It is a glorious morning on Liverpool waterfront, the sun sparking off the Mersey, the grand commercial buildings looking magnificent in the clear spring light. And there, just by where the ferry docks, the city’s most renowned sporting sisters are taking a moment away from preparing for a busy 48 hours.
Their pressing schedules mean Nikita Parris and Natasha Jonas hardly ever meet up these days. But they have found time to get together briefly to mark one of the most significant weekends in their sporting lives. Tonight Natasha, the elder by nine years, is fighting for the world super featherweight boxing title, on the undercard for Amir Khan’s bout at the Liverpool Arena. Then tomorrow Nikita will be turning out for Manchester City in the Women’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Lyon. That is what you call a family weekend.
Though Natasha reckons the scale of what they are doing has a resonance way beyond the confines of the family kitchen.
“As a female, a black female, you’re not just representing yourself, your family, your community, you’re representing a whole wider range of people,” she says. “It is quite a responsibility to do it right.” Judging by the girder-like scale of her forearms, however, you imagine the weight of responsibility is something she can handle.
“You have to try that little bit harder to be accepted when you’re a woman in a man’s game,” she adds. “There’s a stigma there, we’re trying to move away as women from that. And what this weekend will do is show everyone what we can do, that we can deliver something just as good as the men.” That sort of fighting talk comes as no surprise given from where the sisters hail. They were brought up in Toxteth, the inner-city neighbourhood no more than a mile south of where they are speaking. Despite its reputation, Natasha reckons the area was the perfect incubator for sporting success.
“Historically Toxteth might have had some bad things said about it,” she says. “But it made us who were are. There were so many in our house we weren’t allowed to just sit around. We were encouraged to get outside and play.” And football was what they played. A natural athlete, quick and agile, Natasha was so handy kicking a ball, she earned herself a scholarship to an American university. But while there she ruptured her cruciate ligament and was forced to give up the game. On her return to Liverpool, working behind a desk for the council, she found herself putting on weight, slipping into a depressive inertia. Then a woman she knew suggested she take up boxing. “I didn’t fancy being hit in the face,” she recalls, which, given her model looks was wholly understandable. “But she kept bugging me. Eventually to keep her quiet I tried it and from the first punch I absolutely loved it. Getting hit in the face wasn’t so bad after all.”
Meanwhile her younger half-sister (they share a father but have each taken their mother’s surnames) was smitten by football. “I’d go with our dad to watch our brothers play Sunday League,” Nikita remembers. “When I heard all the shouts, the reaction of the crowd, I wanted it to be about me.”
With Natasha on the path to fighting in the London Olympics [where she lost to the eventual lightweight gold medallist, Ireland’s Katie Taylor], there was presumably always someone to look up to as a teenager with sporting aspirations.
“Well, there was always sibling rivalry,” Nikita says, drily. “Tennis, football, boxing, whatever: you always want to come out on top of big sis.” Though it must have helped growing up being able to call on a big sis who boxed.
“Actually it was the other way round,” says Natasha. “I’d look to her. She could certainly handle herself.”
“I was pretty wild as a kid,” admits Nikita. “Football tamed me. It put me on the right path, got me focused.” Indeed, by the time she was 16 she was playing for Everton Ladies. Coming from a family of Liverpool fans she always wore a red shirt under her Everton kit to ensure she didn’t get any blue anywhere near my heart”. And it was at Goodison that the possibility arose of turning professional arose.
“I remember thinking: what, I’ll get paid for this? Does that mean I don’t have to get a job at JD Sports after all?”
In 2015 came her big break: she was transferred to Manchester City, easily the best backed women’s team in the country. There, training in the same luxurious facilities as the Premier League champions, her game has really kicked on. She has become a regular in the England team, scoring in last year’s Euros. Though she acknowledges that her big sister, despite now being 34 and the mother of a two year old daughter, has the edge when it comes to fitness.
“Boxing makes you fitter, no question,” Nikita says. “We did this challenge where we took each other on at football and boxing. I did more keepy-uppies than her, but when we did the boxing and we had to throw as many punches as we could in 20 seconds, I died after about two. You’ve got to be fit to box. In football if you need a breather, your team-mate can take over. There’s no one in the ring to help out.”
Nevertheless, her sister admires what Nikita does, heading to the 6,000 seat stadium in the Etihad Campus to watch her play for City as often as she can.
“Sometimes I do wish I could put my boots on and join her on the pitch,” says Natasha. “But to be honest, the standard of player they have got now, I wouldn’t get near the team. There’s been a massive improvement in the women’s game since I was playing. It’s like boxing, as soon as people saw it at the elite level, they got behind it and supported it. There’s many more women boxing now. We’ve had a 56 per cent increase in numbers since the London Olympics.”
Both the sisters see themselves as pioneers, promoting their sport, hoping to encourage more and more women to take it up.
“She won’t tell you because she’s too modest, but her Twitter is amazing,” says Natasha of Nikita. “Her timeline’s full of little girls who want to be like her. We’ve seen it with the hockey in 2016 and the netball at the Commonwealths, people just need to see women’s sport at elite level to get behind it. That’s what we’re doing this weekend: putting it out there.” The one thing Nikita regrets about their clashing schedules (and the fact she has an essay due for her degree course in Sports Development) is that she won’t be able to watch her sister fight live for the first time for a professional title.
“We have a curfew, we can’t go out the night before a big game,” she says. “I’ll watch her on TV and I admit I’ll wince. I think about her face, her nose: ouch. But she loves her sport, she’s doing so brilliantly, all credit to her.” And both sisters agree that whatever the wider resonance, this weekend could represent the start of something big for the family.
“My daughter is going to wake up Sunday morning as the daughter of a world champion,” says Natasha.
“And on Monday she’s going to wake up the niece of a Champions League finalist,” adds Nikita. “Well, OK the niece of the first-leg winner with a second-leg win to come.” And the sisters pump fists at the thought of what lies ahead.