As love stories go, Chez and Alanna Nihell’s ranks as pretty special. All is fair in love and war, you might say of the Lance Corporals with 27 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who are both amateur boxing champions of the highest order. Alanna, a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in 2014, and Chez, a British super-heavyweight champion in a lineage that includes Anthony Joshua and Joe Joyce, fell in love on Valentine’s Day five years ago, just after Nihell had returned from a tour of duty with the infantry, on foot patrol in Afghanistan.
With their love for each other and for boxing, they join sport’s other famous married couples, such as Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi in tennis and Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner in gymnastics.
Alanna has spoken exclusively to The Telegraph about cornering for Chez when he makes his professional debut on the undercard of the International Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title fight between James DeGale and Chris Eubank Jnr at the O2 Arena on Saturday night. She explained why her role as her husband’s principal corner woman is vital as he joins the paid ranks – the first serving British Army soldier to do so.
“Last Thursday was our anniversary,” said Alanna. “We’ve been together since Valentine’s Day five years ago and it’s been an incredible journey since then. I will be so proud of Chez when he steps between the ropes at the O2. There’s no rest for the wicked and we were training hard on Thursday. Chez got me a card and I’m happy, but after the fight we’ll relax and celebrate properly. The truth is we are boxing obsessives,” said Alanna, the first female to captain the Army elite boxing team for two successive years and a highly decorated champion in her own right, with three Amateur Boxing Association lightweight titles.
As she took Chez, 6ft 4in and 14st 4lb, through his paces, she added: “We come from boxing families. We live for the sport and love the sport. We’re real boxing people. We’ve boxed for our country, but we also fight for our country.”
Chezare – to give Alanna’s husband his birth name – is of Irish descent, as they both are.
“He’s carried an Irish name and married an Irish woman, so it suits really,” said Alanna. “Chez will be in my corner when I fight in the England amateur champs. It works both ways. A lot of people ask me if I’ll turn pro, and it’s something that I could do in the future. I want to try and have a family down the line, but an ambition is for myself and my husband to box professionally on the same card.”
Saturday will be a major step and the couple are utterly focused. “What better way for Chez to turn pro with me shouting from the sidelines. He’s got me there. I know him better than anybody. I’ll be there when he’s getting his wraps done, when he’s walking out. He’ll have his family and his friends watching from the outset and his wife in the corner. That’s a big thing in professional boxing, trust in your team. We definitely have that.”
Chez, meanwhile, is happy to carry the relationship from home to those vital minutes before the fight, and in the crucial 60 seconds between rounds. “It’s easier when you have a partner who understands the sport. She’s been in my corner throughout my amateur career, so it makes sense to have her in my corner during my pro career. We’re always setting goals together, constantly working towards achievements. That’s become a way of life for us.”
Alanna would not have allowed anyone else so close to her husband.
“Having me in his corner helps. I know him better than anybody. We live and breathe the sport. Having me in the corner will give him that extra bit of advice and help he needs.
“I know what he’s thinking just from his reaction on his face. Having that in his corner will only bring more to the game and give him something extra that other boxers don’t have. That’s something special.”
Chez, who will fight at cruiserweight on Saturday, won the British amateur super-heavyweight title last year, but life was once so different. “I used to be in infantry on the front line. I was on foot patrol in Afghanistan. In May last year, after I won the England championships, I transferred to the same regiment as Alanna in Aldershot. By Army trade we’re both drivers. Not tanks, but professional drivers. Transporting supplies, combat vehicles and ammunition.
“Winning the super-heavyweight title was one of the proudest moments of my life. I dropped down to my knee and I was emotional. It was a title I dreamed about since I was a kid, the holy grail of amateur boxing.”
It was his 68th fight. Alanna was there, and it was special. For two such tough characters, it was deeply emotional. There were tears, born of years of sacrifice, and love.
Now a new mission. “There’ll be nerves. There always is. But nerves keep you alert and make sure you stick to the game plan. There is pressure with it being my debut and it being at the O2. But I’m thriving under the pressure. I’ve not buckled as yet,” said the six-time UK Combined Services Champion.
Alanna feels there is no one better placed for the job in the corner.
“I’ve been with Chez from the very start of his boxing career. I might be Chez’s wife but I’m also his best friend. I understand what drives him. It is really something special. If I wasn’t a boxer and just Chez’s wife, it might be more challenging from an emotional perspective to be in his corner watching him in the heat of battle.
“But I am not only Chez’s wife but also a boxer myself, so I understand what he will be going through. I recognise the risks and I know he will take punches in that ring. When Chez is fighting I’ll be in there with him, taking each and every blow, too. I will be driving him on.
“The fact is I know he’s experienced enough and can handle himself in the ring. I have seen Chez get rocked before in the amateurs. When he boxed in the ABA’s he took an eight-count and got up. I know that one punch in professional boxing can change someone’s career forever. I’ll be looking out for him making sure he’s OK.”
For Chez, Alanna is a rock. “Having Alanna in my corner on fight night will give me that extra edge. With every great man stands a stronger woman. She will keep me focused. We bounce off each other. Boxing is a lonely old sport sometimes and not everyone understands it. I’m lucky that my wife does. She’s competed at the highest level as an amateur.
“She understands the sacrifices involved in this sport and what needs to be done in the preparation for fights. Boxing is something we are used to. It’s the life we live.”