They’re both mums who run gyms, and now Karena Te Ruki-Pasene and Baby ‘The Pitbull’ Nansen are facing off in the ring – to lead the way for other women boxers.
When Karena Te Ruki-Pasene wanted to lose her “baby weight” before returning to the Navy, she pulled on a pair of boxing gloves. Running just wasn’t her thing.
Now the 30-year-old mum of two is getting ready to open her own boxing gym next week. But before she throws any punches there, she’ll be fighting for a South Pacific boxing belt tomorrow night.
She will take on Baby ‘The Pitbull’ Nansen for the PBC South Pacific lightweight title at Vodafone Event Centre in Manukau – a fight that’s already been knocked back a couple of times by Covid-19.
Te Ruki-Pasene has come a long way from the kid who left Tangaroa College in south Auckland in 2009, and went straight into the Navy. She only recently left after almost 12 years of service.
“I started as a steward and sailed for a good seven years in and out of New Zealand, and all around the world,” Te Ruki-Pasene says. “But then I wanted to settle down and stay home to be close to the kids.”
She took on another role in the Navy, helping young people. “We served alongside the Air Force and Army working with youth from the ages of 14 to 25 all over New Zealand, just helping out our own people and giving back to them,” she says.
Six years ago, one of her fellow sailors, Albie Roebeck, was taking boxing classes and Te Ruki-Pasene joined him to help regain her fitness after having her two sons, who are now aged eight and nine.
“I started boxing just to lose the baby weight because with the military, we have to keep our fitness up to standard. I didn’t like running, so I just wanted to stand there and throw my hands and that was fun for me,” Te Ruki-Pasene says.
The sessions were addictive and Roebeck soon signed her up for a fight under his Discipline and Allegiance team at Boxing Alley. He’s been her coach ever since.
Te Ruki-Pasene then made the decision to turn professional in 2018 and has a two-win, one-loss record. One of her professional victories was for the NZ Professional Boxing Commission female superlight title earlier this year, before Covid kicked in.
Her title fight with Nansen this weekend has been rescheduled twice already, with Covid throwing punches throughout the planning. The impacts have been felt by both fighters and the promoter, Bruce Glozier, of Glozier Boxing.
Glozier says he wondered whether the event would go ahead this year and at times felt like “pulling the plug on it.”
“But it’s hard for anyone at this time,” he says. “There’s so much uncertainty and you take a huge risk and gamble when you put these events on. But I guess you just have to be positive and stay focused. Just stick to the plan and keep going.”
Glozier was responsible for holding Geovana Peres’ triumphant WBO world light-heavyweight title fight with Canadian Claire Hafner in Auckland last year and has been supporting opportunities for female boxers. He hopes others will get on board and encourage the momentum.
“I just want to get more of a drive from people to push the women’s scene. I think we’ve got some really good talent in New Zealand across all sports. But I would really love to get more support around women’s boxing,” says Glozier.
Baby Nansen is well known for her kickboxing career, which saw her get a handful of muay thai and kickboxing titles under her belt over 40 bouts across codes in 10 years.
She had her first professional boxing fight in 2014, and two years ago became the first New Zealand female boxer to fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden. She lost to American Mikaela Mayer on points, and in the same year was defeated in her first WBO title attempt against Deahna Hobbs.
These latest setbacks have played on both fighters’ minds – both having to work around children, family life and work commitments in the staggered lead-up. Trying to manage weight and preparation routines was also difficult but they were able to get through the challenges with support.
Te Ruki-Pasene says the cancellations were to be expected, and her coach has kept her focused on the main goal.
“I just keep reminding myself why I box. Why I do the things that I love and look at the whole purpose. I’m always reminding myself, ‘don’t give up’. And don’t be weak-minded. There are other people out there that are suffering way worse,” she says.
A shot at a world title is where both women are heading. The 10-round fight sets up both boxers for an attempt at a WBO world title at a later stage. It’s a world title fight requirement to have fought a 10-round match.
Nansen, who has eight-year-old twin girls, says her training camp was in isolation at home for the most part.
“It’s been crazy to be honest,” she says. “Luckily my partner, Sam Hill, is also a professional fighter so I’ve had him hold my pads and do my conditioning programmes [with me] from my trainers.
“But as crazy as it was, it actually worked out really well because I was working around the kids, and the gym wasn’t open, so I was able to actually focus solely on my fight prep.”
Nansen was working with a programme from Doug Viney, one of the masterminds behind City Kickboxing – the Auckland gym boasting a number of professional combat fighters including UFC middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya.
City Kickboxing is “something special”, says Nansen, and she’s thankful to be part of their team.
“I’m always grateful to be there and to be cornered by Doug and Eugene [Bareman]. Their knowledge is power. They have some beautiful technical, intelligent, striking stuff they share with their fighters, so I’m really honoured to be there,” she says.
Nansen also has her own business she manages, SMAC Gym in Manurewa.
Coincidentally, Te Ruki-Pasene was doing almost the same in lockdown. If changing careers and preparing for a professional boxing fight during a global pandemic wasn’t enough to add to the uncertainty pile, then starting a business would top it off.
Through the chaos, she has also been working towards opening her new gym, K-ORA boxing, in Warkworth, north of Auckland.
“‘K’ is from my name, ‘ORA’ is coming from hauora – wellbeing. That’s the heart of the branch,” she says.
She’s all come up with the slogan: ‘It’s all about you’. “When you box, it’s not a selfish thing, it’s levelling up and knowing what you want to improve,” she says.
“Whether that be weight control, fitness, making goals for yourself where you want to be jabbing faster than the last fight, or moving a lot quicker than the last fight. You are always improving every fight camp. And you’re always going to be competitive with yourself. That’s my whole reason behind ‘It’s all about you’.
“Don’t get it confused. People might think it’s selfish but if you can’t love or take care of yourself, you can’t do that for anyone else.”
Family support helps the Māori-Niuean fighter juggle the kids and day-to-day life, but habits ingrained from her first career play a part, too.
“They’re quite independent at this stage,” says Te Ruki-Pasene. “With a military background, routine is always on lock. My kids are quite independent so they can feed themselves, make their lunch; they just need that adult supervision at the end of the day.
“And just making it work. If you want something that bad, you’ll do anything to make it work.”
Nansen is a fighter Te Ruki-Pasene has looked up to, and studied when she decided to take the sport more seriously.
“I really respect her. When I saw her post about the fight at Madison Square Garden with Mikaela Mayer, I instantly screenshotted it and sent that to my trainer and was like, ‘that’s us, we are doing that one day’,” Te Ruki-Pasene says.
She always knew she would have to come up against Nansen on her journey, but says it came sooner than she thought.
“Covid pushed us together. All respect aside, we just got to do what we got to do. But then females create that bond as soon as the fight is done. It just makes us stronger,” she says.
Nansen is feeling “really good” about the fight.
“I’m excited to have this opportunity and fight for the PBC South Pacific title. I also give credit to my opponent, Karen – she’s a really credible athlete herself so I’m quite excited to get in there with her and showcase female combat sport,” she says.
Originally they were fighting for the WBO Women’s Asia Pacific lightweight title but with a second Covid-19 lockdown in Auckland and loss of sponsors, what was on offer had to be adjusted.
Even with the change in titles, the goals remain the same for both Nansen and Te Ruki-Pasene. And Glozier. He’s still hoping to have a WBO match sometime next year.
“I’m expecting it to be a really good fight and it’s going to be close,” he says. “So I’m hoping we can get a rematch early next year and this time it will be for a significant title like the WBO.”
“It’s a bit of a building stage for all of us. And it’s good to get more people behind women in sport.”
There are more female boxers coming up in the New Zealand scene, so Glozier is hoping there might be an all-women’s pro-fight card not too far away. “That’s kind of what I’m hanging on for some time next year,” he says. “I would love to do that. It would be awesome.”