HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney recap Saturday night's Boxing After Dark tripleheader featuring victories for Cecilia Braekhus, Claressa Shields, and Juan Francisco Estrada, plus they share reflections and memories from the podcast's run.
By Kieran Mulvaney
CARSON, CA –
The record will show that Cecilia Braekhus defeated Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes tonight under the stars on a cool evening at the StubHub Center, that Juan Franciso Estrada stopped Victor Mendez and that Claressa Shields outpointed Femke Hermans to run her professional record to 8-0.
And yet, on this strangest of nights, in which boxers traded their punches in front of a small crowd, the stories of the individual fights were all but lost in a broader narrative. For all six competitors in the three bouts, Saturday night was just the latest step in an ongoing career progression. But for so many others, the theme of the evening was of finality.
In the opener, Shields was seconds away from dropping and possibly stopping Femke Hermans (9-2, 3 KOs), but was forced to settle for a unanimous shutout decision over 10 rounds. Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has agitated for women to be permitted to fight three-minute rounds like their male counterparts, as opposed to the abbreviated two-minute frames they are presently obliged to contest, and understandably so: on several occasions during the contest, Shields (8-0, 2 KOs) appeared to have Hermans hurt, only for the bell to ring before she could press home her advantage. The American’s hand speed was vastly superior to that of the less-experienced Belgian, and her punches accordingly carried greater snap and heft; in particular, the Shields left hook proved an increasingly effective punctuation to her blistering combinations. It was one such hook that detonated on Hermans’ jaw in the dying seconds of the contest, spinning the Belgian’s head around and leaving her reeling. Shields was able to half-land a follow-up right hand as Hermans stumbled forward, but time expired before she could deliver the coup de grace.
In the co-main event, bantamweight Juan Francisco Estrada was, however, able to score a stoppage win when opponent Victor Mendez elected not to emerge from his corner after seven increasingly one-sided rounds. Mendez (28-4-2, 20 KOs) strode forward purposefully at the start of round one, looking to utilize his greater height and reach and working behind stiff, straight punches. But fellow Mexican Estrada (38-3, 26 KOs) soon established himself as being of an entirely different caliber. Calmly landing sharp combinations in the second, and steadily increasing the pressure as the rounds unfolded. Estrada retreated enough to encourage Mendez to come forward and throw punches, but not so much that he yielded the center of the ring, from where he took advantage of the opportunities that his compatriot’s aggression afforded him.
In the fifth, Mendez upped his punch output in an attempt to battle his way to even terms, but in doing so he played into the hands of Estrada, who ripped repeatedly into the Mendez torso. By the sixth, Mendez was fading as Estrada turned aggressor, a short right hand behind a left hook clearly hurting Mendez and sending him into retreat for the rest of the round, and although Mendez attempted to stage a rally in the seventh, it was to no avail. He returned to his corner at the end of the seventh and slumped on his stool, where his team elected to keep him.
And then just one remained.
Cecilia Braekhus, who seven months earlier had been the first female boxer to feature on HBO, as she recovered from a knockdown to score a decision win over Kali Reis in this same StubHub ring, returned to close out the card, the night, and a boxing franchise against Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes. Braekhus is widely regarded as the best female boxer in the world, pound-for-pound, a consequence not just of her natural talent and her tutelage under experienced trainer and former fighter Jonathan Banks, but also two decades of experience that began when she shimmied her way down a drainpipe outside her window as a 14-year-old to train furtively in a local MMA gym. Magdziak-Lopes, in contrast, did not begin boxing until her thirties, and for all her obvious athleticism and strength, that gulf of experience showed.
Magdziak-Lopes (18-5-3, 1 KO) showed immense heart and smarts, but simply didn’t have the toolkit or the fluidity to compete on level terms with the more versatile champion. Braekhus (35-0, 9 KOs) sought to find that special punch that would pierce the Magdziak-Lopes guard and bring the evening to an early close, and although she was unable to do so, by the fourth round, she had rendered her opponent increasingly uncomfortable as she fired punches from angles that her foe could not match. With the encouragement of her trainer-husband, Magdziak-Lopes sought to rally in the final couple rounds, but even as she did so, Braekhus simply moved up through the gears once more.
There could be no doubt about the decision, and nor was there, Braekhus winning all ten rounds on two cards and nine on the other.
Afterward, Braekhus apologized for not scoring the knockout – partly a consequence, she said, of her being over-eager to do so. She went off to find Cris Cyborg, who was waiting ringside and who has expressed enthusiasm for meeting Braekhus in what would be surely the biggest fight that could be made in women’s boxing.
The lights went down, the small crowd dispersed, and it was all over.
Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
CARSON, CA. – Seven months ago, Cecilia Braekhus made history.
When her hand was raised in victory at the end of a hard-fought decision over Kali Reis at the StubHub Center in May, on the undercard of Gennady Golovkin’s demolition of Vanes Martirosyan, she became the first female boxer ever to win a fight on HBO.
A little more than half a year later, she will make history again. Her clash this Saturday night (10:20 PM ET/PT) with Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes will be the HBO main event – which for female fighters is unprecedented, and will also be forever unmatched, as theirs will be the last fight of any kind to be aired on the network.
Braekhus, while acknowledging the significance of the event, chooses not to dwell on it, at least not yet. “You know what? When I’m old and retired, I can look back and I can really, really say that I made history.” For now, she is fixing her attention on Magdziak-Lopes, fully aware that her foe is made of stern stuff.
“I have to be focused on my fight,” she said after the final pre-fight press conference this week. “I have a tough competitor, and I need to be 100 percent focused on her, and I cannot allow myself right now to take in the historical event that this is for boxing. The most important thing is that I have to produce my best performance ever.”
That said, on the three previous occasions that Magdziak-Lopes has challenged for a world title belt, she has fallen just short. Braekhus can expect another tough night but will anticipate it ending with her in position to move on to one of the higher-profile challenges that await.
Perhaps that challenge will be in the form of MMA star Cris Cyborg, who has long coveted a bout with the Norwegian, who was ringside when Braekhus fought Reis, and who will be present again on Saturday – and who will in fact be walking to the ring with another possible future Braekhus opponent, Claressa Shields, who opens the HBO broadcast against Femke Hermans.
Shields’ presence on the card – and indeed, her fame and status as the only American Olympian to win back-to-back boxing golds (in 2012 and 2016) – is testament to a rise in the attention being given to women’s boxing in the United States. Such increased attention is exemplified by the fact that, by the end of the broadcast on Saturday, the number of women’s bouts on HBO will have risen from zero in 45 years to four in seven months. (Heather Hardy defeated Shelly Vincent at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in October, in the second female bout on the network.)
“I think what’s happening now in the States is extremely beautiful to watch,” said Braekhus, who has fought most of her career in Germany, where women’s boxing has long had a higher profile – to the extent that she has headlined pay-per-views. “I just hope that this will continue.”
(It is not just women’s boxing that has long battled for the spotlight. Lower-weight male fighters have also traditionally been given short shrift, but the flyweight and super-flyweight divisions have received a shot in the arm over the last couple of years, a consequence of a remarkable concentration of talent in their upper reaches. Roman Gonzalez and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai may be the cream of that particular crop, but Juan Francisco Estrada, who has lost close decisions to both men, is right behind them, and has perhaps been the biggest beneficiary of his division’s moment in the sun. The only fighter to appear on all three iterations of the “Superfly” franchise, he steps in for an injured Gonzalez and takes on Victor Mendez in the middle bout of Saturday’s triple-header.)
For Shields – who is facing Hermans just three weeks after defeating Hannah Rankin to run her professional record to 7-0 – Saturday night is an unexpected opportunity to realize a lifelong dream.
“Growing up in the amateurs, I watched HBO, and I told myself, ‘I want to fight on HBO.’ And then I thought my chance was gone, but boom! Here we are. I’m just so happy that HBO thought of me and gave me the chance.”
At the end of the day, however, boxing is boxing, whoever is filming or calling the action, and what matters most is what happens when the combatants enter the ring. Asked to predict how events will unfold on Saturday night, Shields underlined that when that happens, issues of history, weight class and gender are largely irrelevant, and the attractions that keep people tuning in to watch boxing are fundamental and simple to articulate.
“I’m going to break down her body. I’m going to punch her in the face. And hopefully we’ll see some blood.”
At age 37, Cecilia Braekhus has built a strong case for being the greatest female boxing champion ever to walk the earth. If one's criteria for determining that status is performance under championship conditions, her qualifications are beyond question: She has held at least one major world title since March 14, 2009, and in that time she has made 23 defenses of the WBC title, 22 of the WBA strap, 20 defenses of the WBO title, eight defenses of the IBF strap and eight defenses of the undisputed championship, the most ever recorded by anyone -- man or woman -- in the four-belt era. Add to that her reported 75-5 amateur record and victories over 12 opponents who have held titles at some point in their careers, and one can see why she is called boxing's "First Lady."
Braekhus will be making her second (and final) HBO appearance against Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes, a 38-year-old Pole who has lived in the U.S. since age 16, is a full-time lawyer, and who is challenging for 147-pound honors after two failed attempts at the vacant WBC super welterweight title against Mikaela Lauren (a common opponent) and Ewa Piatkowska. Will moving down the scale give Lopes the needed strength advantage to overcome Braekhus' skills or will Braekhus prove once again that she is (as WWE legend Bret Hart often said) "the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be"?
A Testing Win
In her first HBO appearance against Kali Reis (who also was moving down in weight to challenge Braekhus), the Norway-based Colombian was tested more severely than usual in that Reis scored a knockdown in the seventh and followed up with a strong eighth and ninth before Braekhus rebounded in the 10th. Still, the final numbers favored Braekhus as she was more active (37.7 punches per two-minute round to Reis' 35.7), landed more in each phase (115-78 overall, 38-12 jabs, 77-66 power), connected more accurately (31%-22% overall, 20%-9% jabs, 42%-29% power) and led the CompuBox round-by-round breakdowns 9-1 overall, 9-0-1 jabs and 6-4 power en route to capturing all three judges' scorecards (96-93 twice, 97-92).
Including the Reis victory, Braekhus has earned statistical leads over her four CompuBox-tracked opponents in that she has been more active (38 per two-minute round to her foes' 33.8), landed more (11.9 to 6.4 total connects per two-minute round, 4.1 to 1.5 landed jabs per two-minute round and 7.8 to 4.9 power connects per two-minute round) and landed much more frequently (31%-19% overall, 22%-11% jabs, 40%-24% power). But Father Time (and Mother Nature) eventually snares everyone, and one must wonder if that time will come when Braekhus is inside a boxing ring? Yes, the 38-year-old Lopes is 17 months older than Braekhus, but she hopes that her size and relative freshness (25 fights to Braekhus' 34 and 162 rounds to Braekhus' 264) will provide adequate compensation.
In her second chance at the WBC super welterweight title, an all-Polish match versus Ewa Piatkowska, Lopes' counterpunching kept her in the fight throughout the first half of the contest. But one moment midway through round six damaged Lopes' hopes: A jab and right to the chest that scored the fight's only knockdown. With each fighter recording 60 total connects through seven rounds, Piatkowska nailed down the decision -- and the vacant title -- by out-landing Lopez 40-26 overall, 18-16 jabs and 22-10 power in the final three rounds to extend her final leads to 100-86 overall and 52-32 power to off-set Lopes' narrow 54-48 lead in landed jabs. Also helping Piatkowska's cause was her constant aggression, her superior accuracy in all phases (28%-18% overall, 24%-19%