From The Straits Times    |
Danisha Mathialagan, Singapore boxer

Danisha Mathialagan was only 18 when she began boxing competitively in local matches here. The former netball player had picked up the sport as a hobby in 2014, as she was looking for another sport to engage in. “I wanted to try a contact sport, and boxing seemed to be the least violent option [compared to MMA], as it mainly involves using your upper body.”

Unfortunately, her parents disapproved of her hobby – then 17 years old, Danisha had to plead with her mum for consent to join a boxing gym because she was a minor. “After months of begging she finally let me join. And I told her that, you know, we’re just going to be training, there’s no fighting whatsoever.” 

But Danisha did eventually get into the ring. While she enjoyed the rigorous training, Danisha never expected to be fighting competitively. “My coach asked me to join the local competitions. At the time, I was already 18, so I didn’t need my parents’ consent. So I said, ‘Ok, I’m gonna go fight.’ After winning my first fight, I panicked because the trophy was really huge, and I didn’t know how to bring that home.”

For the next three to four years, Danisha would hide her boxing trophies in her cupboard after sneaking home from local matches. It was only a matter of time before her parents discovered her “double life” through social media. They weren’t pleased, of course, but they started to accept Danisha’s passion for boxing. “I think it’s good that they now know that boxing is actually not that dangerous, and that I was perfectly fine and safe,” she says.

Danisha was scouted to join the national team in 2017, but it was not without its curveballs. She nearly quit the sport in January this year after experiencing the double whammy of missing out on two consecutive SEA Games. Covid-19 meant that she couldn’t clock in the minimum number of matches to qualify for the 2022 Hanoi SEA Games, while her category (women’s light flyweight, 50kg) was cancelled in the 2023 Cambodia SEA games. 

After encouragement from her coach, three-time SEA Games bronze medallist Muhamad Ridhwan, she decided to persevere and finally qualified for the Asian Games. Since the 1960s, there have only been three boxers representing Singapore on the international and regional levels.

“My coaches and mentors believed in me and had a plan to get me to the Paris 2024 Olympics. I decided not to live with regrets and to push myself as far as I could,” says Danisha.

Below, she elaborates on her journey, as well as her other less adrenaline-inducing passion: embalming.

How do you feel about being the first female boxer to Singapore at the Asian Games?

I’m excited and proud to represent my country at such a prestigious sporting event. At the same time, it’s nerve-wrecking because I want to set high standards and show that I’m not just there to participate, but to compete seriously. This competition is also an Olympic qualifier, so I’m taking it very seriously.

How has boxing changed your life?

I never thought that boxing would become such a big part of my life. I spent most of my teenage and early adult years training, and missing out on a lot of aspects, like socialising and going out with my friends. But boxing has taught me discipline, confidence, and the ability to face challenges. I genuinely feel like a stronger, more confident person. 

What are some of the unexpected challenges of the sport?

When I first started boxing, I didn’t really think of it as a mental sport. As I began competing, I lacked confidence when facing opponents who were Asian champions or world-class medalists. This affected me as I felt like an underdog, which undermined my performance. 

I started seeing a mental coach, something I never expected to do. He helped me understand the demands of the sport and made me realise what I could control versus what I couldn’t. For instance, I can’t control how good my opponent is, but I can control how I respond and overcome such challenges. I also listened to various sports psychology podcasts.

Having been a boxer for nine years, what does it take to qualify as a national athlete?

When you are a beginner, the training focuses on the technical aspects of the sport. But as you start progressing, you need to build your stamina and strength. That was an uphill climb for me. I’m training twice a day for six days a week, which involves practising techniques, strength conditioning and training – such as deadlifts, squats, bench presses, springs and rowers.

What are the common misconceptions about women in boxing?

Men and women are physically different – most men have builds that seem stronger than women, which may lead people to think that female boxers aren’t as good as the men. However, according to our coach, we are more “coachable”, meaning we take instructions better, which allows us to progress at a faster rate. 

Boxing is a mostly self-funded sport for serious athletes in Singapore – could it be because it’s still a niche sport?

Boxing was a popular sport in Singapore during the 1970s. However, interest gradually declined, and it was challenging to revive the sport. Many people perceive it to be dangerous, and I guess a lot of parents are not very willing to have their children learn boxing. The lack of a proper structure and a small talent pool made it challenging to produce high-quality boxers for international competitions.

You are also a freelance embalmer and a student pursuing diagnostic radiography at the Singapore Institute of Technology. Can you tell us about these interests?

After graduating from polytechnic with a diploma in biomedical science, I worked in the mortuary with the Health Sciences Authority. I assisted pathologists during autopsies and enjoyed the work. However, there wasn’t much career progression, so I decided to continue studying. That’s when I found a specialisation in diagnostic radiography and enrolled in the course. 

But I still felt something was missing, and someone was telling me about embalming work, which used to be done in the mortuary. That piqued my interest, and I found a contact on Instagram who was willing to teach me. Embalming is a skill that requires hands-on training, and they typically work with funeral companies and travel to different locations to embalm bodies. This balance between the intense chaos of boxing and the peacefulness of embalming provides an equilibrium in my life.

What do you enjoy most about being an embalmer?

I’m the last person to come in contact with the deceased, and if I can do a good job, I feel like I’m the last person who can bring a smile to the family members. Making sure that the deceased look their best during a funeral brings a lot of peace to me.

Any future career plans?

In terms of boxing, I would definitely love to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. As for my full-time job, I’m currently bonded to a hospital as a radiographer for the next four years, but I still love embalming and might decide to pursue it in the future. 

PHOTOGRAPHY Phyllicia Wang