Making history is like water off a duck’s back to Kristen Fraser.
Growing up in a family of avid boxing fans, her own interest in the sport may have seemed inevitable, but opportunities were not just thin on the ground for girls looking to step into the ring, they were non-existent.
Back then, female boxing was illegal in the United Kingdom, so Fraser was forced to look elsewhere for her fighting fix. She took up Muay Thai, which allowed her to hit the ground running when the doors to boxing were eventually opened up in her late teens, as she showed up to Granite City Boxing Club and never looked back.
It seems like humble beginnings for a career that would take Fraser to Scottish titles at amateur level, a groundbreaking spot as the nation’s first ever female professional boxer as well as the first woman to win a Commonwealth title – but it almost aptly fits her humble nature.
“At that time there weren’t really trainers who would take on girls, so it made it a bit more difficult,” Fraser recalled.
“I went to Granite City, and just never left really. I could box a bit anyway through doing Muay Thai, so I didn’t rock up completely fresh, I could fight a bit and spar a bit already. It’s very difficult to find judgement in a boxing gym, as long as you’re willing to work hard and stick in you are welcomed through the doors.
“I think that you’re only as good as your next goal. You compete at a level that’s appropriate, and you just keep going.
“I got a number of wins and kept stopping people at amateur, so I was clearly pretty strong. I always counted myself as pretty fit too, and those two things together really go a long way in boxing.
“Talent isn’t going to win by itself. Fitness and strength doesn’t win by themselves either, they can get you quite far but not all the way. There was no real point that I thought ‘oh, I’m pretty good at this’, I just really enjoyed it and that motivated me to work harder at it as well.”
Fraser quickly started making a name for herself in the amateur ranks, with the stoppages she was gaining enough to build a formidable reputation. So much so that the next goal she began aiming for, rather than any individual title, was competing at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Anything that was asked of her, she did. There was certainly no question over pecking order – if Scotland were going to send a female boxer to compete at their home games in Glasgow, it would have been Fraser. Unfortunately for her, the governing body chose not to enter a single female boxer into the games, a devastating blow to Fraser.
At that stage, she seriously considered walking away from boxing altogether. Something brought her back though, and with the harsh reality of how little women’s boxing was prioritised in 2014 came a new perspective, and new targets.
“It had always been this is the goal, do this, then move on to the next stage, do this, then move on to the next stage,” she reasoned.
“I complied with everything that was asked of me, so to be told no, I didn’t understand it. It was a surprise, and it was a huge, huge let down. I think it was made worse because it was a home games as well.
“It genuinely did almost retire me, I didn’t want to do it anymore. At amateur you have to train a lot to box at that kind of level, you dedicate all this time to a goal and then someone else takes it from you when you’ve done everything that you’ve been asked. To have something that completely out of your hands, and realise how little control you have was a bit eye-opening.
“I was sick of it, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. What was the point? At that point, to try and make sure I complied for all these things they asked, I had cancelled a weekend away for me and my wife’s anniversary – my grandparents went instead – so you can imagine what I thought. I missed birthdays, nights out, all these things and it was all for this goal, this end game. To have that taken away by someone else hits you pretty hard.
“I took a little bit of time out, and I just realised that I really missed the gym. That was what brought me back, because the gym isn’t just a gym to me, it’s a place that I still spend an awful lot of time in.
“I have a really good relationship with my coaches, I’ve got a really good relationship with the other boxers, and it’s just a happy place for me. I missed that place when I wasn’t doing it. Once I got my head back into it, I started looking for a plan B.”
The plan B Fraser had in mind was to turn professional, where she would be dealing with international federations rather than national governing bodies.
The Aberdonian, who is nicknamed “The First Ever”, made her debut representing Northern Sporting Club against Lana Cooper in March 2017, claiming a points win after six rounds, and kicked on from there. More decisions went Fraser’s way against Gabriella Mezei, Claire Ciantar and Dominika Novotna, before a pleasing first stoppage win as a professional against Roz Mari Silyanova in October 2018.
Stoppages are always a nice bonus for Fraser, who grew up watching entertainers like Mike Tyson and Ricky Hatton. So to win her sixth fight against Ellen Simwaka after forcing the Malawian fighter to retire put the icing on the cake that was becoming the inaugural Commonwealth bantamweight champion.
“I didn’t actually realise I would be the first Scottish female professional until we were preparing to go down to the board interview to get my license,” Fraser admitted.
“It was very close, and we suddenly realised ‘oh, actually…’ which put a bit more pressure on. Then it became the first pro female fight, and a series of firsts. I started thinking that I really couldn’t screw it up now.
“Most fights I have now count towards something – if I was to lose a fight, it would send me back a few steps. There’s quite a big cost to losing fights at the point that I’m at, so I still feel pressure, and I think that’s in a healthy way. You do feel it build over a camp. The closer I get to a fight, my mood reflects that as well. It’s a tension almost, but that’s normal. I think I would probably still feel that tension even if it didn’t count as much.
“Then you release all of it on the night and you’re back to your happy self, ready for the next camp. Nothing will take the stress off you like a good fight!
“We had considered going for other titles, but I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to boxing. I’m very much about the ranking order of belts and titles. This was the opportunity, it definitely wasn’t the easiest one to ask for and go for, and the Commonwealth Council were demanding with who they were willing to accept for an opponent.
“You can’t just pick a random person off the street, you have to get them approved by a board. I remember looking at Ellen’s record and thinking ‘oh, wow’. She had a fair bit of experience and a really good record. It really did mean the world to me to beat her and get that title.”
In many ways that fight was the culmination of a journey for Fraser. It was validation that she had made the right call to turn professional, proving that she was capable of competing with some of the best boxers from around the globe.
It also seemed particularly appropriate that the Commonwealth title belt is adorned in rainbow colours, given Fraser’s wife Kirsty is usually in the crowd cheering her on. Their relationship is no secret, and Fraser has spoken of wanting to use her platform to increase visibility of positive LGBT+ stories.
Fraser’s certainly is a positive story, comfortable in her day job in the oil and gas industry, in the boxing gym and having happily welcomed the arrival of her first child last year.
For those outside the sport, boxing may at times seem overly aggressive, but Fraser has seen nothing but inclusion and acceptance in and out of the ring.
“You could walk into the club and be purple and from Mars, and as long as you’ve got a good jab you will be welcome,” Fraser laughed.
“That’s one thing I’ve found about boxing, some people expect boxers to present themselves a bit more masculine, and there are stereotypes that come along with that, but I think it’s stereotypes of boxers as opposed to gay boxers. I could be straight, and it would still be the same stereotype. It could just be that I’ve had an unusually supportive club, but I have been to a lot of clubs and trained under a lot of different coaches in different coaches, and it has never been an issue.
“I think that boxing gets a bad rap, but I find that it’s a lot more inclusive than other sports to be honest. Boxing can have this reputation, people can feel a little bit intimidated going into a boxing club, and I don’t blame them – when you’re getting hit in the face it doesn’t look particularly friendly – but I think people would be surprised by what they find.
“Visibility is incredibly important. You hear so many negative things associated with the LGBT+ community, and it’s very easy to report on negatives, but you don’t really hear a lot of the good news stories around the community and having the support of the LGBT+ community that is there.
“Where I am in my life, I am very comfortable being out. I am more than happy being gay, I haven’t faced any great aversions from being gay. I’ve got a workplace that’s extremely supportive, I’ve got family that are supportive, I do what I love with all these other incredible athletes, and they’re really supportive as well. I think it’s important to say that you’re not making it difficult for yourself being gay.
“I live an extremely boring, normal life. That’s pretty true, my life is pretty boring apart from my boxing. There’s nothing overly unusual about it to me or my wife. We’re so happy, and so content with how our life is, that I think it’s really important to make that side of it visible.
“It’s very easy to be nice and content and not really say anything, and not really speak out, but Pride is extremely important to me. It’s important to use any stage that I have been given the opportunity to have, because of my boxing, to try and get something positive out of it. That can be reaching out and saying ‘I’m gay, and I’m happy and very proud’, or saying that even if you’re struggling, there are other options for you.
“I work in an industry that could be stereotypically quite difficult for a woman to work in, and I love it. I work with incredible women and men in the industry, and I do a sport that could be incredibly difficult for women to do on the face of it, and actually I love it. I don’t really face any of the adversities for just being a woman or for being gay. Having a crap jab on the other hand is a different story.”
Adversity has come over the last year in many forms though. A persistent knee injury threatened to derail the momentum Fraser had built up, and it forced her to relinquish the Commonwealth championship she had worked so hard for last November. She was then due to make a comeback to the ring in Elgin at the end of March, before Covid-19 led to the cancellation of all sporting events.
Standing in the ring celebrating with the Commonwealth title, celebrating her win over Ellen Simwaka, it would have been inconceivable that 20 months later Fraser would not have stepped back into the ring for another bout.
But when she does, she is aiming for the top prize in boxing.
“Everything I do is building up to the world title,” Fraser insisted.
“I’m not taking a step back now, I either finish with a world title or I don’t finish. There’s no real options here, because it takes an incredible amount of effort to get into the ring first of all, it costs an unbelievable amount of money to run these shows and to go for these titles and opponents.
“All of these things have to stack up. You can’t get sponsorship on the basis that you’re going away to have fun. Everything has to stack up, and everything has up to this point. I’m 32, I’m definitely not getting any younger, so I don’t have another 10 years left in me to fight because who wants to be 40 and still getting punched in the face? Some people do, but I just can’t comprehend that. I have to make this count, and everything I do has to be towards that final goal for a number of reasons.
“I’ve been training pretty hard for quite a long time now, and I’ve had recovery breaks in between that have really helped me to still be boxing professionally at 32. It’s usually between 30 and 35 that boxers start to retire, their elbows, joints and shoulders can get a bit dodgy, and that’s just through years of continuous training for boxing.
“I just have to wait and see, if I’m still fit enough to fight at 36, 37 or 38, I will still be fighting, and hopefully defending a world title. Once you win a world title, then there’s more. You’ve got the four big ones. I’ll just have to see where life takes me.”
The drive to be the best she possibly can be is clearly still there, but though it does not seem at all likely, if Fraser retired tomorrow she would already have a list of accomplishments to be proud of. She has risen impressively to the pressure of being a trailblazer, and she will always be The First Ever.
Leading a new era of female boxers in Scotland, Fraser could well be an inspiration to many – even if she does not think of herself as such.
“I don’t see myself as a role model,” she added.
“I see myself as someone who is a bit stubborn, who won’t take no for an answer and hopefully that will make it easier for the next generation that comes along.
“It’s not really about building a legacy, it’s doing what’s right. Why shouldn’t there be this representation? Why shouldn’t there be more women in boxing, women in professional boxing, women winning titles at this level from Scotland, or from Britain? It’s natural progress.
“The female boxers that have a higher profile now, everyone is a similar age because people my age are the first to go through the amateur processes and turn professional. Hopefully we’ll just be the first generation of athletes that will have opened the doors to make it easier for more people to come through – whether that be gay, straight, trans, whatever. I just hope that I can make it easier for everyone to participate in what they love doing.”
The Boxer, a documentary on Fraser made by the BBC, is available to watch here.