Ms. Barnett fought against Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold three weeks before Ms. Bujold’s fight in the 2016 Olympics.  Olympic fighters are all amateurs, and they fight internationally.

 “Shelly is a coach’s dream,” says Mr. Jackson. She was admired in her native Canada, and is now widely admired in the Chicago area by male boxers, he says. He feels lucky that she chose him to be her teacher. “She is passionate to the core,” he says.

The Future

Amateur boxers often do not know whom they are going to fight. For pro fights, opponents are selected by the player’s coach or manager and are brought in at the expense of the local boxer. 

Ms. Barnett now qualifies for national fights and hopes to get in six boxing matches a year. Her long-term goal as a professional boxer is to win a world title within six years.

As an amateur, Ms. Barnett represented the Hamlin Park Boxing Club in Chicago. Now she will represent herself.

Ms. Barnett’s previous work experience includes having been a bouncer for a casino.  While her current day job is working as a nanny for an Evanston family, she hopes in the long run to be hired by the City of Chicago police force.

As for 5-year-old Avery, her reaction to her mother’s boxing is mixed. When Avery was 14 months old she first went to the gym with her mother.  Mr. Jackson tended to Avery while Ms. Barnett was in the ring. Avery is sometimes anxious but was very proud last month when her mother won her first pro fight.

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...