December 4, 2021

Hafner’s world journey began locally

Claire Hafner

Photo provided by Claire Hafner

Claire Hafner’s journey has taken her all over the world, but it all began in East Freetown.

The 42-year-old grew up on a dairy farm and graduated from McGraw High School in 1995, but opera singing, marathon running and now boxing have taken her across the globe.

Hafner, the UNBC Americas Heavyweight champion, is now on the world championship level and competed for the WBO light heavy-weight title in October.

“Once I left home, I was on the road for 20 years,” Hafner said. “I took off because I was like ‘If you’re going to leave home, you should do it when you’re 18. You can always come back.’”

Hafner headed to California to get her bachelor’s degree, but her passion for opera singing took her to Italy and Denmark before stops in Vermont, Maine, Montreal, Vancouver Island, Calgary and eventually Ottawa.

Her time in Canada’s capital made her shift her life’s focus.

“It was all music, music, music. I moved to Ottawa for a master’s degree in music, and that’s when I got recruited to box,” Hafner said.

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Hafner wanted to try something different.

She had been training for marathons, but she challenged herself with powerlifting. When one trainer had her hit pads to mix up her workouts, another coach offered to have her box out of a gym he was starting.

At age 35, Hafner’s six-month trial run in boxing had begun.

“I worked with him for six months and he built me from the ground up,” Hafner said. “All I had was the fact that I have exceptional cardio — I think lung capacity from marathon running and singing — and endurance. I’m also a hard worker and I learn.

“Sometimes you want blank canvas when you’re teaching, because then you’re teaching your stuff and not fixing bad habits.”

It wasn’t Hafner’s first foray into boxing, though. At 22, she worked at a doctor’s office near Oakland when another woman came in for a pre-fight physical. Hafner got excited at the thought of trying the sport.

Her first attempt didn’t last long.

“I went to this boxing gym and they assigned me this grizzled, old boxing coach who gave me two minutes of skipping rope and then he was like ‘You’re a girl, you’re fat, you’re never going to amount to anything in the boxing world,’” Hafner said. “I walked away and I never really thought about it again until this guy brought it up to me.”

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Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

After six months of training, Hafner was ready for sparring. She found it wasn’t as easy as hitting pads.

“You’re training and it’s amazing, and then you get in a ring and you have to actually fight someone. It’s night and day,” Hafner said. “You totally forget what you’re supposed to do when someone is going back at you. You can plan for every scenario, but it’s completely unpredictable.”

Hafner did well enough to keep going, and went to another, more competitive gym, which took her on as a competitor shortly after.

Over the next two years, Hafner accumulated 18 amateur fights. She wanted more, but the pool of potential opponents was shallow.

“There are people with like 120 amateur fights, but as a woman — and a woman who weighs over 178 pounds as an amateur — it’s really hard to match,” Hafner said. “I fought the same girl three times or I’d have to travel down to New York to fight.”

Hafner took home a silver medal from the Canadian Nationals in 2016. But once she turned 40, everything changed. Hafner needed to either go to the masters level — with one-minute rounds, headgear with cheek protectors and opponents only within 10 years and five pounds of her — or turn pro.

“It’s almost impossible to find a match as a master. There’s so many requirements for that,” Hafner said. “I had to leave the amateur gym where I was and won my silver medal and everything. They said they weren’t interested in supporting me anymore.”

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Hafner has quickly risen in the pro ranks.

Hafner split two matches against Annie Mazerolle, then beat Claudia Ramirez by unanimous decision and topped Sonja Fox by majority decision.

Hafner opened 2019 with a unanimous decision over Carlette Ewell to win the UNBC Americas Heavyweight championship, propelling her to a bout in October against Geovana Peres for the WBO Light Heavyweight title in New Zealand.

Hafner used her longer reach to her advantage, but was stunned by a headbutt late in the first round.

“I couldn’t quite get my focus,” Hafner said. “It’s cliché to say, but usually in the ring things slow down a little bit and you can almost think one second ahead of what you’re doing. After the headbutt, I didn’t have that ability. … It never crossed mind to have them stop the fight. I just was thinking ‘Go back out there and execute your plan.’

“I just couldn’t quite get that one second ahead like I normally am.”

Hafner was disappointed when the fight was stopped in the eighth round.
The loss — due to the injury — was tough to swallow.

“It’s more disappointment around being hurt less than being motivated to do better,” Hafner said. “I really don’t know how I would’ve done without the injury.”

Hafner needed stitches to close a cut under her left eyebrow and her cheekbone was fractured. The doctor told her to not get hit again before January.

“Despite the doctor’s orders, I was back to training as soon as the swelling on my face went down and it healed enough so it didn’t hurt,” Hafner said. “After three weeks, I was back in the gym.”

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Hafner still has a world championship on her mind.

Cardio sessions are three to four times a day, and strength, core or technique three times a week. It’s slower than during a fight camp, where she may have to worry about adding or cutting weight and sparring is added two to three times a week.

And there’s the time to travel from Ottawa to Montreal and her main gym and coach — Ian Mackillop at Donnybrook Boxing Gym.

“I’m with a phenomenal gym with some great people,” Hafner said. “We don’t mess around when we spar.”

After seven years in the boxing game, Hafner sees plenty of room for improvement.

“It’s very true that the climb to the top is excruciating, but the fight to stay at the top is even harder,” said Hafner, who fits all of her training around her job with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. “In a sense, I’m not more motivated because I lost but because I made it to the top.”

Hafner has kept her vocal cords in shape. She has sung the Canadian anthem before her fights and plans to be in an opera in the spring. Bit there’s time for opera after her boxing career.

“A girl reached out to me after she saw my YouTube interview and said ‘You’re such an inspiration for young girls,’” Hafner said. “What I liked about this fight for the world title, was it made me see there’s lots of good people out there. … There’s a loving, supporting community out there that wants to see me do well and wants to see me succeed.”