Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Sarah Deming
It was a rougher night than Cecilia Braekhus expected, as she had to get up off the canvas to win a unanimous decision over Kali Reis in HBO’s inaugural women’s bout.
Challenger Kali “Mequinonoag” Reis took an emotional ring walk set to Native American music, preceded by dancers in traditional dress.
“I’m a Native American warrior woman and this is how I pray,” she said. “This is how I spread good medicine.”
Braekhus (33-0, 9 KOs) looked serene in white emblazoned with the Norwegian flag. The undisputed champion, she was making the 22nd consecutive defense of the welterweight title she has held for nine years. In a last-minute change, she took the ring with trainer Johnathon Banks rather than Lucia Rijker, with whom she has trained for the past two months. Braekhus said she felt “more comfortable” with Banks, who has coached her for the past five fights.
The opening half of the fight did indeed look comfortable for Braekhus, who is considered by some the best pound-for-pound woman in boxing today. She established the jab well in the first two rounds, controlling the distance and rhythm.
Reis (13-7-1, 4 KOs) had her moments in the third, but Braekhus got back on the jab, scoring to the body and the head and controlling the distance well. Midway through the third, she scored with a lead overhand right, but Reis came right back.
The fourth was a good action round as Braekhus landed a stiff right off a double jab that was the hardest punch of the fight, but Reis stayed composed and countered well.
In the fifth, Braekhus began to open up with more combinations to the body and the head. She landed heavier rights in the sixth, but Reis was connecting as well.
“Stay in there!” Reis’s corner implored whenever their fighter would get inside, but Braekhus tied her up in the clinch and landed good hooks coming out.
Reis rallied in the seventh and her power began to show. She has spent most of her career campaigning at middleweight and looked to have the heavier hands. She came out energized for the eighth and, backing Braekhus up to the ropes, dropped her with a chopping overhand right. Braekhus got right back up and did not look seriously hurt.
Both women landed heavy leather in the eight, but Reis’s shots were heavier. Braekhus was hurt again by a left hook right before the bell but Reis was unable to capitalize on it.
The rounds go quickly in a women’s bout. Braekhus and Reis fought two minutes, in contrast to the three-minute rounds fought by men. Braekhus has said that the shorter round length does not bother her, but many women boxers have campaigned for a rule change, arguing that it would lead to more knockouts. (Female amateurs have been boxing three-minute rounds since last year.)
“Don’t let her get that lucky,” trainer Johnathon Banks told Braekhus in the corner before the eight round.
Braekhus dug deep and boxed well in the final two, regaining control. By the tenth, her legs were back underneath her and she was again controlling the action. The judges had it 97-92, 96-93 twice.
MMA fighter Cris Cyborg had rolled in twenty minutes before the bout, draped in her UFC belt and sporting a “Cyborg vs. Braekhus” tee-shirt. She told press that she would like to fight two more MMA bouts before transitioning to boxing. Braekhus has also expressed enthusiasm for the match. Based on her performance tonight, this looks like an easier outing for her than bulking up to a catchweight to face the formidable two-time Olympic champion Claressa Shields.
This was far from the coming out party the “First Lady” had hoped for, and she even got some boos when she took the mic afterward. The StubHub fans always love a puncher. Reis did herself proud tonight.
In a sport that is always bobbing and weaving various controversies, the women’s game offers a fresh storyline and antidote to cynicism. There is essentially no A-side in women’s boxing: Both Braekhus and Reis are underdogs who triumphed over immense odds just to get on the air.