A year to remember for Bilston's world champion Katie Healy
Katie Healy insists you should not judge a book by its cover – she would know more than most.
A self-confessed 'girlie' who loves getting dressed up, behind the dazzling smile is a woman who packs a punch.
So tough is she that just five fights into her professional boxing career she has become champion of the world... in a second sport.
A former kickboxer who held three world titles, Healy defeated home favourite Matshidiso Mokebisi for the WBF junior-featherweight title in South Africa this summer.
She flew home on the Monday after that title victory, was back to her day job at Goodyear on Tuesday and then found time to celebrate the weekend after – those sitting near her at restaurant none the wiser they were sat in the presence of a world champion fighter.
"I am quite girlie outside of boxing," said the 24-year-old, who is from Bilston, but now lives in Wombourne. "I love my make-up and getting dressed up.
"I tell people about my boxing and they go 'NO!' It's that whole 'don't judge a book by its cover'.
"A girl can put make-up on and nice clothes, but go to the ring and throw a punch too."
Throw a punch she can – she upset the odds to defeat Mokebisi by unanimous decision on the judges' cards as an underdog on foreign soil.
"It was amazing from start to finish – from when we stepped off the plane and their welcome at the airport to bringing the belt home," she said. "I don't think it's fully sunk in yet."
The fight was a big deal in South Africa, Healy appearing on television, radio and podcasts in the build-up to the world title bout.
"They treated us like royalty," she reveals – and even when she won there was no hostility, the crowd appreciating just what a performance she had delivered.
"The crowd started cheering for me – you are expecting it to be the complete opposite," she said. "We made some really good friends over there."
But what else awaits for Healy in the near future?
Well, there are still goals to achieve – especially as she cannot defend her new title on home soil as it is not recognised in the UK.
Despite that, Healy says: "It's opened a lot of doors and put my name on the map."
Those new connections in South Africa are likely to lead to a return to the country for a title defence in 2023.
She is also nearing the summit of the rankings for her weight category in the UK – not bad for someone whose first boxing match was in the car park at Sheffield Arena 14 months earlier.
"Fights are only going to get harder and the stage is only going to get bigger," she said. "It's one thing winning a world title, but it's another thing defending it and I want to win one as well that is recognised in the UK.
"We have a very busy weight category – and one up and one down as well – so there are a lot of opponents out there."
Growing up 'a really sporty kid', thanks to the support of her parents Dean Healy and Shirley Wain, Healy had started kickboxing by the time she started secondary school at Moseley Park in Bilston.
"I got involved in running and swimming, but fell out of love with those sports," she said, explaining how she became a fighter. "There's also that parents would like their kids to know bits of self defence.
"My parents have always been so supportive and they allowed me to try all of these different sports."
Two English titles, a British title and three world titles would follow in kickboxing, only for her to give up the sport to focus on her university studies at the age of 20.
She had 'never thought about' boxing – mainly due to being more proficient with her legs and feet in the kickboxing ring.
But having achieved everything she wanted to 'and more', and with professional women's boxing booming – thanks to the likes of undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor headlining big shows – Healy took the plunge.
A points victory over Claudia Ferenczi in that car park in Sheffield on May 21, 2021, started the journey.
It wasn't long before she felt comfortable using just her fists.
"I take each day and each fight as it comes and after the first couple of fights I felt like I really made that transition to boxing," said Healy. "You are learning something every day."
Then not even a year into her professional boxing career came the call about the world title bout 'out of the blue', just eight weeks away from fight night.
"I was in the kitchen getting my tea ready," she recalls. "I knew it was going to be the last one for a while so I savoured every moment."
"I've got a really team around me – I have a really good relationship with them and they said it was a fight I could win."
After that 'last meal', she was straight back into training two or three times a day, fitting it around her work in recruitment at Goodyear, where she hasn't asked for extra time off outside of her annual leave as she focuses as much energy n her career as she does her boxing.
"It's two separate lives almost because I want to be good at both," she said. "It's worked until now so hopefully I can keep that up."
There was no escape from her fight camp even when it was time for bed as she slept in an altitude tent to adapt to the climate she would face in South Africa.
"Fight camps are not nice," she concedes. "A lot of hard work has to go into it, but once you have you have that fight focus and drive."
It would all be worth it though as just 414 days after her debut she was having that WBF junior-featherweight title wrapped around her waist.
"That it came so soon is quite overwhelming," she said.
Overwhelming it may be, but don't be surprised if it is just the start – this book is only in its early chapters.