Soprano heavyweight hitting high notes in the ring
Claire Hafner has achieved a feat very few boxers around the world would have even attempted.
In her last fight, a title bout in North Carolina in June, “Classy" Claire Hafner climbed into the ring, took the microphone between her two boxing gloves and sang the Canadian national anthem.
This was no cringeworthy rendition by just any old amateur warbler. Hafner, it turns out, is not only a professional heavyweight boxer – she’s also a professional opera singer.
The sparring soprano loves being able to merge her two passions inside the ring.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” she says. “Everyone’s like ‘Oh that would be so stressful, you wouldn’t be able to focus’. But what they don’t understand is music was my first love.
“There’s nothing more calming and centring for me than singing - especially the Canadian national anthem, because I fought hard to be Canadian.”
She’s American by birth, grew up on her mother’s farm in New York state, but music took her across the border.
“And it gives you a chance to be in the ring, and everyone is watching you, but the fight hasn’t started yet. It’s a moment where I completely take possession of the ring, and it’s fantastic.”
So will we see, and hear, Hafner singing ‘O Canada’ before her WBO light heavyweight world title fight in Auckland on October 4, against the reigning world champion, Kiwi Geovana Peres?
“My coaches know me and trust me, but I don’t know if they will want to risk it,” Hafner says. “I’m okay either way… but it would be amazing if I could. It really centres me.”
The 42-year-old from Ottawa – who also runs the odd ultramarathon when she can – is taking her first shot at a world title belt very seriously. And she’s not just fighting for herself.
“I get to represent every woman who’s ever lost a fight – metaphorically, physically and emotionally,” Hafner says. “For every woman who was told she couldn’t accomplish her goals or her dreams because she’s a woman.”
Hafner has been that woman, as both a boxer and an opera singer.
In her first attempt to take up boxing as a 21-year-old, Hafner was told she would never make it in the sport.
She’d just graduated from Mills College, in Oakland, California, with a degree in music, and walked into a gym where former men’s super middleweight and light heavyweight world champion Andre Ward trained.
“I was assigned a trainer to work with me, one-on-one. He was a bitter, grizzled old man who looked me up and down and said ‘So you want to be a boxer?’ And I said ‘Yeah, I run marathons and I’m super inspired about fitness’,” Hafner says.
“And he said: ‘Well, first of all you’re a woman, and second of all, you’re too fat.”
She persisted for five days.
“But he just kept reiterating that there was nothing in the sport for me, because I didn’t weigh 130 pounds [59kgs], and I wasn't a man. So I said ‘Screw this, I’m going back to running where people are nice’.”
Six years ago, when Hafner was doing powerlifting in her local gym in Ottawa, boxing made an unexpected return to her life. A boxing trainer saw her punching pads, saw her raw talent and asked if he could work with her. After six months, she was fighting as an amateur.
“When someone asks ‘Do you want to be a boxer?’, I’m like ‘Yeah why not try do something that’s impossible!’” Hafner laughs. “Then it becomes about proving everyone wrong, including myself.”
Since becoming a professional fighter, “Classy" Claire has a 4-1 win-loss record, and is ranked the world’s No. 2 heavyweight woman.
Incidentally, she adopted her boxing moniker as an amateur. “Heavyweights are traditional brawlers, but I’m more of a classic boxer. I present myself in in the same way I do in the opera world – classy. I could be ‘Killer' Claire, or Claire ‘the Hammer’ Hafner. But boxing is so much more than being violent. Why can't I be me?” she says.
“When I get out of the ring, all kinds of women come up – older, younger, heavier women – and they say ‘Holy mackerel, you’re so inspiring; I can’t believe you’re 42’.
“It was hard for me to be proud of being a heavyweight boxer. But boxing has forced me to be okay with being 180lbs [81kg] and still be an exceptional athlete.”
In her last fight, back in June, Hafner scored an eight-round unanimous victory over veteran American heavyweight Carlette Ewell to become the UNBC Americas women's heavyweight champion.
She’s had to drop weight to be under 80kg for her light heavyweight fight with Peres.
Training for next month’s bout in Auckland has meant some serious commuting between three of Canada’s major cities.
She works her training sessions around her day job in Ottawa, with the non-profit Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. She’s at her local boxing gym with trainer Geoffrey Kasonde on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Hafner makes a 2h 15m drive to Montreal, to work with her No. 1 coach, Ian Mackillop (a former IBF AustralAsian boxing champ), and trainer Kenny Chery.
“Then I drive home, sleep and repeat,” she says. “It adds a huge layer of exhaustion, especially when you just got punched in the face for nine rounds.”
She also drives four-and-a-half hours to Toronto for a weekend of sparring with two female partners: “because you can’t improve without good sparring”.
Peres knows that too. She sparred with top New Zealand male boxers before her world title fight against Lani Daniels in March.
Hafner says her three trainers have added a level of “finesse, strategy and ring smarts” to her boxing, after she came to them with excellent basics and stamina.
“I’m not even close to being the full product yet. But they’ve taken me to a whole ‘nother level,” she says.
There are, she says, many crossovers in her two professional passions. “My chase of perfection in boxing is a hangover from the music world. Man, the opera world is cruel. Like in the sports world, they expect super-human things out of human beings,” she says.
“Boxing is a solo performance, as is opera singing. It doesn’t freak me out being in the ring because I’ve been on the stage for 24 years.”
Hafner became a singer at 18; with a big powerful voice, she’d sung in her high school musicals, but never got the romantic leads. “I was always relegated to the mom, or the old lady, because I wasn’t cute and little,” she says.
“My grandmother knew I was heartbroken that I didn’t get the parts I wanted, so she sent me to a voice teacher.”
Hafner then studied music in the US, Italy and Canada; she has two masters degrees. Opera took her to Canada, where she’s now a citizen.
She does some private singing lessons, directs and rewrites operas and still manages to find time to perform.
“Last year, I sang a concert in the first week of October at the National Arts Centre, and had a fight in the third week of October. I was learning huge chunks of opera, and training for the fight. It was an incredible performance and I won the fight, but I wouldn’t do it to myself again,” she says.
She also still makes time to run. In February, she finished the Chicago marathon, then ran the Black Canyon ultramarathon in the Arizona desert, dropping out at the 42km mark at the behest of her trainer.
While it’s her dream to hold a world title belt – “my boyfriend would die of pride” – she has another goal: to write an opera around a sanctioned boxing match.
“No-one goes to opera anymore, and everybody goes to fights. People would love opera if they gave it a chance,” she says. “And how do you get them in a seat? You offer them a boxing fight in the middle.”