While to many the rise of women in elite boxing is a relatively new phenomenon, Sky Sports’ award-winning coverage of the sport has long been driven by remarkable women who have helped to establish a new normal in and out of the ring.
2022’s International Women’s Day comes early in a new era of boxing for Sky Sports, with world champions Savannah Marshall and Natasha Jonas at the forefront of a new partnership with Boxxer, along with one of the sport’s most exciting prospects, Caroline Dubois.
The fact that Marshall will next month headline a Newcastle show, when she defends her middleweight world title, is a notable example of the sport’s evolution, along with a potential fight between her and fellow world champion Claressa Shields being one of the most anticipated bouts of the year.
Responsible for ensuring Marshall’s growing fanbase (those who aren’t at the fights) get the best possible view, is a Sky Sports boxing production team led by director Sara Chenery.
Marshall stayed on course for a super fight with Claressa Shields after a spectacular win over Lolita Muzeya in Newcastle.
From a broadcast truck, Chenery orchestrates a production team of around 50, while using the latest technology and her near-30 years of experience to deliver an industry-leading product.
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However, when Chenery first arrived at Sky Sports as a bright-eyed teenager in the summer of 1992, the path to the director’s chair – for boxing of all sports – was a far from obvious one.
From A-Levels to Sky HQ… in a matter of days
Chenery’s dad, who worked as a chauffeur at Sky, put his daughter forward after overhearing the need for someone to “answer some phones and do some secretarial work” in the marketing department.
“So literally I think that on one day I was doing my last A-level and two days later I was in answering the phone for high-powered people at Sky and taking shorthand in massive meetings,” Chenery recalls. “And I was only 17, so it was quite stressful, but enjoyable.”
With Chenery immediately enamoured with the atmosphere at Sky, her impressive work led to a full-time role, and she shelved plans to go to university. A key moment in her career would follow when she was asked to help look after some guests at an outside broadcast (OB) away from the office on a weekend.
Image: A director oversees a live event from an outside broadcasting truck
“That’s when I first saw a gallery and an OB truck and thought, wow, that that job of directing looks amazing,” she says.
Inspired, Chenery sought – and swiftly achieved – a transfer to work as a runner on Sports Saturday, the weekly Sky programme that would evolve into Soccer Saturday in 1998.
“There were a few women, mostly runners. There were a few director’s assistants – they were called PAs at the time – of which the majority were female, and I think we had one director that was a lady, but it was definitely more male dominated,” Chenery recalls.
The show featured a variety of sports, allowing Chenery to gain a wide range of experience as she progressed to editorial assistant, then to assistant producer and VT (video tape) director, a role in which she would decide quickly decide which replays would be offered to the lead director during a live broadcast.
Dublin trip for Prince Naseem changes everything
Then came a 1996 trip to Dublin for Sports Saturday to cover Naseem Hamed defending his boxing world titles.
“As soon as I saw boxing, it was its unpredictability,” Chenery says. “The fact you put all the effort into a ring walk, for example, and the fight could be over in 2-3 minutes. I think I just found that as a sport, it was just so unbelievable how these real people put themselves on the line.”
Another internal transfer followed, this time to the boxing team. Also rising through the Sky Sports ranks at the time was Adam Smith, now Sky’s head of boxing development.
Image: British boxing great Naseem Hamed fights Manuel Medina in Dublin in 1996
“She came into our truck and immediately she made a massive impact,” Smith recalls. “She’s very bright, she’s very authoritative, she’s very creative and she’s got a real presence.”
Chenery would continue to develop her directorial skills while working as an associate producer and VT director under the tutelage of mentor Mike Allen, gaining experience by taking control for undercard fights, before getting the opportunity to do her own show for the first time in 2000.
“And then I’ve kind of just carried on from there,” is her modest take on the 22 years since. She was appointed a full-time director in 2001, which included overseeing coverage of other sports, such as greyhound racing, athletics, and netball.
Chenery shared boxing directing duties as the likes of Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan helped raise the sport’s profile in the 2000s, but by the time Anthony Joshua was marching towards world title contention following his success at the 2012 London Olympics, she was in the hot-seat for most major fight nights.
Shunned from ‘crazy’ men-only dinner
Despite her success at Sky, there were still challenges for Chenery within the boxing fraternity. The Boxing Writers Club refused to let her – or any other women – attend its annual dinner, despite the protestations of her Sky colleagues Smith and Andy Scott, who have both formerly chaired the organisation.
“She wasn’t allowed to be at the annual dinner,” Smith recalls. “It’s crazy, we probably worked together for 10-15 years before she was even allowed in and every time we asked they said it was just against the rules.”
There were also the confused looks on the faces of outsiders visiting the Sky broadcast truck, but as with everything else, Chenery took it in her stride.
“I think they were surprised sometimes that a woman might be directing a big event, certainly 20 years ago,” she says. “The assumption would often be that I would be there to do a different role. But I think all you have to do is just be good at what you do, don’t you? And then when you do that, people are like, ‘oh OK, you can do it then.’ I’ve always found that.”
While Chenery’s instinct is to play down the talent and fearless attitude that took her to the top of a male-dominated sport, her colleagues – even after all this time – remain in awe.
“She’s not only broken through at Sky and shown herself as a leader in women’s sport at Sky,” Smith says. “But she’s also showed it in probably the hardest sport of all to conquer and that’s boxing. And I think she’s also been a bit of a pioneer because you see many more women involved in sport now.”
Legoland visit inspires Joshua ring-walk
Anthony Joshua fought Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium in 2017.
No Joshua fight will perhaps ever match the April 2017 night he beat legendary champion Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley for two heavyweight world title belts in the most thrilling of encounters. Sky Sports’ coverage of the fight, which Joshua won with an 11th round knockout after being floored himself in the fifth, would go on to win the Royal Television Society award for Best Sports Programme that year.
While serving up the incredible action provided by the fighters was second nature to Chenery by this point, for the first-time commercial agreements meant Sky were locked into exact timings for the ring-walks and the start of the bout, which were thrown off when Klitschko sped to the ring far quicker than expected.
This left Chenery with a major dilemma as she prepared to raise Joshua on an elevated platform, an idea that she had come up with after some unlikely inspiration.
Joshua beat Klitschko in a dramatic encounter.
“I’d taken my daughter to Legoland and seen the kids show that they do where they get elevated and then went to our team and said I think that’s what we need to do,” She explains. “So we literally found the same sort of thing and elevated him. So we knew that we could keep him up there.”
That was exactly what they did, with Joshua remaining raised for 45 seconds longer than initially planned, and the fight eventually starting at the correct time, with a potential crisis averted.
“Now when I look back, I think that was actually one of the real magical moments that he was up there so long,” Chenery says. “But you’re also wrestling with the fact that you don’t want to keep up there too long because he’s about to get into a fight.”
Making viewers feel like they are ringside
Along with helping create memorable ring-walks, Chenery has helped oversee the implementation of several pieces of new technology over the last decade, including the use of jib (long-armed) cameras.
“If you were watching at ringside and the referee got in your way, you’d move to see,” she explains. “And that’s what the camera does for you. So it means you don’t have to keep cutting to a different camera all the time. The whole thing is trying to make people feel like they are at ringside, as close as they can be.”
Image: The long-armed (jib) camera in the corner of the ring helps Sky Sports provide viewers with the best possible boxing coverage
Another element that has changed during Chenery’s time at Sky Sports is the variety of people she is surrounded by. “We do boxing OBs where we are predominantly women,” she says enthusiastically, before naming a list of female colleagues including director’s assistants, camera operators, graphics operators, sound engineers, vision mixers, replay operators, and production management team members. She is also eager to point out that the whole Sky Sports boxing operation is overseen by a woman, the company’s director of multi sports, Helen Falkus.
Chenery became a senior director in 2017, meaning she now spends a significant portion of her time managing others at Sky. Along with enhancing viewer experience, developing talent is perhaps her biggest professional passion.
“I probably was more of a minority than I realised, and I think I make a very conscious effort now to make sure that I champion other women that want to come through, and other men – anyone basically who doesn’t feel as confident as perhaps they should about their own ability,” she says.
Leanne Johnson, who joined the Sky Sports boxing team as an assistant producer in 2013, has been one of several individuals to benefit from Chenery’s guidance.
“I remember going in to do a boxing overnight shift and Sara, she was just such an inspiration,” Johnson says. “I just felt like she was really pushing to make a difference. I think going into a sport that’s as masculine as boxing, I did have my doubts, and just seeing her in the gallery kind of running the show, and how friendly she was to everybody, no matter what level they were on, it was quite comforting really. Sara has been wonderful in encouraging me to step out my comfort zone, try new things and break down barriers that women face in sport.”
Inspiring to world champions
Chenery helped bring the biggest win of Natasha Jonas’ career to boxing fans as the Brit became world champion at the third attempt in front of a packed Manchester Arena in February, but another element of their professional relationship is only just getting started.
Jonas, who is one of a growing number of women to have joined Sky Sports Boxing’s pool of on-screen talent, alongside long-time presenter Anna Woolhouse, is thankful to have female colleagues available to provide guidance.
“I have them to be able to contact if I want to know how it works,” Jonas says. “I can shadow them. It’s not just a case of a bit of tokenism – you’ve got women who know what they’re talking about in the sport that they know about – and you can have them as mentors. So it’s really good for my growth and development. It’s great to see women in positions of power making decisions for women, but we also need men on our side.”
Natasha Jonas became a world champion at the third time of asking by stopping Christian Namus in two rounds.
According to Johnson, the men on the Sky Sports boxing team have long been doing their bit.
“The boys on my team were all really great,” Johnson says. “They were so helpful and I think working in boxing you kind of imagine it to be like this lad atmosphere and it just wasn’t. They were just really good and they still are to this day, they’re really supportive and generally have my back. So it’s not necessarily just women that support women, it’s men that do it as well, and I think that’s quite an important thing to get across.”
It is fair to say the welcoming and supportive atmosphere within the Sky Sports boxing team has come from the top, with Smith describing the ascent of women both in the sport and the business as the proudest achievement of his tenure as head of boxing.
Smith and Chenery are fully united in their next goal – ensuring the next generation, including their daughters (Smith has two teenage girls), are aware of the opportunities that have been forged for them.
“I’ve got a 12-year-old daughter who thinks she can do absolutely anything and that’s all we want,” Chenery says. “We’re lucky to have talented people here and we just need to give everyone the same options as everybody else, that’s the important thing.”