Shar’ron Baker never knew if she’d be allowed to get this far.
She didn’t know she’d be training the No. 2-ranked amateur light heavyweight in the country, or be standing in the corner of former IBF cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham in Las Vegas, on the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor undercard in 2017.
The 63-year-old Baker became the first female boxing coach in Philadelphia in 1991. To her knowledge, she’s still the only one.
When you’re the first, a target is placed on your back. You become the standard for what comes next. If you fail, the ladder gets higher and tougher to climb for those after you.
But Baker hasn’t failed. She’s made a name for herself in Philly and climbed the ranks to become one of the best trainers in the city.
“My expectation was to go in and teach what I knew, and it’s been a great journey,” Baker said. “When you come to Philly and mention female coach, the name that comes up is Shar’ron Baker.”
It never crossed Baker’s mind that she’d be the first because she was just following her passion.
Baker was boxing in her early 20s, being trained by the late Sam Hickman at Joe Frazier’s Gym in North Philly. Women were not sanctioned to box in Pennsylvania at the time, so Baker walked away after about six years.
Hickman called back in 1991 and asked Baker to help him train some fighters. Women were boxing at that point, and Baker attempted a comeback before hip replacement surgery put an end to it.
Lando Rosa became Baker’s first boxer in the old Willie Torres Boxing Gym in North Philly after a suggestion from Hickman. Hickman never told Rosa his trainer would be a woman, and when Rosa saw her, it didn’t cross his mind that she was the first female boxing coach he’d ever seen, let alone trained with.
“She got in the mirror and started shadow boxing, and I said, ‘Wow, this woman knows what she’s doing,‘ ” Rosa said.
Baker’s profile grew as she got work done. Jamaal “Da Truth” Davis and Derek “The One Man Riot” Bryant became two of her most notable fighters. She assisted trainer Naazim Richardson with Cunningham en route to his becoming a champion.
“Early on, when guys came into the gym, they just see a girl and say, ‘I ain’t going to let no girl train me,’” Baker said. “Then when they saw my work, they gravitated to me.”
“She’s the best strength and conditioning coach in the city,” said Rosa, the CEO of Pivott Boxing Academy in North Philly.
Rosa looks at Baker like a mother figure. Today, she often comes to his gym to train fighters for about three hours a day. In his words, people know not to talk negatively about her to him, but that’s not every boxer’s experience.
Atif Oberlton, a 22-year-old amateur who is trained by Baker, recalls people “all the time” asking if Baker is his coach.
“They be like, ‘Is that lil’ old lady your coach?’” Oberlton said. “I don’t let it bother me because when we appear, you see us together and you see what we do.”
Baker’s specialty is strength and conditioning, but she’s a teacher. Her experience in the ring enables her to walk her boxers through a situation.
“She doesn’t just tell you,” Rosa said, “she explains why you need to do it.”
But the work isn’t done. Not until Baker has a world champion of her own. She worked with Cunningham, but he was Richardson’s fighter.
Oberlton could be that guy. He’s the No. 2-ranked amateur at 178 pounds by USA Boxing, and it won’t be long before he turns pro.
“He can box, he can fight, he’s fast, he works hard,” Baker said. “He’s got all the tools to become a world champ.”
Baker is proud of the 29 years she’s put into coaching and 44 years total into boxing. Two of the highlights she lists are being selected to work as a high-performance coach with the 2019 USA Elite men’s and women’s boxing team, and standing in Cunningham’s corner on the Mayweather-McGregor undercard.
But that doesn’t mean things are coming to an end. Rosa jokingly says Baker doesn’t look like she’s aged one bit from their days in the 1990s. That might be the case because Baker’s passion remains the same.
“I plan on being extremely busy,” she said. “I’m going to do this thing until they throw dirt on me.”