Weekend Interview - Jodie Wilkinson is boxing clever with national title and Olympics in sight

Ttitle hopeful: Former rugby league player turned boxer Jodie Wilkinson at Tigers Gym in Leeds. Picture: Tony Johnson
Ttitle hopeful: Former rugby league player turned boxer Jodie Wilkinson at Tigers Gym in Leeds. Picture: Tony Johnson

CASTLEFORD’S Jodie Wilkinson had two objectives upon committing to fight on a Leeds charity boxing show in 2014.

The rugby league player who had turned from a stand-off to a second-row wanted a way to shed a few pounds.

Better still, Wilkinson would be raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support – a selfless act from a selfless person who today works for Yorkshire Ambulance Service as a 999 call-handler.

Yet that charity bout has led to personal glory too with Wilkinson now hoping to become a national boxing champion in Manchester tonight and ultimately eyeing the 2024 Olympic Games.

Wilkinson, 23, will take in the biggest fight of her new sporting career at Manchester Central against Durham teenager Georgia O’Connor in the 69-75kg category at the England Boxing National Amateur Championship finals.

O’Connor, 18, won Commonwealth Youths gold and Youth World Championships silver last year with Wilkinson seeking to upset the applecart to strengthen her own claims for England and GB.

Nicola Adams has been a big inspiration.

Nicola Adams has been a big inspiration.

As a youngster former Castleford Academy pupil Wilkinson believed that any sporting success would have been in rugby league.

Born in Castleford and attending Ackton Pastures Primary, Wilkinson’s father and grandad both played the sport. Father Darren played semi-professionally and he is still strutting his stuff aged 53 for the Hull Masters team.

Wilkinson’s 26-year-old brother Ben played for Castleford Tigers Under-19s.

True to the tradition of both her family and town, Wilkinson began playing for Smawthorne Panthers, aged seven, and then Castleford Panthers with the stand-off representing England Students in 2012 and 2013.

There’s a lot of calls that come through that make you smile knowing you have made a difference, but it is mentally draining and no call is the same, so you have got to always be focused.

Jodie Wilkinson

However, thanks to an initial charity outing under Leeds-based Bethlehem Boxing Club, Wilkinson’s sporting journey has taken a rather unforeseen path to tonight’s finals.

Wilkinson told The Yorkshire Post: “The charity boxing event was just a spur of the moment thing.

“I had played rugby league all my life and I put a lot of weight on, so I just wanted to box to try and do something different and just to lose that weight.

“It was a charity that I have always been aware of and cancer is obviously a big thing. But I was never intending on staying in the sport and carrying on boxing. I was always going to carry on my rugby career, but I just fell in love with boxing.

Boxer Jodie Wilkinson at Tigers Gym in Leeds. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Boxer Jodie Wilkinson at Tigers Gym in Leeds. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

“I loved the atmosphere, I loved the crowd and everything and getting cheered on for punching. After all, I used to get sent off a lot in rugby after getting involved in fights.”

Five years on and Wilkinson has had nine fights and six wins as an amateur fighting out of Tigers Gym in Leeds under coach Jason Gledhill. Tigers was recommended to Wilkinson by fellow Leeds boxer Sam Smith, who competed for the EBU European Female Lightweight title last month.

Wilkinson, meanwhile, won her first title last November when scooping the National Development Championship in Banbury.

Her bid for boxing glory means a demanding schedule for the Leeds Trinity University graduate who has no sponsorship or funding and works long and dedicated hours. Mother Gail, however, is always on hand to make her meals.

“My mum does a lot for me,” said Wilkinson. “I can’t cook to save my life, but she works full-time as a teacher and still preps all my meals, bless her.

“She pushes me as well. If I get home from work and I don’t want to get to the gym she says, ‘you won’t win.’ I started my job last July and it’s 12-hour shifts, so quite long days, but it’s really good and really rewarding.

“There’s a lot of calls that come through that make you smile knowing you have made a difference, but it is mentally draining and no call is the same, so you have got to always be focused.

“We do half-six until half-six either way, but they have been really good and let me have a lot of time off to train for this fight.

“I train Monday, Wednesday and Friday and if I am working then I go to an exercise gym after my shift and get a session in. I don’t have time to do anything else, put it that way.”

There is, though, only one thing on Wilkinson’s mind this weekend as the middleweight prepares to take on talented O’Connor.

Not content with fighting for a national title, Wilkinson aims to step out ultimately at the Olympics with the fighter taking inspiration from Nicola Adams.

“Nicola obviously played a big part in developing women’s boxing in Leeds and Yorkshire, so she has definitely inspired me,” said Wilkinson.

“I would love to be a part of the Olympics. It’s the biggest thing really in the world, so that would be a great dream and a good story to just come from doing a charity event.

“If I win on Saturday I will get assessments for England and GB and just go from there, but I’d probably miss Tokyo so it would be Paris 2024.

“The girl I am fighting is already on the GB and England team. She has done really well at Youths and is now at Senior Elites.

“She has boxed in the Worlds, Commonwealths and Europeans and done really well and I know I am going in as the underdog, but I like it. I have not got that added pressure. She is expected to win, but I have got nothing to lose. I’m confident.”

However Wilkinson fares she can already be proud of her achievements that all began raising money for Macmillan, which then became particularly poignant when her grandmother Valerie was diagnosed with cancer.

Wilkinson might be out to pack a punch in Manchester tonight, but the real fighter, she says, is her grandmother.

“We found out that my grandma had got lung cancer and that the cancer was around 8cm long,” said Wilkinson.

“They wanted to operate, but couldn’t – it was too close too her heart because they wanted to take a lung out.

“She had chemotherapy and it ended up spreading and she got secondary cancer in the brain.

“But since then the chemo and the radiotherapy has worked really well, so she has no longer got the secondary cancer of the brain. She has got the all-clear on that and the lung cancer has shrunk to around one or two centimetres.

“She has done really well, bless her, and some of those procedures she has had to endure are just crazy, especially on the brain cancer.

“She had to have this metal frame drilled into her head just to keep her head still. I wouldn’t be able to do it. She’s tougher than me.”