Timely switch revives Sierra Leone boxer Sara Haghighat-Joo’s career

Sara Haghighat-Joo was once a promising boxer coming up the ranks in Canadian boxing. Yet, in 2021, a chance conversation with her grandmother would change her career’s trajectory entirely.

After struggling to get through the system in her home country, where the national federation has been caught up in politics, and accusations of a toxic culture and harassment, her attempts to continue boxing by securing an Irish passport through her husband were faltering.

It was then when her grandmother would mention a generations-old heritage to Sierra Leone, that she shifted from representing North America to Africa to further her boxing dream.

Now boxing under Sierra Leone’s flag and federation, propped up by IBA’s financial aid to nations that are not funded through their national federation, Sara is a continental champion and hopes to be on the podium at the 2023 Women’s World Championship in New Delhi this week, where she will be participating in the 54kg category.

“The decision made a lot of sense for me, there was a lot of politics going on in Canada at the time, and with the pandemic, Canada (boxing) was not doing much. They were not sending us anywhere,” Sara told the media on Tuesday.

Sara Haghighat Joo.

“I just wanted to compete. For an athlete, a boxer, the number of years left in your career is limited, so I chose to fight for Africa instead.”

There is Iranian heritage on the side of her father, but that country is without a national federation. Learning about the slightest of connections to Sierra Leone, then, ended up being a godsend.

Sara was in Mozambique in September at the African Championships, where she won gold under Sierra Leone’s flag. The pugilist says that performing and winning big medals for the lesser-known nations can be a huge boost for athletes of the entire region.

“Every time I win, the federation gets funding. Growing the sport for them is a big goal for me,” she said. “There just aren’t enough opportunities. If these events are not put on, we don’t get exposure to Europe or Asia, and the boxers from these areas. This can act as a huge opportunity to get prepared for the Olympic qualifiers and the Olympics, so it’s massive.”

Sara Haghighat Joo. (UWA)

The World Championships in Delhi will not be an Olympic qualifying event due to a standoff between the International Boxing Association (IBA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Top boxers from Canada, the USA, Ireland, Great Britain, and Sweden will also give the event a miss after their federations decided to boycott the event majorly due to the IBA – whose president is Russian – allowing Russian and Belarusian boxers to compete under their flags.

In effect, this means Sara will be the only Canadian boxer in the Indian capital this week. She says that these kinds of opportunities were usually rare back home anyway, so much so that many of her former colleagues have seen her journey and considered using their secondary passport or dual citizenship to compete internationally.

When boxing in her home country, Sara was rarely sent to international events, and was not funded adequately, having to fend for herself through crowdfunding and a job as a personal trainer and boxing coach. During a three-year period of inactivity – two of which are mandatory for international boxers changing their national allegiances – from 2018 to 2021, Sara spent much of her time as a personal trainer to make ends meet.

During that time, however, her husband and coach Steven Bailey, had her competing in lower-rung events in Ireland, where she won the nationals twice. She was winning and gaining confidence to be able to take advantage of the opportunity that eventually fell her way.

“She was active, and I was sending her to camps, with people I trust, so that she could be with the best girls and compete with them and judge her level,” Steven said. “To be honest, I think it (the three-year break) may have helped. Instead of competing at the highest level and dealing with that pressure, we were getting the highest-level activity without the pressure. Looking back at it, that may have played a role in her development.”

Sara had come to New Delhi for the World Championships in 2018. Back then, still under the Canadian flag, her story was inspirational after she had decided to go solo by relying on crowdfunding and taking on her expenses herself. With new national allegiances, that may no longer be the case, but with a new dimension, her story continues to do the same.

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